Spotlight on yoga student and teacher, Wendy Cox
What initially brought you to the yoga practice, and how long have you been practicing?
Seventeen years ago, a yoga studio opened in my neighborhood in Minneapolis and it looked so appealing. It was dimly lit with candles and had a beautiful boutique with fashionable yoga clothing and colorful mats. I observed women and a few men as they entered the studio with their mats tucked under their arms and walked out looking so refreshed and fulfilled. I decided that I would try it. The next day I walked into the studio with a new mat tucked under my arm and walked out feeling refreshed and fulfilled. I knew that I was embarking on a long and wonderful journey.
The practice of yoga is comprised of many different disciplines. Which types have you explored over the years?
My first experience with yoga was at a studio in Minneapolis dedicated to Ashtanga. I loved it. It was just what I needed at the time – a strong physical practice that would challenge me in all sorts of ways. First, there was the strength building that I wanted and then the flexibility and ultimately, the peace of mind that sneaks up on you if you practice long enough. I felt more creative, loving, and satisfied with my life overall. I spent five years practicing there and took the Ashtanga 40-hour teacher training course with David Swenson before moving to Florida in 2006.
What was the yoga scene like when you first arrived in Sarasota? And, more important, what were you looking for?
When I first arrived in Sarasota in 2006, I looked for an Ashtanga studio since that is what I was familiar with. I didn’t find that here, so I tried a number of studios teaching other disciplines of yoga. I essentially embarked on my own Sarasota Yoga Tour. I went to “power” yoga classes, hot yoga classes, Bikram yoga, yoga classes in dark rooms with loud music, kundalini classes, yoga at my church, yoga with teachers who didn’t know much about yoga at all, etc. And for a while I focused on Anusara yoga at a studio in town and while I really appreciated the quality of their teaching, when I decided to take my yoga to another level and do a 200-hour teacher training, I returned “home” to Lynn at YFTH, where I began my search. I loved my exploring and when I am out of town I always look for a yoga studio and take the opportunity to try something new. Aerial yoga, anyone? Yes, I tried it and it’s not my thing!
Why did you initially want to explore many styles of yoga? And what value do you believe you pulled from your experimentation?
I am very curious about the yoga world and what people are calling “yoga.” So, while my Sarasota Yoga Tour began as a desperate search for more Ashtanga yoga in my life, I inadvertently discovered that there are a lot of yoga studios around teaching different types of yoga. Some of the classes labeled yoga didn’t seem like yoga at all to me. Some were fun and challenging, but not what I understood yoga to be. I felt skeptical about the training and qualifications of some of the teachers. So, my initial search for Ashtanga developed into a search for authentic yoga. For competent teaching. And that led to a sort of self-discovery to determine what discipline resonated with me as a practitioner and what direction I wanted to take my own development as a yogi. When I decided to take a 200-hour training, I had concluded that I wanted to focus on alignment based yoga taught by Lynn and her teacher, Rodney Yee. That to me felt like authentic, traditional, “real” yoga that I could continue learning for a lifetime.
How did you find Yoga from the Heart when you first moved to Sarasota 12 years ago?
We were at a dinner party at the home of some new friends, and I was lamenting that I missed my yoga studio in Minneapolis and had to find some place here to practice regularly. Someone immediately said that I should take a class with Lynn Burgess at YFTH, that she was the best in town. So, I went there the next day, and met Lynn and took some classes there. I loved her enthusiasm for yoga and dedication to the practice. And through all my searching and exploring yoga in the community, YFTH has become my yoga home.
What was it about the methods of instruction, and the style of yoga taught here, that convinced you that you should make this a go-to place for your own practice?
I wanted to practice at a studio where the teachers are well trained and dedicated to ongoing education. Yoga is not something that I take lightly. While I think it is fun to try different yoga studios and styles, I bring my own knowledge of yoga and proper alignment and body movement with me – so even if it’s a bad class with a ridiculous teacher, I can keep myself safe and will not walk out with a sore neck or pulled muscle. Not everyone has that background or dedication to the practice to be able to safely pop in and out of classes with random teachers. When I hear someone is going to try a yoga class, I recommend that they go to YFTH for proper instruction first. Their teachers are all very well trained.
You went on to earn your 200-hour RYT certification from internationally-known yoga master, Rodney Yee, who is the primary teacher for Lynn Burgess and her staff. Why did you want to do this?
My husband came home one day and announced that he was going to pursue racing cars as a hobby and that he was going to do the necessary training to get his racing license. To ease his conscious, he suggested that I do something equally outrageous. I immediately said, well if you are going to spend the entire fall learning to drive a race car, then I am going to NYC to teacher training with Rodney Yee. He said “great” – and off I went. I could have just as easily stayed in Sarasota and completed my 200 hours with Lynn and perhaps would have learned even more but I had this opportunity to go to the big city, so I took it. During that time, Lynn was my teaching mentor—I did all of my practice teaching and assisting at YFTH. I did not go with the intention of teaching yoga upon completion. Instead, I really went to further develop my practice and learn more about yoga. And, of course, along the way I learned proper spelling and pronunciation of Sanskrit!
After certification, you then taught classes at Yoga from the Heart. What challenged you about teaching?
I feel that teaching yoga is a big responsibility. For example, new students have expectations about yoga that you cannot know – and that they probably do not know. I want to provide people with a good yoga experience so that they continue to develop their practice. I guess I was mostly afraid that if a student didn’t like me or resonate with my teaching style that they would say “I tried yoga and I hated it” and the world would suffer from having lost a potential yogi. I always encourage people that are exploring yoga for the first time to try different teachers and studios until they find something that resonates with them. And I also need to accept that some people are just looking for an exercise class and are disappointed that we are not monitoring our heart rates at 20 second intervals during class. They are just in the wrong place. I personally love exercise classes, but that’s not what yoga is. While it can be physically challenging, it is so much more than that.
Do you feel a traditional, alignment-based approach is “real” yoga?
I love history and looking at what has stood the test of time. So, I respect the ancient methods of teaching that developed into what we know as Iyengar and Ashtanga. When BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois first started practicing and teaching yoga in India back in the 1920’s and 30’s, I wonder if they considered that we would be practicing their teachings decades later here in Sarasota, Florida. I like to stick to the basics. And for me, that’s Iyengar and Ashtanga – it’s all there. While I am all for progress, I feel that some self-proclaimed yoga masters have gone too far away from the origins of traditional yoga to be trusted. So, practices based on these traditions resonate with me most.
What advice would you offer a novice yoga student, or even someone who is considering yoga as a way to ‘work out’?
If you want to “work out”, there are some great exercise studios and clubs in town. Some of my friends love spinning. Others like circuit training or hula hooping or running. Whatever you do, make sure that you have a qualified instructor or trainer to help you do that exercise properly. Injuries occur when you do not understand what you are doing or if your teacher doesn’t understand what he/she is teaching. If you want to do “power yoga” to get a work-out, then make sure that you have proper yoga alignment training first. That will take awhile, so you will need to be patient. Then find a qualified yoga teacher that that “teaches” (not just leads) the power yoga class. By “teaching” I mean that the room needs enough light for the teacher to see the students and watch them, making verbal or physical adjustments to help them understand their body movements and stay safe. I have been to many classes where beginner students (and some with little or no body awareness, strength or flexibility) walk into a fast-paced power class and try to keep up with the bendy athletic women in class who can put their bodies in all sorts of contorted shapes and it’s just plain dangerous.
Is there anything you’d like to add to your comments about your own yogic journey as student and teacher?
For me, yoga has been a fun and beautiful journey. It started as a way to physically and mentally challenge myself (what do you mean “do a handstand?! I don’t know how to do that!”) and now has evolved into a much deeper experience of self-exploration and discovery (what do you mean meditate in silence for 20 minutes a day?!). At the start of my journey it was all about mastering headstands, jump-throughs, and back bends. Now at age 55, it’s more about appreciating how I can fully live in my body and live life in a more mindful way. And in that discovery, I find joy and freedom.
Writer: Dianne Ochiltree is a graduate of Yoga from the Heart’s Teacher Training Program, a 200-hour RYT with the Yoga Alliance, and has happily served as Lynn Burgess’s teaching assistant at weekly gentle yoga classes for Parkinson’s disease students. She is also a children’s author and freelance editor (www.dianneochiltree.com).