In the following interview, Adeline teacher Leah Flaks reflects on her Iyengar yoga journey, including the path to certification. Leah teaches several classes at Adeline, including a Level 1 Community class on Monday from 7:30-9:00PM and a Level 1 Gentle Pace class on Tuesday from 4:00-5:30PM. Beginning this Sunday, January 20th, Leah will also teach a Level 1 class on Sundays from 3:30-5:00PM and an 8-week Yoga Fundamentals series on Sundays from 5:15-6:30PM. See the full schedule here!
How did your journey with Iyengar yoga begin?
I was 19 years old, living in Vancouver, British Columbia, and pursuing a degree in dance at Simon Fraser University. I’d been dancing since I was five years old, but one day I hurt my back in class. I could barely get up and walk out of the studio, and it just got worse from there. I saw various medical professionals, but eventually someone told me about an orthopedist who used yoga as a means of treating patients. I went to see him, and he introduced me to Iyengar yoga right there in his office! He had me hang my torso from a table, almost like an inverted Dandasana.
The same friend who recommended that Orthopedist also suggested I check out some yoga classes at a local community center, and it just so happened they were led by an Iyengar yoga teacher. After about a year of practice, the pain went away. I was crossing the street and I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, I’m not in pain.” So I stopped doing the yoga. Unsurprisingly, the discomfort crept back. So I went back to yoga, and this time I stuck with it.
What an auspicious beginning! What’s happened since then?
I moved to San Francisco in my early 20s. I happened to be living and working very near the institute. It was such a blessing! I should say, I do believe the universe helps us. In this case, it felt like the universe had plopped me right next to the institute!
Eventually, I moved from San Francisco to Oakland and started practicing at the Piedmont Yoga Studio. My teacher there felt I was ready to start teaching and encouraged me to give it a try. I was hesitant, but I did start doing some teaching. It was hard. I didn’t have any sort of a teaching background, and it takes a lot to teach. I loved it, but it was demanding. As a teacher, you have to be consistent, and you have to give a lot. You have to be incredibly present. After some time, I stopped teaching and focused on my full-time work as an executive assistant instead.
After you stopped teaching, what made you decide to pursue certification?
Well, even when I was working in the corporate world, I would come home and practice. When Heather started offering the Sadhana Studies program at Adeline, I took the opportunity to study yoga in a deeper way than I ever had before. When I started the program, I wasn’t like my colleagues. I didn’t want to be a yoga teacher. I was a mess, but I was a mess who loved BKS Iyengar. I had a calling, but I wasn’t that in touch with it. It wasn’t at all clear. I was just putting one foot in front of the other.
There were two things that eventually led me to realize I did want to teach: I liked being in a class setting with students. I love Iyengar yoga, and I enjoy teaching students who want to learn about Iyengar yoga. Second, because of my dance background, I’m always looking at people and sizing them up. I see how yoga could help them, and I want to help them connect with that.
So once you decided to pursue certification, what did that process look like?
I did two years of intense studies in the Sadhana program. We read and wrote a ton and had to learn the names of the poses on our syllabus in both Sanskrit and English. We learned how to say the names, what the names meant, how to do the poses, how to teach them, and how to modify them. It’s a lot!
I’m a studious person, so these studies appealed to me in many ways. Some things were harder than others, but I really gravitated toward our study of the Yoga Sutras. I’d often wondered to myself, “Why did God plop us on this earth without a manual?” When we started studying the sutras, I realized, “Oh! We do have a manual!” Through my studies of the sutras, I learned why I had doubt. I learned why I had resistance. I learned why I was weak in certain areas. And I learned what to do about it. This started with learning to be with myself in daily practice.
Unlike some of my peers, I took a third year to prepare for assessment. It was in the third year that things really solidified for me. I started craving the practice; I started to realize the ways it was affecting my mind and my consciousness. I also studied with Carolyn Belko at her studio in Encinitas. There were ten of us there getting ready for assessment. When we did go up for assessment in 2018, it was such a blessing not to walk into that room alone!
That must have been really reassuring. What else can you share about that weekend?
Going into assessment, I was so nervous and so afraid. It literally took me thirty years to get up the nerve; it was really pushing my boundaries, but I decided I was just going to do it. It was the ultimate surrendering of both the fruits of my effort and my will. It was like walking through fire.
Friday night, we took the written test and did our demonstrated asana and pranayama. I knew what I needed to do, and I just did it. The demonstrated practice took several hours. I kept hearing Anneke Faas’s voice in my mind saying, “Just do your best. You want to do your best. Just do your best.”
I didn’t have to teach my assigned poses until Sunday, so I spent Saturday preparing. I loved the poses I was given to teach, but they were hard poses, and I was nervous. Ultimately, though, the assessors want to see your potential as an Iyengar yoga teacher. In many ways I am still a beginner, but when I did my demonstrated teaching they saw my dedication and determination.
Looking back on the experience, in some ways it felt like a workshop. I learned a lot, and it felt like a community effort.
It sounds like both a challenging and deeply rewarding weekend! Everyone at Adeline Yoga was so happy to learn that you had passed. What was it like for you?
I was so happy. But I was also in shock. I’d worked so hard for three years to study and prepare. And in many ways it still blows my mind that someone thinks I can teach; there’s such a chasm between BKS and me!
If the assessment process taught me anything, though, it’s I have strengths, and I have weaknesses. Instead of beating myself up about my weaknesses, I can build on my strengths. I know that sounds simple, but to actually live that and know that about myself has been the journey of a lifetime. Preparing for assessment taught me that yoga was about tapping into all the layers of my being, all the way down to the soul. Now that I understand how vast this practice is, I’m in awe. Iyengar helped us understand what is possible on this path, and I am full of gratitude for that.
What words of wisdom do you have for Iyengar yogis considering assessment?
It’s a wonderful journey. It’s a worthwhile journey. It takes a lot of time, study, dedication. You really need all the people around you to be on board and support you.
If you really want to learn more, if you feel a calling, go for it. You’ll overcome the obstacles, and make no mistake—there will be obstacles.
The process is all consuming, but it’s so rewarding. Preparing for assessment made me a better person on all levels. Engaging in the process ensures you’ll have more to offer the world, whether you teach or not. So really, it’s worth it. But you have to understand that it’s going to challenge you.
Now that you’ve risen to that challenge personally, what do you hope to bring to your classes?
I’m excited to take what I’ve learned and share it. I feel like I’m a pretty friendly person, and I would like in my classes for people to feel they can just be themselves. I want them to feel welcome and empowered to address whatever obstacles are in their path.
I love that Iyengar yoga is for everybody. It doesn’t matter your age, your body type, your abilities, et cetera. I am excited to help each student who walks through the door meet their goals.
Thank you, Leah! And congratulations again on all that you have achieved!