Q & A with Tara Stiles: Heartland Yogi

Written by Kerry Shaw

Many of us in the MindBodyGreen community live in big cities, where we're spoiled by an abundance of yoga studios and talented teachers. It's easy to forget than in other parts of America, yoga's still not so mainstream. Many towns don't have a studio, and many Americans have no idea what yoga is, or why it might benefit them.

Tara Stiles is trying to change that.

As part of her mission to make yoga more inclusive, Tara recently traveled to her hometown of Newton, Illinois (population: 3,100), to host a free class in the town square called "Yoga Day." She wanted to show people of all ages that the practice can be accessible and easy. Her journey is documented in a new video called Heartland Yogi, and Tara was kind enough to tell us about her inspiring experience.

What inspired you to do Yoga Day in Newton?

For a long time, I've had this idea to go back to Newton to try to get everyone excited and energized and doing yoga together. I can't believe it actually came together. Most of my family lives there and I've spent so much time playing and running around there as a kid, I really wanted to share not only the practice of yoga and all of its benefits physically, mentally, and spiritually, but I thought it would be a fun idea to see if the whole town could come together. I had no idea what would happen, but it was very special and a lot of fun!

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about yoga?

Well, in Newton, we asked a lot of people, (most of the 3,100 of the population) what they thought of yoga, and many of them thought it was just about stretching, or only about concentrating the mind. Most of them also knew there was a lot more to it than that, but they just haven't had the opportunity to learn more and begin a practice of their own. I think the biggest misconception, besides that you have to be flexible to practice, is that yoga is a religion.

Did you have any misconceptions about yoga before you started?

My first memories were that everything is connected and we are here to help, so I was experiencing yoga from my beginning, before learning techniques from others and finding more people who practice.

I've seen yoga evolve and change, as we all have, and I think it's coming around to being collectively for a lot of people, a similar experience as I had in my youth. Open. Expansive. Healing. Energizing. People are realizing they don't have to change who they are to practice and many people are moving away from insular schools that have a feeling of spiritual elitism. Thank God!

What surprised you most about Yoga Day?

How easy everything was! There were a few different times listed in the Newton Press for the event so I was worried people would be confused, but everyone showed up and we had a great time. I knew once everyone was there we'd have fun.

Getting yourself to the experience is the toughest part. These people showed up and it was awesome!

Are there any moments that stand out? Any funny anecdotes?

So many! My new friend Ed, who was the captain of the football team when my Dad was in high school, came. He said this was all coming together for him. He wanted to start having a healthier lifestyle. He started running recently and wanted to get into yoga. He even subscribed to a yoga magazine. So he thought the timing of me being there was really cool. I just like that the captain of the football team, in his 50s, was doing yoga with everyone. The mayor was quite awesome too, and the little kids were totally adorable.

One super fun moment was getting escorted to the event by my Uncle Norm (who totally steals the show in Heartland Yogi, by the way) in his new eBay purchase, a shiny red and white '55 Chevy. My dad was crouched in the back doing additional video camera work. It was pretty cool. [Editor's Note: We loved Uncle Norm, pictured above right.]

Was it hard to design a class for people of all ages and levels?

That's the fun part. People were open to doing anything! At Strala, our classes are all open. My main instruction is to move with ease, so if the movement is challenging or simple, it's fun and there is no pressure to be perfect in poses. The goal is to feel good and breathe deep. If you are breathing deeply and moving easily, you've got it! With that approach, people are able to do hard things easily and it's fun!

What's your one piece of advice for someone trying to bring yoga to his or her small town where there might be some similar resistance?

Don't worry about what you don't know. I thought I'd get a ton of resistance, and instead I was met with excitement, a desire to be involved. The town was so sweet and really wanted to help me just as much as I wanted to share with them.

If you live in a small town, go for it, start sharing yoga and watch everyone get happy, healthy, and inspired from the inside out!

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