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Heather Lilleston

One of our favorite yoga teachers, Heather Lilleston, is a treasure. She leads by example by inviting you into her own raw and beautiful mind. Honest and transparent, she encourages students to get in touch with all sides of themselves. The good, the bad and the ugly. And to us that is true beauty.

How did you get into yoga? Was your interest a slow and steady process or did you dive right in?

I was a young college student at NYU when I started practicing yoga and my acting studio was at 440 Lafayette. Jivamukti Yoga was at 404 Lafayette. I am from a small hippie beach town in California and wasn’t quite adjusted to NYC life. I started practicing yoga at Jivamukti, and every aspect of it spoke to me: the political, environmental, spiritual, and radically creative community that sprouted there was so uplifting. I felt at home.

By my junior year I was leaving a semester early to head to teacher training, and from there, I just keep saying, “inhale, exhale”. I remember, of course, being a total beginner, flailing in class, and slipping on the mats. Starting to teach at 20 years old made the process of learning to teach much easier and less of a “stretch”, if you will. I was already in the learning mode.

If I really think about it, the first time I actually felt the feeling you can have inside from a good practice, was when I was 15 years old and stuck at home, grounded. I begged my mom to let me out of the house, and the only thing she would let me leave for was to go to an ashram with my friend and her mom. We went to a kirtan, which if course I knew nothing about, just as long as I was out of the house. I left completely transformed: so light and happy. I will never forget the power of that evening.

You talk a lot about incorporating the idea of yoga into your life off the mat in a way that is true to yourself. How do you do this?

Yoga feels very natural to me. I think it’s supposed to feel natural. You start getting used to the feeling of opening the space up for what it is that is happening, and realize that you can do that all the time.

I have practiced and taught under so many different conditions: heartbreak, injury, anger, sadness, excitement, anxiety, hormonal imbalances, rage, joy, pride, insecurity, etc. I have literally had to experience all the madness of my 20’s as a yoga teacher, and therefore, was forced to confront wisdom from the great books, wisdom from the practice, and wisdom from my teachers over and over again, as life raged inside of me.

Yoga has taught me the importance of being as sincere as you can be. I used to think that I needed to “be somebody else”, teach like this person or that person, be more insightful, or quieter, or louder, or more commanding, or softer, until I realized, that I needed to be me, whoever I was in that moment, in the kindest way possible.

Yoga is about the freedom to be genuine and sincere, and not be afraid of your own truth. It doesn’t mean go yell at people cause you feel like it, and are “free”.  Instead, the real freedom comes when we learn to feel that emotion, face it head on, heart on, shall we say, and learn to let it pass, without suppression, and instead with great awareness and acceptance.

There was a lot of freedom in recognizing that people actually connected with me more when I was true about who I was, how I was on any particular day, and what kind of intelligence I could offer that day based on that. When I stopped trying to be someone, it worked. I think allowing that realization to sink in let’s you practice anywhere.

I love that the name of your yoga company is Yoga For Bad People, can you explain what that means to you and your partners?

Yoga For Bad People is in some ways our response to the strictness of a spiritual practice that leads to guilt, judgment and shame, as well as our response to the “hippie yogi – feathers in hair – angry raw vegan” who judges others and instead of being inclusive, winds up being exclusive.

We wanted people to know that where they are now is enough, and that there is inner work to do, but in the process we can lighten up a lot more than we may think.

We wanted to approach yoga seriously without losing the fun, spontaneity and rebelliousness of the whole thing. Yoga is a rebellious act after all– because it asks something of us we are not normally encouraged to develop: a harmonious relationship with all things and all beings. And if you aren’t having fun in the meantime, what is the point?

Any books that you would recommend for the starting out yogi or even the more advanced practitioner?

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananada

Tao de Ching  translation by Stephen Mitchell

The Power of Kindness by Piero Ferucci

The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron

The Life of Milarepa

Total Freedom by J Krishnamurti

An Offering of Leaves by Ruth Lauer Manenti

What does your daily routine look like? 

Every day is different because my schedule is different every day. In general, on my ideal day, I wake up, brush my teeth, drink a few sips of tea, and sit before my altar for a 20-30 minute meditation. After, I will make coffee, flip through emails and instagram, eat some fruit (preferably pineapple) and get myself together for the day. I always make sure to either pop into a yoga class, do a cardio workout (running on the west side highway, or now venice beach, or the class with Taryn Toomey) or if I am crunched for time its: 3 surya namaskars, triangle, headstand, seated forward bend, a twist, a backbend, and savasana.

I keep my beauty regimen pretty simple: wash my hair with oil, shave my legs, coconut lotion all over the body, Tata Harper face oil, some light mascara and some lip gloss. I never blow dry my hair, so I often rush out the door with some long wet locks, but my hair dries pretty quickly being how long and thick it is. I have only ever been able to maintain a relatively minimal routine to get myself together as work and life itself ends up being more important than my hairstyle. Sometimes I wish it was the other way around when I see how amazing those who really spend time on themselves look, but I just can’t change what I gravitate towards naturally – which isn’t hair and makeup.

Why did you and your partners focus on the retreat world? What is it about a retreat that makes it so special?

Retreats are some of the most rewarding aspects of being a yoga teacher. When I teach in NYC, everything is a bit rushed. Students are rushing in. I am rushing to class. After class, we all have somewhere to go as well. There isn’t as much time to really hear specific instructions and apply them, and there isn’t enough time with students to get to know their specific practices well enough where some real learning can occur, unless we are in a private setting, which is still often crammed into a busy daily schedule.

It’s not to say practice isn’t beneficial and a teacher in and of itself, but when you are on retreat, there is ample time to let instructions sink in, to sit with your student and work on their alignment, and even practice meditation. Everyone ends up meeting the practice from the most relaxed place, since there is really nowhere to rush to, besides maybe the beach or a massage. People feel relieved to be on vacation and that gives space for a lot of opening and rapid transformation.

Are there any poses that you recommend to create the most radiant version of yourself?

A complete savasana. Headstand. Supported backbends.

Any beauty or health secrets you’d like to share?

Drink a lot of water. Play just enough to not feel like your health regimens are too extreme or repressive. Use products that smell good but without chemical additions. Rub lavender oil on the soles of your feet before you sleep. Floss your teeth like crazy.