Guerrilla Yoga with Brienne
K: When did you start practicing yoga?
B: I started practicing yoga in 1993 when I was in college and on the rowing team. I hated it – it just didn’t seem like it could keep me as fit as weights and running - but my coach insisted. I struggled through, learned to breathe, and my boat started winning races. The lightbulb went off that something amazing was happening. I still had problems finding teachers after college, though. It was probably my perception, but I felt like there was this Hippy, Zen affectation that a lot of the teachers used to teach class, so I struggled with the practice for years until I found someone who felt real. At some point, though, I understood that the practice really revealed more about me than it did about the teacher. Now, I drop in on all sorts of classes. Sometimes the teacher is really knowledgeable and mind-blowing, and sometimes it’s a beginner teacher, but we all love yoga and want to share the knowledge we have.
K: What has yoga done for you?
B: I love the fact that it is one of the oldest traditions mankind has; millions of people have used this practice to better themselves for the last 4,000 years or more. Yoga has eight parts or limbs to the practice, only one of which is the physical practice of postures. The other 7 limbs address how to be moral, how to breathe, how to control your physical reaction to stress, how to focus, how to reflect, and how to understand your role in the universe. It’s big stuff, and it has helped me figure out what is truly important in my life and prioritize the things that I allow to affect me. Life is chaotic, and no matter your successes, life will throw a whole new set of obstacles at you. I love how yoga acknowledges this and teaches you how to take responsibility for your actions when entropy happens. You don’t get to be a victim.
K: What would you say is the most powerful self-realization you’ve had while practicing yoga?
B: In my 20s, I had a high-powered, high-paying job where I worked nonstop and through the weekends for a geopolitics company. I started sneaking out at lunch to do yoga. And then I started sneaking out around dinner time. One day, I realized the money was not making me happy. The job required that I have no life outside of work. As much as I loved being an expert on the Middle East and Asia, I had a come-to-Jesus revelation that I was in media to help people, to give them useful information, to keep them educated. But, that’s not really how our information was being used. We were selling it to the highest bidder, which tended to be big corporate conglomerates that paid us hush money. My self-realization happened in corpse pose at the end of class, when I realized I wanted to go to graduate school and learn more about why people self-destruct: obsessing over money, willfully preventing the truth, getting addicted to whatever substance or behavior will give them a temporary high, essentially losing themselves in the cultural “values” that are being marketed to us.
K: When did you decide to become a yoga instructor and why?
B: It’s funny, I had the aha moment that I wanted to leave my job and go to graduate school. At the end of that class, the yoga instructor casually mentioned that she was starting a series of teacher trainings. I thought, “Hmmmm, that might be a way to pay the bills doing something I love while I’m in school.” I was lucky to live in Austin, Texas, where some of the most accomplished teachers either live or visit, so I’ve had opportunities to train with a number of visionaries and great teachers. I’ve been sharing my love of yoga ever since.
K: What, in your opinion, is the greatest influence yoga can have on people?
B: It’s called a practice for a reason. Yoga teaches kindness, truth, discipline, patience, focus, and humility. None of us are very good at all of these things, maybe one or two at the most. Most people are drawn to the practice of postures, and even if they don’t learn the other 7 limbs, the physical practice itself is very demanding. You have to be kind and less critical of yourself, because learning yoga is like learning how to walk and learning how to breathe. It teaches you how to be honest and humble with yourself, because a lot of the layers of self-perception and identity that we have built up over the years start falling away when you realize how mortal and fallible you are. It teaches you discipline, whether that is getting up every morning at 5 a.m. or learning to be more present and less reactionary when the day throws metaphorical bricks at you. Yoga makes you come face to face with yourself, which is a habit most of us have managed to avoid and is the most important tool you need in order to face inevitable change.
K: Okay, let's tackle your moniker. What is Guerrilla Yoga?
B: Everyone should be able to do yoga. There is this mass-produced and hyped image of yoga that we see in the media of gorgeous, skinny, young, middle-class white women twisting themselves into advanced postures. On top of that, yoga studios have to charge a ton for classes in order to pay for their overhead, which reinforces that myth that only rich, young, health-obsessed people can access it. It drives me crazy that this stereotype persists, because the people who need yoga most are average people who are struggling with their health. For thousands of years, paunchy old Indian men would reveal the secrets to other men, and only in the last 80 years or so have women adopted the practice. Guerrilla Yoga is really my rebellion against stereotypes perpetuated by the media (and marketers of health products) that women (and men) aren’t good enough. Yoga is supposed to be revolutionary; there’s a reason why there are “Warrior Poses” in the practice.
K: Why did you decide to approach your yoga image in this way?
B: You can do yoga in a business suit, a cocktail dress, sweatpants, jeans, pajamas, whatever. You don’t need to buy a lot of gear to take a moment, be present, contemplate the world around you and how you fit into it. And you don’t need more than 3x6 feet of space to get fit mentally and physically. One of my teachers, David Swenson, was one of the first Americans to go to India and learn Astanga Yoga. He scoffs at the yoga mat; in his day, “We did things barefoot on the rocks, and maybe we had a piece of carpet.” Yoga demonstrations in India happen in the streets. Gandhi, who is known for kicking the British out of India, used the principles of yoga to accomplish the Indians’ non-violent resistance. It’s a powerful practice that wages a non-violent war on those things that make us feel inadequate and disempowered.
K: What do you hope Guerrilla Yoga will accomplish?
B: I hope more people will realize that it’s a practice for the people and of the people. We live in a society that forces the tyranny of exceptionalism upon all of us, and we’re afraid to make mistakes and grow from the process of making mistakes. Yoga fits in to whatever your view of a higher power is, because it’s innately a spiritual practice, but not a religious practice. And – deep down – we all want to connect with ourselves and each other. The only way we are going to heal ourselves and our world is if we solve problems through self-awareness. It’s scary to dig deep, identify our flaws and learn from our mistakes. It’s SUPER-scary to ADMIT that we are flawed, because we fear rejection. Yoga teaches us to accept ourselves so that we can truly be good and do good and not care when someone judges us for not being perfect.
K: Anything else you want to share about your yoga experience or where you want to go with your personal/professional practice?
B: By no means am I perfect or all-knowing about yoga. I’ve been practicing for 23 years, and still I am dumbfounded by the amount I don’t know about yoga. I’m still dumbfounded when yoga reveals another blind spot that I have regarding my own psyche. But again, it’s a practice. There’s a great Buddhist proverb, “The lotus flower blooms most beautifully from the deepest and thickest mud.” I’ve thought about going back to graduate school for a degree in counseling. I’ve thought about abandoning my family for a few months and going to Mysore, India to practice Astanga with the Jois family. I’m doing a lot of work with non-profits in Whitewater to make this city a better place for families. I’ve got a list of goals that I’m still working through and prioritizing. What I know is that the yoga practice is a great rubric to keep my goals aligned, and the revolution will not be televised.