Empowered by the Heart


By Kaitlin Quistgaard  |  

About 15 years ago, vinyasa flow teacher Seane Corn was getting her start as a teacher in Los Angeles, when one day she spied the name Patricia Walden on her class roster—as in Patricia Walden, the influential Iyengar teacher and creator of one of the best-selling yoga videos of all time. Corn nearly had a panic attack as she contemplated teaching a master, but she managed to calm down and teach as she normally would. Afterward, Walden complimented Corn on a class well taught.

“She was gracious, generous, honest, nothing but supportive,” recalls Corn. “It was just a brief moment, but it had an impact 
on me, not just as a teacher but as a woman. I knew that’s how I wanted to show up in the world.”

The qualities that Corn admired in Walden are among those actively cultivated by the women who grace these pages, teachers who are both leaders and representatives of the many yogis experimenting with forward-thinking leadership ideals. What is striking about this particular group of women is the way they support each other. After all, these are ambitious teachers who compete with each other for students, for spots on the roster at big conferences, and so on. But Elena Brower, Kathryn Budig, and Faith Hunter, for instance, invite one another to guest-teach their own students; they co-teach classes, and they promote one another’s workshops through social media like Facebook.

These teachers seem to be balancing the aggressive pursuit of goals and assets, traditionally seen as a masculine trait, with what are often considered feminine qualities, such as receptivity, support, and acceptance. Together, these women demonstrate how powerful it can be to embrace our vulnerability rather than trying to appear invincible. They suggest that looking out for others can be far more rewarding than getting all the way to the top alone.

These women would be the first to tell you that they aren’t experts in enlightened leadership and that they don’t always get it right. In essence, they are applying some of the basic skills we all hone on the mat—to observe feelings of discomfort and, when possible, to move closer and explore them fully, so that we can act consciously rather than getting stuck in unconscious reactions to negative feelings. Along the way, they are honoring a primary teaching of yoga: that everything is interconnected, and that each of us has the responsibility to act in ways that will benefit us all. To that end, they’ve shared their stories of friendship and leadership with the intention of inspiring all of us to bring these values to the pursuit of our dreams.

Be Supportive

More than a decade after Walden appeared in her class, Corn, now 44, showed up at the class of another Los Angeles vinyasa flow teacher, Kathryn Budig, 28. Though Budig was initially intimidated and suffered some anxiety, as Corn had with Walden, she taught her class and later, when Corn came back for another, Budig asked for some mentoring over tea.

Corn remembered Walden’s support, but also recalled an experience she had had a while back with Natasha Rizopoulos, another well-known teacher who had gotten her start in Los Angeles and turned to Corn for mentorship. Corn admits that in the earlier moment with Rizopoulos, she felt a subtle wave of insecurity, as if the vibrant upstart teacher’s success might undermine her own. The feeling is understandable, considering the value our culture places on youth and beauty, and the fact that all teachers are, in a sense, competing for students and opportunities.

But Corn is well practiced in exploring difficult feelings and looking for opportunities to be of service, and she agreed to share her knowledge and support, on one condition: that when Rizopoulos found herself in a similar position in years to come, she would do the same for other young women. “I will answer any question you have, and I won’t hold back at all, but I need to know that you’d be willing to do the same thing, especially if you feel threatened or insecure—that you will go toward her, not away from her,” Corn challenged. Rizopoulos agreed.

Now, Corn offered the same bargain to Budig, and that first cup of tea marked the beginning of a friendship that has proved profoundly influential for Budig. “That message from Seane was the catalyst for so much growth for me,” Budig says. “We create these unfortunate boundaries—very competitive boundaries. I had felt threatened or intimidated by other women. To hear her say, ‘You need to support those people, especially the ones you want to get out of your way because they’re threatening you’—that was really big for me. I started to look at the women in my life who made me uncomfortable, and I stopped thinking, ‘I’m going to beat you and do something better,’ and I started to look at ‘What’s authentic for me? What’s my voice?’”

In seeking that authentic voice, Budig discovered her unique gifts and began to focus on how she could offer those gifts to the world. She has found a great many opportunities to do so. Today, she teaches workshops across the United States as well as overseas, and she is a featured instructor on YogaJournal.com. In addition, she has become an active promoter of other teachers.

“I stopped trying to compare myself to other people,” Budig says. “Seane really inspired me not only to not worry about how I’m doing but also to help others. It takes much more energy to be competitive with someone than it does to embrace them, nurture them.”

Be Honest

“There is nothing on this planet more powerful than the truth,” says Elena Brower, 40, a certified Anusara instructor and the founder of Manhattan’s popular Virayoga. Brower talks to her students—whether they are the New York luminaries she teaches privately, the 70 or so regulars in her studio classes, or the 10,000 who came for a class she led in Central Park last year—about becoming a champion of truth in all aspects of your life. She suggests that you needn’t be a leader on the world’s stage to have a profound impact on society. All you need to do is tell the truth to your family, to your friends, and to yourself.

As an example, Brower tells of her upbringing in a family in which tempers often flared, and how sometimes, caught up in those patterns, she is inappropriately wrathful with her young son. Once, she says, in a moment of rage, she threatened to leave him in a grocery store because he had carelessly left his hat on the floor. “Can you imagine?” she asks rhetorically, awed by her ability to lose it, even after years of inner work.

“My power is to speak candidly to my son and say, ‘Jonah, I’m sorry. I just got way too upset,’” she says. She remembers how she felt in similar situations and tells him, “I know how it feels, and it’s uncomfortable to be treated that way.” She finds that her honesty gives her son permission to express his feelings, too. “If I’m honest with him, we both feel powerful,” Brower says.

To take the idea a step further, she stops to ask herself: “Can I tell the truth about it to somebody else, so that I might be of service?”

We would all, no doubt, like to be perfect models of enlightened behavior, with no regrets about our words or actions. But, despite our spiritual practice, therapy, and more, none of us is likely to reach perfection, which is why a commitment to the truth is so powerful. When we acknowledge the truth of our flaws as well as our goodness, we can be more accepting of ourselves and more compassionate with others—making us more effective as leaders and as human beings.

Brower is actively addressing her temper, keeping a log of egregious flare-ups and abiding by the consequences she’s set for herself. As a result, she’s been experiencing far fewer outbursts. In the meantime, she keeps coming back to speaking and living her truth—and modeling that power for others. In her teaching and speaking, she often uses examples from her role as a parent, suggesting that being a leader isn’t something we practice only in boardrooms or before followers but is a way of being that pervades every aspect of life. “My particular message is to save the world by helping people get real with their families.”

Be Generous

“Service” is a buzzword in the yoga world, and many teacher training programs require a certain number of hours of community service, so students are literally schooled to serve. But yoga leaders suggest they’re not motivated by an abstract ideal of service. Instead, most have experienced a profound and genuine calling to share the gifts of yoga and to make a difference in the lives of others.

Corn describes her personal experience, and surely that of many, when she says, “For years, doing yoga was ‘How can it change my body? my life? my attitude? How can it give me tools to help me?’” As the gifts of the practice revealed themselves, however, Corn began to feel stronger, more at peace, and more certain of her ability to deal with whatever life handed her. She came to see that the power she found in yoga could be directed toward something far greater than her personal desires. Her line of questioning became “How can I use the practice to recognize that we really are all one? How can I, through this practice, begin to change the world?”

Faith Hunter, a popular Washington, DC, teacher trainer, has experienced this shift as well. Hunter, 40, first felt the call to make a difference as a teenager, when she became a sex educator to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in her native Louisiana, after her two hemophiliac brothers were diagnosed with the disease. Though she was doing her all to help others from experiencing the pain of the disease, she carried a heavy burden in her own heart.

“I definitely struggled with issues of spirituality and God—why is this happening to our family?” she recalls. Then, through chanting, breathing, moving, she began to peel away some of the pain and find her heart again, even after her older brother died. “Yoga gave me that connection again to my own spirituality,” she says. She stopped asking “Why us?” and began to look for beauty where she could find it. Hunter’s early experiences led to a lifelong commitment to nonprofit work, social advocacy, and leadership. Eventually, she became a teacher and opened a studio. “I needed to be able to share this gift yoga had given to me.”

Over time, she felt drawn to share her gifts, not just with yoga students but also with the hemophilia community. She passed her studio on to her business partner in 2010, and today she serves as a consultant to the Hemophilia Federation of America, creating wellness programs for people with bleeding disorders. She’s helping to develop breathing and movement routines for adult patients who often deal with the stresses of hepatitis C and HIV diagnoses, and she’s creating fun but safe activities for kids who crave an athletic life but can’t risk injuries from contact sports.

A carrier of hemophilia herself, Hunter knows that any child of hers would have a 50 percent chance of developing the disease. She says yoga has given her the strength to accept that reality and to stay focused for now on how she can help others in similar situations. “If it happens,” she says, “I have the tools and resources to be able to handle it. I can rely on my meditation practice and my yoga practice.”

Meanwhile, she is focused on service. “Being a leader requires you to give back,” Hunter says. “You can’t make it to the top without being able to reach back and bring someone else up, to give back and share what’s brought you to that place.” To that end, she continues to offer teacher trainings and her unique take on practice in a few local classes. She was invited to lead Lululemon Athletica’s annual yoga on the National Mall project in April, where some 3,000 people were expected to roll out their mats.

Hunter suggests that devoting yourself to the needs of others can give you a strength that doesn’t arise when serving only your own desires. Service can make you into “a quiet kind of warrior,” she says. She likes the gentle approach, but “if I need to, I have the power to speak up and be a warrior,” she adds.

Be Fearless

They may emphasize the softer-sounding ideals of generosity, support, and honesty, but another trait these leading teachers have in common is something you might call fearlessness. This isn’t reckless risk taking or chest-thumping bravado. It’s a different brand of courage that enables you to say that you don’t have the answer, or to affirm that someone else’s gifts might surpass your own. This courage doesn’t deny or rush past feelings of fear but lets them dissolve into trust: a deep, abiding trust that your human experience is exactly the experience you are meant to have; that you needn’t feel shame or guilt for your imperfections; that you needn’t grasp for something that isn’t coming your way, or reject what is.

Seane Corn is a one-woman example of awe-inspiring fearlessness, able to face a reality and witness a level of suffering that many would shy away from. Her long-term commitment to social activism and humanitarian aid has taken her to some of the darker spots on the planet: a Cambodian garbage dump, where orphans comb through toxic waste for enough valuable items to earn them a bowl of rice; an Indian brothel, where an eight-year-old sex slave, high on drugs, is forced to receive clients day and night; and many other horrors.

Rather than look away, Corn moves closer to witness the humanity in the suffering and to see how she might help. As a result, she has become a powerful catalyst for social change—challenging others to join her in raising money and volunteering on aid missions through Off the Mat, into the World, the nonprofit project she co-founded to provide grassroots activism and leadership training. She’s helped to raise more than $2 million for projects as diverse as birthing centers, libraries, and orphanages and, along the way, inspired hundreds of others to show up and witness the beauty to be found even in the darkest of places and to find their own way to make an impact.

The starting place for this fearlessness, she says, is embracing the darkest parts of yourself, where your own pain and suffering can create barriers to your ability to be honest, generous, and supportive. “Stepping into your power means being super honest about who you are—both the light and the dark—and not being ashamed of the human experience, no matter what is revealed,” she says.

“The more we can learn about ourselves and love ourselves, both the good and the funky, the more we’re going to be able to stand in the presence of another human being when they’re in their light or they’re in their shadow and love them for who they are,” adds Corn.

This exploration and acceptance of our personalities, the light and the dark, is the foundation of the leadership traits these strong women exemplify. Great leadership is guided by conscious choices, which can be made only when we can first accept the emotions and reactions that arise in us. We can learn this through yoga, self-inquiry, and self-acceptance.

When we tap into the deepest trust that things are as they should be, we don’t flinch from difficulty, whether it comes in the form of a petty personal jealousy or empathic pain for the hardship of others. Without the veil of reaction, we can discover what we have to offer and act from our highest place. And when that doesn’t work, we dig deeper and try again. This dance of receptivity—inviting the truth in, again and again—isn’t easy, but it is the path of the progressive yogic leader.

Through the stories of these women, the face of a new leader emerges. She doesn’t have all the answers and is not afraid to say so. She’s brave enough to look at the world’s problems, and her own, with unflinching honesty. She is willing, even eager, to share the stage, knowing that her contribution is even more valuable when she can invite others to step into her limelight. And she inspires everyone around her to follow her lead.

Kaitlin Quistgaard is the editor in chief of Yoga Journal.