From Beachwood Canyon to Brookline, Massachusetts
In 1996, while hiking the northern section of the Hollywood Hills, Natasha Rizopoulos had a “moment.” In that reflection, in the balm of Beachwood Canyon, she experienced a bit of a homecoming. After years of professional roaming, the moment was a bow to the ever-present voice that had been long dimmed by the “shoulds” that can mute a life.
In chapter nine of the classic Great Expectations, Pip counsels, “Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.” You might say, in her flash Ms. Rizopoulos was channeling some Dickens. Inquiring in, staring down the truth of the matter and hushing, “Ahhh… yoga.” In that brush with clarity, there was a merger of her inner and outer selves.
Natasha Rizopoulos is beloved by students on both coasts for her strong command of asana and dedication to proper alignment; she is a respected educator of thousands of yoga instructors, former Director of Content of the YogaWorks teacher training curriculum, Yoga Journal cover model and contributor, star of Yoga Journal’s Yoga Step-by-Step video series, creator of the Align Your Flow™ system, Yoga U presenter, and more … The earnest maestro sports a resume with which many in the yoga world are well versed.
Yet there is a story to the origins of these great expectations Natasha Rizopoulos holds of herself and her students. Just how does an East Coast bred, Ivy League educated daughter of two academics with years of training as a ballet dancer wind up with a 2X6 mat as her office?
Yoga was not necessarily in her early plan. “With Natasha, since she was a little girl, it’s been, ‘I’m here. I’m going to do my best. I’m going to get myself organized, and I expect everyone else to do their best too’,” recalls her mother Diana de Vegh. Growing up among books (many books) in New Haven, Connecticut and New York City, Rizopoulos’ strong will and seriousness of purpose surfaced early on in her childhood.
These “all in” characteristics spilled over to many of her youthful pursuits from paper dolls and make believe to her intense study of ballet. In dance and movement she found an early vessel for self-expression, a vessel in which she abided well into her high school years. Although dance’s punitive nature eventually quelled a bit of her spirit for it, it was an early link nonetheless.
After four years in Cambridge, graduating Magna Cum Laude from Harvard, she returned to her beloved Gotham City to work first as a civil servant in city government, then to enroll in a graduate program at Columbia (a Master’s Degree in Social Work and Public Policy). In her first year, she worked as a counselor in a hospital in the South Bronx, then partway through her second year of study, she realized that her passion was in a different path so she parted ways with the program to follow a long-simmering ambition to pursue a life on-stage as an actress.
An unwavering determination and the sense of purpose that came with self-expression led to her accepting a number of smaller stage roles as well as a coveted invitation to summer with Shakespeare and Company. “In some ways, the acting was wonderful in that it filled that void for self expression that was left when I gave up dance. I also loved the community – being part of a production was so seductive for me. So thrilling.”
The logical next stop for an emerging actress in the prime of her life would be Hollywood. Once there she worked both in front of and behind the camera, juggling odd jobs and odd hours and growing increasingly disenchanted with both. Along the way she began to dabble in yoga and adopted a regular (Ashtanga slanted) practice.
In this chapter, and by chance, she found herself in class with Saul David Raye as he was serving as a substitute for the scheduled instructor. She was struck by his knowledge and teaching style that soared above and beyond the simple recitation of poses; through him she found her way to YogaWorks where she continued to be drawn in by the practice’s physical aspects and the experience of being completely present in her actions on the mat.
“I had a brain that was going all of the time. There was for me just something so absorbing with the physical practice.” Then there is that Beachwood Canyon pause in which she takes stock and recalls a dance experience during a role in the Shakespeare and Company production, that sheer joy of expressing herself through her body and the happiness in her work. She says, “The memory of that time made me realize that I could do this with yoga – to be in the world and take this practice I was falling in love with and do something useful with it.”
“Finding yoga was the big shift for me. On the surface I always seemed to have it together, but all the while I was truly quaking inside – perfectionism, a certain self-consciousness… When I started teaching yoga I had found my voice. And finally, it was an authentic voice.” The following week she committed fully and enrolled in a teacher training program at YogaWorks – a leap from which she has never looked back. “Ahhh… yoga.”
Invoking a young King Arthur and the building wisdom he earned through wearing varied hats in the story The Sword in the Stone, de Vegh, a therapist in private practice in New York, summarized her daughter’s professional trajectory, “With Natasha, the things that she learned as an actor and as a dancer are very apropos for yoga. She learned how to work with herself. How to work with her breath. How to use breath to sustain her. How to use breath to give her energy and when to preserve it. She learned how to work with her body – when is the time to stretch and push and when is the time to cherish and protect. She learned about listening to the music and getting that internal beat, and of course as an actor listening to other actors. Her training in these areas fed into her work as a yoga teacher, and I think her natural generosity and kindness probably helps a bit as a yoga instructor as well.”
Rizopoulos brought to her (Iyengar and Ashtanga) yogic studies a complete attention and that signature strong constitution. Beginning in 1996, she completed two successive 200 hour teacher training programs under the tutelage of Lisa Walford and Maty Ezraty, the first as an avid civilian and the second just as she was added to their teaching roster. As soon as YogaWorks’ Advanced Teacher Training program was developed, she completed that as well.
With a wealth of training under her belt and hesitating less, she launched herself fiercely into her teaching, from the start teasing out the promise of the willing. “I was fortunate to have begun teaching so quickly because that accelerated path just ramped up my desire to know more and more. I did not want to just be teaching gymnastics.”
Ms. Rizopoulos educates in lyrics all her own—a fact to which anyone who has spent time in her company can attest. “Spinning inner thighs”, “pinning elbows”, and “rebounding the spine” are just a swatch of the currency she trades in her precise guidance.
In the practice of asana she sees a window with dual opportunities: to reveal vulnerabilities and also to correct them. A big part of seizing these opportunities involves listening—a dying art for which she displays ongoing mastery. “If you are really looking at your students, you can see the piece that isn’t working. Whether it’s a part of the body that is weak, dull, tight, whether it is a quality of mind that is not allowing the person to be present – skillful teaching is about helping the person turn into the skid which is often an area that they’re trying to avoid… but doing it gently and mindfully and with support.”
It bears mentioning that her mother, Ms. de Vegh, was for years a teacher in Reevaluation Counseling (RC). This process of uninterrupted, attentive listening is said to naturally facilitate best conclusions from within. These teachings drifted into the family home for a time impressing Rizopoulos deeply. Perhaps in homage to this concept of listening fully, she has little use for the sensory overload which has become so accepted in contemporary yoga. “I want people to be listening to my instructions or their own breath. Why do we need something else?”
After a storied career in the Southern California YogaWorks family, Rizopoulos was tasked with the export of the program’s teacher trainings to Boston when her personal life spurred a cross-country relocation. She continued to share that curriculum, one which she had personally refined over time, in her role as a senior teacher at Down Under Yoga (Newton and Brookline) until 2015 when she elected to devote her full attention to creating and sharing her own teacher training programs in collaboration with Down Under.
A trusted mentor to many, these days in addition to her concurrent 200 and 300 hour teacher training programs, she also leads four public classes each week in the Boston area as well a number of Align Your Flow™ master classes in and around the city. Although the teaching commitments do at times compete with her own personal time on the mat, it is on these smaller stages that she sees her tomorrows. She does not rule out a writing project at some point, but resisting impulse she insists that such a venture must be predicated by her uncovering something distinct to relay.
Brookline, Massachusetts sits some 3,000 miles east of Los Angeles. A hamlet just outside of Boston, the town is home to stellar public schools as well as choice shopping and dining. Founded in 1705, Brookline is perhaps best known for its proximity to Fenway Park and also its discerning inhabitants. Rizopoulos traded 15 years of Southern California perpetual sunshine to be here.
Tucked gently in among towering pines, an accent of white checkering the grounds… her home and its setting are enchanting. I arrive for tea in the early afternoon on a chilly Friday. More than just a dwelling, it’s a refuge she has peacefully occupied for the past four years with her husband, the Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Kirk. Dressed casually, she and her “lassies,” rescue dogs who answer to Alice and Zucchini, welcome me with a steadied cheer. As in the studio, her voice breezes seamlessly with conviction from one topic to the next, her volume perpetually dialed to about 3.5, obliging the listener to lean in.
In just a few hours she will kick-off a 300 hour teacher training program, a program in its third sell-out year. Yet her manner is so at ease. It is perhaps under this roof that she hears best; her free time is spent reading fiction, wandering out in nature, following her tennis hero Roger Federer, and meditating in her home studio. When we approach the topic of her husband, she gushes sweetly beaming gratitude for their union. She and Kirk met in 2003 while filming Yoga Journal’s Yoga Step-by-Step video series. From their working relationship, in time, a deeper partnership unfolded eventually prompting her shift in coasts.
Their life together is intentionally quiet, and although in June 2016, Rizopoulos presented at Yoga Journal’s San Diego conference, she goes to great lengths to preserve that order, cutting back on her travel and making any other necessary edits to suit their life together. These include embracing a smaller, more local career and being at much peace with that decision. Despite her resistance to the siren calls of social media and things viral, she has found in her practice channel with Yoga U a means of skillfully bending technology to honor her preferences yet remain connected remotely with her swelling audiences. In this expanding series of online classes sporting titles such as “The Art of Building Core Stability” and “Harnessing the Transformative Power of Inversions”, students find Rizopoulos continuing to disrupt myths, herald key actions, and highlight the use of oppositional actions in poses such as salamba sarvangasana (supported shoulderstand). Regardless of your viewing zip code, expect to be tasked with her signature homework poses or “daily vitamin regimens” at the finish of each class.
Grateful to be back to a pretty well-rounded practice herself after navigating some injuries and the limits of a hyper-mobile body in its late forties, Rizopoulos feels strongly that “teachers have teachers.” Still curious and forever foraging for novel content to share with her students, Patrica Walden, whom she views as a significant mentor, continues to guide her as she deepens her personal Iyengar studies. “Natasha is a teacher committed to growing, not that she needs to. Yet she sets the bar very high for herself. As a result she has so much to contribute to her students,” shared Walden. “When she teaches asana, it is not just physical. With great humility Natasha also honors pranayama and shares yoga’s rich philosophy. And, I would underline humility.”
Thirty-five of us have just wrapped up a master class which plumbed the depths of the all-important backbend. Over the course of two hours the tenor swirling around Ms. Rizopoulos morphs rather organically from all business to the charm of a doctor in the house. Under her careful guidance in breath and motion, collectively we’ve journeyed from an unpacking of tadasana (mountain pose) straight through to three variations on urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow), our peak pose for the morning. At the finish of our travel there is a genuine experience of having covered terrain, physical and intellectual, with many small epiphanies along the way. Despite the fatigue, I’m struck by the audience (mostly comprised of yoga instructors) lingering, continuing to hang on the instructor’s every word as she elaborates whole-heartedly on “pairing actions to find your neutral, your zero” in these poses.
Longtime Natasha student, teaching assistant and Boston area studio owner Kristin Olson summed up her personal experience in Natasha’s company, “Natasha’s intelligence pervades her teaching. She creates a more cerebral asana experience and through her choice of words and sequencing she forces students to not only stay present but to also notice their own personality through the practice. Every single pose and every single cue is thoughtfully chosen to create a profound and enriching asana. She has an extraordinary ability to translate asana and yoga philosophy so that they resonate with people in a way that we can actually live by the ideals of yoga.”
In her company, as I witness her extending time and rich imagery to advance excellence among her students, I get the sense that there is no place else that she needs to be. There is no rush. The movement is ever deliberate. The scholar, the dancer, the actor, the Virgo and yes the teacher… all serve in the stewardship of her beloved yoga. Long ago she made peace with the swerves and in doing so she has arrived at her precise place of shelter.
“The universe does take care of us… You do end up where you are supposed to end up… eventually. I was meant to teach yoga. I know that I was.”
For more information on Natasha, visit: natasharizopoulos.com
For more information on YogaWorks, visit: yogaworks.com
For more information on Down Under Yoga, visit: downunderyoga.com
Photo shoot assistants: Tamara Hickey and Siobhan Beasley (siobhanbeasleyphotography.com)
Hair and Makeup by Erica Morales of ENNIS Inc
Yoga Mat by Manduka: manduka.com
Susan Currie is a Boston-based photographer, writer, yoga instructor and Associate Editor at LA YOGA. She teaches a host of creative workshops throughout the country. Susan’s new collection of poetic verse and images, GRACENOTES (Shanti Arts), will be published in November. See more of her work at www.susancurriecreative.com.