At Strala, You Are Your Own Cult

by Eda Haksal 

Accompanied by drum rolls and djembe beats, Ben Harper’s song, “Better Way,” echoes in the large yoga studio, “I will look this world straight in the eyes.” Yogis are scattered around the room on their yoga mats, moving their bodies in different shapes and movements during the free-style portion of the class. The owner of the studio and the guide of this particular class called relax, Tara Stiles, turns up the volume letting the song blast through the speakers as she carefully observes the class on the side of the room.

At a glance, bodies are transitioning into different yoga positions at varied levels. A longer glance at the moving bodies from the back of the room might inadvertently place one in the wild African jungle scene from Mean Girls where students jump on each others bodies in the school cafeteria and fight like animals with the sounds of tribal drumming.

“Take your face out of your hands, and clear your eyes,” Harper ends the song, “you have a right to your dreams.” Tara Stiles, owner of Strala Yoga in NoHo, believes the answer to reaching any goal in life lies in downward-facing dog and sweatpants.

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With Tara Stiles in the yoga studio.

Whereas traditional yoga is focused on poses, Strala is about the exploration of the mind and body. “Here, you can do a split when others are doing a pigeon pose and stay there as long as you want,” Humberto Cruz, one of the guides at Strala, says. At Strala, you waive any obligation to even try to perfect your poses, people come here to stretch their hips, to feel better or to reach a variety of other goals but their goal is never to push themselves to do a pose perfectly, Cruz says. They come to yoga to release their stress, not to add extra pressure, he adds.

Stiles’ yoga studio, Strala, is in a renovated, pre-war high-rise on crowded Broadway between Bleecker and Houston Streets. A modern antique elevator with two doors takes you to the sixth floor, which is shared by several businesses. Strala is at the end of a long, white hallway that almost every day of the year smells of a mixture of sweat, massage aromas, fresh air, wall paint and, closer to the studio, odor from the shoes left on the hallway signaling an intimate experience ahead.  The busyness outside slowly perishes with each squeaking step on the white wooden tiles. The small waiting room has a comfortable couch where people sit and chat before and after class. Stiles has created a powerful yoga brand for herself. Her yoga DVDs, books and yoga apparel from the Strala collection and from her partnership with Reebok are displayed on the shelves.

Before her class begins, Stiles comes into the waiting room with open arms and hugs fellow yogis, with the exception of a semi-hug that translates into a fist bump she exchanges with more serious yogis. With her quirky laugh, Stiles says, “cool, cool; welcome!” Stiles and Michael Taylor, her husband and business partner, like to keep the environment friendly and welcoming.

Friendliness is in fact what Stiles and Taylor look for when hiring guides. A Saudi Arabian guide could very well be teaching the next class or a French guide… in French. Taylor says to the Saudi Arabian guide applicant/ Columbia student in the waiting room, “we aren’t guiding poses, we’re guiding feelings. Don’t worry. Language isn’t an issue.”

Stiles’ guiding mantra is, “find the ease,” which means letting your feelings guide your movement and not being concerned with the pose. “We focus on moving over posing, and help people find their own way into their bodies, with a calm ease carried through easy and challenging things alike,” Stiles and Taylor explain on Strala’s website. The waiting room is a testament to Strala’s “movement-based system that ignites freedom,” as Strala is described on the website. “Make your own yoga,” a poster says in big pink letters. “Who made the rules?” another large poster dares the yogis to rebel in baby blue letters as if rebelling is an innocent act of nature.

On the glass door that separates the yoga studio and the waiting room, a note on a piece of orange paper says, “No whining, no complaining, absolutely no frowning, only hugs and smiles and warm fuzzy feelings. Thank you.” Once you step into the studio, it is as if you cross to another life style- one that promises less stress. Or, maybe you promised to be less stressed… Music starts. Are you supposed to let go of your thoughts? Or, embrace your feelings? Stiles starts guiding without using the traditional names of the yoga poses and, after fifteen minutes, starts walking around the room, rarely going back to front of the room to illustrate a pose. You are on your own- so are twenty other people in the room.

The large yoga studio has light-wooden floors and large open windows. Stiles plays modern music “that feels like 2013, anything from Lou Reed to Missy Elliot.” Stiles studied classical dance with world-renowned master Eileen Cropley. In fact, it was after one of her performances when a photographer approached her and introduced her to a modeling agency in Chicago. She knew that modeling was not her true calling. At first, yoga was something she did on the side. She took several yoga classes and studied with lots of different teachers, “all of which informed me what I don’t want to share in my leading, “Stiles says, “my classical training informed me from a movement perspective and my meditation practice informed me from a freedom and expansion perspective.”

Stiles began guiding yoga by holding free yoga classes in Central Park. Then, she decided to rent a small studio and charge people. Only two people showed up to her first class. Stiles and Taylor started Strala in Taylor’s Gramercy apartment in 2008. In 2010, knowing she wanted to connect with more people in a way that was easy, Stiles started putting up goofy yoga videos on YouTube with titles, “Yoga for a Hangover” and “Hotel Room Bed Time Yoga.” Stiles kept sharing what was authentic and real to her, which was yoga practiced in an easy manner. She made up her own rules as she went along.

Some teachers can do any pose but they are not trying too hard, Stiles explains. “The advanced in yoga is too overrated. It is about being calm and easy. If your mind gets to that stage over time your mind will become calm and clear. You will be able to do all the poses you want to do eventually. But it is never about being able to do those poses.”

Avelin Babel, an undergraduate student in New York University and a devotee of Stiles, began practicing yoga in her hometown in Russia. When her family moved to New York, yoga became her go-to activity especially for the past six years. In class, she would always compare herself to other yogis doing flawless headstands. She was finally able to do a headstand in the course of three months after she started going to Strala and stopped trying to do the pose perfectly.

We are taught our whole lives to compete, says guide Cruz who has master’s degrees from Stanford and Columbia Universities in politics and developmental psychology. It took a lot of work and effort to get into Stanford, Cruz says, I had an ever-mounting tension on my shoulders. I got in, but I was very unhappy at Stanford. Cruz realized, “life shouldn’t be about this.” He was much more relaxed in his application to Columbia. “This is me at my best, I’m applying. I stopped trying to control and predict.” Cruz was practicing yoga long before he came to New York City. On his second day in the city, he found himself at Strala and felt at ease. In his classes, Cruz likes to think that he is not the leader but a fellow yogi. “Even though you’re not doing a pose perfectly, you can still feel just as good doing it as the yogi next do you doing a head stand,” Cruz indulges in his guiding mantra.

Stiles elaborates on what yoga is about according to her: It is about being in the center of your own situation. Think about your life as a circle. If you get distracted, you find yourself at the edge of yourself. If you do yoga every day, you don’t get pulled in a million directions. You stay at the center and it becomes easy to be you. Life is still stressful but the pressure of life gets a lot lighter. With yoga, you learn to do the hard poses easily and that translates into life. If you practice consistently you will be able to do those poses, and, that translates into how you approach your life.

“I’ve got this belief that no matter what you do in life, there’s no rules. Even though there are no rules, yogis still need some guidance. Guides are there to make sure that people do not hurt themselves. Kayleigh Pleas, another guide at Strala with a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in positive psychology and a former gymnast, went to Avelin Babel’s mat in another class that week as Babel was trying to jump to a headstand in the plank position and let her know that jumping could be a little dangerous for the neck, “you can try to lift one leg and see if you can lift the other one,” Pleas suggested.

You can do anything that you can dream of,” Stiles says in a Reebok advertisement for the campaign “Fuel the Fire.” Stiles has built a sound yoga brand and a name for herself in the industry. When Jane Fonda invited Stiles to her office in Los Angeles, Stiles chose to wait for Fonda by sitting on the floor simply because she felt more comfortable that way. Stiles believes that as you practice yoga, you learn to follow your own intuition which helps you create your own rules in life.

When Stiles wrote her first book, her publisher asked her bluntly, “ ‘Who is the most famous person you know who can write the preface?’ ”Stiles remembers being puzzled, “Is thus how the business works?” She was lucky enough to be invited to an event in the same week where she met,  Deepak Chopra, the famous holistic health guru and alternative medicine practitioner. Chopra had been looking to collaborate with someone in the exercise industry to promote healthy living. Chopra ended up writing the preface for Stiles’ book and  still personally instructs Chopra. Fonda is another student of Stiles who worked with Fonda on a yoga DVD. Fonda called Stiles “the new face of fitness.”

Among her many projects, Stiles has a new yoga line with Reebok that consists of comfortable sweats that she and her husband support in classes. The line is about having fun as opposed to the traditional yoga apparel market with all the clothes that suck you in. “We want to change people’s perspectives,” Stiles says.  Millennium Sports Club is going to have Strala yoga classes in its schedule. Stiles says she enjoys helping other yoga teachers to lead in an easy going way. “I like helping other people to help other people. I am only one person and I can only do so much. Internet has been helpful. But I am only one person. So, I train yoga teachers how to lead others. We show up in a city and hold extensive trainings,” Stiles says. Her business model is “helping people.”

Tiles’ husband, Taylor, who studied mind body medicine at Harvard at Oxford University says they train the guides to support others through movement and touch, and “to let go of throwing a kitchen sink full of random techniques at every problem.” Taylor believes that our bodies are capable of healing themselves when Western medicine falls short. “Both healing and injury prevention form a significant part of all our trainings at Strala. We’re not here to fix each other. Our best role is to support each other to become our own best healers. We each get to learn that we are incredibly good at being the most capable originators of our own lives.” In return, people around the world write to Stiles and Taylor saying Strala cured their chronic back, neck, shoulder, knee and every kind of pain imaginable. “It is important to remind people that they cured themselves. You did it! Strala is here to help,” Taylor says.

Stiles originally started Strala to help people “let go of stress in their bodies and in their minds, become their own best caregivers, and live happily capable lives,” Taylor says. The next step for Strala seems to be reaching out to as many people as possible and telling them that they too can and perhaps should practice yoga.

There are people from all walks of like who frequent Strala from the superintendent of the building to tourists to residents of the neighborhood. Stiles believes that yoga is for everyone. “It’s not about being skinny or young. It’s just about connecting to yourself. It’s not about being in shape. There’s no goal pose. There are no mirrors on the walls,” Stiles says pointing to the walls of her large studio, “it’s just going with the flow.” Stiles wants to break all the stereotypes associated with yoga. When she worked with actress and former model Brooklyn Decker for another yoga DVD, Becker, “who was super sweet and driven,” had concerns about making the DVD. Decker said that she had gone to a yoga studio once where she was yelled at “because she was pretty.” Stiles also gets letters and online messages from the African- American community saying that yoga is for white people.

Stiles and Taylor highly encourage and welcome individuality in everyone from their guides to fellow yogis. “Get curious with your body,” Pleas, former gymnast with a positive psychology background, began her class, strong, earlier that week. Fifteen minutes later, the class went into a break dance routine with the song “Can’t Touch This” by M.C. Hammer reverberating on the walls.  Yogis had a boat party where they swayed their bodies extending their arms and legs while crunching as they lifted their lower backs up on the floor like a break dance routine in between crunches. The class ended with a loud Tibetan ball sound for the yogis to “experience their breath and ease,” Pleas explains.

The New York Times called Stiles the “yoga rebel.” “If normal is rebellious, then I am rebellious,” says Stiles. She leads and practices yoga around the world to spread her feel-good message of feeling healthy and connected to your body. Recently, Stiles joined Bill Clinton in his Alliance For A Healthier Generation to combat childhood obesity. “A slimmer, calmer, sexier you. The secret? A revolutionary approach to the traditional practice of yoga,” begins her first book Slim Calm Sexy. All Stiles asks for is 15 minutes out of your day for “a trimmer body, stronger immunity, lower blood pressure, improved mood, better sex, and more.” Her second book, Yoga Cures, asks, “Do you have a headache? PMS? Cellulite? Shin splints? A broken heart? Or do you just need to chill the *&@# out?” Stiles promises to cure all of these problems.

Stiles shares the story of a woman who tried to conceive with her husband for 12 years. When the woman was at her end, she started practicing at Strala, and “through relaxing her body and mind, her body healed and she became pregnant within months. She ended up having a healthy baby girl. “People are transforming their own lives every day. They are doing it by feeling, believing what they feel, and responding to that. When you can feel you, you can’t help but become your own best care giver,” Taylor adds.

Stiles’ YouTube channel has drawn almost 19 million views. She also has an iPhone application called Authentic Yoga, which was Deepak Chopra’s idea. She keeps posting videos on YouTube where she doesn’t stay within the limits of yoga and includes cooking recipes such as the green juices or smoothies she has for breakfast or eccentric how to videos such as how to knit a hat. “My mission on the internet is to put up things that are fun for me.”

Growing up in a small town in Illinois, Stiles was a tomboy, climbing up trees and getting dirty, and she still tries to keep herself grounded. When she first came to New York, she moved around quite a bit, changing nine apartments. One of the apartments she stayed at during her first year got burned down because one of her several roommates had left a candle out. Stiles is certainly in a better position now. Yet, “I’m not going to go out there and buy a bunch of clothes to show how successful I am. I would rather use those resources and figure out how to help more people, improve someone’s life, and expand Strala to help more people,” Stiles says. She has taken the attention that is being given to her and brought it into useful projects. “Fame is a losing battle. There’s always going to be somebody more famous, more successful, more everything than you. So my goal has always been to help, radiate, expand to reach out to more people,” Stiles explains.

Stiles cannot imagine a day without Strala. “Strala is my state of mind. Freedom and expansion. It happens whether I’m in a down dog or not,” Stiles explains.” To Stiles, yoga or meditation is just a practice of following your own intuition and only practice makes it perfect. If there is anyone telling you to pay $1,000 to get a mantra from a tutor to meditate, she says, “that is a big scam. All you need is you.”

Stiles has no restrictions for positivity whereas she has plenty for negative thoughts, possibly making her one of the cleverest businesswomen. “Throw out the scale”, Stiles says in her YouTube video. “If you are obsessive about the scale, throw it out and follow your intuition.” Intuition is at the core of Stiles’ philosophy.

Tara Stiles leads by example, Cruz says. “She brings the sparkle. She would never come to you and say, you don’t look so happy. Can you please be happier? She just brings positive energy. Also, we’re practicing a service. This is not our journey. We are professionals.” Cruz smiles, “people who are serious all the time are constantly trying to prove themselves.”

Stiles’ class ends, “happy Friday!”, she giggles childishly as if she is the happiest and least-stressed person on the planet. Looking at her, one wonders if she ever feels down.

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