I haven’t met many yoga teaching training instructors. I have definitely not met any Nike Global Ambassadors, for yoga or otherwise but I have met a lot of people.
Some people you just take an instant liking to.
Leah Kim is one of those “nice” people. Nice, but not in the non-descript boring sense of the word so often used. Leah is just genuinely nice, in the best sense of the word – open, friendly, generous, and supportive.
She is also ultra down to earth, warm, and funny. She has this brightness about her, a lightness, even though I met her at the end of her most recent yoga training at Hom Yoga , of what I would call a grueling schedule. It’s 200 hours, after all. And she’s training people to teach us to move into and out of yoga poses safely, deeply, and with awareness.
Over fresh juice and cold pressed coffee, I met Leah – the person, dog lover, author, globetrotter, and a member of a growing group of dreamcatchers. Like many, Leah did the “responsible” thing and majored in a “sensible” degree like Economics leading to a job in the financial industry. Leah worked as a portfolio analyst then as an associate at an investor relations firm.
But then, the big questions started popping up, like “Does what I do matter?” and “How do I make a difference?”
It was on the mat that Leah found some clarity, on what she wanted and on who she was.
Leah chronicles her journey from a desk jockey to a yogi in her book From Office Hell to Yoga Heaven. Because she chose to follow her heart, and to take a leap, Leah lives a coherent life. She sees no difference between Leah the yogi and Leah the person. And yes, there is a pre- and post-yoga Leah, as her childhood friend calls it.
It’s not about what you look like, but celebrating you as you are. It’s being your best self, as Oprah says. There is a fine line between wanting to better yourself and not being satisfied with who you are and trying to change yourself.
There’s nothing like working on yourself.
The first time I really felt like a yogi, really experienced it, it was so lovely. It’s so great to be able to do all these things physically, but at the same time take care of yourself.
I found I am closer to God, to the universe, and myself when I am on my mat. Why people go to church is to work on being a better person, a kinder person, how we can help each other, help the world, and be connected to a higher spirit. This is what we do on a yoga mat.
What do you think about the Singapore yoga scene?
By virtue of the fact that Hom has opened up a second location within a very short period of time is definitely telling. I only spend my time here [Hom Yoga] so I can’t speak for the other studios but I do hear there is a lot of good yoga happening.
Some of the trainees that were just in the program come from other studios. Absolute Yoga or Kate Porter. Of course there’s Pure Yoga. So it does look like it’s building a lot, which is awesome.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I try to keep most working days in London Monday through Friday. The weekend is family time. Otherwise we [Leah and her husband] would never see each other.
Usually I have a very early morning class. Then sometimes a mid-day class.
The only time I would plan a class is if I’m doing an event, like a Yoga for Runners type workshop. Then I would design it specifically. For my normal classes I would go with the flow.
One of my first teachers, Erich Schiffmann, would say be a channel. I’d like to think of it as a present moment connection with who’s there. You don’t know who will come to class. They may come with lots of energy, or maybe are really advanced, and other times, not so much. I think it’s important as a teacher to roll with it.
I hear that your favourite pose is the Child’s Pose?
Yeah. Every morning, I start the day with the Child’s Pose in my bed. You are literally grounding – your self, your mind. You are connecting into the earth.
There’s also something to be said for the third eye space being the seed of your intuition, and trying to move through your day, and life, intuitively, rather than cerebrally.
It [Child’s Pose] just feels good.
It’s really fun to do challenging poses but it’s important not to get caught up in that. It’s going to come a time when you’re not going to be able to do that. For anyone who’s ever had an injury…it’s really humbling but also a good opportunity to get into the deeper aspects of what a yoga practice is. Less about the movement of doing, and more about sitting in the stillness. The Child’s Pose is all about that. And everyone can do it.
Down dog is also a close favourite. It’s a stretch for the entire backside of your body.
Depending on how you emphasize it, you can work the stretch more on your shoulders, your spine, or your legs. It’s also very strengthening. It’s a half inversion which helps quiet the mind.
How do you stay inspired to teach?
Just continually being a student. I have no need to act like I know everything, or even the best way to do something.
I love learning new perspectives on a pose. When to inhale and exhale.
We had a couple of physios doing the training and their understanding of anatomy is crazy deep and I learned from them. I learned so much from the trainees. It’s constantly letting new information come in.
I think it’s a very lucky thing to be able to travel. Travelling is always inspiring. New country. New people. New everything. You see yourself in a different way. Being based in LA, Hong Kong, then London means I haven’t taught in one studio for ten years. When your environment changes, it makes you change. Keeps things fresh.
I experience teaching burnout too, like a lot of teachers do. Maybe it’s not talked about. You’re expected to always be floating on the cloud. Sometimes I’ve been going a long time, teaching, teaching, teaching, and not doing enough for myself. It’s give, give, give and not doing deep practice myself. You need to find a way to refill. It can be hard to take out the mat when I’ve taught four classes in a day to practice. But 100% of the time, I feel better after I’ve practiced. It’s important to remember on those days.
What is your style of yoga?
My big thing is getting people to figure out their big thing.
In my own practice, it’s finding the authentic human expression and learning to do things your own way. A big moment for was in a triangle pose in a class and my teacher Erich Schiffmann was like, let your hand move the way it wants to. We are taught really straight arms, active fingers, look up, and hold. He was like let it [your hand] be free. I just felt my body happy. It was so cool. It felt liberating. I don’t have to fit myself into this shape. It’s good to do the shape. It’s a good base. Then once you learn the base, you go from there.
I love to do that, as a teacher. To encourage people to be creative. You know people always say the guru is within, the teacher is within. There is something internal that moves you. I don’t know what exactly it is but I feel it.
I was born in America. I’m a Western person, culturally. I wasn’t born in the Himalayas. I wasn’t born into what a lot of people try to become when they find yoga. Live a certain way. Make decisions a certain way. Live like the ancient yogis did, in caves, eating berries or not even eating but living on breath. You have to be austere. And strict in your choices.
There are all these stories. There is a built-in expectation and judgment. About drinking coffee. Eating meat. Drinking alcohol. All these modern world stuff. I’ve been there. I’ve been vegan, vegetarian, eating raw, attempting to be gluten-free… That wasn’t authentic. Yoga is trying to get closer to who’s inside. Who I am is this girl from California. I just want to me, even if it’s not a meditating yogi.
At the end of the day, it’s about being a better person so you can be a happier person. Whatever gets you there, all the other stuff is details.
How do you think Nike has changed the idea of yoga?
Nike and Yoga. You wouldn’t necessarily think of them together. But when Nike approached me, I was so excited. It just opened up my potential audience, the people I could reach.
Nike comes with so much credibility. If someone is not interested in going to a studio and sees Nike is offering something yoga-related, they know it’ll be good. You already have a headstart. People are more willing to come. And then it’s letting the practice speak for itself and do its magic.
I know my work with Nike has made a lot of people who were skeptical about yoga become yoga practitioners. The practice is in your state of mind and what you are doing when you are practicing yoga. That can happen in any type of person, in any type of environment.
You can get a deeply opening experience anywhere – at a fitness conference, at Nike Town, or in a beautiful sanctuary studio space.
It was only in 2004 that you left your corporate job. You were teaching quite soon after that. 2007 you moved to Hong Kong, teaching at Pure Yoga. 2009 you became Nike’s Global Yoga Ambassador. How would you describe your journey so far?
Very blessed. Always humbling. I’ve had a lot of support – from my family and from my teachers.
I’m always surprised at what I ask for, and in time, it really happens. Whether in a yoga context, or life context. I think the key to manifesting is that what you desire comes from pure heart. And not from a grasping ego. Take time to clarify what your passion is.
Photos courtesy of Leah Kim
She’s leading her next 200-hour Teacher Training program this May back at Hom Yoga. Inspired and curious, but not quite there myself, I’ll just be checking out her master class or the one she’s teaching with Hom Yoga founder Malvina.