By Felicia Tomasko
Photos by David Young-Wolff
When asked about her greatest inspiration as a Yoga teacher, Briohny replies with her ready smile, “That’s easy,” she laughs. “Every minute of every day, I’m inspired by my family: my daughter Taylor, my fiancé Dice, my mother Pam, my father Peter… and my sister Ravi, whom I have yet to convince to step onto the mat!”
Her family is more than simply an inspiration when it comes to her relationship with Yoga, as members of three generations of the family frequently practice together. Her father Peter (who sports Bri’s same easy grin) can often be found in a Yoga studio taking one of Dice or Briohny’s classes. Bri’s daughter Taylor has learned how to flip her body into a steady handstand from her mother. And a few years ago, Bri began teaching Yoga to her own mother Pam. “My family helps me connect with the teachings of Yoga. For example, there is an element of fun, fearlessness, and purity in what my daughter brings to all the poses from handstand to savasana.”
Pam, Bri’s mom, found Yoga at the age of 60. About teaching her mother, Bri says, “It’s a learning experience for me to work with her, and to see how her body has changed over the five years she’s been practicing Yoga. Working with her has helped me understand how to approach bodies from the perspective of safety first.” Not that Briohny’s own practice or teaching isn’t otherwise safe, but when someone’s website url is handstanders.com, you get an idea of where their body may spend a great deal of time oriented in their practice — upside down!
Additionally, Dice and Briohny often practicing together, and are frequently spotted on the mat in each other’s classes, catching air and playing along for fun. This is when they’re not actually co-teaching or leading workshops and retreats as a team. The two are even combining a Yoga retreat in Bri’s former home country of Thailand with their upcoming wedding. And while some of their practice takes place within the studio, they also spend a fair amount of time on warm days biking to the green near the Santa Monica Pier where the acrobats and gymnasts hang around and trade techniques.
Before Bri’s life involved acrobatics near the Pier, an Equinox video with more than three million views, or time patiently spent in a studio instructing a variety of students, she had achieved celebrity as a pop sensation in Thailand. Bri was born in Sydney, Australia, where she spent the first three years of her life with her Australian father and Thai-Chinese mother, speaking both English and French (with her French-Italian grandmother). Then for the next eight years, she lived the American life in Woodland Hills and Topanga Canyon, until the ’94 earthquake inspired a sudden family move—to Thailand.
She began learning the language by singing Thai songs karaoke-style. Bri’s aunt encouraged her mother to bring the eleven-year-old with the unusual half-Thai, half-Caucasian look to a modeling agency. This seemingly simple decision led to Bri being featured in a slew of ad campaigns, including twenty commercials in one year. When Bri was twelve, after appearing throughout Thailand and Japan in print advertising for Bioré pore packs, she received a phone call from a record label wanting to cast her in a film.
At the time, Bri explains, record companies in Thailand were the ones who produced everything from soap operas to movies. When she was asked what she liked to do, her quick reply was, “I love to sing.”
Six months later, she cut her first album which sold three million tapes alone. “We don’t even buy cassette tapes anymore,” Briohny jokes. As her teenage pop star career moved forward (amidst rampant pirating of music), she began producing, even developing, a sub-label within the record company for her preferred hip-hop sounds. At the same time, she was living an exciting, yet grueling, touring lifestyle that took a toll on her health. She used drugs, partied “ridiculously,” developed an eating disorder (bulimia and anorexia), and had to lie about her age to perform in clubs. “My darkest time of abusing my body was from the ages of thirteen to sixteen.”
“When I was fifteen, I had a producer approach me asking me to host a travel show to Nepal. We shot for a week, but I stayed for three months, traveling through Nepal, Tibet, and India. I first found Yoga at an ashram in Nepal. From that point on, I was practicing here and there and then when I returned to Bangkok, I found a studio and kept practicing.” Her ongoing Yoga practice inspired her to start to change her lifestyle in small ways, such as getting up early to practice or questioning some of her actions, even though she continued the cycles of anorexia and bulimia until she became pregnant. Briohny credits her participation in Overeaters Anonymous and 12 -step programs along with Yoga with her ability to finally shift her addictive behavior.
When she learned she was pregnant, she stepped away from the limelight and left Thailand to raise her baby. “I’ve always liked to sing and perform music; it’s gratifying and the fans can be loving. But nothing is as gratifying as the love I have for my child and the feeling of holding my child in my arms and nourishing her. I’ve dedicated my life to her.”
After moving to Houston, Briohny and Taylor’s father worked together in the fashion industry. Bri became a retail buyer and later developed her own fashion line before the relationship and the fashion line ended. Her next move brought her back to Southern California and to a deeper investigation of the Yoga practice that had been a part of her life since the age of fifteen. Years of Yoga had helped Briohny find self-acceptance, and the practice helped her to prepare for the birth of her daughter and for motherhood.
Immersing herself in Yoga ignited an internal spark. “The first person who inspired me to think I could do this as a business while continuously cultivating becoming a better person for my family and everyone around me was Kathryn Budig.”
Briohny’s next step was a 200-hour 30-day teacher training immersion with Annie Carpenter, Kia Miller, Joan Hyman, and Bahni Turpin. She started out having to pay to rent spaces and teach before her Yoga teacher dance card began to fill.
When asked about other inspirations, Briohny mentions one of her current students, Nick. An accident caused by an exploding citronella candle led to third degree burns over large areas of his body, including his shoulders, upper body, arms, hands, and face. “He has a drive like no other,” she insists, and his recovery time has beaten all of the odds. He sought out Yoga, and she researched Yoga for people with burns.
“While I did my teacher training, Jasmine Lieb, Annie Carpenter, Lisa Walford, and Jeanne Heileman were my mentors. They showed me that just because you have a strong practice; it doesn’t mean that your teaching only has to be that type of practice.”
“Meeting Nick has helped me put my life in perspective; he inspires me every day, and reminds me why I am dedicated to these teachings.”
Throughout a life that has gone from the stage to the studio, Briohny reminds herself while she’s on her mat, “Who am I doing this for?” She often comes back to the importance of love, loving oneself, and connecting to family, as the core of the practice.
Look for Briohny Smyth on her Facebook page: Yoga with Briohny or find her on the web: briohnysmyth.com or handstanders.com.
Further images and work by photographer David Young Wolff can be found at: Davidyoung-wolff.com