Meet the Teach: Leigh Evans - A Special Blend of Traditions
Interview by Jane Porter
Most yoga teachers are known for their signature style—hot and sweaty, slow and mellow, alignment obsessed—no matter what day of the year you catch them on. Not so with Leigh Evans who believes there’s a different practice for every season, every age, even every stage a woman is at in her menstrual cycle.
Her classes, workshops and teacher trainings blend her studies with Dharma Mittra, Rodney Yee, Sarah Powers and others with her training in Indian Odissi and Butoh dance. She recently sat down with YogaCity’s NYC Jane Porter to talk about how she transitioned from dancing to teaching and why it’s important for women to pay more attention to their menstrual cycles when they practice.
Jane Porter: What was your first experience with yoga and how did you start teaching?
Leigh Evans: I started practicing in 1986. At that time I moved to New York to be a dancer. I couldn’t afford the dance classes and someone gave me a card for a free class with Dharma Mittra. I took that first class and I was completely mesmerized. I went everyday for six months. Then I moved to California. I was studying at the Iyengar Institute and dancing out there. At that point, not every person in the world was becoming a yoga teacher. I didn’t even think of it as an occupation. I began studying in a small studio where Rodney Yee happened to be teaching and I took his first teacher training around 1992. He was young teacher at the time – before he became famous. I assisted for him for a year and learned a lot from him.
JP: What role does dance play in your classes?
LE: I bring in exercises from dance so that it doesn’t just feel like stagnant pose after pose, but students become attuned to the transitions in between. The transition is as much an opportunity to become attentive as any other. Sometimes I will work on opening up the fingers and toes to awaken the end and beginning points to various meridians. The energy channels are in the fingers. I bring in exercises to wake up the joints of the wrists and the fingers. There are lots of exercises from Odissi dance for that.
JP: What is the difference between this kind of flow and vinyasa?
LE: In a normal vinyasa class, I don’t think there is necessarily that much attention to detail. It’s in the attention to detail that wakefulness happens. A lot of times I’m just shocked at people who may have been taking class for a long time, but they don’t know some of the fundamental alignment details. I think the difference is the attentiveness to the flow in between.
JP: You teach with a particular emphasis on postures for women. What does it mean to have a women’s practice and why is this important?
LE: Most teachers inform their students they shouldn’t invert when menstruating, but that’s about as far as it goes. The vinyasa practice is very heating for the body. If you just do a heating practice all the time, you start to agitate your nervous system. Most women just pop a couple of Advil and move on. According to Ayurveda, a lot of the issues women are having these days—cysts, fibroids, infertility, heavy or irregular menses, too much PMS—all these things stem back to their relation with their cycle. We are trying to help bring an awareness of what’s happening hormonally in the month and what kinds of practices will be helpful at what time of the month to help bring balance.
JP: Where can women begin if they want to develop their practice beyond just avoiding inversions while menstruating?
LE: Hormonally, when you’re menstruating, you’re at a point where there’s lots of progesterone in the body and it takes us into a very internal place. There are extremely restorative practices you can do that will help you get deeper into this place and release some of the blockage or cramping and open up the meridians that affect the liver so that the blood flow is smoother.
Ayurveda says you should not do anything heating for the body. You really shouldn’t do deep back bends or twists or any sort of bandhas. You want to be doing a cooling practice. Two of the most beneficial postures for women in general and definitely when they are menstruating is supta baddha konasana and also upavistha baddha konasana. You are opening your legs in a certain way that affects your kidney and liver meridians. Those two poses are also excellent if you are tired and kind of worn out or need to turn inward.
JP: At the end of each of your classes, what one aspect of the practice do you hope your students take away with them?
LE: When it comes down to it, I want them to leave in a state of awakened consciousness, with the ability to really listen inside and be present—to be grounded in themselves in a state of wakefulness.