SARAH WESTBROOK, C-IAYT, YACEP
How did you get into yoga? What aspect of yoga got you on the mat in the beginning?
I was introduced to yoga 20 years ago at a conference for Riding Instructors. We explored how to help our students relax while riding. Most riders had some degree of fear and certainly tension, that interfered with their riding, even though their love of horses ran deeply.
At the conference, we studied how students learn, practiced relaxation and visualization techniques, received massages, and tried tai chi and yoga. The tai chi resonated most deeply with me, but when I returned to Chicago, I couldn’t find a class that made me feel the same way. I found a yoga class instead, and got hooked.
Yoga hooked me with its promise of quieting the mind (yoga chitta vritti nirodha). That notion was radical and felt like it could save my life, which it did!
What would you consider your yoga style and who were a few teachers that influenced you the most?
My yoga style is avant garde and eclectic, intellectual and instinctual. I push the boundaries of what a yoga class could be by considering yoga an approach to movement, not a rehearsal of poses. I use the most functional poses in yoga asana to drill the essentials, like how to forward fold in a balanced way, or how to transition into and out of poses with precision. Most students have not been taught these basics, and these are the easiest and fastest ways to get injured if your technique is off.
I am deeply inspired by Ido Portal, an Israeli movement pioneer with a tripartite approach: isolate, integrate, improvise. First one needs to access and skillfully control specific body parts. Second, a student learns to find that movement in more complex shapes and feel how that action connects to and originates from the core. Third, students experience moving in non-habitual ways. The brain loves novelty, so non-traditional ways of moving awakens the body and allows a new path to take shape neurologically.
My yoga therapy training, as taught to me by my primary teacher Doug Keller, provides the “isolate” component. Therapeutic basics help students get fluent in controlling different parts of their body. Our sedentary lifestyles make the body rigid and certain muscles amnesic. The therapeutics help the body remember how to move with freedom and grace.
From there, the flowing, rhythmic floor work of Tias Little and Gil Solberg help to integrate this new awareness. Movement is experienced as originating from the core; limbs transmit power instead of generating it. This integration releases chronic tension in the neck, shoulders and hips. We do the work on the floor because there, it is easier to feel changes, use the right muscles and in turn, feel grounded.
The improvisational aspect of the class is in my sequencing and integration of movement techniques from other disciplines. I love Ido Portal’s warmups and locomotive techniques. The balance and coordination techniques of Gil Solberg are fantastic for calibrating effort and timing. I have developed a “functional movement” Sun Salutation which removes the movements that cause students the most trouble and by design, gets the right muscles that support the body to turn on.
My classes are avant garde in significant ways. Foreground and background shift: what is usually untaught is taught, while what is conventionally regarded as meaningful (the pose), is demoted. Students attune to their internal, highly individuated experience. I ask students for feedback during class, checking in to make sure the focus of the class is a tangible, felt experience. The “fourth wall” is down; teacher and student co-create the experience.
Poses are rarely done the same way twice. By entering a pose with a new awareness each time, the student learns adaptability and responsiveness. Variety in movement releases stagnation in the body. Once a student can feel how they are actually moving, they have a choice and a chance to move in a more balanced way.
Another key aspect of my teaching, one that is unique in the group class setting, is “reverse cueing.” Not every student needs the same cues. What works in the body of one student may be devastating for another. I teach my students how to make sense of conflicting cues. Sometimes it’s appropriate to do an action, sometimes not. No movement or shape is “wrong.” It is the timing, setting and structural needs of the body that dictate which cues are relevant. I teach students how to make these discriminations (viveka).
In class students may hear 2 cues for a pose, cues that may contradict each other. I invite them to try both, and based on their experience, adopt the one that benefits them. I explain how to internally feel the effect of each cue, based on the intention of the pose and the student’s unique anatomy. We use touch (the student’s own hands), seeing (demos and partner work) and props to help experience how the muscles and bones are interacting.
I teach in this way after years of being frustrated and confused by widely diverging cues in my own practice. Teachers tend to simply repeat what their teachers taught them Most teachers teach what works for their own body (young/old, short/tall, dancer/runner, flat-backed or significant lumber arch). My goal is to teach in a way that welcomes all body types. This highly personal, decade-long quest is how I am now free from injuries caused by my yoga practice.
In summary, I am allowing students to be their own teachers, honoring and listening to what they need rather than passively following external instructions. This collaborative exploration has allowed numerous students to return to their yoga practice injury-free, with permission to ignore cues that could do them harm. Even more importantly, it allows students to trust themselves and tap into their deepest knowing.
If you could change one aspect of the modern yoga world, what would that be?
I would love to see the decline of ‘Cult of personality’ yoga where the product being ‘sold’ is the teacher (wanting to be or look like her), or her body shape (with its emphasis on extreme flexibility) or the promise of eternal youth. Flexibility is only one aspect of healthy balanced movement, while youth is partially the accumulation of bad habits that eventually catch up. When flexibility becomes instability, it is detrimental to the body. Successful progression in yoga is the skillful abandonment of bad habits.
For most people, yoga is unsustainable if it’s about chasing more and more advanced and complex iterations of poses or pushing to do what you “used to be able to do.” To stay in this practice for decades, yoga demands that you continually accept and encounter your life in new ways, gracefully surrendering old strategies.
As your life undergoes massive paradigm shifts (aging, childbirth, divorce), your yoga practice should help you adapt instead of trying to return to some imaginary, nostalgic state. Yoga can help you write a new story of what life looks like after childbirth, newly single, or an empty-nester. There is a dearth of dynamic and empowered role models of what those later life stages can look like. Yoga helps us create new ways of being.
Why do you love teaching at yogaview?
I love teaching at Yogaview in part because the owners Tom and Quinn are so open to allowing each teacher to express and develop their teaching as they see fit. They are non-dogmatic, low-ego and mellow. I feel their respect and support.
I also love teaching at Yogaview, especially the privates, because of the readiness of students to encounter their vulnerability. The North Shore can carry an atmosphere of intense pressure and high achievement culture, but Yogaview feels comfortably outside that. It is a place where students have permission to be themselves.
Within the 8 limbs of yoga, the experience of Samadhi is often described as the top rung of the ladder. It's considered by many to be indescribable, yet it is often described as such and more. Can you please describe your personal experience of this state or what the concept represents to you?
One of my most important teachers, Gabriel Halpern, describes samadhi this way: “It’s like a salt doll trying to fathom the depths of the ocean. The only problem is, once it enters, it dissolves, so what is left to measure the depths?” Classically, this and other states are presented as very difficult to achieve and taking years or lifetimes. Tacitly they seem to be only for the initiated.
To me, samadhi and these other exalted yoga states that seem unattainable are actually tiny moments that punctuate our ordinary lives, once we are more schooled in the practice of simply being present. You don’t even need to do yoga or meditation to experience them, although those practices can help. There is no ladder to climb, no ashram or holy land to make a pilgrimage to. Every moment is an equal opportunity moment for enlightenment.
It’s like relaxation; these states are skilled practices in releasing the grip of distraction and obsession. We fall in and out of them, chase them and resist them. Pema Chodron’s Buddhist approach of simply accepting what IS, while no longer chasing pleasure (or exalted states) nor resisting pain, to me offers more value.
As a householder with a family and obligations to be in this world, Classical yoga ideas of transcendence (getting somewhere other than exactly where you are), and ascetic rejection of the body seem misplaced. I feel that it is in the messiness of our relationships (and bodies) that our yoga is truly practiced. Peace may be easy on retreat, but we also need to find presence when running late, feeling sick or fearful of losing love. Our yoga practice calls us to find ways to be fully here; we can’t use it to escape.
What was one of the funniest or most humbling moments you've had while teaching a class?
Many years ago, I brought one of my first yoga teachers to the stables where I taught riding and trained horses. She had dreadlocks that the horses loved to nibble on; they loved the texture. She was such a good-natured spirit! Sometimes we did yoga in the aisles. The horses would all hang their heads out of their stalls watching us with intent curiosity. Eventually the horses would get softer and more and more relaxed, nodding off to the yoga vibe.
One time we were all practicing shoulderstand in the riding arena’s viewing room, the cleanest area we could find, but still a pretty challenging environment. A mouse ran up the shirt of one of the students. Even while she squealed and writhed, she stayed in the pose! Those early classes in the stables taught me that you can practice yoga almost anywhere. Don’t wait for perfect conditions!
In less than 140 characters, like that of a tweet or much like a sutra, describe your inner experience going about daily life pre vs. post developing a regular yoga or meditation practice.
Before yoga I was somehow always wrong, my body was wrong and everything felt out of reach. Now my body is my ally, my emotions guide me, and I love who I am. I trust myself.
If there was one spiritual teacher or guru that you would desire to study under (dead or alive) who would it be?
While I do not subscribe to the guru model, teachers can be guides to help us navigate life. For me, it took a long time to stop looking outside myself for the answers, to trust my own experience and do the necessary untangling of it. So, I avoid teachers that withhold knowledge, demand loyalty or membership and form cultish groups of devotees.
I look for guides who support, encourage and respect my process of becoming. Whatever system I ascribe to must tolerate its own undermining. Each tenet is subject to revision as new evidence arises.
If possible, I would love to learn from and talk with the younger me, the older Sarah, or Sarahs from other lifetimes. When I imagine talking with myself in another lifetime, I feel a tender compassion toward myself and my follies that sometimes is hard to muster otherwise!
What is your favorite non-yoga activity?
As yogis, especially teachers of yoga, there isn’t much that isn’t yoga! Every activity becomes a ‘yoga,’ a practice in forgetting and remembering, being playful and failing, getting caught up in pain and drama, with mini-resurrections that restore me to baseline.
I love gardening, indoors and out, crossword puzzles and podcasts about the nature of our crazy existence.
My favorite non-yoga activity is reading stories out loud to my daughter Pasha. Through these stories, she and I travel to other fantastic realms, laughing, crying and adventuring together. It has become a daily practice that I deeply treasure.
Why do students come to work with you one-on-one and what are yoga privates like?
Many of my students come to me desperate to find a solution to their pain or chronic injury. They may have tried physical therapy, chiropractic or other modalities. While perhaps getting short term benefits, nothing has lasted. Others come to me if traditional medicine has no good options other than ‘wait and see’ or surgery. Yoga therapy offers a broad middle ground and a whole-person approach to addressing chronic conditions.
I approach yoga therapy as a collaboration with the goal of removing the obstacles to healing. For each new client, I do a Posture Mapping, an in-depth report analyzing past and current tendencies and patterns. Using static and dynamic photographs, I chart structural and functional anatomical shifts. Guided by listening and feedback, I offer the student movement and lifestyle changes to help the body heal itself.
A typical session involves checking in. Current stressors, sleep patterns and activity levels can significantly change pain patterns. Then we visually assess posture to see if the body has returned to its habitual pattern that causes pain. Based on the client’s history, my body mapping, and what’s currently happening, each session is tailored to address the highest need.
The highest need might be a restorative session, resetting the nervous system and inducing deep relaxation. It might be breath training in several different poses, each with a different relationship to gravity or challenge to the posture. Often sessions include a review of home exercises to perfect technique and add layers of awareness. Clients practice muscle re-training, posture correction, and pain relief techniques. Relearning how to perform basic movement skills, like sitting down, standing or walking often releases the dysfunctional pattern that made the injury or pain recur.
Perhaps the most important piece of my approach to yoga therapy is consideration of the client’s relationship to their pain or condition. Many clients feel their body has betrayed or failed them. Most clients have been quarantining or pushing their pain away. Reframing this relationship is crucial. The body can only communicate with us in limited ways. By listening and respecting the body’s signals, we can start to work with our conditions instead of trying to ignore or dominate them. Opening up a dialog with pain allows the client to listen to a part of themselves that has been wanting and needing their attention, perhaps for years. This process can be revolutionary.
Monday 9:30 - 11:00 am Level 1 Wilmette
Friday 9:30 - 11:00 am Level 1 Wilmette
Saturday 11:30 - 12:45 pm Level 1 Wilmette