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There is No Wrong Way to Move

An Interview with Rachel Johnston

Rachel Johnston teaches Strength and Surrender at Studio 191: a class that makes you bump straight into the unexpected. Whereas most students think they are walking into a class of sun salutations, warriors and pigeons, Rachel’s class is a return to the fundamentals. In her confident, soft, wise voice, she unravels the why’s and the how’s of your yoga practice. She is an observer and teacher of movement, passionate not only about her topic but in helping people understand their bodies, why they move the way they do. Through these teachings of movement, she intends to make you move with more awareness in your everyday life, to open your eyes to your surroundings and even to those places outside of your comfort zone.

How did you become a teacher of movement?

I’ve always been an active person. At school I was a sprinter, a swimmer and a dancer, I did Irish dancing for years. I just love folk dance. These dances are fascinating to me, because they tell the story of a place.

I started with regular Hatha yoga at 16, for stress. By the time I got to University, one of my friends had already trained to be a teacher, so I did yoga with her and that’s when I decided I would do also do a training. It happened by accident, but in London it was easy to get work as a yoga teacher. My original training was in the Iyengar school, but now I don’t ascribe to any dogma or follow a lineage, but I still call myself a yoga teacher, and not just a movement teacher, because yoga deals with the things I am interested in. It deals with the physiology, anatomy, psychology and philosophy of a person. I just see my job as trying to see people flourish in the world and yoga has always looked at the bigger picture. Although the moves of my class are not always what one would think of traditional yoga. 

Most exercise science which is used in more recent yoga asana is based on a very structural view of the body, almost like a dead anatomy. And as we learn more about biomechanics, I’ve come to the view that a more functional rather than structural view makes more sense in terms of movement. We haven’t done much studying of anatomy in movement. Phenomenally, we know more about outer-space than we do about how our bodies work. And we have these massive different variations like the Chinese, the Indian, the Western way of looking, and they are all valuable, but we tend to think one is better than the other. What we should be teaching as teachers is how we can listen to our bodies.

I think where I differ is that I’m not going to stick to something just because it’s said; I want to know, as much as possible.

What triggered your break with Iyengar and develop your own philosophy and style?

I think it was always there, because from a tiny age I’ve been interested in just moving my body in as many different ways as possible: that’s fascinating to me. There is no wrong way to move, there are so many ways. When I found yoga, it was really the first time in my life I started to specialise in the way of moving. And that was not so good for my body. Because human beings are generalists, we should be quiet good at a lot of different things, as opposed to being really good in only one thing. The only reason to be really, really good at one thing is if you are going to make your living from it, like becoming gymnast, for example, but you will pay the price for that later in life. Because I came into yoga already flexible, which is a praised thing, on the surface, I felt that I fit, but it was only my ego saying: Oh, I’m good at this. Whereas, actually, people who say they can’t do yoga because they are not flexible enough, are precisely the people that should be doing yoga, and the flexible people maybe should go lift some weights.

When I started rock climbing again, there were just certain things, that however flexible you are, you’re not going to be able to do. You think, Oh, of course I can reach my leg up there! But I couldn’t put any weight through it, I couldn’t actually use the range I thought I had, it was useless! and I think that started a little thing in my brain: Shit, I thought I was strong. And I started to realise I was strong only for one thing. I guess that was the start of my break with yoga and going my own way.

I’ve always been an observer and a questioner and it doesn’t really sit well with me to be told what to do and then do it. I’m always like: Why?! But, why would I do that??

How would you explain your philosophy?

Movement is at the core of my philosophy. I’m interested in movement, not exercise. Of course, exercise is movement. But movement is what everybody has to do, regardless of your age, your sex, your abilities, you can’t get through life without movement. I’m interested in, and Yoga is interested in, the big patterned movements of the body, so forward, backward, twist, side and how one creates habits in these movements. I’m interested in helping people decode these habits and learn which ones they need to keep and which ones are not useful anymore. You can change your body, so once you’ve found something that you know needs to be worked on, there are ways to achieve that. I’m interested in all the different things that makes up movement: your physiology, your anatomy, but also your philosophy in life, probably your religion, your past experiences. Your body is your biography.

"Your body is your​ biography"

How do you think your philosophy can help society?

I think learning how to use your body functionally and usefully in the world should be the foundation of how you go about the world. It is more useful for you to learn to pick somebody up, than to do the splits: maybe in your life you will come across a burning building and you will need to rescue someone, you will need to pick them up, to help them out. You will be a much more useful human being if you can rescue that person than if you can do the splits. To become a useful citizen is more behind my teaching than how to do yoga shapes; the yoga poses are just there for your body to explore, rather than to do.

What do you think about the Yoga scene in Amsterdam?

The yoga scene in Amsterdam is young: young teachers and young bodies. As a society I think we are at a place where we don’t observe older bodies’ movements. We’ve taken away some of the social structures that teach us how to move naturally, we live in more singular lives now, you don’t live with your parents or grandparents. That has an influence on how the yoga asana is taught to the general population. I go to a Feldenkrais class at De Roos with a wonderful teacher called Alicia Artenstien, which is a form of somatic education that uses gentle movement and directed attention to improve movement ease and enhance human functioning. I particularly love it’s focus on the understanding of human development. I go because it’s predominantly an older generation of people that go to that class, i’m always the youngest there, and that’s the only time in my week that I spend with the older population. I spend time moving with bodies that have so much more knowledge than mine do. And seeing how someone has to learn how to get up and down from the floor, that gives me inspiration. I come across young bodies that already face problems with getting up and down, then when they are older, they will have to go to classes to learn how to get up and down. And that’s fascinating to me. It doesn’t necessarily sell a class, though [laughs and jokes: You’re going to come and learn how to get up and down!!].

What is the main intention of your class?

My classes at Stusio 191 have a skill-based intention. The Strength and Surrender class will have you flowing through a blend of traditional yoga asana, functional movement and corrective exercise with a focus on mobility and always with a specific skill in mind, then culminate in a few restorative postures designed for relaxation and for you to absorb the information we have worked on. The aim is to help you to build a foundation of lasting health through movement based in a biomechanical understanding of the body, so you will learn how your body is designed to move and explore ways to integrate it into your life.

I teach the fundamentals to both beginners and to people who’ve done yoga or other movements for a while, because sometimes people move without knowing why, they follow instructions, models of movement, but only once you’ve understood why, can you really tailor the movement to the needs of your own body. I particularly like teaching the fundamentals to beginners: My intention is to get more people hooked and to challenge people to question and through questioning to learn about their bodies.

Rachel teaches Strength + Surrender at Studio 191 every Tuesday lunchtime.

Her classes are explorative + engaging and her teachings are deeply knowledgable + inspiring.

Check out our live schedule each week to join one of her yoga classes.

Keep your eyes peeled on the schedule for more opportunities to practice with Rachel.

An interview by Zoe Hofstetter {writer, teacher, personal trainer & manager at Studio 191}

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