An Interview with Lisa Clark, Founder and Director

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JULY 2017

Julee Snyder: I’m sitting here today speaking with my teacher and colleague, Lisa Clark, founder of EmbodiYoga®. She is currently in the process of packing up her home and studio in Pittsburgh to move back to North Carolina. She has recently licensed me to offer her EmbodiYoga®: Yoga and Somatics 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training here at EVOLVE Movement. I have rebranded my classes as EmbodiYoga® to align with the training and students are curious. So I thought to devote this month’s EVOLVER article to an interview with Lisa.

Lisa, thank you for talking with me today. I thought I’d start off the conversation by asking about Lineage. If I had to make a guess about the major influences of EmbodiYoga® I would guess Iyengar Yoga for the Yoga influence, Body-Mind Centering for the Somatics influence, and Tantra for the philosophical influence. Is that correct?

Julee: How did that evolve for you? How did EmbodiYoga® come to be?

Lisa: I took my first official yoga class in 1977 at the age of 17. It was taught in a church basement in Greensboro, NC with Nancy Wilson. She encouraged me to seek out her teacher Amrit Desai at Kripalu, which was an ashram back then. This was the early1980's. Amrit’s work was embedded in tantric philosophy and it’s in this aspect that EmbodiYoga® is based. With Amrit, you learned to feel prana (life-force) as the source of the practice and you rode the prana. It’s the prana that’s telling you where and how to move. It’s life-force moving.

At the same time, I took my first workshops in Body-Mind Centering with Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen in Amherst. Amrit and Bonnie were a beautiful match. They were both formless and understood the impulse of prana into form. They were both looking for information through embodied experience. Bonnie unlocked the meaning of yoga for me. She gave words and experience to it. She encouraged us to wake up every cell of the body. This taught me that there was intelligence in the body – at the cellular level. And I learned to trust this body intelligence. In yoga, you don’t have to know anything intellectually; if you get on your mat and practice, it’ll happen. The intellect aspect comes afterwards from the experience.

This whole time, I was teaching and integrating what I was learning into my practice and into my classes. Living in Amherst, MA, I was also exposed to the founders of Contact Improvisation and Authentic Movement. Both of them dance forms that follow the body impulse. So I was hearing the conversations, watching the performances, and learning to listen within. And it all continued to infuse my practice and my teaching.

Around that same time someone told me that Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten were teaching in Boston at the Boston Iyengar Center. What was great about Angela & Victor was that they put this formless following of prana into a yogic form. They were taking this incredible information that Mr. Iyengar had – with its clarity in structure and alignment – and were willing to play and infuse the forms with embodied impulse. They knew anatomy and they knew structure and because they also followed prana, they allowed me to bridge the gap from the formless into form and alignment.

And for many years I studied with Angela & Victor, as well as the Iyengar teachers in Boston and Berkley CA, continuing to go back and forth between formless practices and the form-based Iyengar practices. But I was drawn to what I’ll call the ‘renegade teachers’ – those who walked the edges of the Iyengar tradition.

Julee: So for you then, the tantra influence is one simply of following prana.

Lisa: That’s right. What’s interesting to me is what these practices bring to our lives now. Hatha Tantra looks at the pathways of prana through the subtle body and body layers - koshas, vayus, nadis, chakras. And Bonnie is doing a similar thing through the body systems. ‘Soma’ is body-mind-spirit enlivened through life-force. What I love about the Somaticists, like Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen and Emily Conrad, is that they are present day people – Westerners – mining similar territories as the Yogis, the Toaists, the Buddhists and bringing western language to the process.

So for me, yoga philosophy is amazing and wonderful, but until it’s grounded in our embodied experience, it’s just a fairy tale. How do I take something metaphysical and make it palpable for today? One of the ways we do this is by directing our attention into the body. Where the mind goes, prana follows. And in directing our attention, we become aware of increasingly subtle pathways through which life-force moves. We bring consciousness to the body and this widens our possibilities.

Julee: Do you feel that EmbodiYoga® is a style or do you think of it more as an approach that can be applied to styles like Iyengar, Ashtanga or Anusara?

Lisa: There are multiple pathways to unlock deeper kinesthetic awareness and presence. I think EmbodiYoga® is applicable to any style; it is also a style in and of itself. What has evolved among the trainings here in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati is that graduates and trainees started asking for themed sequences – in the notebooks and in the blogs. What evolved is that EmbodiYoga®, as a style, is crystallizing.

These other styles that you mention, they each have their own principles of alignment and flow; they each have their own logic for sequencing. And we have that! We have a clear way of sequencing based on how we develop as human infants through movement patterns and that gives us a very different view on how we put a class together. Because of that we had to re-evaluate the different asana and their categories. We’ve gotten clearer and clearer over the years of teaching the work and it has shaped our pedagogy and curriculum. All of that is very exciting because it establishes us as a distinct style.

Julee: What can a student hope to experience from an EmbodiYoga® class?

Lisa: In EmbodiYoga® we aim to reawaken movement intelligence in the body through yoga by providing safe, structural awareness in the practice and by inviting exploration and curiosity around structure. Students are invited into their sensation in a way that opens new kinesthetic awareness. We point to how the body and mind express themselves and ask you to witness this process unfolding. One’s vocabulary around alignment is going to increase immensely. What are we aligning with? What body systems are we aligning through and how do they co-support each other? This opens deeper layers of consciousness in the body and gives students a new way of experiencing themselves.

Ultimately, students experience a very deep reconnecting to self as a baseline for everyday life. And this new baseline informs all of our interactions and relationships. Cell-to-cell.,Fluids-to-membranes. Body-to Earth. Body-to-Self, Body parts-to-other body parts, Center-to-periphery. And so much more.

We live in this body and this body is the journey.

Julee: You are now offering a new Restorative Training Series. What do you fell EmbodiYoga® has to bring to the Restorative practice?

Lisa: This first immersive series will be based on the theme of organs and the nervous system in the restorative practice. And there will be other series based on other themes. We deliver it in a series so that you can have a deep experience in class and then integrate it through time, self practice, weekly class, reading, and journaling. It gives one a chance to try things out and come back and go deeper.

So what do I feel we have to bring to the conversation? I’m interested in re-languaging restorative. The word ‘therapeutic’ is becoming controversial in our field. What EmbodiYoga® brings is new possibilities of movement re-patterning through asana, movement, touch, breath, senses, perception, intention, presence, and so much more. In repatterning, we are offering new information and new choice in the body. And the body takes it in on a cellular level so the nervous system can repattern. When we introduce new pathways, it changes how we experience everything. That’s how asana works. And we’re interested in letting people have the tools to change themselves.

I also want to look at touch. Yoga has other words: assist, adjust, correct. Our hands – our touch –communicate information. They communicate movement, how prana moves in the body, and how parts of the body relate to each other. A good teacher sees the potential pathway and can communicate that through language and touch so the student is made aware of new relationships, new pathways and new possibilities. Then they have choice.

The theme for this series is a Return to Self. Coming back to that ‘ground of being’ from which prana arises and returns. Restorative Yoga is an opportunity to rest in this state. And from this state we begin to truly feel ours authentic self. So we are re-patterning the baseline state of our being and we learn to deeply rest – often for the first time. When I was teaching this in Pittsburgh, people were so deeply moved that I had to create special sequences and podcasts to support students in deepening their practice.

I feel the restorative world has plateaued. It’s become prescriptive. It’s such a deeply rich practice. And I feel we have more information to add to the conversation so the practice can grow.

Julee: Lisa, thank you so much for your time today. I’m so looking forward to having you and the EmbodiYoga® programs at EVOLVE.

Lisa:  Thank you, Julee. This has been fun. I’m looking forward to circling back to NC after seven years in Pittsburgh. And I’m excited to steward you and Becky in your new roles as program directors. I’m just thrilled for EmbodiYoga® to have a home at EVOLVE in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Lisa Clark