January 21, 2012

Briohny Smyth: The Full Story, Straight from the Yogini’s Mouth. {Article in English & Spanish}

(Para leerlo en español, haga clic aquí.)

At this point I think you’d have to be living under a rock to have not seen the infamous Equinox video (and you’re probably sick of it, but hang tight, there is one more story to be told!).

First it swirled around in the yoga world, and then quickly made the leap to the world at large, kicking up some controversy in the process.

We’ve seen several diverse viewpoints debated on Elephant Journal, and we’ve also seen a broad dialogue taking place, with all different opinions being expressed, from all over the world. I would personally like to thank all of the readers who kept the dialogue open, inquisitive and respectful. We’ve all been able to explore a variety of perspectives and with that we’ve been given great food for thought. But at the end of the day we are all just drawing our own conclusions and making our own interpretations of the video, each one of us influenced by our own experiences, perceptions, cultural conditioning, judgments and emotional triggers. If we want to know what was truly intended by the video, we need to go straight to the horse’s mouth: in this case the mouth of Briohny Smyth, the yogini featured in the video.

I had the privilege of speaking at length with Briohny and what I found was a sweet, down-to-earth, open, confident and yet unassuming woman, mother and yogini, with a very kind and personable energy. As the video shows, Briohny is a strong and empowered women, but she did not reach that place without an immense amount of personal growth and struggle. Briohny overcame years of battling with Bulimia and Anorexia in order to become the strong and self-confident soul that she is today, comfortable in her mind, body and spirit.

To understand how Briohny came to be in this video, you need to understand the original intention of Equinox. Here’s how it went down: the marketing team at Equinox in New York City decided that they wanted to make a yoga-themed video that would reach an audience of strong, empowered and liberated working women. And yes, Equinox makes no secret of the fact that they include “sexy” among the attributes of such a liberated woman. So they were looking for a yogini that encapsulated that vision. When Keith Irace, Regional Manager of Los Angeles Equinox, heard this directive, he immediately knew the perfect yogini: Briohny Smyth.

I will let Briohny tell us in her own words what was intended with this video and what it means to her. But before I do that, I want to explore a bit about the person behind the video:

Photo by Robert Sturman.

Jeannie: Briohny, tell us how you came to yoga and what it has meant for you in your life?

Briohny: I found Yoga when I was 15 on a trip to India– Right smack in the middle of a 10-year battle with Bulimia and Anorexia came this shining light of hope.

The Yoga of my teens was predominantly a fusion of Iyengar and Flow mixed with meditation and Pranayama. Kirtans were a common activity for me and I immersed myself in whatever was available in the Yoga scene in Bangkok in the late 90’s…which wasn’t much at all. Despite my efforts to recover on my own, my eating disorder continued and I was hospitalized for an ulcer at 17 and put on bed rest. I realize now that I was way too young to understand the emotional damage that had occurred over the course of my teen years. I started to treat the disorder as a way of life…it almost killed me!!  I finally found help within 12-step programs and began to attend AA meetings..(only because OA didn’t exist in Bangkok, Thailand…probably because Anorexia is so common that people don’t think of it as a disease).

When I identified with the fact that I had a disease, my mindset started to change. I slowly began to build new values within my belief system. I surrounded myself with supportive people who shared similar experiences. Day by day, minute-by-minute, I fed my mind with affirmations and started to heal. Over the course of the next 4 years I relapsed numerous times but mentally and emotionally started to grow. Yoga played a huge part in my slow recovery. Although I was still touring and recording, I practiced Yoga everyday. Instead of partying and waking up late, I ate well, slept, and woke up early to practice Asana for an hour and meditate. Through my Yoga practice I started to develop a clearer connection between my body and mind. I began to realize that the way I viewed myself was disconnected from reality: Total body Dysmorphia. Yoga allowed me to feel liberated and strong both inside and out, it gave me a healthy routine. As the asana started to re-build my damaged body, meditation calmed and cleared my mind, helping me connect with the present moment. Combined, asana & meditation gave me a new life.

Jeannie: From reading your bio, I see that your focus as a teacher is on Vinyasa Flow classes with a focus on Inversions and Arm Balances and attention to alignment. What inspires your strong interest in inversions and arm balances?

Briohny: My early years of Yoga were not inversion focused. But as my strength and body awareness grew, I became more interested in arm balances and inversions. The first time I took Kathryn Budig’s class, she showed us Eka Pada 2. To my surprise, with her alignment points, I was able to fly up into it. Not only did I feel liberated, it was super fun!

I love arm balances and inversions but I also love all of the other poses as well, which is why my classes are probably 80% standing and seated postures with inversions and arm balances sprinkled in. I’m thrilled by the challenge of these poses and excited when I meet like-minded Yogis, which is why I was inspired to teach in the first place.

I try to design each class around a specific pose, identifying all of the key elements to the pose, then stretching and strengthening those key parts of the body.

The Yoga practice reminds us to be patient and humble, especially when trying to master a pose such as handstand or headstand. Inversions have also helped me to gain confidence in my daily life. I’m not so worried about having the approval of others because I know I can come to my mat and feel good.  Inversions also have an immense amount of physical benefits. Improved circulation is one of the main benefits which also helps with the quality of our skin and regrowth of our hair. They are great for those who suffer from swelling in the legs and feet. In a more superficial way, inversions can tone the arms, shoulders and abdominal muscles.

I also find that we learn a lot about ourselves when we confront our fears. Even if it’s just the fear of bringing our hips over our shoulders and our feet over our hips.

Photo by Robert Sturman.

Jeannie: Tell us why you love teaching yoga and what are your personal intentions as a teacher.

Briohny: I recite a gratitude list in my head every morning:

1.  My Daughter, Taylor.
2.  My Family.
3.  My partner & Fiance, Dice.
4.  Yoga

I smile every time I make this list because it helps to remind me that LIFE IS GREAT!!  Sometimes we get caught up in our heads and start to believe the drama we create, blinding us from what is right in front of us.

I feel so blessed to be able to wake up every morning and immerse myself in the things that I love. Even though I teach Yoga for a living, it never feels like a job…well maybe when I’m stuck in crazy traffic on the 405…but as soon as I step into a Yoga room, I’m transformed. Dice and I have been cultivating our Kula for long enough that we know most of the people in each of our classes, so teaching is more like guiding a bunch of friends through a mindful but challenging flow.

The personal relationships that I’ve cultivated through my teaching have taught me so much and I continue to learn from my students everyday. One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is that we are all completely different. We may be similar in body structure and build, but what makes us up emotionally and spiritually affects how we connect with our bodies. Therefore, in my classes, I always offer room for people to explore. What is right for one person might not be right for another.

My personal intentions as a teacher are to inspire and liberate people from society’s views and expectations of the human body, as well as to help Yogis to connect with their bodies- which was the same exact intention I had when filming the Equinox video. I meet so many people on a daily basis and many are not happy with their bodies. Some practice everyday and are not happy with their results, while others don’t have the time to practice daily and are unhappy because they feel they aren’t doing enough. I can relate to both…even though these two viewpoints are on two sides of the spectrum, they stem from the same negative thinking. Knowing that people become vulnerable during a Yoga practice, I always try to remind Yogis to connect with their own needs and honor their bodies.

Jeannie: Moving to the video, I know you expressed on your Facebook page and to me that you never expected controversy over the video. What has been your reaction to the strong and diverse responses?

Briohny: I am no stranger to strong and diverse comments. My American attitude was always the talk of the town during my years in Thailand. However, I was very surprised by the controversy that followed the release of the video and initially it was painful to read. But, as support accumulated around me, I gained the strength to practice compassion for those who had a negative reaction to the video. I understand and respect their opinions and actually appreciate those who took the time to articulate their thoughts. I’ve learned over the years to love and revere those who challenge me the most. After all, it’s those who challenge you who teach you your greatest lessons. 

Jeannie: Can you tell us about about the original vision of the video and how it was choreographed? Why the NYC penthouse? Why the man in the bed, etc?

Briohny: As Jeannie points out above, the intention from the Equinox marketing team was to reach an audience of strong and empowered women. I was absolutely humbled and honored when my regional manager, Keith Irace, thought of me to represent that role. In terms of the filming of the video, there was no script. I was given carte blanche of what I wanted to film, and for me it was very much my own representation of art. They gave me the option to personally choreograph and film three different videos. I did one of hip openers, one of back bends, and this one of inversions, which clearly is the one they chose to represent their theme of empowerment.

If I can quote Liz Miersch, Editorial Manager, Q, A Blog by Equinox:

“The Contortionist” was originally created for Equinox’s new editorial site, Q, and was meant to be an inspirational video about the beauty and art of perfecting the yoga arm balance. The aim was to capture what the carefully honed “Equinox body” can do, and devout yogi and Equinox Instructor Briohny Smyth was the perfect person to illuminate such a message. The wardrobe decision was a natural extension of that. Here is a beautiful woman proud of her accomplishments on the mat—and its byproduct: a strong, sculpted body.

There is also a lot of discussion surrounding the mysterious sleeping man in the background of the video. The intent here was simply to add a layer of intrigue to the video by wrapping the yoga sequence in a story of sorts.

We’re proud of the product, Briohny and the reception the video has received.

Jeannie: As you’ve seen there has been ample criticism about the film being overly-sexualized and exploitative to women. As a mother of a young daughter, first, how do you respond to that criticism? And secondly, what message do you hope to instill in your daughter as she grows into a woman?

Briohny: I understand and respect the feelings of others but am sad to hear that the video caused pain and negative reactions. I can only hope that these negative reactions help to shed some light on possible underlying issues that might be the initial cause of the reactions themselves. When I first came across some brutal comments, I was offended and even hurt. But then I realized that my reaction was merely a reflection of how I felt inside. Then I began to take things less personally and practice compassion for those who were in pain. I reminded myself that our only intentions were to inspire and put a spot light on this small facet of Yoga Asana.

The entire PR team at Equinox and everyone that was involved in creating this concept is FEMALE. Not once did I feel like I was being taken advantage of or exploited. I am very proud of this video and so is my whole family. My daughter was only inspired to practice with me more and I have received a number of emails and messages from supporters who have children, telling me how much this video inspired them as well. That said, we are all different and I would never ridicule someone for having beliefs different from mine.

At 7 years old, my daughter is a very present and emotionally connected child. Over the years, I’ve tried my best to connect with “who” my daughter is instead of tell her “what” she needs to be. Of course I guide her towards proper manners and working hard in school but I try to give her the platform to express herself and make sure she knows that she is beautiful inside and out. No matter your age, dealing with society’s opinions and expectations can be tough. I can only hope to instill enough strength and confidence in my child to give her the courage to do something that she believes in.

Photo by Jarred King.

Jeannie: Who have served as your role models of female empowerment, and why?

Briohny: There are many strong females out there who have inspired me. In the Yoga world, Kathryn Budig, Annie Carpenter, Lisa Walford, Krista Cahill, and Lauren Peterson have inspired me the most.  Their dedication to Yoga is incredible.

Closer to home, my mother is my biggest inspiration. I have never met anyone as selfless and hard working as she. She moved to the US at 19, by herself,  got a job, learned the language and started a family. She raised me and my sister by herself and worked ridiculous hours to put us both through private school. Most importantly, she always gave me a safe platform to express myself and supported me 100%…even when my business ventures failed or lost money. Her guidance and advice on raising my daughter is priceless and I learn something from her all of the time. Thanks Mom!

Jeannie: There were many comments from yoga “purists” stating that this video was not yoga, that rather it was acrobatics, and that it belittled the true meaning of yoga. How do you respond to that?

Briohny: I fell in love with Yoga in the first place because it was a practice that was solely YOURS: Free of judgment and expectations. Over the course of the past 15 years I have dedicated my practice to various styles; Iyengar, Ashtanga, Anusara, Bhakti, Vinyasa Flow, Hatha, Acro Yoga, and Inversional flow…all of which I consider to be “Yoga”…and all of which were created and named by a Yoga Guru of some sort. The idea that there are “Yoga Purists” out there who are judging others and saying that “their” yoga is right and someone else’s practice is “wrong” goes against the very soul of the Yoga practice. Asana is merely one small facet. We practice Asana as a path to freeing our minds of judgment, worry, fear, attachments, and all other emotions that cloud our minds from living in this present moment. The Equinox video consisted of poses such as Balasna, Adho Mukha Svanasana, Uttanasana, Malasana, Adho Mukha Vrksasana, Bakasana, Kukutasana, Eka Pada Koundinyasana 2, and Sirsasana. I have never practiced gymnastics or contortion but have the utmost respect for those who do.

There are many different styles of Yoga and what is my Yoga might not work for others. But just because I don’t practice a certain way doesn’t mean I’m against it. It saddens me to see a divide in the Yoga world between different teaching styles and opinions but I am also very proud to be a part of a huge group of Yogis that embrace all styles and all get along and support one another. After all, YOUR Yoga Practice is exactly that, YOURS. So do the things that feel good and if something doesn’t, figure out why and find something that works for you. That is what I try to do everyday…see my responsibility in the quality of my life.

Jeannie: I understand you are originally from Australia and spent many years living in Thailand. Given that perspective of having lived in different cultures, what is your opinion about the different cultural responses that have been expressed over the video?

Briohny: I am so thankful for the opportunities I had as a child to live in and travel to many different cultures and experience a wide variety of people. The Thai culture values family very much. Kids don’t move out when they’re 18…they can if they like, but most don’t. Families stick together until roles are reversed and the kids take care of their parents instead. Not to mention the built in child care!!

There are a couple of values that might be a little stiff…many people look down upon women having children out of wedlock and divorce is something that is just becoming acceptable. Although Thai people are generally conservative, I have received nothing but support and praise for the Equinox Video. Even from newspapers and columnists who used to write negatively about me having a boyfriend at the age of 18. My Thai fans, both new and old, have been able to see this clip as Art and inspiration. They are not “appalled” or “disgusted” by my body, instead they are proud of my growth and inspired by my dedication to my Yoga practice.

As Jeannie pointed out in her previous article, all cultures have different views. After living in Bangkok, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, Sydney, New York, Houston, and Los Angeles…I’ve learned the importance of respecting one’s culture. However, I am very surprised to see people uptight about me practicing in mini shorts and a sports bra. I have a calendar by Jasper Johal in my kitchen (yes, my daughter sees it everyday and I’m fine with that.). Each month features a teacher that we know, completely nude, doing Yoga. I have come across “nude” Yoga videos on YouTube where the camera is not shooting “special angles.” It is nothing but inspiring and liberating to see women expressing themselves comfortably. I am proud of these women and can only hope that those who don’t feel comfortable with seeing the human body in its most natural form will one day find peace in their hearts, minds, and spirits.

Jeannie: If there is one take-away that you wish for people to take from this video, and this entire controversy, what would it be?

Briohny: Yoga has been a great friend to me over the years. It has been with me through all of the ups and the downs and I plan to continue to grow and change with Yoga by my side. It is so important to find something that you love, something that improves the quality of your life and stick with it. I can only hope that this video has inspired people to find their ‘Yoga,’ any sort of practice that gives one the space to connect with their breath, body and mind. This world can be a tough one sometimes and people aren’t always going to love what you do or who you are. But, I believe that if you surround yourself with loved ones and do the things that you believe in without harming others, you will rise above the noise.

Photo by Robert Sturman.

To read my original piece, about the different cultural perspectives of the Equinox video, click here.

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