Tara Stiles has come a long way from the Illinois cornfields of her youth. With a combined 221,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, 22 million views of her how-to yoga videos on her YouTube channel, a friendship with Deepak Chopra, and a collaboration with the Clinton Foundation Alliance for a Healthier Generation (yes, she’s met Bill!), she’s taken the yoga scene by storm. Her breezy teaching style belies her long hours of hard work and dedication to her practice and pursuits. It’s also a sore point among some more traditional yogis—even the New York Times dubbed her “Rebel Yoga.” Yoga Journal caught up with the savvy free spirit this summer.
Yoga Journal: How were you introduced to yoga?
Tara Stiles: My parents were straight-edge hippies. They weren’t doing yoga per se, but they were doing all the things of the yoga lifestyle. They built their own home, we had an organic farm, and they were conscious about taking care of everybody and being good people. I think that was a big influence. Later, I did ballet and was exposed to yoga at a conservatory program for dance in Chicago. My teacher was really into Paramahansa Yogananda.
YJ: Where did you eventually train?
TS: About a year after I moved to New York, in 2000, I walked into Amy Ippoliti’s class at Crunch Gym. I thought she was a great, nice person [and] was teaching the John Friend stuff at the time. She ended up asking me to do her training, and I thought it would be a great way to make friends! She’s since moved on and is not involved with Anusara any more.
YJ: What made you first decide to start teaching?
TS: A big turning point was when I realized I could turn my interest into my life. I modeled for a health magazine, and they offered me $250 a month to write about yoga, which seemed like a lot at the time! I saw it as a great beginning. In 2006, I began doing YouTube videos that got popular quickly, and so I started a small studio in my apartment and at my boyfriend’s place in the Flatiron District in Manhattan. Things have expanded, but that $250 writing job was symbolic and exciting for me.
YJ: You’ve described your style of yoga as helping people ‘do more with less effort.’ Does this explain your movement philosophy of yoga?
TS: Athletes at the top of their game are always talking about how they find their own way and how they move and explore into their bodies. They don’t just do the five steps of this or the three steps of that, or spiral this or suck-in that. They’re not hugging any muscles into their bones when they’re running a marathon. They’re simply running the marathon. This is our approach: We give people ways and options to explore, and say, ‘If that doesn’t work for you, find another way.’ And then, people are doing really advanced things very easily, and they don’t even know they’re advanced.
YJ: Is alignment de-emphasized when you teach in this movement-oriented way?
TS: Not at all. I’ve always understood alignment as happening from the inside out. So having people feel their way into the movements and the positions actually puts everyone into the alignment that works for them. Obviously, we make sure to keep people safe, but my main emphasis is on ease and being relaxed, instead of putting your body into external shapes from the outside in.
YJ: These days, more and more teachers are removing the Sanskrit names for the asanas. How did you come to that decision?
TS: I saw it as a limiting factor. Doctors don’t speak in Latin, so why use a language that doesn’t clearly communicate what’s happening? It was sort of a semisubconscious thing at first. Instead of saying Utkatasana or Chair Pose, I would say, ‘Sink your hips, take a big inhale, float your arms right up, and then exhale,’ and then go on to something else. I saw people discovering new things in each pose when they stopped assuming the same Triangle Pose that they’d gone into the day before.
YJ: Some would say you’re missing the point by removing the cultural and philosophical underpinnings of the asana you teach. How do you respond to this?
TS: I kind of don’t care. I’m not trying to convert the world, nor am I critical of other people’s paths. Philosophy is inside; it’s not something you just read and memorize, and get right or wrong. The value I offer is leading people into their own direct experience, and that process is personal, which is the essence of yoga philosophy to me. At the end of the day, aren’t we all just trying to connect and be kind to each other?
YJ: Your wall of Polaroids at the Strala studio in New York City seems to speak to that connection.
TS: The whole vibe of the studio is about fun. It’s kind of like Cheers without the alcohol. I put a camera out on the desk one day, and people started taking Polaroids of each other; we started putting them on the wall in the studio entry area. There’s no Shiva Nataraja or Buddha statues. It’s all open and clean and spacious, so people can have their own experience each time.
YJ: How many Strala Yoga studios are there?
TS: Two. The original in New York, and we just opened our second, in Seattle. By the end of 2014, we have plans for partner studios to be up and running in Toronto, Paris, and possibly Chicago. We’re also partnering with a few gym chains—Sports Club LA in Boston, New York, D.C., Miami, and San Francisco, and Club Med Gym in Paris. And we have a new partnership with the W Hotels group to produce cool in-room yoga videos that play in their hotels around the world—yoga for jet lag, an energy boost, and more. I’m giving retreats this year at Vieques, Verbier, Bali, and the Maldives as part of the launch. They’re all-out events—classes with a DJ, a special food menu. So fun!
YJ: Why do you call your Strala teachers guides?
TS: If you’re climbing a mountain, guides are essential and know how to keep you safe. You climb together. And there are no students at Strala. We just call them guides and people. It takes the pressure off. We teach our guides how to lead a class, very simply and effectively and powerfully, and how not to turn anybody off in the room. We keep it open and thoughtful, simple and clear. There are just under 1,000 Strala guides in about a dozen countries now. We’re new, but growing pretty fast.
YJ: You’ve urged people not to hide behind their bodies. What do you mean by this?
TS: I talk a lot about ease and being comfortable and free, and really being intuitive and getting to know yourself. This has nothing to do with being or wanting to be a certain body size or type. It’s taking the anxiety out of the physical and being exactly into the physical at the same time. Taking care of yourself is the number-one thing. Stop worrying about what that looks like. Who cares? If you’re feeling good, then you’re going to look good. You’re going to radiate light, which is the whole idea of Strala [meaning to radiate light, in Swedish].
YJ: Music seems really important to the Strala teaching philosophy.
TS: Music is big for us. All Strala classes are taught to music, and we have a playlist of the month on Spotify. Our music selection is community sourced around certain themes, but the guides are free to make their own playlists.
YJ: Can you give us some insight into your practice?
TS: I keep a mat out in my living room and hop on it in the morning before going to lead a class. About 10 minutes of moving does the trick for me. It’s different each day—sometimes more energetic, sometimes more easy opening—depending on how my body feels. I also have two blankets stacked in my living room that remind me to sit and meditate. I usually get to it for at least 5 or 10 minutes, but honestly, it doesn’t happen every day. I do, however, notice a huge difference when I meditate regularly; I feel more spacious, and calm and easy.
YJ: You have a knack for building community. What’s your secret?
TS: I’ve always liked the idea of sharing and connecting, and social media has been a tool for that. It’s pretty natural for me to share what’s interesting to me and what I think can be useful for others. It’s fun, and I’ve never seen it as an obligation. I think people get frustrated and frazzled when they attempt to use social media as a tool for promotion more than personal connection.
YJ: You’ve worked with Deepak Chopra on DVDs and an app. How did you meet him?
TS: I got an email asking if I wanted to lead a yoga class at an event where Deepak was talking. I said, ‘Yeah!’ So I Tweeted at him, and we struck up a conversation at the event. It led to collaborating on the Authentic Yoga app, and he asked me to teach him yoga. I was like, ‘Come on, you don’t need anybody to teach you yoga! That’s ridiculous.’ But he wanted me to take him through what I teach, so I did. We’re buddies.
YJ: You have a new book, Make Your Own Rules Diet, coming out in November. How do you apply the practice of yoga to healthy eating?
TS: From my experience, when you practice in an easygoing way, you feel a lot better. And when you feel good, all of these cool chemical things happen to rewire your brain to help put you in touch with how you feel when you eat certain things. So you start to crave healthier foods that make you feel better instead of processed foods.
YJ: You speak regularly about using intuition to build a business and a healthy life. How does intuition impact your life and decision-making processes?
TS: For me, it’s just been something that’s so strong, like a big sign to go this way or that. It’s become ingrained after years of meditation and hanging out with inspiring friends and mentors. I want to make sure that what I’m doing has meaningful value, and my intuition helps me access that intention. If I ever feel like I’m making a decision based solely on finances or fear, it’s usually the wrong decision. It’s a voice inside that I know is right. I just take the time to listen, and then I know I’m on the right path and making the right decision.
YJ: Any advice for getting better at trusting one’s own intuition?
TS: I think it’s doing something regularly that’s meditative that really feeds that part of you, and everybody intuitively knows what that is for them. For some people it’s gardening, for some it’s sitting for five minutes in the morning and breathing, for some it’s going to yoga class religiously. Any practice that tunes down the distractions of your mind and outside things will allow you to come back to that inner voice. When you do this, things usually start to fall into place.
PLUS: Tara Stiles shows us how to prepare for the following poses: