Coronado, California based writer Stephanie Spence has worked in TV, films and radio and is currently in the Advanced UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. This mother of two spends her time writing, traveling, teaching yoga and volunteering with an equine therapy group for challenged youth.
Her philosophy and approach to yoga are unique and powerful, drawing on her vast life experiences. Practicing yoga for over thirty-five years has given her the great gift of balance and creative freedom and her focus is on guiding her students in a meaningful way for the sacred exploration of authenticity, truth, wellness and love.
BY: What originally brought you to Yoga?
SS: Pain. I was 19 years old, living in Houston, TX and would water ski until I could not walk. Sadly, my family of origin did not believe in spending money to take me or my brothers to the doctor, so my scoliosis in my back had not been “discovered”. The GREAT news is I’m grateful. I’m grateful because without this “bad back” I would not have found yoga. It has given me THE greatest life. Pain (physical and emotional), I’ve identified, has been one of my greatest “teachers”. I’ve practiced yoga now for 35+ years.
The day I walked into the small studio in Houston, I was taking pain pills. A friend asked what my plan was for that. “Plan”, I said…. “What do you mean?”. He kindly explained that the pills were just masking the pain. What does a 19 year old know, right? All I knew is when I took the pills, I could function. Without them, I was ALWAYS in pain. Wow….
So I went to yoga, and I left feeling “better”. I went back. Now it’s 35+ years later and I can tell you that yoga has been the greatest gift. It has given me the tools and the balance to manifest a life of my dreams – in fact, a life beyond my wildest dreams. A life I thrive in.
BY: What was your first class experience like?
SS: Back then the mainstream perception of yoga was very different. People thought I was so weird, that I was going to be joining some kind of cult. I was nervous. The teacher only spoke in Sanskrit. He had on a “turban and diaper” – HA. It was Ashtanga, a very physical flowing class. Besides the teacher giving us cues on the sequence of posturers he never, ever said a word to us outside of the classroom. He was a tiny man. The studio was in an old house in the cool part of town so I felt very exotic. I remember the room being lit with soft, yellow light flowing in from the windows. Of course there was no mirrors and music. It just wasn’t how it was back then. I actually still love those kinds of classes. I love it that he explained “yoga etiquette” – Take your shoes off at the door, no talking in class and no leaving the room. I put my mat down and waited. I looked around the room and thought the people were very interesting looking. I found out after class that they were professional athletes, doctors, scientists, artists – a very cool mix of people, which was also very intoxicating. The BEST and most important part of that first experience was all I knew was when I left my back was NOT in pain. I was hooked.
BY: What do you like to wear for Yoga practice?
SS: It depends on the style of yoga, time of year and whether or not I am inside or outside. I joke that I need a whole closet for all my yoga clothes because it’s what I live in. For outside it’s all about layering or making the elements my friend. My favorite outside practice is on the beach. I bring the longer rug from this site because I don’t like all the sand on my feet. Once I’m on my mat I’m there for the rest of the class. I wear tight leggings so that I don’t slip on my skin when it’s hot out and I know I’ll be sweaty. Same holds true for Bikram or Bikram-inspired classes and/or heated classes. I’ve found that I can be more present and grounded when I’m wearing the right clothes. It’s critical that I be comfortable. There is an elusive perfect top that I’m still searching for. Companies have come close, but I haven’t found the right yoga top for every practice. Although I love to get dressed up, yoga clothing for me is more about function. It’s a bonus when I think it is attractive, but since yoga is more about “all the other stuff than the poses” I appreciate things that have technical fabric but is buttery soft.
BY: Have you ever gone on any Yoga retreats? If so, where and what stood out to you about that experience?
SS: Yes, one of my favorite things to do. I’ve done solo and group retreats, all around the world. When I travel I create my day like my life at home. Nothing thrills me more than finding a class and experiencing yoga in a different language. People all around the world are so friendly and help you get to classes. It’s a great adventure all on its own. I’ve done combination retreats where you also hike or surf. Those are a blast. I’ve done retreats with teachers I knew. What stands out for me is the connection with the other people. When you walk into a studio and/or place where the yoga community is gathered I’ve found that I am “home” – my tribe. I try and help others when I know they are visiting. I recently drove a student to the airport because it was asked at the beginning of class that he had worked hard to get to the class. I know if I need help (anywhere in the world) I could find a yoga teacher that would help me. It’s a huge blessing. I find there are Yoga “towns” like Sayulita, Mexico and Tulum, Mexico. I think LA and New York have an amazing yoga community and opportunities. Of course in both of those places it’s all about getting there around all the other traffic and people. I’ve been to every destination spa in the US, and some have better yoga programs and teachers than others. Miraval, in Tucson, AZ stands out.
I consider the festivals to be a retreat. I’ve been to many – some big, some small. I was just at Wanderlust in Hawaii and it was very special because of the other offerings (at a discount) that you could do. We went horseback riding. The diving in Hawaii was amazing (who doesn’t want to swim with turtles?), The diving was not a part of the yoga festival, but a great way to involve my life-partner that was with me. It was amazing to have him leave and say he would come back next year. I volunteer at the Sedona Yoga Festival and Yoga Journal LIVE in San Diego each year. Sedona Yoga Festival is unique because there are venues all over town. I love that they work with Give Back Yoga and give certifications in Trauma to veterans. The Give Back Yoga Foundation is a national non profit yoga organization that helps certified teachers to share yoga therapy with underserved populations.
When I went to my first retreat/workshop a zillion years ago, Yoga Journal LIVE seemed big and corporate in New York City, but the big name leaders kept if memorable and real. Once you have been with a “real deal” teacher, you know the difference between that and someone who is a newbie. It’s just about time on the mat and experience. I’ve also been around some “old souls” who lead just the right balance of alignment-based instruction with spirituality or simply silence. At all the Yoga Journal LIVE events, like the one I was at in NYC being in a big town gives you things to do besides yoga all day. I also like retreats where yoga is the ONLY thing you’ll be doing so it’s a total immersion. I like it all. The first Yoga Journal LIVE I went to in New York I got to practice with B. K. S. Iyengar. That was memorable. He would push down “bottoms” with his foot while people were in Plank Pose and holler “bad lady, bad lady”. He was hilarious. Yoga Journal did an amazing job of getting the “real deal” to beginners like me who were starving for that level of professionalism, but unable to afford a trip to India. Now I’ve got tons of yoga teacher friends who lead retreats all over the world. They’ll be in my upcoming book.
BhaktiFest has a great vibe. It’s like a cross between Coachella and Sedona Yoga Festival but with feeling a little like Burning Man… Beautiful outdoor setting with numerous things going on a once, but in a “festival village” atmosphere. They get amazing vendors, have fantastic food and the stage always has music or something happening.
BY: Do you have a favorite style of yoga?
SS: Ashtanga will always be my first love. Any kind of Vinyasa (flow) yoga is my favorite. I do all forms of yoga, almost like a doctor. I know what I need and will practice (either by myself or in a class) the style or sequence that will give me balance. I am a very active person, so I like that Ashtanga, Hatha, Jivamukti and Power yoga work with my body system. I have tried to meditate, but it still isn’t something I’m “good” at, so any movement-based practice is best so that I can meditate in savasana. I love Yin Yoga when I’m searching for something restorative or I’m injured. I have not tried Kripalu. They’re on “the list”. I lived in New York city for a month and loved going to the classes where I would see the professional ballet people. It’s the only time I did not just keep my eyes on my mat. It was so beautiful to watch it was captivating. I’m normally klutzy, but I feel like a dancer when I’m in yoga.
You can connect with Stephanie on her blog at http://one-with-life.com/
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This post was written by Barefoot Yoga on June 15, 2015