When Elizabeth Feinstone switched majors from pre-med to exercise science, she met a professor who changed her life. While she was in office hours in 2009, her professor saw her non-stop shaking leg… and suggested a yoga class!
A dancer and competitive skater growing up, Feinstone found yoga to be a meditative outlet, similar to figure skating, and fell in love with the practice. She eventually completed a 200-hour teacher training at Pure Yoga and then, before going to Columbia University to earn her masters degree in public health, she explored further with Yogi Charu and learned more about the spirituality and philosophy behind the physical work.
Once she arrived at Columbia, she delved deeper into health, especially within unique and specialized populations. Using everything she learned, she wrote her thesis on how yoga teachers could be better trained to work with overweight populations.
Now, along with teaching yoga and working with personal training clients, she’s also at the helm at Yoga on the Fly, a new way to keep up your practice while traveling. Check out her thoughts on making yoga more accessible to everyone and how you can keep up your practice on the move.
SBS: You wrote your thesis on such an important topic: making yoga accessible to all types of populations, including overweight students. What did you find?
Elizabeth Feinstone: Overweight women who are too shy or scared to go to group yoga classes are attracted to working with me privately. So, I started asking around if there were any teacher-trainings available to work with obese clients, and it didn’t seem any of my fellow teachers or mentors knew. So I started diving into research.
I interviewed my clients and other teachers and I put out a survey. I found that overweight women tend to not go to group yoga because they don’t feel they know what to do. A lot of yoga teachers don’t offer modifications or they don’t feel like they have enough attention. Also they’re embarrassed. But it’s important for them to experience the movement and joy, too! So, I’m still working on these types of ideas.
SBS: How did the idea of Yoga on the Fly come about?
EF: I graduated and had no idea what I wanted to do. I was still personal training and teaching yoga on my own schedule. The idea of working a 9-to-5 job was not appealing. So I went to Europe for a month to travel and think. Then, I taught a retreat in Nicaragua where I met my business partner, Avery. We were both leading the retreat, and we had a mutual yoga teacher and friends.
On the first day on the beach, both of our bodies hurt so badly! I had flown from New York City to Miami then to Nicaragua, and the retreat center was still almost a three-hour car ride from the airport. Our bodies weren’t functioning well, and we said to each other, ‘There should be yoga in the airport!’ We thought, you shouldn’t have to feel like this when you get somewhere to do yoga. Who wants to go on vacation and not be able to move? I started talking about one of my professors who had written an article in The New York Times about how to make your own gym in airports.
SBS: How did the idea turn into a reality?
EF: It took us a while to develop the content and understand what it would look like. We knew we didn’t want to have live classes. Everybody is in a different place in their yoga practice, and some people won’t be wearing yoga clothes! And, it went back to my thesis: Some people, including some overweight people, don’t want to practice in public. So we had to think of a way to privatize classes and choose classes.
The idea has evolved. We are in the process of getting in to airports now. We’re going to have a place to store luggage, make yourself comfortable and Zen-ed out cubicles with doors to enter. There will be an iPad mounted on the wall, and clients will be supplied with a clean Yoga by the Numbers mat and a wireless headset.
So you put on the headset and pick classes, from meditation to asana classes and breathing. They vary in length, so you can mix and match your choices. You can have your own quiet private time! Keep an eye out for us! Right now, we’re working on pop-ups in the Philadelphia airport.
SBS: What are ways teachers can be more inclusive of all body types?
EF: In many yoga teacher-trainings, there are often modules about prenatal or kids yoga. But body size and shape is rarely addressed. It’s almost never the case that someone has perfect anatomy, and yoga teachers need to address that. To start, we can use all-inclusive language to talk about bodies. Also, think about what modifications need to be offered in response to different bodies. How is the anatomy of a smaller and a larger person different? The adjustments have to be different too. Also consider: Is your touch aggressive or soft?
And, use props! Not all people can reach the floor, open their hips as widely as possible or put their legs up the wall in the same way. Bolsters, blankets and blocks can be a student’s best friend.
Finally, if it’s possible, talk to your students before and after class. Offer variations of poses and check in with students and ask if the poses feel good. Try to get students in a better mood at the beginning of the class, focusing on the present moment, because weight and injuries do make moving more challenging. Finally, let students know they can select their own pace, especially if they’re newbies.
SBS: Why is practicing yoga while traveling so important?
EF: A lot of people complain about poor circulation, lower back pain, anxiety and trouble breathing while traveling. A lot of meditation and breathing practices are meant to slow the heart rate, and they can help immensely. There are classes that have postures to increase circulation to reduce back pain, like cat and cow for circulation and twisting supine poses for lower back pain. Our aim is to make people a little nicer when they travel. Hopefully one nice person can affect someone else’s mood. People are usually frustrated and angry when at airports. We want to change that!
SBS: What are yoga poses you can complete in your airplane seat?
EF: A few options include:
-Roll your head and ankles in small gentle circles. Make sure to go in both directions.
-Tilt your head side to side, drawing your ear toward your shoulder.
-Cat and cow pose: Place hands on thighs, inhale and draw your breastbone forward and drop your head back. Exhale and reverse the curve. Bring your chin toward chest. Repeat five times.
-Twist: Bring your left arm to right thigh and left arm toward the back of the seat. Look over your right shoulder. Hold for five breaths.
-Bring your right arm to left thigh and right arm toward the back of the seat. Look over your left shoulder and hold for five breaths.
-Side stretch: Bring your left arm to the left side of the seat, reach your right arm up and tilt to the right. Hold for five breaths. Then, bring your right arm to the right side of the seat. Reach your left arm up and tilt to the left. Hold for five breaths.
SBS: For those of us who aren’t as comfortable in a group classes, what are some things we can do to improve the situation for ourselves?
EF: Take a friend with you. It’s always nice to have a friendly face. They know what you’re struggling with and what you’re going through.
Also, reach out to the teacher beforehand and see if you can talk to them. Ask for their help in class and explain what your injuries are. Research the teacher and see what her background is. It’s so easy to find someone on social media. Or arrive early and explain how nervous you feel. Most teachers are there to help. They want to make the experience as positive as possible. You can also watch Youtube videos beforehand! I’m a big believer in research.
SBS: How can we, as students, help create a nurturing environment in class?
EF You never know what someone is going through. So just being in a class, you don’t know what’s happening on the mat next to you. If you are there, practicing for yourself, making your way through your practice, breathing and not worrying about what others are doing, that creates a supportive environment without having to actually do anything. If you’re there to better yourself, work on your physicality and improve your mood, it’s helpful in a larger sense. I like to think about it as the butterfly affect.
SBS: What are the common mistakes you see in yoga?
EF: I think the biggest thing is, don’t forget to breathe. It sounds simple, but people forget when things are hard. And if you breathe, it makes everything easier.
Also, if something hurts, don’t do it. It’s not about pushing through pain. It’s about doing what makes you feel good. If class gets too hard or you get dizzy, go to child’s pose! There’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not a competition with others in the classroom. If you feel good in child’s pose, do it.
SBS: How have you practiced yoga in the larger sense while creating YOTF?
EF: When I first started the company, I was overwhelmed. I was navigating the foreign land of forming a corporation and understanding different types of bank accounts. My meditation practice suffered. But once I started lying on the floor, enjoying abdominal breathing and closing my eyes, my meditation practice came back. It was beyond helpful. Or, often when the world is spinning out of control, I go upside down. I spend time in down dog or a headstand against the wall. Or I just lay off of my bed. It creates the perception shift I need.
Five Yoga Poses You Need in the Airport:
1. Standing side stretch
2. Warrior Two
3. Twist side to side
4. Down Dog against the wall
5. Forward fold with interlaced hands behind back
Elizabeth’s NYC Faves:
Healthy Restaurant: PeaceFood Cafe
Splurge Restaurant: Lincoln Ristorante
Fitness Studio: Exhale
Yoga Studio: Pure Yoga
Athletic Shoes: Nike Free training shoes
Fun Activity: Snowboarding
Calming Activity: Wandering through Lincoln Center
Nightlife Spot: E’s Bar
Elizabeth’s SBS Mantra: Be Kind. Stop and help. It’s impossible to know what other people are going through. Sometimes their challenges or disabilities are invisible.
What's the best, zaniest part of being you? I’ll go anywhere at the drop of the hat! Whenever somebody needs a travel buddy, they know I’m their girl!