December 12, 2012

Rebel Yoga: An Interview with Hilary Lindsay.

While I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Hilary Lindsay in person, I’ve enjoyed more fascinating conversations with her online during the past two years than with many people I’ve known for 20.

Though countless email messages and blog commentaries, we’ve shared thoughts on yoga, politics, marriage, children, feminism, money, human nature, love, loss, and how to keep the faith despite all the shite that life can throw at you. I’ve learned much through our discussions, and am immensely pleased to have the opportunity to share some of Hilary’s wit and wisdom with you here.

Carol: I know that your yoga career has been exceptionally long, varied, and distinctive. But let’s begin at the beginning. When and how did you first seriously get into yoga? Was there an “ah ha” moment that made you feel, “hey, this is ‘it’?”

Hilary: There was no single “ah ha!” moment that made me decide to become a yoga teacher. In fact, when I started teaching, I had no intention of making yoga my career. And though I was certainly incorporating yoga posture and focus into a movement class, I had no inclination to call myself a “yoga teacher” at all. So I coined the term “Bodymind Workout” and labelled my classes that instead. When I did finally start to teach straight “yoga,” I couldn’t help but feel a bit fraudulent calling myself yoga teacher. In my mind, yoga teachers were seasoned sages steeped in rarefied culture and learning. Initially, I didn’t feel up to that title.

Looking back, however, there were many realizations and encounters that set me on this path. I was constitutionally resistant to the middle class culture I grew up in. As a teen, I had a strange encounter with an Indian man on a bus who spoke to me cryptically about meaning and my destiny. I had an older boyfriend in college who introduced me to vegetarianism and yoga. Afterwards, I found myself coming back to yoga through acquaintances and circumstance, drawn to books and seminars.


I was living in New York, which had a few yoga centers but yoga was not part of the culture yet. A chiropractor introduced me to a Phoenix Rising yoga teacher. One session clarified that the body could be coaxed to reveal unconscious burdens through posture and purposeful observations. I found it remarkable. I later had a slightly different, but also enlightening experience of myself following a class with Ana Forrest. While this wasn’t what excited me to teach, it did pique my interest in pursuing self awareness more intently.

Meeting Bryan Kest several years later was probably my biggest spur toward teaching. At the time, he had just started teaching himself. I’d never seen yoga as a vinyasa before. And I never expected to find a yoga teacher who was using yoga in a way that resonated with my own joy in movement. But Bryan’s badass banter resonated with my own attitude, which I’d developed under the tutelage of a former dance teacher I admired. This inspired me to develop my own classes further. Maybe that was the “ah ha” moment that said the Bodymind Workout could be sanctioned as “yoga.”

When I moved to Nashville, I brought this new style, Power Yoga, with me from the West Coast, adding music and, of course, my own style of flow. The energy of the movement spoke to people, and my classes grew like wildfire.

Suddenly, I was well-known as a “yoga teacher” and felt beholden to deliver. So I deepened my studies and did my best to earn the title.

Carol: How did your yoga teaching and practice develop from there?

Hilary: I approached Iyengar technique in earnest. I was lucky to have a constant influx of visiting teachers in Nashville. I practiced with an Iyengar teacher friend regularly. I took workshops in anything of yoga or movement that came my way and there were senior teachers from other disciplines as well. I read the Bhagavad-Gita and the Yoga Sutras for the first time. I took anatomy courses, kept an anatomy book by my bed, consulted with  bodyworkers, chiropractors and PT friends on yoga poses, body issues, etc. I knew pranayama and had been meditating since I was a teen, but I began to encourage my students to meditation and pranayama as well. I had been studying Feldenkrais awareness through movement and began to apply the work to the yoga practice.

My experience of yoga from earlier days was mostly a body-centered therapy attached to New Age healing techniques. Some early experiences in L.A., including Phoenix Rising therapy and Ana Forrest’s classes, showed me how powerful that work could be. I was later surprised to find people in my own classes having intense experiences, even though I had no intention to create that. But then, since I believed it was valuable, I began to shift my focus a bit to encourage it. In the process, I sought out more information on the physiological and the energetic effects of yoga. My intention to be attentive to that aspect of yoga quickly informed me as I learned by the experience of teaching.

There were teachers whose workshops I left inspired, and their work would morph into something else through me. It was exciting. But there were also Iyengar teachers whose workshops left me defeated. I was ultimately influenced in a way that changed my teaching and that change was not, as it turned out, beneficial.

I lost my muse, which was music. I became more clinical: worried about form, concerned not to show myself but to be more of a professor or a doctor than an inspiration. I began to get into my head and into my own way. I stepped into the background.

As it turned out, my students wanted me. They wanted the music. They wanted my stories and my commentary. They wanted joy. I was trying to be a respectful and respectable yoga teacher. I should have remembered that I’m better off on the path less traveled.

Carol: It sounds like there’s a powerful lesson to be learned there: by trying to become a “respectable” yoga teacher, you lost touch with your authenticity, and your teaching suffered as a result. Is that an accurate summary? If not, what would be? Either way, how did this experience inform that ways in which you went on to learn and teach more about yoga?

Hilary: Look at this interesting definition of authentic: “worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact.”

I’ll base my answer on that. I did not lose myself. I was, in fact, the same. But I did not feel worthy. Therefore, I may not have felt that it was good enough to be the “me” that seemed set in stone or fact; the “me” that the public saw. I felt they were seeing me as a guru. And I didn’t know why I was worthy of that, when I knew so little of what legitimate yoga gurus should know. I was an accidental teacher who didn’t understand how to harness her own popularity, and couldn’t tolerate the idea of a non-professional reaping the credits of a professional.

The choreographer Twyla Tharp said that “you have to know the box to step outside of it.” I think of ballet as the box for dance, and Iyengar’s technique as the box for yoga. So I went back to learn the box, and make sure my students learned it as well.

In truth, I began that process when the Bodymind Workout became Power Yoga. There was so much yoga in the former that I felt that someone would get hurt if I didn’t teach alignment in the poses. Later, I went further, giving up the dance because you can’t hold poses and talk about them in a dance flow.

I also left the big venues where I was teaching, the spaces where 60 people were scheduling their week to include me. When you have such big classes, it’s easy to let your energy soar and not worry about any one individual’s form. When there are fewer students, your attention is much more tightly focused on them.

Which is not to say that big classes are bad. To the contrary, they can be fabulous. Give me a room full of students who know how to move and it’s like choreographing a dance, conducting a symphony. It’s abundant with opportunities for defragmentation. My perfect scenario is the workshop where I can teach some, conduct some, choreograph some, and inspire with everything I’ve got to create an experience. I have no problem with large groups. I love them, in fact. It’s just a different energy and best in a workshop format.

I now have a different take on the question of “what is the ‘box’ of yoga?” There is no one box. If you have to know the box before stepping out of it, you need to take time to consider all the boxes.

The key word is time.The body is just one box. But even that box is not one true box, as the body cannot be separated from the mind or spirit. And so even that one box becomes a more complex study. More knowledgeable and experienced,  overtime I gained a softer approach, I have no insecurity about being called yoga teacher now.

Carol: It sounds to me like staying true to your own path required making choices that sometimes boosted your popularity as a yoga teacher—but also sometimes lessened it. Is that correct? And if so, how do you feel about that? I know from my own experience that it’s easy to be self-critical when you feel that staying true to yourself takes you away from what society considers “success” (increased money, fame, etc.).

Hilary: My path has been circuitous to please myself. I did make some choices that made me less popular for awhile, that lead me away from the limelight. But I did what I wanted to do. I don’t feel critical of that as such, because I think it’s a human thing to explore—not  just for survival or play, but for self-improvement.

On the other hand, I do feel critical of myself for something else. I put my work before my family too many times.  Many hours were invested in my students. But not enough hours were invested toward financial gain. I never did pay attention to earning money purposefully in yoga. I surprisingly earned a great deal of money without a plan or intention to have a  yoga career. But once yoga became my livelihood, I did not manage that with my eye on a tangible, material prize and I did not see the livelihood of yoga gaining mass appeal.

Some might think that’s lofty, but I think it was,in a way, both stubborn and arrogant. When I went to Kripalu, it was by their invitation. They urged me to promote the class, but I never did because I figured it was on the Center’s calendar and anyone who wanted to come would come. I had a small group when I taught there and they raved about the class, staff included. but I never capitalized on it. I was too damn contented. But yoga quickly became big business. While I was riding on my reputation, more clever folks were building skyscrapers around me.

Carol: I understand what you’re saying, but also think you’re a bit hard on yourself. It can be tough turning something you love into something you don’t—e.g., turning yoga into a business. Of course, that shift come naturally to some people. But not all.

In fact, I’m wrestling with the same issues myself, having deliberately chosen to write two non-commercial yoga books. Was that stupid and selfish? I don’t know. I hope not. In truth, I simply had no interest in writing commercial ones, and don’t think I would have been very good at it anyway. So what do you do?

Hilary: When I was a kid, I had a recurring vision as I’d close my eyes at night. There was a freestanding wall in front of me. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t see around or above it. I would ruminate: What was here before the wall? What came first?

Years later, I became obsessed with yoga queries in my sleep. I wouldn’t call it dreams, but more like waking sleep. I’d ruminate night after night about the meaning of bliss or samadhi or whatever.

Sometimes I look at my family of non-yogis and wonder: How did I get here? And sometimes I look at the yoga community and wonder: Who are you people?

I’ve struggled with questions I can’t find answers to or that have no answer. And I find myself in concert with what seems my essential self as it’s the one I’m most familiar with, no matter how many times I try to become other, no matter how much fire I apply (and I do).

At this point, my conclusion is that it is what it is. I am what I am. I’m not fighting it. If I’m lucky, I’ll just become notorious again for being myself. I wish the same for you.

Carol: I’d like to talk a little about your writing. It is, after all, what brought us together: I’ve never had the chance to take a yoga class with you, but I do read your writing religiously. And I think the reason is that when you hit it right, you hit a level of reality that’s more profound and poetic than I usually see elsewhere – let alone in the yoga world, which likes to keep everything all lite and bright, even if that means trafficking in fakery and denial. I don’t see you doing that.

What motivates you to write? Do you experience any “ah ha” moments there? Is a process to becoming a “writer” for you that parallels your experience in becoming a “yoga teacher”?

Hilary: Yes. I am consistent. I wandered into teaching just as I wandered into writing. And at the same time I have been doing yoga and writing both most of my life. So maybe it just feels like I wandered. Maybe it was always my path.

As a writer I sit down when something comes up, when I’m inspired by something. If I’m lucky, I’m near the computer. But I’m usually in the car, listening to music or the news. Or I’m walking. When I am near the computer, I will jot something down and come back to it which is dangerous because I’m prone to let it go unfinished unless it’s something exploding inside me.

As a teacher, I teach every day and though I’m also inspired by random things, I have to teach whether a thought excites me or not. Then I rely on my chops and it’s like doing scales when the composition isn’t coming easily. The scales support the students’ practice too, so in some ways, they’re lucky that I have times when I teach from a drier perspective.

When I am inspired. I channel the inspiration and I will not remember a class  even as it is coming to a close. I’ve asked my students to be the keeper of my words and not to expect that I will recall them exactly or be able to precisely duplicate a class because I often work in a stream of consciousness. I often forget the things I write about and I’m delighted by them later as if I’m reading another author’s work!

I practice some aspect of yoga every day because I like it, not because I think I have too. I do the same with writing, though I do not write every day or even every week.

My inspiration in teaching comes from things as random as the stuff I write about. Ann Coulter was on a Sunday morning show before the election. She said something brilliant. Yet I find her unbearable. But it inspired my yoga class that morning; I merged it with a Feldenkrais lesson. In fact, I had just read a quote by Einstein that tied it all together—and so, in came Einstein as well. Ann, Einstein, yoga and Feldenkrais came together in that class and it was excellent, if I do say so myself. I meant to write a post about it, but . . .

Carol: Could you list a few of your favorite posts for readers who’d like to check out more of your writing?

Hilary: My favorite posts are the ones that I look back on and find something unexpected, or that mark a particular time and place. My writing is not purposely vague. But I don’t always fill in the blanks.I guess these are posts that would earn me the moniker of rebel yogi and bitchin yoga that have become respectively my own. I am proud that I’ve been willing to speak my mind at the risk of being unpopular.

I loved every post I wrote about the Anusara debacle. I like “Looking for John Friend” because there is something freaking poetic about the fact that that I ended the post saying “he never existed,” when in fact. for all intents and purposes, he soon would not. It was the first, or one of the first reaction pieces written after his expose. But I wasn’t writing about that. It was a coincidence.

I’m pleased with “Blind Faith and Anusara” because no one was talking about the student’s complicity in that mess, and I had a strong opinion.

I liked “Can Yoga Save Tea Party Barbie” because I began a discussion on  yoga and social/political behavior. I thought it had its moments of pure poetry, too.

“Tread Lightly Teachers. Put Down Your Big Stick” was fun. It was totally reactionary and I had a great muse, totally inspired. I got to shake my own big stick at misinformed teaching.

“Occupy Wall Street; Rage Against the Empire” was also reactionary, but it was a pleasure to add my opinion to why Occupy mattered.

“Ask a Wild Horse; Branding Hurts” was one of my first posts and I still feel the same way. It’s a look at the culture of marketing yoga.I pointed to Krishnamacharya’s three male proteges as the first branding of yoga. I find that interesting.

And “Yoga: A Stretch of Faith” might have been my first or second on elephant, and maybe one of my best, because I explored the notion that yoga is a religion. I think it may have been a bit radical, which delights me.

Carol: That’s a wide range of topics! Are there any central themes that most concern you in your writing?

Hilary: I picked these particular posts because they are all warnings about yoga being ill used. I have other writings I like as much but I honed in on these because for better or worse, it’s one of my brands. I have been a canary in the coal mine: one of the first people I know of to become aware that there is a disconnect between yoga and business. Let’s just say I was in a front row seat for the premiere. If someone does not believe there is a disconnect, then they would never say “it’s just business” as an excuse for anything. Occupy, the 47 percent, all that plagues us is an extension of precisely that line of thinking . . . “it’s just business.” That’s bullshit.

It’s only Tuesday, and two people have already given me this line this week as a way of explaining a punk move in the yoga kingdom. I say, forget that! Yoga should change business, perhaps. But business should not change yoga. It’s a problem that we are still ironing out in a “community/industry” (ironically and tellingly, the yoga world is commonly referred to as both) that has evolved so quickly, it hasn’t had time to take a breath. Through my writing, teaching, and practice, I work to cultivate, sustain, and share the power of that breath—as breath is, of course, at the heart of yoga.


You can read more of Hilary’s writing at her blog, bitchin yoga, or on her website, activeyoga.com.


Ed: Kate B.

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