When I started my weight loss journey, I already knew I loved yoga. I first discovered yoga via (and this is not a joke) a VHS tape at Target, which I used to do in my apartment in Charlotte with my roommate Kat. My practice advanced pretty rapidly, but when I got really heavy, I sold my mat and everything that went with it, thinking I’d never practice again. Enter 2012 and this magical creature floated into my life who gently pushed me to move and focus inward, and two years later I’m pretty much back to an intermediate practice.
I have about five instructors who guide my way, but I have only one yogi, and that is my friend Stefanie Eris, Director of Yoga for exhale mind body spa.
This was an interview I’ve wanted to do for some time because I want you to meet the people who inspire me to keep going every week. Stefanie has guided me through starting all over again to watching me attempt to master side crane (and the word remains “attempt.”)
Please do enjoy, in her own words, the light of my yoga life, Stefanie:
On how she got started with yoga…
“I started practicing yoga when I was studying theatre at the American Musical Dramatic Academy on New York’s Upper West Side. I had a acting teacher who had us use certain aspects of yoga to warm up: ujjayi breath, sun salutations, lion’s breath, and mountain pose/tadasana, which he called “the actor’s pose,” which helped us stand up tall. He found it was a good way to get us connected to the center of our emotions, our physical body and our breathing. I started practicing at school and then it just stayed with me. I started working the front desk at exhale while I was doing the whole “starving actor” thing because I wanted to avoid a toxic lifestyle ten years ago, and started practicing yoga every day. I was so inspired by the teachers here that I knew that it was something I wanted to do, so I stopped auditioning, went into teacher training and kept evolving year after year. I started teaching 20-30 classes and private training sessions a week, whatever I could do to get more experience until I started teaching full-time at exhale, and evolved from the manager of the Central Park South location into the Director of Yoga. I was so excited to be asked, and I’ve been in the role 2 1/2 years. I get to teach and lead the teacher training program, mentor instructors, and travel around the country teaching and learning from our instructors across the country. Yoga instruction is as much as about teaching as it is about learning from each other. We can all evolve through each other’s practices.”
So, for all the people out there who say they can’t get into yoga for one reason or another….
“I know, people say it all the time, that they can’t touch their toes or it’s too ‘mellow’ for them or ‘I’m not a yoga person’. Yoga is so much more than just physical exercise, but that’s usually what we connect to in our society because we’re so disconnected from our physical being. We live in a world that’s always going-going-going and it can be hard to connect to the mental aspect of anything. That going-going-going means we’re in fight-or-flight mode all the time. The same instincts that developed for running from predators are triggered every single day with the pace and all the stimulus: emails from your boss, the buzz notification on our phones.
Yoga teaches us to be in a stressful moment and recover quickly. It also teaches us to step back from that stress and go into ‘rest and digest mode,’ which helps us go to a calmer place where our nervous system can find normal activity. That’s the physical part of yoga, and that’s where it begins. As you practice, you start to take on the mental aspects of the practice, where we learn not to define ourselves by our thoughts, and you learn the discipline to control your mind rather than your mind controlling you. From there, once the body is healthy and you can watch your mind move without getting lost, you tap into the spirit, which is the understanding that we’re not our bodies or our minds or just our spirits, but a union of the three. Yoga literally means ‘union’, to ‘yoke’ our small self to a larger consciousness. It works on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level and you take what you need from it and bring energy to the class, to each other, by practicing.
By the way, your body is more stressed than you think…
“Our bodies don’t forget trauma; it holds onto it in the places we normally experience stress: our shoulders, our hips, etc. Think about it: we’re either sitting in desks all day or running around carrying things or stressed out, so the stress we experience stores away in those muscles until it’s released. It’s just pent-up energy. Postures like pigeon pose are a way to release that energy and melt in a way that allows stress to release in a safe, positive way. It’s why sometimes you see people cry in postures like that: it might be the only time they’ve felt safe enough to let go completely in any way. Tears are a good thing. We say in yoga that “we hold our issues in our tissues,” meaning we store stress in the body. It’s got to come out in some way, and yoga is a great way to build strength and relieve that internal strife.”
So, if you’re new to yoga..
“First of all, be clear on what you want from yoga. Do you want to realign your body? Do you want to build strength and flexibility? Do you want to relieve stress? All of those questions will determine what kind of class will work best for you. If you want a vigorous, strong class, try Power Yoga. If you just want to move and flow, try a Flow Class. If you just want to relax and mellow out, try a Chill or Restorative Yoga class. We have all sorts of classes to suit the needs of people who want to try yoga, you just have to pick which class speaks to you. Set a clear intention for yourself, and it will lead you to the right school, type, teacher, etc. Also, start practicing with a teacher that doesn’t intimidate you and who will support you through your practice.”
Women need to support women….
“One of the reasons I left the theatre community is because I prefer how women in the yoga community support each other so well: not tearing each other down, not being cruel to each other, but nurturing each other and building each other up.”
Start taking care of yourself first…
“I wish women would care for themselves more. We give so much to our friends, our families, and our communities that leave ourselves last on the list. You have to fill yourself up so you can give from a place of abundance. If you’re giving from a place of lack and emptiness all the time, you’re depleted and can become bitter and resentful. I work on this myself: I make sure I have enough to give. I give myself my practice and little rituals throughout the day that ensure that I have enough to give everyone else. Taking care of yourself is actually the most selfless thing you can do; serve yourself so you have more to give others.”
“I wish women would stop being in constant motion. You see it when they come into class: they’re playing with their hair or picking at their toes or fidgeting with something because they’re so used to a frenetic pace. They’re not even aware of it. That’s what yoga is for: teaching you to stop and just be in the moment.”
Her favorite yoga posture is..
“Backbends! I love any kind of backbend. It’s the exact opposite of that bending-forward posture we take on throughout our lives, and it’s amazing for the spine. Working toward standing straight up and falling backward into a full wheel posture is amazing: you learn to trust you feet and your hands to support you. It takes a while to master, but it’s so worth it.”
What makes her happy?
“My family, my love (ed. note Stef and her girlfriend were recently engaged,) and my puppies! I’m also really grateful for my yoga family here at exhale. The teachers and the students are all really special.”
What she does to relax…
“Restorative yoga, mostly. You’ll see me lying on the floor with a block under my sacrum, just letting go.”
“Can I say pizza? I love pizza.”
Photographed by Kristin Booker on January 3, 2015 at exhale Central Park South in New York, NY. All rights reserved.