Welcome to my first post in what I hope to be an ongoing series on this blog - "On Drishti" is finally up and...stretching, I should say?
Below you'll find my interview with one of my favorite yogis... a mini-biography of sorts, a more intimate look; from embarrassing teaching moments to how he found yoga, with some thoughtful inspirational quotes sprinkled throughout.
Please feel free to make suggestions on what you'd like to hear more of in the next interview - leave me a comment below, tweet me, IG message me, send me an email...whatever works.
Without further ado, I present the first installment of "On Drishti" - enjoy!
Ian Lemieux is one of my favorite yoga teachers, as well as one I’ve practiced with the longest. It seemed appropriate to have him be my very first yogi interview for this new series “On Drishti,” especially since he helped inspire it.
For nearly two years I’ve vacated my cozy, warm bed at 5:30am to breathe and stretch in his class at my local Equinox. His signature style of Vinyasa and gentle, guiding way of truly moving with each inhale and exhale is incredible, each flow choreographed to move the student in different planes all over one’s mat.
Fortunately, Ian graciously agreed to let me pick his brain and ask him all my yogi questions, and we planned to get together after his 6:15pm Wednesday Power Yoga class (which meant this chick did two yoga classes in one day, swoon). We then conducted this interview over a delicious nourishing dinner at Dig Inn, which, if you haven’t gone, you need to close your laptop and get over there. It’s delicious.
an is French Canadian, the youngest of three, and has spent the majority of his adult life here in Boston. He attended college and graduate school in Massachusetts, studying Medical Laboratory Science, Public Health and Nursing (and he’s got multiple bachelor’s and master’s degrees, y’all!). He currently lives just outside of Boston. He is employed full time as a nurse managing a clinical trial for a potential leukemia treatment. Yoga, as you can see, is not his primary source of income, but a part-time gig: “I never want yoga to be about income,” he tells me; I agree with him emphatically and feel the same in terms of my own career path, but more on that another time. “It allows me to have a nice work life balance; yoga is the thing that helps keep my work-life balance in check.”
“I went to my first class at a gym, I joined on a whim, I needed to take care of my physical self and my personal trainer also recommended it. [Unfortunately]I had a bad experience. I didn’t try it again until five years later when I met a guy who really liked yoga. We went to a class together, a ninety-minute class that was a heated Vinyasa flow and only six of us in the room, in a very small studio. That was the beginning, and I started going more regularly thereafter. He and I eventually broke up but my yoga practice continued. I started practicing daily, sometimes twice a day, at a local studio. I practiced in a variety of studios but did have a home base close to where I lived; it was a comfortable space for me, it felt oddly familiar even though it was entirely brand new. Growing up in a French Canadian family and attending a Catholic high school, I experienced spirituality through religion and liturgy but it never resonated with me. The familiarity, the practice, the process, that consistency, the comfort - all of that I also found in yoga - felt really good. It created a space for me in my own way to have spirituality; with yoga I found that again. Yoga was the place where I connected with myself spiritually. I was going through a difficult time and I found some freedom and space in those ninety minutes at that studio.
“I tried different types of yoga…. I was drawn to Kundalini, Vinyasa, Jivamukti, and Forrest. A Kundalini teacher taught me to be more introspective through chanting… I had a teacher who taught Jivamukti that wanted me to have fun and make practice playful, a Forrest yoga teacher who focused on alignment, a Vinyasa teacher who focused more on breath…A couple of years after having a very regular practice, my close friend Seth suggested I teach yoga; it took me another year toying with that idea before I actually explored the possibility of doing a teacher training.”
Speaking of which, for anyone looking to pursue his/her own teacher training, Ian recommends researching “who’s leading it, their philosophies, how they trained, where it’s located, the timeline of the training, if it’s one primary teacher or multiple teachers, the other faculty, what types of practical experience one will have in the program, is it asana focused or are the other limbs brought into the study… Journaling can be really helpful and important throughout the process, so ideally a good program will encourage students to journal. It’s also nice when programs have you try different styles; you’ll never be an expert in your own field, and being a teacher of yoga is also about a responsibility to have an awareness of the other parts of a practice, areas and styles, even if they don’t resonate with you.”
He finally pursued his own teacher training eight years ago and has now been practicing yoga for roughly twelve years. “I can’t imagine what life would look like without it. I didn’t have strength [before], I wasn’t someone who worked out, the thing that pushed me forward physically was yoga, and it still does today; it allows me to feel good in my body. I probably have less pain, fewer headaches, better digestion with yoga…it can take the place of some medications we rely on, literature has shown that it lowers blood pressure…you get through sicknesses faster. These are all add-ons or bonuses to what was really a need for emotional and spiritual connection; it provided me relief. The flexibility and strength, the asanas, were supplemental.”
Speaking of asanas, Ian’s classes are quite unique. His background, as I’ve mentioned, includes Kundalini, Vinyasa, Jivamukti, and Forrest yoga, but he also draws inspiration from working with teachers who studied Meridian and Kali Ray yoga. “Credibility comes from within and by your example, so with whom someone studied might give you a sense of how style may be influenced, but every person and teacher is unique. One teacher [of mine] studied Pilates and is also trained as a nurse and works in an orthopedic practice, so there’s more focus on alignment. Another teacher studied acrobatics and martial arts and was all about moving in ways that felt good.” Ian’s classes are “an amalgam of spirituality, with the feel-good of a Vinyasa practice tied to the breath but in a way that includes alignment, precise instruction, and fluid transitions with the breath leading the movement. My intent is that there shouldn’t be any part of the practice that feels rigid, congested or awkward; my goal when I prepare for a class is to weed out those spaces that feel like a gap or block in the road that would take you away from your breath or your focus.” Breath work is front-and-center in his classes, as evidenced by Ian prompting movements with “inhale” or “exhale” accordingly. This makes his classes excellent for beginners as well as for those who have been practicing for years. “I want people to tune in with their breath, tune out everything else, and get what they need out of that time, their time.”
It’s evident that his focus is always on his students and creating a safe space where people can disconnect from the external world and connect with their internal world. “One of the things we should celebrate more in yoga is how we all practice differently. We can practice in different ways but still have wonderful and varied outcomes. Tonight, there were thirty-seven people in the studio, and no two had the same experience…that’s amazing to me. Maybe someone had an emotional experience, another took their first full [and aware] breath today, maybe there was someone who celebrated something… like I say before class, if you take one breath with mindfulness in these next 60/75/90 minutes you will have succeeded, and everything else is a bonus.”
Ian also has an incredibly thoughtful and diverse music accompaniment to his classes; he honestly spends hours crafting seamless playlists. “I’m more likely to read than watch TV and more likely to listen to music than to read. I listen to NPR for my news, but when it comes to music I have varied taste and listen to all kinds - in the car, or when I’m out in general, I will Shazam or ask about the artist that is playing. I find music that I like and then find similar artists and see what sounds are there. I try to build a playlist around the practice and the different parts of the class to really help create a space, but not to bring out certain emotion or keep them away, deliver a message or not, but to have the sound. I realize sometimes in class people don’t notice, especially if they focus on asana or the breath – but once those are down there may be space for something else, all while still being present. I think very critically about the music and the order, it should enhance and not take away.”
Ian structures his classes by focusing on “breath first and then fluid movement, from top to bottom, head to toe moving in multiple directions, high to low, standing and seated. I know we won’t get to every part of the body on a deep level but we’ll move and touch all parts.” He creates through “play, repetition, and refinement; I have a ‘pantry of ingredients’, and you might say there are some that work well for me and my students, they’re tried and true. They may sometimes shift, but there’s a familiar flavor.” Consistency and sticking with what works ensures his students have a beneficial practice. Oh, and we can't forget about those awesome, inspirational Ralph Marston quotes!
He also creates and practices sequences at home, and pays careful attention to what feels right and what could work better. He is also quite attune to when there is disconnect in the room, when perhaps during a moment of playing with arm balances the energy of the room shifts. “I’m sensitive to that, I make sure to give a moment to regroup.” Thus, there is that purposeful return to breath to reengage the mind. “Does the inhale and exhale work with that movement? If it doesn’t then I need to do it differently. It’s calculated, nearly scientific; the healthcare provider in me, the nurse, there’s a methodical approach to this and it’s not what I created, it’s been happening throughout time.
“Sometimes I’ll give focus to one area of the body, but yoga provides a whole body experience – physical, emotional, and spiritual - and leaves you in a space where life is more vivid in every way of your being. It’s like a sensory awakening: in the shade of pink in the sky, the color of white on these walls, the words that you hear in a conversation, and truly hearing them, and being able to process them and perceive them in a much more acute or present way, to be more connected to the thoughts that you are having. The after effect of the yoga practice, that’s what you take with you.” Ideally, people leave classes feeling better than when they arrived, something with which he prefaces his classes.
“There’s so many things that we don’t know about yoga that we can’t measure, but we know that it works. Vinyasa speaks to me because of the strong connection to breath, connecting in a way that we might not otherwise. You take your yoga breath with you everywhere, you use it in a cycling class, while running along the river, to get your heart rate down in a HIIT class; at work or school, to take a deep breath in and let it go, and really let it go. In the morning it allows me to start the day with a level of awareness, and to do the same at the end of the day…. We are literally bringing oxygen to every area of our body, it’s keeping us alive! I visualize the red blood cells carrying oxygen and life to every corner of the body.” Ahh, there’s that nurse!
Ian and I continue to discuss his relationship with yoga, naturally beginning to talk about the other vital components of yoga – because yoga is not just about the asanas! “A traditional yogic virtue is patience; my life now is not what I envisioned, but it’s not to say I’m not happy where I am, it’s just not what I envisioned. There are things that I envision for myself, but my yoga practice reminds me to experience each moment. As a moment passes I won’t be able to experience it again in this realm. It’s ok to look over your shoulder every so often to see what’s behind, and to pay notice to where you’ve come from, to inform what you might or might not do today. But, looking ahead can really get in the way of getting ahead, because we lose our presence in this moment; we get so caught up looking to something that may never come. Patience for what is and what is not, and the reminder to breathe and to experience and take each moment as a gift – I’m far from an expert in that but my practice and sitting on my mat and setting my intention brings me back to now.”
As we’ve lovingly covered asana and pranayama, Ian shifts the conversation to speak about one of the Yamas, satya (truth). “Our ability to relate to others is driven by our ability to be truthful, and trust allows us to be vulnerable, to truly live for ourselves, as ourselves, and with others; to be self-accepting and also in how we relate. And with the Niyamas, santosha (contentment), there’s a modesty and feeling happy with what we have in the moment, which ties back into patience – being at peace within and with what’s around, finding contentment in where I am in my life. Recognizing that there is a reason for all things and even when I don’t understand that reason, I trust that there’s a reason.”
Ian will occasionally go to studios to practice, but mostly prefers to roll out his mat in the comfort of his own home. “Having space for a home practice gives you a chance to be at home in more ways than one: you’re not just on your mat, you’re in your home space. It’s sort of like home-squared.” He’s also not one to shy away from practicing solo outside. As he travels for work, yoga gets to come along with him, even if he doesn’t have his mat. He also shares that his practice is “sometimes less physically intensive and more restorative; stretching and holding space for mindfulness; that’s why I enjoy Kundalini yoga: strong connection to breath, repetitive motion, knowing that my nervous system is going to get signals from my physical body – ‘just let go, keep doing this, let go some more…’, the idea of mantra and chanting about truth, the sun, the moon, love, things with which many people can relate, it’s not through a specific story but it can be applied to my own.”
When looking for a studio in which to practice, he pays careful (mindful!) attention to the space, noting that it should be mentally and physically inviting, “a place you can arrive as you are and have your own experience, that’s the way to go. The sense of community is also really important to me; it’s so easy to move through the day and move from point A to point B, and be disconnected from the people around you. It’s easy to walk into a yoga studio roll out your mat, practice, roll it up and walk out.” Even with his full-time job, he is always sure to stick around after a class in case students have questions or comments, something that more yoga teachers may need to take note of since many are often rushing post-class to get to their next engagement. Ian, however, always appears fully present, genuine, and thoughtful. “We can communicate without words when we practice as a community; even tonight, people made space for one another to fit in the room, and at the end of class lined up to put mats away – there’s a kindness about it.”
He is, of course, human, and everyone has their moments. When I asked him about an embarrassing teaching moment, he mentions that during a class “I was thinking about how we built a lot of heat in the body during the class, and we were all in chair pose, and I said ‘breathe, you’re in heat’ but I meant to say ‘breathe, we’ve built a lot of heat.’ Another time when I was teaching my phone wasn’t in do-not-disturb mode and the ringer went over the stereo, it was literally my mom calling me.”
Fortunately for his mamma, he makes sure that he takes care of himself. “Do you first and then do others. Having you-time to recharge is so important and sometimes it means taking a nap, or a five mile run, sometimes making a healthy salad or ordering takeout. As much as our breath changes from day to day, our emotional and physical body changes, and what helps us recharge changes. Being open to yourself and your body and mind to what it is that you might need is really important. It’s ok to rest - it’s so important to recognize when you need it. Time outdoors, moving my body, just being and breathing are huge aspects of my self-care; eating well, sleep – I’m a different person when I have good sleep.” And, as he always says at the end of every class, ‘wash your hands, drink plenty of water, get seven or more hours of sleep when you can, and wear your sunscreen.’”
Just to keep this all in balance, I also asked Ian his favorite ways to indulge: “sleeping in, eating sweets, having a massage. I love a really good espresso. I enjoy traveling, getting away and exploring.”
For those of you reading (and thanks so much for getting this far!) who may not actively practice yoga but want to, Ian has some advice: “Start now, don’t wait, just try it and keep trying it, and if you don’t like it then maybe wait five days and try it again. Don’t wait five years like I did! You’ll never feel worse for having tried it.” He notes that people may not feel spectacular after their first class – "no worries at all - it’s more about, were they able to bring a part of themselves to their practice, an open mind or an open heart, breath, a willingness to share space and make space with and for others.”
As we near the end of our conversation, long after we finish our meals, our awareness shifts to realizing we literally shut down the restaurant, on a school night; I ask Ian an age-old question: if he could practice yoga with anyone alive or dead, who would it be? He laughs and inquires for more understanding in regards to the possible deceased person - I clarify that they would not be a zombie, nor would he need to commit to time travel. “One of the Kundalini musicians is Jai-Jagdeesh – her music has a way of touching your soul; I have seen her in concert once. She teaches and sings in her classes - it must be amazing, she has such an open spirit and presence.” Side note, as I edited and put this post together, I listened to her music; it is utterly blissful and beautiful. If I may say so, Ian too has quite an open spirit and presence in his classes.
For anyone looking to practice with Ian, you can find him at Equinox locations throughout Boston. Check out his Facebook page for more information, and search for him on Spotify to check out his incredibly thoughtful playlists.
Ian’s recommended literature for yogis:
The Mandala of Being by Richard Moss – “It’s about the layers beyond what we don’t see, beyond muscle and bone.”)
Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff - “This books highlights what parts of your body is working in each pose in a detailed way.”
Ian, you are the Sat Namiest. Thank you for such an incredible interview, for being my first [very patient] 'patient,' and for sharing a piece of yourself with myself and my dear readers, as well as with your yoga students.