Heather Lilleston


Heather Lilleston knows a thing or two about yoga. From her classical training at Jivamukti to her irreverent practice at Yoga For Bad People, Heather heals the minds, bodies, and spirits of modern urbanites all over LA, New York, and beyond. Recently relocated to the City of Angels but continually exploring the world, Heather’s latest venture is her Giving Gold teacher training starting this Saturday in NYC. Read on for this modern yogi’s insights from New York to California and beyond.

You recently relocated to your home state of California and are based in the City of Angels. What do you love about the Golden State? How does it inform and inspire what you do? Has your practice changed since you moved to LA?

One thing that has really changed in my personal practice since I left New York is that none of my main teachers live in or teach in LA. So I’ve really developed my own personal practice. I’ve been teaching yoga since 2003, and practicing since 2001. Until 2015 I was living in New York City. I would take classes in other places when I was visiting home for Christmas or something, but all of my teachers were in New York and it was all about New York. Frankly, in that time I was living in a small cluttered place in New York City and it wasn’t really conducive to practicing at home. Even when I lived with others in larger spaces it was hard to practice at home, even though there’s this belief in the yoga world that at-home practice is so important, everything I had learned in was in the classroom with teachers, in studios in New York. I really became addicted to taking people’s classes. I was also super young starting out in yoga so I was still maturing and for me, at-home practice was really hard. I didn’t like it, and I preferred to go take classes. Everyone’s says you need to practice your sequence before you teach it, but really the sequence that I taught was just snippets of what I had learned in other people’s classes, that I just melded together, that felt good. Now that I’ve been teaching yoga for a really long time and I’ve moved to LA, I travel way more than I ever did in New York, and because of that I’ve had to create my own routine and regimen of staying healthy. Now, I don’t even really want to go to class, I just prefer to do my own thing, it’s totally shifted. I feel like in LA it’s quieter, you can have a bigger home, your lifestyle is different, I spend much more time at home in LA than I ever did in New York. I’m not running around LA like I was running around New York. I feel like in New York City the city is in your home, and in LA your home is your home and you live in a city.

I’ve gone to many classes and when I moved to LA I realized “wow I have so many opinions.” I became kind of a brat about how I wanted things to be, and I’ve been in the field for a while. It’s almost like why, in Zen practice, the beginner’s mind is so key. So I have an at-home practice that’s really solid and that I can take with me on the road, in Italy, in France, in Portugal. It’s something that I’ve been doing almost everywhere that I go and I do it at home and I take comfort in it, and it feels really good for my body. It’s really nice to have discovered that by being forced out of the classroom because I didn’t know where to take class where I’d actually like it. Because I’m super opinionated about how a yoga class should be, I would take everyone’s classes in LA, and see what I liked and what I didn’t like and also be pleasantly surprised when I wasn’t expecting anything. So for me it's been good because in New York I could take anybody’s class and I wasn’t really thinking like that.

How have you seen the world of yoga change since you first started out? Do you see a difference in the yoga cultures of LA and New York?

After many years of teaching, and many years of teaching teachers, I now have so many opinions and preferences. New York yoga and LA yoga feel really different to me. There’s a lot more emphasis on hot yoga here and hybrids of yoga using weights and stuff like that. I’ve been wondering, where is the yoga class that I used to take in 2005. Even in New York it's been hard to find since yoga has shifted so much in the last few years. I went to this class the other day and this teacher played the harmonium, and we chanted, and did a beautiful vinyasa, and she really taught things in the class, like alignment, she was teaching rather than just instructing and calling out a sequence. I think that’s a really big distinction, and it's one that I’m really trying to make as a teacher, so I don’t just show up and call out a sequence in class but I’m actually teaching people something every time I teach, that I have a little nugget that I want everyone to get by the end of the class. Like today, I want everyone to walk out of here, really knowing how to lengthen their tailbones towards the floor. The difference between tucking a tailbone and lengthening a tailbone. That’s my physical goal for the day. I think that kind of teaching is not something that I find a lot in LA. That’s not to say that it doesn’t exist, but I feel like back in the day in New York people were learning yoga in this other way. Now you see an ad for car insurance and it shows somebody in down-dog. The general public knows what downward facing dog is, is familiar with the word yoga, or namaste, so nowadays we can get away with a lot of stuff and you can just walk in and you know to do arms up, fold down, jump back, but back in the day there needed to be a lot more teaching in class rather than just calling out instructions.

You’ve had a dedicated practice as both a student and a teacher of yoga. What do you look for in a yoga teacher? What makes someone qualified to teach yoga?

The main thing that I look for is honesty, and a willingness to be super authentic with the room. I don’t need someone to be in a good mood, I think a lot of people go to class and there’s a need for a teacher to be happy and nice, and I don’t necessarily need that, I don’t think that that’s actually yoga. What I need is authenticity and honesty. I think most yoga teachers who are confident in the room have a giant ego, guess what, I know from personal experience. Anyone whose teaching yoga has a certain amount of ego, and anyone who doesn’t admit that is lying. We’re human beings, and anyone whose standing in front of a room telling a bunch of people what to do and how to do it, there’s a bit of an ego thing and a power thing. I appreciate the people that can admit that and be honest and laugh about it. Like, how crazy is it that I tell you guys what to do and how to do it, with your body and your breath, and you do it. Maybe, through teaching and studying I’ve developed an intuition about bodies, and practice, just like any other human being would have themselves if they had put in the exact same amount of time. I think it's important for teachers to be humble and authentic about the performance of it all, and the dynamics of it all, and that’s what attracts me. I want to learn something, I want to feel something. I think teachers who really teach something, when you can really feel that they’re being truthful about something, you can tell. This teacher the other day said that “separation is an illusion,” and that’s a line that can easily go in one ear and out the other, and that’s also something that if that teacher had some experience with that realization, and that’s something that we all have the ability to experience on a deep profound level, teachers who aren’t afraid to say what they’ve really come upon in their whole experience, even if it's a really wide general statement that could really flatline, because I could tell that this teacher had a real experience in her heart with it, that it really touched mine. It’s scary to speak your truth and find the words to match your truth. You need many years of experience in the classroom before teaching yoga because in order to have spontaneity in the room, and be able to drop your class agenda in the present moment, you have to get really comfortable talking through the sequence and getting the lights, setting the music, getting the adjustments, dealing with people coming late, all of these parts that you have to think about all at once. It’s like a muscle, it’s like learning to drive. Once you’ve learned you're comfortable changing the music, adjusting the windows, but when you first learn you’re like oh God no phone, no music, no windows because you’re just figuring out how to not crash. So that’s something that’s really nice, and also humor. I’m there not to put my foot on my head and see if you can get me to put my foot on my head, I’m there to feel good, and I think that most people feel good with authenticity and truth.

What does being a yoga teacher and student in the modern day mean to you? What role does this play in the life of your students, both in and out of the studio?

I think it's really important to define that. I’m doing this training next weekend that I developed called Giving Gold. I grew up at Jivamukti where the emphasis of the method is that there’s asana, but there’s also pranayama, there’s philosophy, there’s the scriptures, karma yoga, Bhakti yoga, basically what was really cool about it was that most people think of yoga as this physical thing, and they know that deep down there’s this other element that’s special, but they don’t really know what that is. Jivamukti said that yoga is not just physical poses, that’s why the poses feel not just like stretching, but they feel good and you leave with this other element. They really linked between how you’re engaging with downward facing dog and warrior II and your transitions and your breath, all of that really relates to how you’re fighting with your boyfriend or driving your car or sleeping or going to work or giving a public talk. That link between what you do on the mat and the rest of your life was really important. The link between the mind and body was really important and the link with philosophy and the link between your heart and what you’re doing with your body was really important, as well as making the connection with virtues and ethics and morals that are emphasized in the yoga class.

So I created this training called Giving Gold as a short, continuing education type of thing, but it's about how to give a spiritual teaching in your class, because I feel like a lot of people end up shying away from sharing spiritual teachings in the class because of what I said earlier, like you could say be the change you wish to see in the world, and then it sort of flatlines, or someone tries to give a spiritual teaching and they go on some rant about why Trump is bad, and there isn’t really a conclusion, and its awkward, and people go “I hate a yoga class where teachers talk, because it’s annoying.” Whereas for me, I love a class where teachers talk, but I want them to say something that actually is worth saying and worth hearing, and what I find is that in most teacher trainings that’s not emphasized, it's shied away from. People learn the Bhagavad Gita but there isn’t a lot of time in a 200 hour program to teach them how to teach philosophy within the physical classes. A lot of people are doing 200 hour trainings vinyasa style, and they learn the act of yoga, they learn the academic history of yoga, and the yoga sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita, and the yamas and the nyamas, but they don’t learn to teach that in a class in a way that links the physical, emotional and spiritual so you will take that with you for the rest of your life. At Jivamukti I really worked hard on that, and so I basically created a training to teach that, because for me, that's why I go to yoga. In the beginning it was like I’ll hold this really fucking hard, uncomfortable warrior II, because the teacher has convinced me of why it's going to benefit the rest of my life. Because frankly, I’m not competitive in sports or athleticism, I’ve never been like “I need to win this physical feat.” I know for some people that’s fun motivation, like “I’ll hold warrior II for five minutes” but for me I want a better reason. If you talk to my mind I’m like ooooh, I get it now. That’s what kept me going to yoga and I think we’re doing almost a detriment to our students by not including the other aspects and making it really relevant to the rest of your life, so that your life isn’t compartmentalized, your whole life becomes a yoga. Yoga means union, to link, to join, to weave together. The question is, is your yoga practice actually doing that? Otherwise it's like this is my brunch, this is my yoga, this is my relationship, my job, my family, my personal thing. Or all they all linked together? I think inevitability even if no one says anything, the linking does occur just naturally, but it can be enhanced, sped up, more obvious. When your mind is progressing along with your body you get a faster development than if your mind was trying to keep up with your body or your body was trying to keep up with your mind. I think woven together it's a really powerful experience. That’s something I’d like to see in more classrooms and I think we’re kind of getting there.

All of a sudden meditation isn’t as scary. At first nobody wanted to mediate and now everyone's like “I love the physical but meditation is taking on its own thing.” I’m hoping that pranayama, meditation, and the Yamas and the Nyamas become more prevalent. The questions are, what is your relationship to other people? Are you practicing yoga with what you think say and do? Not just “are you just showing up at the 9:30 class everyday?” That’s not necessarily yoga. And it's the job of the teacher to teach that, it's not the job of the teacher to just call out a sequence.

You call yourself a “modern day yoga teacher/Buddhist/wild child.” Can you elaborate?

I’m a modern day yoga teacher because you know, I like going shopping and I like to get my nails done. I take pride in being a regular human being and I like to emphasize that I’m a human being and I’m not holier than though and I’m not anybody’s guru, I don’t have all the answers and I’m going to get fucking sassy and I’m going to gossip and I’m just a normal human being. But, I’ve studied a lot of yoga, and I’m still studying, and I think about it all the time. Back in the day you needed to be enlightened, or a guru, or celibate, in the original yoga maybe not, but yoga has had a long history of being that, and I’d like to emphasize that I am not that, and please don’t mistake me for that. Yoga used to be taught student to teacher, you lived with your students, and they served you. That doesn’t really happen anymore, there’s class-pass, and there's mindbody online, and because of that, please take into consideration that your yoga teachers are human. I think at the beginning of my practice I really looked up to all of these teachers and I thought that they were holier than though, and it wasn’t their fault, it was mine. I wanted them to be perfect, just like how you want your parents to be perfect, or how we give our power away to celebrities, they're perfect, she has it all together, he has it all together, we do that with our parents, our older siblings, celebrities, and our yoga teachers. I just want to emphasize that most people who are on the yoga path, are fucked up, that's why they’re on the yoga path. Including, people who are yoga teachers! Of course, I don’t think I’m fucked up, but I think it's really healthy in the modern day yoga world to recognize that human beings are teaching you yoga. That's healthy because it's personally empowering, and we all have this opportunity to take on our own individual power about what we’re doing. I used to admire my teachers a lot, and when I started realizing that they were humans, I was devastated. I saw them get angry, or get divorced, or buy a car with leather, and then I realized that what they do has nothing to do with what I'm going to do. I'm only responsible for my actions, but I can still learn from them. It’s like realizing someone’s a great actress, or a great musician, but a lot of people who are great at one thing are total disasters in a million other areas. Someone might be a great yoga teacher, but a total fucking dick otherwise. I know it seems that it’s impossible but that’s called a modern day yogi. It's just realizing that we're all human and you can still learn something in my yoga class about yoga. I’m striving in yoga, but I’m not perfect and that doesn’t mean that I can’t teach you something. It is a good teaching to recognize that. I think it's just healthy.

Buddhist: I studied a lot of Buddhism. Buddhism is a religion that I just feel like I resonate with, I haven’t been able to debate myself out of it. The principles of Buddhism, I bet you I could find in the Bible and in the Quran and in the Torah, I just haven’t studied those texts. I’ve studied a lot of Buddhists texts, it just makes the most sense to me. Maybe I’ve been a Buddhist in many lifetimes, it just feels familiar. If I’m just conscious enough to catch myself and not just react but to respond, or if I’m contemplating things, Buddhist ideas are what I lean on, in understanding our world and why good things happen to bad people and why bad things happen to good people and why this is that way and that is that way. Buddhism explains it in a way that makes the most sense to me.

Wild child: I just like having fun a lot. I’m really into having fun, I like to break the rules a little bit, and play around a little bit, I think that term just means that part of the yoga practice is to look at things with a fresh mind, and in order to do that you have to rebel. I did learn a lot of the yoga texts but like I don’t read instruction manuals and I don’t love following the rules.

How did your training at Jivamukti influence you? How do we evolve from traditional ascetic practices to modern, flexible, and inclusive ones?

There’s so much wisdom in the ancient books and we really can learn a lot from them. We can’t just live on things strictly physically all the time. A lot of times we try to help the body physically but it doesn’t work with that, the mental, spiritual, and emotional need to be addressed. Philosophy can help with that, because it asks you to question the things that you think are true, ask questions about the world around you and expand your consciousness. Through this you may catch an unhealthy pattern or realize that you have had a pattern or belief in the mind that wasn’t really taking you anywhere.

With Giving Gold I also want to stress that you don’t have to be a yoga teacher to do a training. Everyone has something to say, it’s just about learning how to say it. Everyone has something beautiful and important from their individual story. I want to go to a class to know your authentic self. This is the same reason that we go to a movie or turn to reality TV. I want to experience something real. That’s what my heart craves. Vulnerability, honest availability. There's an odd amount of connection when that happens. I want to encourage people to know that everybody has something to offer and we all have a voice to offer. All of my best classes have been classes where I’m very much able to offer my truth, honestly.                          

Traveling and yoga retreats seem like a big part of your life and your practice of teaching. What are your favorite ways to ground down and light up? Do you have any routines that help you focus and connect for this work, while traveling or at home? What role does travel play? What is the interplay between these inner and outer journeys?

When I travel, I don’t make a lot of plans, I don’t have a massive agenda of what I want to see and do, I leave room for spontaneity always in my life. I love having plans and being scheduled, as a yoga teacher in New York I had to do that, but your life isn’t get up go to work 9-5 and one, I leave room for spontaneity in my life all the time, and I let myself go with that, because it's always led me down the right road, almost like follow your bliss. I’m weirdly pretty balanced and never go too far off the Richter scale in terms of having two weeks of routine then two weeks exploring, kind of like the philosophy of yoga for bad people which is two classes a day and the rest can be spontaneous. I think leaving room for spontaneity in your life leads you down some very good roads.

I need to feel hard work, that feeling of having worked hard, not like you deserve fun, but that feeling that working hard gives you this vitality, so I make sure to add in chunks of hard work, really focused, many hours. LA doesn’t help so much with that, NY helped with that but then you get exhausted. In LA I’m more chilled out, I feel less on edge.  In addition to my at-home yoga practice it’s also been really nice for me to have a workout practice, I run for thirty minutes, then I do five minutes of jumping jacks, five minutes of sit-ups, and then I do triangle, headstand, pigeon, ankle to knee, twists, backbends, supported shoulder stand, headstand, savasana. Planks and things and varieties of that, and that’s been really nice. I also make sure to have solid time to be in the bathtub. I think that being in bodies of water, maintaining this relationship with a body of water as frequently as I can has always been really important for me. I’m a water child, not a mountain girl. Apple cider vinegar is really key, as is chamomile tea, as is meditation. But mainly being spontaneous, being in water, dressing up every now and then.

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