Beyond Barriers: An Interview with Lanita Varshell & Diane Ambrosini
Lanita Varshell and Diane Ambrosini will lead their Feathered Pipe retreat A Softer Side of Yoga, September 1 – 8. Lanita, founder of Meditation in Movement Style Yoga®, aka MIMSY, is known for her yoga therapy work with people dealing with deep stress, chronic pain, and weight challenges. Diane is both a movement science specialist and (like Lanita) a master yoga teacher, and is author of “Instructing Hatha Yoga,” a best-selling book that includes safe modifications for classical asanas. Lanita and Diane of A Gentle Way Yoga recently spoke with us about how they collaborate to create uniquely welcoming retreats for every type of yogi.
FP: You two came to yoga from very different directions. How have you influenced each other’s teaching?
Lanita: Diane and I still have very different teaching techniques, but they complement each other beautifully. I’m known for bringing people into yoga who never dreamed they could do it, or who never dreamed they could get back into it–including some people who have literally been kicked out of studios for being too big, too old, or too stiff. Diane has a deep understanding of anatomy and alignment, and how yoga works throughout the body. She often works with people who are very active and may tend to power through things. Some of her students are averse to classes that they consider “baby classes” or “too easy”. When we began working together, we realized that my students needed to move more, and Diane’s students needed a more gentle approach, with more relaxation and meditation.
Diane: My teaching style has changed a lot since I met Lanita and began to teach with her. Many students can’t move into or out of a particular pose by traditional means. Lanita has come up with steps that let them take a pose as far as they like. She’s taught me that everybody needs to do their own thing, and I need to give them the tools to find that. I still teach physically dynamic poses, but with a softer energy and softer language. My students move in and out of their poses with more ease, even when they are the tightest person in the room.
The evolution in my teaching style means that my students with physical challenges related to aging or other issues don’t have to limit themselves to restorative classes. We can continue to do active yoga together, but in a more gentle, thoughtful way.
FP: It’s great when teachers learn from each other.
Diane: It’s been a process for me. When I first started teaching classes in Lanita’s studio, I’d start off with sun salutations and we’d just go for it. One day after a class, she asked–very nicely–if I’d ever thought about a more gentle warm-up. I was like, “What are you talking about?” The first time I led one of her classes as a substitute teacher, I walked into the studio and every single yogi was half-hidden behind what looked like a personal fortress of blankets and props. I had no idea what to do! I did teach the class, but I figured I’d better learn how to work with all those props. Lanita continued to invite me to listen in on her teacher training, and eventually invited me to teach with her. I think I passed the mellow test: I wasn’t gonna hurt anybody. Now I focus on giving yogis tools so they won’t hurt themselves either!
FP: Yoga can sometimes look like a pretty exclusive and intimidating club.
Lanita: Yes it can. My mission is to break down the prejudice I hold against myself first, so I can help break down the prejudice we hold against each other. Teachers need to realize how hard it is for new students to try to “fit into” a class and feel comfortable. The prejudices we have about our own abilities, and our ideas about what other people may think about us can be hurtful and very limiting. One rather slender and conventionally attractive student complained to me after a class that she wasn’t used to practicing in classes with fat people! She said it made her feel out of place, and that the large people slowed the class down. I lovingly reminded her that many other yoga studios might better serve her needs, but at A Gentle Way, we focus on inclusive, softer, slower, safer yoga.
FP: Wow! That’s quite a striking example of bias.
Lanita: The minute fit students walk into one of my classes they have to start letting go of their prejudices. I’m everything that a yoga teacher usually isn’t. I’ve always dealt with chronic health issues and weight. I love it when we do a retreat and it’s a mix of old and young yogis and yoga beginners with different body types and levels of experience and strength and flexibility. It’s amazing to see how we blend together to create a joyful space.
FP: Your retreat seems like a good one for aspiring teachers, too. There will be growing demand for this kind of inclusive teaching as our population ages.
Lanita: I agree on both counts. We love working with new and experienced teachers, alongside of students who practice at all levels. The retreat will offer 36 Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Program credit hours, and up to 50 hours if you attend the retreat and complete assignments when you get home. But students brand new to yoga will be just as welcome and comfortable as yogis who are studying to become teachers, or who already teach.
A more inclusive and gentle approach to yoga changes the teacher-student dynamic in interesting, productive and challenging ways. No single style works for everyone in a class or retreat that includes such a diverse group of yogis. So we encourage people to learn from the teacher, but to follow their own inner wisdom at all times. That takes some learning, but it’s beautiful when it happens.
Diane: I think that is the practice, learning to listen to that guidance from within. I tell my students that we’re all basically the same, yet we’re put together differently. We modify the poses to address those differences, instead of trying to force the body into what we think the pose should look like. Everyone can do a forward fold, but people’s versions of the pose may look considerably different from each other. Some people can do it in a chair; others need to use blocks to “raise up” the floor; and others can put their heads on the floor. It’s all about learning to be okay with what works for you. That’s the thing I really learned from Lanita.
Lanita: At the same time, the techniques we use in MIMSY allow people to go further than they have imagined is possible. Rather than going from movement into meditation, we work from meditation into gentle movement, learning what our body wants to do. It’s a sacred journey. All of the sudden an 82-year-old woman finds herself in the most beautiful downward dog. The yoga was already in her. As she relaxed and focused on her breathing, her body remembered.
Diane: In my classes I can always tell when the yoga is working for my students: the bell is rung in Savasana and no one moves. I had never experienced that myself until I went to Lanita’s class. When my students find that deep, meditative space I am truly humbled!
Lanita: The biggest thing I want people to know is that whoever they are, old or young, experienced or not, they’ll feel not only welcome, but comfortable. The ones with the least physical ability will be amazed at how easy and helpful it is. The more experienced or physically strong may find it some of the most profound and challenging yoga they will ever practice, as they come up against their ingrained habits, and learn to relax into their wisdom. This is yoga for your back, your hips, your spine and most importantly your mind. It’s what our teachers in training say they should have been taught but never were.
FP: You’ve both been at Feathered Pipe before. Are you looking forward to coming back?
Lanita: Feathered Pipe is simply a magical place. I have seen several attendees (including me) manifest their deepest dreams after spending time at the Ranch. The Ranch is like my style of yoga. It is not about how much you can do, but how much you are willing to let go. And in that letting go, life can move through you.
Diane: Although we live in a metropolitan coastal city, my heart feels most at home when I’m in the mountains. Having had the great privilege of spending a week at the Feathered Pipe a number of years ago, I am thrilled to be able to go back to this beautiful, mystical place. I invite anyone and everyone to come and experience the melding of Lanita’s and my styles with the healing energy of the Ranch. You’ll definitely feel at home.
We invite you to join us at the Feathered Pipe Ranch this summer, September 1 – 8, for Lanita & Diane’s welcoming week of healing yoga at the Ranch—A Softer Side of Yoga: A MIMSY® Retreat.
About Lanita Varshell
Lanita Varshell is the owner of A Gentle Way Yoga Center, and founder-creator of MIMSY Meditation in Movement Style Yoga®, and Aalamba – Yoga with Support. She has taught over 10,000 classes, and has certified yoga teachers since 2000. Lanita Varshell holds designations with the Yoga Alliance as an E-RYT 500 and a Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider®. She is also a certified IAYT Certified Yoga Therapist, and has taught over 750 private therapy sessions.
She is a Gentle-Traditional Hatha Yoga teacher, stress management expert, former missionary, and inspiring motivational speaker. She is known fondly as the “queen of relaxation” for her Yoga Therapy work with the very stressed and those in chronic pain, and for bringing students into yoga who never imagined they could ever do yoga.
Lanita Varshell began teaching yoga in 1996, after being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. She has evolved from a very sick “couch potato,” who could not work, to a busy studio owner and teacher. Still challenged daily with body pain and limitations, Lanita is living proof that the many benefits of yoga can be experienced by anyone, any size, with almost any challenge.
Learn more about Lanita: www.agentleway.com
About Diane Ambrosini
Diane Ambrosini, MA, is the author of Instructing Hatha Yoga (2nd-edition), a best-selling yoga instructional book for many yoga teacher training programs throughout the country, filled with safe modifications for classical asanas.Trained as a yoga teacher and movement science specialist, she has worked as a coach, personal fitness trainer, hospital kinesiologist, YTT trainer, and yoga instructor/therapist. Diane believes everyone can practice yoga, and that with practice, everyone can rediscover their true nature.
Learn more about Diane: www.agentleway.com