Generally, when we are asked who inspires us, we think of the people that have become legends. The greats like Ali or Gandhi, Lincoln or Dr. King, Mother Teresa and Madame Curie. But how about our everyday heroes? The people around us that inspire us, that lift our spirits up, that go above and beyond and might not even know it, because they’re just being themselves.
In our Spotlight Series this month, we focus on three such everyman heroes; yogis that between them, inspire tens of thousands of followers, by making the practice of yoga and its associated benefits accessible to everyone.
Katie Griffith, a mother of 3, doctor of ecology and marine science is as unassuming as they come. The soft-spoken native Chicagoan grew up obsessed with all things underwater, breeding fresh-water fish in 7 tanks at her parent’s home, while in high school. Today, she’s taken the same determined, step-by-step approach to yoga, making various asanas easier to access for her audience, by providing ‘recipes’. Inspired by the feedback and receptivity to her recipe approaches, Katie enlisted fellow yogis Ahmed Soliman and Elissa Marshall to co-host an instagram challenge, aimed at breaking down arm balances.
We chatted with Katie, Elissa and Ahmed to understand more about their approach to yoga and what inspired them to share their knowledge.
Tell us a little about yourself so we have a sense of the people behind the IG pictures
EM: I was born in Dallas, TX but grew up on Northern Virginia. I am a professional dancer, dancing Classical Ballet since I was 8 and Contemporary Dance since I was 18. I currently live in Cartagena, Colombia and dance for a Colombian dance company called Compañía Cuerpo de Indias, the professional dance company of El Colegio del Cuerpo. Though I am more professionally oriented towards dance these days, I am also a photographer with a background in fine arts and photojournalism. Growing up for me was rough. Through my childhood, I was ill from an auto-immune disease called Behcet's and also battled with anxiety, panic attacks and other self destructive behavior. I suffered a lot in childhood and up until college, but they were definitely experiences that led me to learn lots of important lessons in life.
KG: Well, we’ve already discussed my aquarium obsession! But looking back, that was a sign of how much I love getting my teeth into anything that interests me. It was the same with yoga. Once I got into it, I really needed to understand the mechanics and dive deep into my practice.
AS: This is interesting because I am an ecologist as well! What are the chances?! I was born and raised in Egypt and moved to CA when I was 16. I think that living all over CA and being touched by nature, which is in abundance in CA, was what drove me to study ecology. Being out in the forests and mountains has really helped me commune with nature, almost meditatively.
Ahmed, that is a really insightful statement - that communing with nature is so meditative and blissful for the soul. Is that how you came into yoga?
AS: I started practicing about 5 years ago. By the end of 2011, I was at a low point. My work was becoming more of a bureaucratic exercise and moving further away from ecology, which is why I’d started that job in the first place. I was getting a divorce, had been hit by a car and broken bones, torn ligaments and couldn’t play soccer. And to cap it all off, I just wasn’t enjoying being in NY at all - I’d moved for my then wife.
I went on a boys’ trip to Costa Rica as a pick-me-up and met a yoga teacher leading a retreat. She inspired me so much with her story that I made a promise I’d start taking a class the minute I was back in NYC. I was so clueless about yoga that I recall asking the teacher after the first class, whether it was safe to practice everyday. I thought I’d need rest between sessions just as with other forms of workout.
Fast forward a year from then, I’d quit my job, become a teacher and just absolutely love sharing my knowledge with others. And I absolutely LOVE NYC now, because I cannot imagine being in any other place with the quality of teachers and master teachers here in the city.
KG: I had tried yoga several times when I was younger but it never stuck. I realize now that I wasn’t ready to receive that into my life then. But 3 months post-partum after my third child, I felt the need to really get back into some sort of shape. A friend was putting together a class in her teacher's home, and I thought I’d do it for the self-care, not because I was interested in yoga. But after just a few of those classes, I was committed. It made me feel so grounded and good. My strength and flexibility were slowly growing and my mind felt ready to come home to three very young children. I felt like I could take on the world!
Soon I transitioned to taking YogaGlo.com classes everyday at home when the baby napped and that made me realize how deep I could really go. About 6 months later, the next major milestone was joining IG and realizing that there was this incredibly vibrant yoga community out there. Inversions and arm balances became a part of my practice from participating in IG yoga challenges and practicing at home with yogaglo.com.
EM: As a dancer I had teachers that would encourage us to practice yoga. I didn't pay much attention to them because I thought that yoga was a really light form of exercise and I didn't understand it yet as a tool for healing or promoting well-being.
I eventually started practicing yoga when I moved to New York City for a job with Lululemon. Lululemon is very yoga oriented and offered lots of free yoga classes to the public and to their employees. I resisted it though and would only go with friends and though I always felt better after a yoga class, I never craved a class or practice on my own.
When I moved to Cartagena, I didn't even think about yoga. Some of my new friends there kept asking me to teach them. Though my classes were a success, I kind of felt like a fraud. I was not yet a licensed yoga teacher yet and I didn't have a strong personal practice. For me everything changed when I started doing IG Yoga Challenges.
IG is really an amazing place to become a part of communities. Why did you decide to become an IG yogi?
EM: I started doing IG Yoga Challenges in September 2014 as a way to keep my photography active and motivate myself to practice on my own. At the time in Cartagena there were very, very few places to practice aside from the classes I taught. So I felt called to online challenges. It was the best decision I ever made because my motivation to practice on my own was overpowering. I felt connected to my intuition and my body on a personal level. Not too long after I started, I earned a Yoga Teacher Training Scholarship through an IG Yoga Challenge called #flowfortheholidays and that's how I became Yoga Alliance 200hr certified! I remain inspired by the the inspiration and community engagement of the IG yoga community. Many of the things I write and post on IG are like notes to myself. Things I need to work on or remind myself of to get strong and continue on, not just physically but spiritually as well. I hope that this public platform can take my little notes to self and inspire others just as others have inspired me.
KG: My inspiration to practice yoga grew by leaps and bounds when I joined IG. It seemed natural to interact with people by sharing my trials - both successes and failures. The feedback and tips that come in from all over the world are amazing! I also love being able to post questions or encouragement on other people's posts.
AS: I am an introvert so it wasn’t my natural inclination to post on IG. But I’d received my teacher certification and I figured that if I could post on IG and be open to that feedback and advice, it would make me a better teacher. And it did build my confidence as I thought, “If I can do these challenges and do these asanas, I can certainly teach them”.
What is your favorite pose? What is the next level of yoga that you'd like to explore?
KG: I love inversions. They clear my head and make me feel strong and grounded. I am working on better linking my breath with flow in vinayasa and staying present in savasana (possibly the hardest pose of all).
AS: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite pose. As a teacher, I really focus on alignment and so, my favored (not favorite) pose for any given day is based on how my body feels that day. For the next level, I am really working more on meditation and pranayama. I’ve begun to discover the benefits of a strong mind-body connection and I’m working to foster that more. Restorative yoga and that inward journey have become really important to me. This sense of being aware of what’s going on internally and coming at a problem from a place of understanding instead of stress and negativity. For example if I feel pain, I don’t get upset about it. I realize it’s my body's way of telling me something is off and that I need to take care of myself. Meditation and pranayama have really triggered these internal conversations for me.
EM: I honestly can't say I have a favorite pose. The best pose is the one that my body needs in the moment and that is done with breath and presence. I am forever obsessed with handstands and forearm stands. The next phase I am starting to explore and hope to master are handstand floats and transitions. When I manage to do a good handstand I am transported to a place where I no longer have to think, just be. I love any pose that helps me discover that mental space!
And finally, is there something you would like to share with other yogis?
AS: I’d quote BKS Iyengar “Never compare to other yogis, each one has their own constitution, know your strengths and work on those”. This is especially true for IG. It’s not about comparison; it’s about understanding your body and what you can achieve.
KG: Even with everything else going on in your life, you can always carve out a place for yourself. As you build a regular practice, you begin to see how strong you can become and what you’re capable of. And that is a lesson you can take off the mat to other parts of your life as well.
EM: I have realized on this long journey of life that lots of illnesses come from our thoughts. Yoga has taught me the power of just being as we were naturally meant to be. It's a constant practice and I realize that after a few days of not getting on my mat all the thoughts and anxieties creep in. Eventually I discovered that health is not a specific recipe or pill or magic bullet; it’s doing whatever helps you connect to yourself and your intuition. For me that is yoga, for you it could be art or music or athletics. We owe it to ourselves to find whatever activity it is that connects us to ourselves and makes us well because we owe it to the world to be our best, healthy selves!
Follow these amazing yogis on IG at:
@katie_yoga1 (Katie Griffith)
@yogisoli (Ahmed Soli)
@gesticulate (Elissa Marshall)