Talking Shop with Lilias Folan


By Colleen Morton  |  

Long before there was a proliferation of celebrity yoga teachers, there was Lilias Folan, reaching out from the Midwest across the airwaves of public television to bring yoga to the common (and commonly stiff) man and woman.

Wife, mother of two, and grandmother of four, Lilias has been practicing yoga for more than 30 years. Though she notices that at 64 years old, her joints “talk” to her more, she’s as inspired by the practice as ever.

Yoga Journal: How did your PBS show “Lilias!” come into being?

Lilias Folan: One of my students in the early ’70s went home and told her husband, who was a producer for our local PBS station, WCET channel 48, “I have the perfect person to do a yoga series.” I used to watch Richard Hittleman when I first began yoga. He had two perfect women behind him, but when I started teaching I knew that the bodies I was looking at were not perfect. I thought, “I can communicate this better.”

YJ: How long had you been teaching when you started the series?

LF: About five years.

YJ: Was it frightening to be teaching on television with relatively little teaching experience?

LF: I was too innocent to be frightened. When you’re really doing the Dharma, nothing is going to stop you. I felt the connection to my unseen students immediately. The camera and red light became so connected to me that when I taught in front of “real” people I felt peculiar.

YJ: It seems to me that the media—television, video, and the Internet—have dramatically affected the dissemination of yoga practices.

LF: I just received a letter from someone who’s been studying with my videos in a lighthouse in Canada!

YJ: You suffered from depression at a time when your life seemed to have everything—a husband, two kids, a nice home—and this is when you came to yoga. Did yoga help you to have feelings of satisfaction?

LF: When I first came into yoga, the mental discomfort I was having was too embarrassing to talk to my physician about. I was so used to carrying that mantle of sadness, that deep well of discontent that was a part of me. I did spend two to three years with a very fine psychiatrist and talked out the past intelligently and with healing. But the yoga started to clear up the residue of some of the sadness—spontaneously, and very slowly. I had to go through a lot of discomfort. What the mind has long forgotten the body remembers.

YJ: What poses were most difficult or uncomfortable for you then?

LF: Because I’m very athletic, the postures came easily. The most difficult thing was sitting still in meditation or lying down in relaxation. People would tell me they couldn’t sit close to me, I would exude such horrendous agitation. When I would do yoga nidra, this nausea and sadness would come up from my belly, shimmer, and then leave. I would ask, “Is this something returning?” But it was leaving me, rather than going in.

YJ: How do you handle a student’s raw emotions when you’re teaching a class?

LF: I believe that if something arises, you don’t clamp it down, because it might wrap around your kidneys. I create a safe container and share my process with the class. I look at kidney stones as unshed tears. Tears are our birthright. The purpose of yoga is to know thyself. If thyself is having a moment of shimmering depression, let’s look at it, then let it go.


YJ: What is your practice routine?

LF: Meditation and breathing practice each day in the morning. Sometimes I’m on the fly, and it will have to be in the evening. I do a good half-hour each day of asana, and an hour or so on the weekends. But I also go to a gym two times a week and let someone exercise me. And I visit other people’s hatha classes. I’m an overgrown student.

YJ: What’s your best piece of advice?

LF: Reconnect with your inner contentment and stillness daily. It’s something that’s always there, but we get out of touch with it. It’s important to bring the witness self to the practice—that is one of the links inward. The witness judges not, observes all.