Master Teacher: Kristin Leigh
At a time when people need a safe space to do inner work or to take a step back from the
intensity of the current climate, Kristin Leigh offers a tonic of a class. It is thoroughly steady in pacing, tone and generously meditative.
Co-owner of the Shala (with Barbara Verrochi, in Manhattan and Brooklyn), Leigh began practicing Iyengar yoga in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. By 1992, she was in New York at Jivamukti, where she was certified in 1998. Since 1997, she has been studying Ashtanga with
Devoted student Julianne Moore said, “Kristin is the most special and patient of teachers. She has completely altered my relationship to my practice - she moves me forward imperceptibly, only as much as I am able, and exactly when I need to grow. She is supremely sensitive to rhythm and breath, and combines the physical, spiritual and intellectual aspects of yoga in a way that makes me crave her teaching and her presence.”
Kathleen Kraft: What does your yoga practice look like day to day?
Kristin Leigh: On the days I teach Mysore Ashtanga, I do my practice at the studio before class because I like to practice with the students and to be in the room with them. On other days, I do self-practice at home or take class with one of The Shala or Now Yoga teachers.
I am really grateful for our teachers who are so grounded, steady and authentic. So many of us are in positions of leading others—being parents, teachers, guides of some sort—that it's nice to have someone tell you what to do and to surrender to that.
I am finding that as I age, the quieter practices are naturally becoming more and more interesting and useful. I never thought it would happen, but age has made me appreciate slowing down. I was very ambitious as a young practitioner, but now I see the practice as physical, mental and emotional maintenance. Meditation and pranayama practices feel very grounding and soothing, to be able to sit and breathe feels like a true luxury. It prepares me better as I head into this confusing world we are living in.
KK: What are the most important qualities of the student/teacher relationship?
KL: I feel blessed to have studied with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and to be a part of the Ashtanga lineage. I think about him every day. The chant we say at the beginning of an Ashtanga yoga practice honors Patanjali and our lineage of teachers. The Sanskrit word parampara refers to the student/teacher relationship, and is the foundation of lineage. It literally means an uninterrupted row or series, order, succession, continuation, meditation, tradition.
A big part of parampara is the element of surrender. This form of surrender is not a blind surrender; it is a surrender that comes from faith, devotion, and experience. It is when we stay open and receptive and loosen our tight grip on controlling everything. I learned surrender from Guruji. Whether it meant holding marichiyasana D for what felt like thirty breaths, or getting to Mysore and having poses taken away, or staying true to the Ashtanga practice—it was always less about what happened to you than how you responded to what was happening. This teaching goes far beyond the context of asana.
KK: Which sutra is guiding you and why?
KL: Sutra I.20 gives a simple and straightforward outline of five personal commitments required on the path to self-realization: faith, strength, memory or recollection, samadhi, and wisdom. I am trying to teach classes these days that help to build physical, mental, and emotional strength for whatever we may face, while at the same time incorporating soft, open and discerning qualities.
I recently listened to Congressman John Lewis’s talk called “Love in Action.” Gandhi is a major influence of his, and he often uses the term satyagraha: become a force of truth out of firm love, revolutionary love or active pacifism. So we have faith, we fight, we are courageous, we stand strong, and we do it with kindness and compassion and openness. No violence.
KK:Who has been a major influence on your life, your work?
KL: My business partner, Barbara Verrochi, has been a major influence on me. We have a shared vision and have run a woman-owned business together for 15 years. I couldn't have done what we've done without her. She's strong and direct and works tirelessly. I always grow when I work with her, whether I feel ready and willing or not. My eight-year-old son is also huge influence on my life. He encourages me to be my best and to try to set a positive example in how I speak and act.