In this issue, we talk to Colleen McClintock about yoga, a movement and practice that has as many advocates as it does critics. Colleen is a certified yoga teacher and has previously featured in SixByEight Press as a contributor — you can read her pieces here and here.
Hi Colleen, thanks for making the time to do this interview!
First off, can you describe your yoga journey a bit? What has been the role of movement in your life before yoga? What has the evolution of your yoga practice looked like, and what inspired you to pursue teaching?
I was a competitive swimmer from when I was about 8 years old until my sophomore year in college, so [physical] movement has always been a big part of my life. Especially with swimming, I felt like from an early age I had a pretty strong awareness around how different muscle groups interacted and how subtle shifts in the body could create a completely different sensation.
I took a few classes in college, but my yoga journey didn’t truly begin until right after college, when I started a job that I didn’t give a shit about and realized that I needed a hobby. I started going to the yoga studio across the street from my apartment, and the rest was history! I was lucky though — the teachers at that studio were incredibly knowledgeable and provided an introduction not just to the physical practice, but the philosophy behind it.
So for me, yoga started as a hobby and form of exercise, but eventually when I realized how good I felt when I made it to my mat (and how shitty things in my day-to-day life made me feel) I developed this emotionally dependent relationship with my practice. I relied on it to make me feel whole, and therefore felt like a mess when for whatever reason I couldn’t practice. Honestly, I’m still working through that. But as my life, my needs, and my schedule have changed, my practice has been forced to evolve. Now as I’ve started to practice different styles (moving away from the more powerful classes and learning more about yin and restorative yoga and meditation) and increasingly relied on self practice, I’ve come to appreciate every time I make it onto my mat as a moment of self care. Whether it’s 90 minutes of strong, fiery practice or 10 minutes of stillness, I acknowledge each as important in my life, and try to listen to my body to determine what it needs at that moment in time.
What was the experience of teacher training like for you? How was it different from your regular practice?
Every program runs a little differently, and every teacher who leads it prioritizes different aspects. My teacher, Angela, was very into the emotional exploration of becoming a yoga teacher.
When people come into a yoga class, they’re shedding all the stuff that they carry around with them in their day-to-day life, whether it’s the facade they put on in their professional life or the roles they play as a friend, partner, family member, etc. They’re getting into the physicality of their bodies, releasing the thought loops that keep them company all day, and eventually exploring the emotions that come up when their awareness is heightened.
This can be an incredibly scary or intimidating thing to do for a lot of people! So one of the most important, and often most challenging aspects of teaching a yoga class, is creating the space for other people to let their guard down and allowing them to get acquainted with their core selves. The only way you can do that, as a teacher, is to get acquainted with your [own] core self. And holy shit, that is hard. I’m pretty sure I just cried for 9 months straight during my teacher training. But fearlessly diving into my insecurities and confronting them head on was probably one of the most valuable things I could have done for myself at that point in time. It’s allowed me to connect not just with students, but with new friends, coworkers, and guys I’ve dated from this really cool place of authenticity.
How has being a teacher impacted you personally?
At first, when I started teaching, taking my favorite teachers’ studio classes was a totally different experience. Rather than fully losing myself in my practice, I found myself paying attention to their cues, memorizing sequences I could modify or steal, deciding whether or not I liked their playlist… it made it really hard for me to solely enjoy the class as a student. So even though I was practicing, I wasn’t really finding the sweet stuff that happens when you fully connect posture with breath with focus. So a little over a year ago, I decided to take the leap and see what all the fuss was about with Mysore Ashtanga.
What is Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga? | Source: Lara Land/YouTube
With Mysore, you do a set sequence of poses every day, and practice on your own with the supervision of a teacher. As you progress, more postures are added to your practice. Once I started practicing Mysore, my practice truly became my own — I could feel the impact of subtle shifts in my alignment, in my breath, in my focus, and started working with a teacher who was fully aware of all the weird shit going on in my body; where I was open, where I was tight. He knew what made me excited and what made me tick, and was able to customize what he taught me, and when he taught me, based on what he knew would resonate (or challenge me!) most. And I could feel things start to change in a way I hadn’t in all my years of practicing before.
However, I’m also someone who struggles with the “shoulds.” Even though the practice itself didn’t put any kind of imposing expectations on me, I put some imposing expectations on myself. I’d practice for about an hour and a half in the morning, go straight to work, work a full day, go teach a class, and then come home and cram in some dinner and TV before I’d do it all again the next day. And as much as I knew I was filling my free time with things that I loved and that were good for me, I couldn’t help but feel stifled with all the obligations. So I started to practice less, which made me feel like a failure. And then I quit Mysore after about 6 months because, even though I knew how much I could benefit from a consistent practice, at that moment in time it was draining me more than it was feeding me. But of course, I kept feeling stressed. And crappy. Work was getting more demanding, and although quitting Mysore gave me the space to sleep in in the morning and stay up a little later at night, it didn’t give me the freedom that I was still craving. My practice started to diminish, and along with it, my confidence in my teaching.
So a couple months ago, after a lot of back and forth and a LOT of crying, I decided that it was time for teaching and I to take a break. I went from five classes a week to one, said goodbye to my free monthly membership at the studio I had called my home for three years, and broke up with my wonderfully strong, wise, and compassionate students. One thing yoga tries to teach us is awareness — knowing when something is serving you, and knowing when to stop.
So now I have a little more time for me, and although I don’t think this will be forever, I know this is the right thing for me right now. I’ve recently accepted a new job where I won’t have to travel (another thing that was draining me). I’m planning on taking a couple of yoga trainings this year (a rocket training, which is a form of progressive ashtanga, and a yin training, which is juicy and restorative and the total other end of the spectrum). I’m even going to start practicing ashtanga again at an evening Mysore program near my new office. [In terms of] the future — I think looking ahead, my goal is to teach with intention. The thing that I think I value most in teachers, and the quality that all of the teachers I admire most have shared, is a fierce dedication to their practice and a passion for sharing it with others. When I start teaching again, that’s the kind of teacher I want to be. I want to teach styles that reflect what I practice, get weird with philosophy and alignment, and make people as excited about their practice as I am about mine. And the first step in that is giving my own practice the TLC it deserves.
It seems like part of being a yoga teacher is developing a brand.
Do you think this is the main factor leading to the rise of the performative type of yoga that is becoming progressively more widespread on social media? If not, what do you think is contributing to the rise of “yoga porn”?
The reality with teaching yoga is that it… isn’t the most lucrative. My friends who teach full time are running all over the city trying to make ends meet, and in order to get your name out there, get people to sign up for your classes and retreats, and make yourself a more attractive hire, you do have to market yourself a bit. And I think we’re seeing this trend everywhere, with independent artists selling their work on Etsy, obscure musicians getting their name out there, and popular, active Twitter users being hired to write for major publications — the internet and social media increases access in a huge way, and allows you to reach an audience you never could have before. But with that comes the pressure to stand out, and I think those who are naturally more comfortable in the spotlight excel here. And especially with yoga, some of the teachers who are most comfortable in the spotlight aren’t necessarily the best teachers, or the one sharing the most thoughtful and inclusive messages.
There are obviously exceptions to that — Kino MacGregor is an extremely popular yoga teacher, and she is the real fucking deal. She has an admirable dedication to her practice — she’s an Ashtangi and talks about how she’s practiced 5 or 6 days a week for the last 15 years. She’s struggled with anxiety and depression, and is totally open about the challenges she has faced. When you look at her Instagram, you see a beautiful and strong woman with a perfect body, but then she talks about how she’s dealt with body image issues throughout her life. And it’s all totally honest and authentic, and her following appreciates her all the more for it. Of course, with the internet, you run the risk of being ripped to shreds too, and she has to deal with trolls and rude comments constantly. She continues to share just as much (if not more!) as she always has, and I find her incredibly inspiring because of that.
Kino MacGregor | Source: kinoyoga/Instagram
However, there’s a subset of Instayogis that we all see take over our feed — they’re all super skinny, super flexible, have beautiful bohemian boyfriends who seem to exist solely to be bases for acroyoga and amateur photographers, and love to post inspirational quotes while they put themselves in crazy shapes with full faces of makeup. I’m sure they’re lovely people, but they’re changing the face of what yoga looks like. I feel like if you asked anyone unfamiliar to yoga what they associate with the practice, it would probably be skinny white women, expensive leggings, and green juice. Not only is that wildly disrespectful to yoga’s origins and thousands of years of history, but it makes the practice totally alienating and inaccessible for someone who doesn’t fit that mental image. On top of that, people tend to share their “best” selves on Instagram (I’m guilty of it too, and to be clear I LOVE Instagram and don’t know how I lived my life without videos of dogs eating cheese and doing other adorable things).
When you’re a yoga teacher sharing your practice, putting your best looking picture — or turning it into a performance — doesn’t allow your students or followers to see the flawed, human side of you, and gives the average viewer unrealistic expectations about their practice. Sometimes yoga is messy, uncomfortable, and downright ugly, but those moments in practice are just as important and perfect as the beautiful, photo-worthy ones. And that message is really hard to get across when you’re inundated by images of the “perfect yogi.”
As a teacher, how do you see this practice of movement impacting your students in class and in their lives?
At a baseline level, yoga allows us to get into the physicality of our bodies. By simply regulating our breathing, focusing our gaze on one point, and putting our bodies in specific shapes, we can enter into a moving meditation where we have a heightened awareness of how things feel in our bodies — first we’re in tune with the physical, but then we can develop a better understanding of the emotional. That’s the big pull for me, having this awareness that never really existed before. Because once you have that it’s so much easier to manage your feelings and physical responses when they come up in real life situations (theoretically). Granted, we’re imperfect beings, and won’t always nail it all the time, but if you’ve been practicing yoga for a bit and have this understanding of how your body responds to certain situations it’s much easier — when you feel anxious, for example — to recognize and acknowledge the feeling without letting it take you down a mental spiral.
Another big place I see yoga impacting my students is around fear. You have to do some scary shit in yoga sometimes, and different things can be different triggers for people. Inversions and backbends are the two biggest ones, but everyone is different (for example, I love backbends and am very curious about inversions, but every time I go into a deep hamstring stretch my entire body clenches up in a desperate act of self preservation). It almost feels like a cliché, to say that lessons you learn in the yoga room can be taken off the mat, but I fully believe that it’s true. Not only are you training to stay calm when your brain and body almost go into fight or flight mode, but you’re pushing your body against the limits of what you previously believed to be possible. And no matter what your movement practice is, the experience of surprising yourself and exceeding your own expectations can be immensely valuable.
Finally, the practice of yoga can be incredibly humbling. Everyone comes into the room with different natural strengths and areas for development. The two groups I tend to think about are the naturally strong and the naturally flexible. Those who are naturally flexible have beautiful postures and can access different parts of their body a little easier, but are often at risk for injury because it’s very easy to overstretch their muscles. The naturally strong folks have no problem with a chatarunga and adapt to arm balances very quickly, but struggle with being able to touch their toes. And within one person’s body you see different places that are open, and others that are tight — you may have very open shoulders but extremely tight hamstrings, or feel totally comfortable with an internal hip rotation but struggle with an external hip rotation. One of the things about yoga that is really fucking hard (and one of the things I struggle with the most) is that it forces you to approach the things that don’t come easily to you with just as much curiosity and kindness as the things that excite you.
Thank you so much for your time!
is a yoga teacher and healthcare consultant in Washington, D.C. who enjoys reading people’s star charts at the club.