Fifteen years ago, textile designer Elena Brower was playing hooky from her freelance design job and, on a whim, decided to check out a yoga class. Minutes after walking through the door, she knew she had found both a new home and her life’s work.
After studying Om, Vinyasa, Yin and Kundalini yoga, she earned certification in the practice of Anusara and founded her own yoga studio, the Manhattan-based Virayoga. Today, the 41-year-old New York native inspires students the world over by teaching personal empowerment and communal appreciation through yoga.
“To help other people and receive help from other people is nothing but beneficial,” she says.
A writer for popular sites such as the Huffington Post and The Daily Love, and routinely featured in publications from the New York Times to Yoga Journal, Brower frequently updates her own blog (www.artofattention.com) and is working on two books: one about her journey to find better health through food, yoga, personal style and home design; and a photography-based yoga workbook for practitioners and teachers.
She has also created a nontoxic scent made of pure blended essential oils called Give (www.givescent.com). A portion of all Give sales goes to Women for Women International, a nonprofit organization that provides support to female survivors of war.
Brower lives with her boyfriend, 5-year-old son and 12-year-old stepson in New York City.
EL | Yoga is a powerful force in the life of more and more people. What is the draw?
EB | The minute people try yoga for the first time, they’re having an experience with their own physiology that they’ve never had before. People may not be able to articulate that that’s what’s going on in their bodies when they do yoga, but they feel it. It feels good. It feels right. It feels strengthening.
EL | How can novices, or people new to a certain practice, break into a yoga community?
EB | I think the best thing to do is just to start going to classes — to start learning the vocabulary, feeling the group energy, understanding the different types of breathing.
If that still feels too intimidating, go online and find a yoga studio or teacher that interests you, and then introduce yourself electronically. You can tell the teacher that you’ve never done yoga before and you’d love to get a little bit of guidance on which class is the best for you, or which teacher might be the best. People reach out to me all the time. I get at least one of those emails every day. It’s an honor when people contact me. I always write back and welcome them to the yoga community.
EL | What characterizes a healthy community, both inside and outside the yoga studio?
EB | Listening. One of the most important things we can do for the people we care about is to really listen to them — to give them the experience of being heard and seen and felt.
It’s also important to be surrounded by people who believe in you. They help you believe in yourself, and that is so important to personal growth, health and happiness.
EL | What makes being listened to so healing?
EB | Each of us has a very particular reason for being here. Seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of supportive friends and family helps us understand that reason. It helps us answer the questions: Why are we here? Why are we breathing?
EL | Can our social networks also serve as a good source of information about health?
EB | Absolutely. Our friends and family have all seen and heard things that we don’t or can’t possibly know. Conversely, we know things that our friends would never know because of what we’re doing or learning. We constantly feed each other and act like compasses for each other. Our friends and family, and the knowledge they share with us, help orient us in the world.
EL | Can you talk about the value of online community?
EB | The people I’ve chosen to watch and pay attention to online are the ones who inspire me, who help me see myself clearly, and who help me grow. Whenever I get that feeling of “Oh, am I doing this right? Am I in the right place at the right time?” it’s reassuring to be able to write it down for the online community and get their feedback.
EL | How can someone create healthy community in his or her own life?
EB | One of the first things to consider, if someone is suffering from a lack of community and doesn’t really know how to go about building it, is that there’s probably some healing that has to happen within the context of their family of origin. Most of the time if we have trouble or fear or doubt around building community it’s because that’s what we know from our early experiences with family. That stuff doesn’t just come from nowhere. It’s what we learned as children. The best way I know to address those issues is through coaching with a wise, qualified professional.
Coaching has helped me to understand and make sense of the patterns in my family that caused me to doubt and fear — the limiting beliefs and negative experiences that often caused me to become frustrated with my community or my close relationships. Working on and healing my family relationships was a curative task for me. It helped me build a healthy community as an adult.