Q & A with Schuyler Grant of Kula Yoga & Wanderlust
Schuyler Grant is the co-creator of the Wanderlust Festival, director of NYC's Kula Yoga Project, and the mom to three young girls. Besides balancing all of the above, what's great about Schuyler is that she's a type-A New Yorker who can go seamlessly from topic to topic about yoga and culture (she'd be a good Charlie Rose guest!). But she also gets the importance of having your own practice that's dependent on you and not one individual teacher or studio -- it's about you, your breath, and your mat.
I talked to Schuyler about the challenges in her early yoga days, kids and men and yoga, dealing with lower back issues, and yoga and its 'sneaky' ways.
MBG: You’re a mom -- do your kids practice yoga?
SG: I’m a mom to three girls: ages six, three, and one. I’ve managed to create classes for just their age group at Kula in Williamsburg. Classes are 65 minutes. It’s part yoga, part play class. Arm balances are good for kids, as they’re a bit challenging.
Kids are so adept at yoga -- they jump around, squat and bend, and they don’t sit in chairs all day long. Their bodies are totally primed for doing yoga. For them, yoga equals games. I suppose this one of the reasons why yoga is becoming more popular with adults. We’re playing with our bodies, we’re playing with our minds, and although we think about yoga in more cerebral, challenging ways, so many of us started our practice as adults – and as beginners you’re doing something that is playful in many ways.
There’s often a discussion around why more women do yoga than men. In addition to the obvious reasons that since women have participated in dance or gymnastic-oriented activities that they’re more naturally inclined, I think it’s easier for women to be beginners at things as adults. For men this is really hard, especially at something that’s physical where they’re used to not being a beginner.
Are you seeing more men in class?
It ebbs and flows, but we’ve always had a good percentage of men because we have a very rigorous physical practice. It’s probably because we do a lot of inversion work. Sometimes I look around and class is about 1/3 men and other times there are just a few. We’re actually going to start a ‘Yoga for Dudes’ class in January, taught by an Iyengar teacher, Nikki Costello.
Our practice has definitely developed out of my type-A personality. I can’t come in to a practice and sit down and listen to someone talk. I need a physical practice where I can sweat it out, and then bring it on down. I think it tends to work more for guys and then sooner or later after they’ve been practicing they hit a good groove and cultivate a breath practice. This is kind of the ‘sneaky’ way that yoga works when it starts out with the physical and leads to something else.
I read that you began your practice to deal with lower back pain – can you tell us more?
When I was a kid I had a pretty intense lower back injury which caused a lot of pain in my teens and in my early 20s which would come and go. When I first started practicing in my 20s, yoga was purely a physical practice. My parents were old hippies who were always meditating and doing yoga around the house, which I thought was goofy. So when I started my practice, I was focused on purely the physical, with the goal of making my body strong through an Ashtanga practice. Then slowly I started to get addicted to the other stuff, which is, again the ‘sneaky’ way that yoga works. I started practicing it other ways and exploring meditation and pranayama. It all started with using yoga to heal my spine. And yoga works -- the stuff works! On so many levels, yoga works and acts like medicine.
I have a lower back issue, too -- can you tell us more about yours?
I had a herniation between my L-4 and L-5. Things don’t necessarily go away; you just learn how to manage them. You make friends with your body’s problems, strengthen the areas around them, and heal or band aid them when they start to get bad. Spines and necks are tricky parts of the body. I’ve come to believe through my experience that so much of it has to do with what’s going on in your head. This isn’t to say that there’s not something going on physically, but there is big interplay between what’s going on neurologically and physically. It’s been a long journey, which doesn’t mean that my back never hurts, but I’m not a slave to it.
Hip-openers helped a lot, and thoracic mobilization: getting your hips open and your upper back open, and strengthening your abdominals. The thing that radically changed my back was Uddiyana bandha . In my late 20s I started incorporating Uddiyana bandha in my asana practice, which has become a staple of Kula -- it’s completely transformed my back.
Can you explain Uddiyana bandha?
There are three bandhas: Mula bandha, which is the lift of your pelvic floor (the bottom), the Uddiyana, which is the lift of the hallow of your abdomen (the center), and then there’s Jalandara bandha, which is right up to the top up to your chin (the top).
In the center you’re lifting your abdomen, but from way deep in your abdomen, not your outer abdominals or your six-pack. When you do this you’re deeply engaging transverse abdominals, which is the part of your belly which touches your spine. When you’re strengthening that area you’re creating a sheath of muscles on the front side of your spine and as those muscle fibers run transversely -- in a circle around your spine. These muscles create more mass, which puts your spine in a little more traction. Uddiyana banda is only practiced at the bottom of your exhalation, creates a massaging and a loosening of your organs in all of those areas, which subtly stretches the area. For me it really gets in there and works it out.
You mention the connection of mind and body with your back -- when did you first begin to familiarize with the chakra system?
When I first started practicing, if I was going to do some chakra work, I would have run out the front door! Again, I think that’s where the practice is really sneaky. I’m a total type-A person that needs to experience something first and then I can get around to believing in it. So I never thought to myself “I love the idea of the chakras and the colors and it seems amazing and beautiful, so let’s explore it.” For me it was more about what was happening in my body.
What does yoga mean to you?
What yoga means to me changes all the time. As I’ve become older (I just turned 40), yoga has become the touchstone in my life -- despite everything else that happens, there is this practice to go back to. There are still ebbs and flows. There are times when it’s a great source of pleasure and my body feels like it’s this great vehicle to inhabit, and other times when it’s the opposite and I feel quite exhausted, I’m not sleeping at all, and I can barely crawl to my mat and do a few sun salutations. Regardless, it’s still a constant. Having three kids, two studios, and Wanderlust, my life is bananas. To have something in yoga that feels like a solace is incredible. The biggest gift that you can give yourself is a yoga practice – a practice that is your own, that’s not dependent on a studio or a teacher, it’s just you. All it takes is you and your attention.
Any advice for someone who’s just beginning their practice?
I think you need to experiment around and see what speaks to you. You’re never going to be able to do something that doesn’t draw you in. This doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard at it and it doesn’t take time. The first year or two I practiced, I actually stared at the classroom clock. I couldn’t wait for that 90 minutes to be over. It was hard work, but I knew I had to come back -- that it was good medicine for me. After that first year or two, I felt that I got over the hump and into the zone. You have to put the time in, and you’re not going to put the time in and get over that hump and that learning curve unless you find a practice that speaks to you. Here in NYC especially, we live in the yoga capital of the world, with so many amazing teachers, you don’t have to settle. So get out there and find what speaks to you.
Who’s inspired you in terms of teachers / books etc?
One of my main struggles right now is finding teachers because I’m so consumed by being a mom and being a business owner. It takes time to find a teacher, which I don’t really have right now. With that being said, one of my great influences has been Alison West -- she’s always been a touchstone for me. For me though, it’s always been so much about my home practice and the experience in my body -- healing my body, and moving through chronic pain -- and finding ways to breathe and move that are toward a good, clean mind state and a good feeling in my body. It’s kind of a trite thing to say, “My greatest teacher is my mat.” But it is.
Are there any books that have played a role in your practice?
Can you tell us more about the inspiration behind Wanderlust?
My husband Jeff has a record label, and he’s been in the music industry for fifteen years. His office was actually in the same building where Kula Tribeca is. Right after 9/11 I opened Kula in the same building. I had never thought about opening a studio but there was a great moment of clarity after 9/11 when people in New York were doing anything that they thought would have a positive impact on the city. So I thought I’d open a yoga studio in an area that needed it, and then I’d go back to my life, But instead, yoga and the studio became my life, and here we are almost ten years later. At any rate, Jeff’s record label was downstairs and the studio was upstairs, and he was always fascinated by our yoga retreats. Jeff would go on the retreats with me and always say, “This retreat has a lot of really cool people.” And I’d say, “Yes, you said the same thing last time. They’re just normal, cool people, who like to do yoga.” This conversation between us happened quite a bit and then Jeff finally said, “These are the kind of people you’d want at a music festival: they’re interesting, they’re smart, and they’re there to have a good time and not to rage and wreck the place.” And then he really ran with the idea of Wanderlust. I have the enviable position to work on the creative part of things like the programming. Jeff, his partner Sean, and Velour work out the tough part of the bookings and make things happen. I always have to tip my hat to them.
So when we announced our first festival out in Squaw Valley two years ago, John Friend and Shiva Rea came on board early on and took an incredible leap of faith by doing so. Once that happened, everything just sort of miraculously gelled together.
I look at it this way: I drink wine with dinner. I love to go out and hear live music – and not necessarily sacred chanting. This doesn’t mean that I’m not living a “yogic life”, it means that I’m incorporating yoga into the rest of my life. I feel there are a lot of people treading very carefully in the yoga world, as if there’s one way to do it, which there isn’t. So with Wanderlust we wanted to create an event that honors that.
If you think you have separate lives – one life where you have a rich meal, a glass of wine, and go out to a club, then a separate life where you do yoga – that’s just silly. There’s no reason why that can’t be all conscious --- that it can’t be done as a whole part, which consists of you as a yogi and you as a person.
Wanderlust is a celebration of all of the senses approached in a very conscious, healthy, and holistic way. You can go and have this very expansive experience and come away from it feeling good, having your mind blown, and having an incredible time. I truly believe in the pleasure principle as a way of expanding your consciousness, and with Wanderlust we hope we’re doing just this.
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