With 17 years of yoga and Pilates teaching experience, Bex Urban serves up some serious knowledge in her sessions. She talks in spouts that alternate between earnest, complicated threads of spirituality and good-old-fashioned nuggets of practical advice and humor.
Perhaps her ability to toggle between sacred yoga scripts and hysterical quips stems from her childhood: As a child she was exposed to meditation and met the Dali Lama. But she also played field hockey, tennis, and skied, just like all her other friends. Yin, meet yang.
When she graduated college, she moved to California and began practicing Iyengar yoga at 5:30 am every morning and it became her sacred ritual. She tried all lineages and found herself obsessed with yoga in any form. When she finished an Ashtanga flow-based training, she went straight into a Pilates course, another foundational post to her growing information base. Her seemingly endless hunt for more sources, more answers, more credentials has led her to study even more approaches. SBS chats with Urban below:
SBS: You teach yoga classes and Pilates. Why did you decide to study both?
BU: I think the person inside of me wants to have credentials. I always feel like I must know more. I was always helping people and teaching from the time I was young. And, Pilates compliments yoga for me: It has a somewhat dogmatic and regimented approach. It’s structurally specific about breathing and moving. The intention is moving with support in the front and back body.
SBS: You have so much knowledge and training. What’s your approach now and how has it evolved?
BU: My yoga classes and retreats are mixed, with ages 20 to 75. My approach is using the practice to nourish, love, and support other people in finding their own breath and unschooling whatever negative habits need to be undone. That’s different from when I started. When I began it was all about, ‘I’ll say these words and not these words.’ But as it progressed, it’s so much more about compassion, kindness, and not about getting your legs behind your head. This is about appreciating that your body works. I don’t feel I have to teach this variation or that pose. If I look around the room and everyone is struggling in down dog, we might shake our bodies and make noise! I want to create spaciousness for feelings. So when you are off your mat and someone cuts you off on the highway, you can see another chance to practice yoga and stabilize.
In Pilates, which I only teach in privates now, I endeavor to involve some sort of rehab. Seven years ago I started in an anatomy lab looking at layers in the body. I’m obsessed with anatomy and a nerd that way. Everything is connected in your body, and each time you don’t breathe deep enough, there’s an issue. Or when someone says something hurtful and you tighten your glutes instead of communicating, a lot of problems arise. All of that came to me in the lab, and I layer that in.
SBS: What are the myths surrounding yoga and Pilates you’d like to dispel?
BU: I love my body and physical work but fitness comes from the mind, as well as from moderation and making good choices- from sitting down to your food and having a relationship with food. Sometimes I’m shoving food in and it’s fuel for the next three clients, but I bring awareness to that. Pilates to me is where the grace in my movement comes in. Then, I think, ‘When I’m slumping, why am I slumping? Is slumping helping my breathing or attractive?’ How can you make peace with the body? That’s what it’s really about.
Also, stability is an illusion. I’ve had three kids, and my idea of what a perfect body is shifts constantly. No matter what relationship—with yourself, your kids, your partner—it’s only as stable as what is in front of your face. After all, we are on a moving planet.
SBS: How do you view yoga as a tool?
BU: Yoga is a way to find your breath and move in the rivers and tides of your body. One day you might notice your hamstrings are giving you feedback. But that’s different than thinking they’re tight, since didn’t they help you hike yesterday? Or consider, if they relaxed during golf but you could reach your feet today, would you be psyched? Probably not! So look at all components that make you up. Then simply notice what you feel like on your mat today. Try to avoid expectations of what you think you should feel like. That’s laying groundwork for disappointment. So it’s a tool for presence in that way.
SBS: How do you handle ideas like challenges and ‘success’ in yoga?
BU: Yesterday someone asked me what’s most challenging. I said challenging is not necessarily better. Maybe you’re sitting in a pose, and it’s not working for you. You say, ‘I’m not going to chase that anymore. I’m going to let it come to me. And if it doesn’t, I’m going to give myself permission to ask what the other path is.’ So for me, looking at choices I’m making and then asking if it was a good choice or not is important. And if not, how will I move forward. I know I’m going to make mistakes. I will disappoint friends or my husband. But yoga has taught me to instead consider: How can I come back to grace?
SBS: What’s the line between challenging yourself in a healthy way and letting your ego push you to an unhealthy spot?
BU: It’s about finding the edge where you can still breathe deeply. You can still focus laser-like single attention, and your ego doesn’t edge out your grace. It’s the spot where your inner critic is quiet and your cheerleader says go for it. I’m not saying do the same standing, easy pose and never try handstands. But look at the response in your nervous system. If you’re freaking out, that’s not the day to push. Or you could never want to do a certain pose, and that’s one thing. Or you could say you want to do it and go for it at some point.
SBS: How can students engage with teachers in the most helpful way?
BU: Well, that moves into another layer of performance issues. When there’s a student I haven’t seen, and they’re struggling, I bring out a block. Then, I can tell if the practice will be sustainable based on whether they grab the block and use it…or if they give me the stink-eye instead! I’ll start with adjusting, and if you don’t want to be adjusted, let me know.
When someone comes up to me after class and tells me it was the best class, my response is, ‘I’m glad that worked for you’ because I don’t want ownership of that. Because then, if it’s the opposite they’ll hate me! So it’s about engagement with deep self-kindness versus ownership of praise or blame on the teacher’s part. The sacred texts of yoga teach us it’s about opening and finding space. How do we move through the world being open, kind, and honest? We won’t all be honest all the time. It would be like me saying I’ll give up all my belongings because yoga teaches us that. I’m not a saint, and I don’t live in a cave. That’s not my truth. If that’s your truth, live it.
SBS: What might you say to a student who doesn’t want to engage in the type of philosophy or spirituality the teacher is offering?
BU: If you can return to your own breath, that’s the key. If you were listening to your breath, you wouldn’t have heard the person. Sometimes I’ll even say to my class, ‘I totally believe if you don’t believe what I said, you didn’t hear me. If it didn’t resonate, it will be gone and won’t stay in your blueprint. For someone new, I might say go to Bikram. It’s hot and sweaty, so you can focus on the poses. Keep going, and find your breath.
SBS: What are your thoughts on cross-training?
BU: Cross training is great. If you get your body fixed on one plane of movement, you’ll plateau. I’ll always want to go do TRX! And you have to find your thing. I’m not bagging on Crossfit, but it doesn’t work for me. I already spent a lot of time doing competitive sports, and that’s not my calling. Yet for some people, it works well for their body.
But the way I look at movement is find what makes you happy and also helps you open a new door. It should feel comfortably uncomfortable. That can mean all of a sudden you step into a dance class, or you go into somebody’s method you’ve never tried. Go online or look into a bootcamp to find something that peaks your interest. Train for a marathon!
I’m a big fan of keeping moving. When you stop moving your body is not happy. Your body wants to shake, shimmy, roll, move. Whatever that looks like for you, go for it!
SBS: How can students find the right fit in a teacher?
BU: It’s really all about personal preference and feeling safe in your body. When you come in and introduce yourself and teacher gives you permission to engage in great self-care, that’s spot on. If you’re new to something, fear does a number on your nervous system, so having a teacher who doesn’t get that is problematic. It doesn’t matter what pose you’re in. If it’s fear based, it’s hard. So listen to your body, and work with teachers who respect that. If they don’t feel right to you, the alignment is off.
But remember: Be your best breather each time. You might find that one thing that annoys you in the first class inspires you later, so giving teachers a chance is important. You might not be constantly attracted to the teacher. You’re evolving in the relationship, just like in friendship. So you’re going to have to try it a few times, perhaps.
Bex’s San Francisco Favorites:
Healthy Restaurant: SEED+SALT
Splurge Restaurant: Leo's Oyster Bar
Nightlife Spot: Bimbos or the Fillmore for live music
Calming Activity: Massages
Fun Activity: Trapeze
Fitness Studios: SoulCycle, Yogaworks and Love Story Yoga
Athleticwear: Lululemon, Beyond Yoga, Alo
Athletic Shoes: Saucony, All Birds and Vans
Bex’s SBS Mantra: The one that resonates and challenges me daily is… Be Present. When I am present, all of life is seen and recognized as a gift and a blessing. This moment is all we have, and it is ever changing.
What's the best, zaniest part of being Bex? Oh geez, my sock collection and random style. And my spunky, childlike, effervescent personality. People either get my weird, very loving, authentic way or just write me off as a freak. Even my kids acknowledge my natural ability to be wild and desire to unlearn everything.