Katelin Sisson and Heather Lilleston, Founders of Yoga For Bad People
Heather Lilleston and Katelin Sisson met through a "cloud of nag champa" as devout followers of the Jivamukti practice. After one too many om-shanti's and meditation circles these two yogis came to the collective realization that the intensive structure of the program was getting in the way of their care-free youth. Rather than trading it in, they decided to create a new kind of practice that merges the best of both worlds. Between serious spirituality, mindfulness, a hardcore yoga practice and a few late-nights out, these ladies have figured out the secret to "breaking the rules" and living life to it's fullest, minus the guilt. The result? Yoga for Bad People.
To start, can you each tell us about your background, where you come from and how you ended up here?
Katelin: How much time do you have? I'm from Newport, Rhode Island, a very beach town kind of vibe. My family is pretty sports-obsessed, and growing up, we played all the sports. Whatever season it was, that was the sport you played until you figured out the one that you really excelled at, and my dad coached all of them. For some of them, my brother and I were even on the same team. It was sports all the time. Both of my parents were long distance runners, and my dad and I would go on "follow the leader" runs. Six, seven mile runs, and he'd be like, "Okay, for this mile I want you to think about the outside of your right foot and the inside of your left foot," it was nerdy, technical, mechanical stuff. I'm pretty sure it was that little minutia of training that eventually got me into the yoga thing.
From Rhode Island, I went to Boston and did a year of AmeriCorps. I worked for City Year, which is like an urban Peace Corps, went to school for a couple of years, which brought me to New York and then, New York turned into kind of bailing out on the school thing in the last hour, like "Ehhhh, no". I went straight into working and from there went into yoga.
Heather and I had both done our teacher trainings at Jivamukti and were also part of this other study community, so we were in this "world" together, but we were always kind of looking at each other out of the corner of our eyes being like, "Want to get out of here and go somewhere else?" (laughs) We were into it, but we were kind of like "Let's get out of here?!"
Heather: Because a lot of people in both of those communities, I mean, yoga, Buddhism, meditation, all of that, was just pure cult, and we were in it. It wasn't a "cool thing". It wasn't a "cool thing" to be a vegan. It wasn't a "cool thing" to chant or do a sound bath. None of that stuff was cool at the time that we were meeting and becoming friends. It was all very weird and spooky.
Heather: And it was “spooky” to our friends. So, we were both balancing these lives of being in our 20's in New York. Balancing the material world of dating, dancing, and going out versus the other world where we both really believed in this spiritual practice, and were really committed to practicing, like a lot of Tibetan Buddhist meditation and a lot of yoga and a lot of the philosophy. Jivamukti held the bar super high, and I feel so grateful that thats where I started, but, it was one foot in, one foot out.
Heather, what about your journey to YFBP? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Bolinas, California, which is an eccentric, hippie town north of San Francisco in Marin County. It’s known for taking down the sign that pointed to how to get to the town so that tourists wouldn't come. It was this hippie utopia of tie dye and weed and surfing and art. We did sun festivals and everyone in the town put on masks and drummed and danced. So, I grew up in beautiful "out there"-ville. I grew up on a cliff with a garden and a surf break in front of me, I could see San Francisco across the bay. My life was very soil, nature, flowers, and the food my mom grew.
I was not athletic at all. I could literally have a list of the injuries that I would come up with for track and field. I hated it. I liked to dance and I liked to act. I liked to be on stage. We didn't have a TV, that wasn't allowed, you know? But, I grew up acting, and when you grow up in hippie utopia, your rebellion has to be J. Crew and "material world" and New York City. So I was like, "I want to be on 90210!" That'll age me. (laughs)
I went to NYU Tisch School of the Arts, and I studied acting. I'm so grateful NYU got me to New York, but I knew pretty early on that acting was not the thing I was willing to sacrifice my life for.
Also, being a California girl in New York City, I couldn't understand that Friday night was not watching the sunset, listening to Budu Thaththe, smoking a joint. It was a radical shift. I was like, "Let's hang out with the Jamaican guys in Washington Square Park! Reggae!" My friends were like, "Okay, it's a little different on the East Coast..."
So, I started going to yoga, when I was just feeling a bit lost in my body. Even though I wasn't super athletic, I would hike a lot or I would run on the mountain and what I got from living in that environment, was like the "Ahhhhh," that you get from yoga. I just didn't know where to find that here. I mean, I went to yoga in high school and hated it. Laughed through the "Ohm,". Excruciating pain, Warrior II. I could care less about yoga. But then in New York, it made more sense. I needed that "Ahhh". The same thing you get from nature is the same thing you can find in a yoga class and Jivamukti was just political and colorful and full of successful, intelligent, artistic, crazy people. It was all about the music, and the movement, and the sweat, and I was a self-righteous 18-year-old. It was perfect. Jivamukti was right new my NYU acting studio, so I started practicing during college. I did the teacher training with Sharon and David upstate, and started teaching my senior year. I did a mentorship the summer between my junior and senior year, started teaching, and stayed for Jivamukti because I was like wearing all white and singing to Hare Krishna and everything was God.
And that's were I found Katelin Sisson! (laughs) In a cloud of nag champa!
And you've been teaching and doing yoga ever since?
Heather: I had one moment where I woke up when I was 26 and thought, "What am I doing?" Because I started teaching at 20. I was like, "What am I doing? I need a real job." I quit everything but one class and I took a job in a showroom in the 42nd Street of 39th and 7th, or somewhere like that.
I was like, "Oh, yeah, it's not ALL it's cracked up to be..." Putting on makeup and an outfit and sitting at a desk for 9 hours wasn't what I thought. But I needed that. I did that for eight months and I needed that, because it gave me perspective and this renunciation of like, I'll never question what I chose to do again. It felt really lucky that I found it so early, so I had some years behind me to build and that was it.
We started Yoga For Bad People together. Not like, "Oh, let's sit down and start a company," but more like, "Hey, we have the same vibe, we're both teaching, why don't we pick a few people? Like, I had done a trip to Panama and I thought, 'Why don't we do it together? And where else do we want to go in the world? We both like Brazil!'
Where did the name, Yoga For Bad People come from? What does it mean?
Heather: YFBP started as retreats initially. We started doing retreats, and we decided to teach a retreat in Panama and Brazil together. We made a little funny postcard with a shitty printed picture that we got off the Internet of girls in thongs walking down the beach. We were going to call our Panama retreat "Jivamukti: The Jungle Way", which is the coolest name.
We had the Panama retreat info on one side of the card and Brazil on the other side of the card and we called the Brazil retreat Yoga For Bad People, because we wanted our deeply spiritual friends and students to know that we would be getting maybe a little wild in Brazil. We didn't want anybody to sign up that was really needing a real deep retreat, which we're totally into, but that was just not what Brazil was going to be.
Actually, the bartender at Cafe Select came up with that name, so I'd just like to shout him out. (laughs) I like that story. It's very New York, you know?
Brazil, because it was Yoga For Bad People, really solidified what Katelin and I were doing together. It was a risky name, but we couldn't really do anything else that wasn't called Yoga For Bad People, and it was right when Instagram was starting to get momentum, so the hashtag, having an Instagram, that all kind of floated the thing.
We were all just joking the whole week, "Yoga for bad people," with everybody that had come. That was the beginning.
Can you guys talk a little bit about the balance between the quote, unquote bad side and the grounded Jivamukti spiritualism and why you guys decided to have both? Why you think they're important and why you think people need them?
Katelin: I think the first thing to keep in mind is that both sides can become extreme. Like you said, Jivamukti, the more grounded side, it could be the completely not grounded side. And if you party too hard every day? Not grounded.
It was just to lesson the extremes of either side. Our company is called Yoga For Bad People. That trip to Brazil was exactly what she just described. We absolutely practiced yoga every single day, twice a day, thirty minute meditations. We don't leave that part out. It's just about not going so far that way or so far the hardcore party way.
You can exist somewhere in the middle of the two. Where those two aspects of your life actually kind of feed each other. You can learn something from both sides. You can have a spiritual personality and character, and it doesn't make you less so just because you go out every now and again.
Heather: I also think that, if we're just going to get really out there, the goal of Hatha Yoga is "to yoga", "to unify", the "ha" and the "tha", the sun and the moon. The dualistic sides of everything, and so, bringing them into the center energetic channel, because I think we can talk about these things a little bit now. Swallowing the dualistic nature of reality into oneness, or however you want to describe it. That's the ultimate balance of things.
For me and Katelin, I think for us, we were really realizing that spiritual practice wasn't a negation of the dark to just embrace the light. That it's really an acceptance or an embracing of the two and figuring out how to balance them. That's why you constantly have to stay aware. You constantly have to recheck. The way we evolve and grow is just by making mistakes, by going to too far extremes and eventually coming to the middle.
I also think that the guilt, the nature of starting a spiritual practice. We as human beings, we want an answer. We want a solution. We want to do the right thing so bad. Then, you can easily turn a spiritual practice into "This is the right thing," and it actually separates you. It makes you too rigid. You have to be a vegan. You have to meditate every day for this amount of time, etc...
Discipline is important. You need that. It's funny because when we first started this, we had been living in a world where yoga was full of a lot of rules. Now we're in a world where everyone's breaking the rules. A long time ago, we were like, "We're going to break the rules," and then everybody now is breaking the rules, quote, unquote. All of that's good, but it's like first, learn the rules well, and then you can break them.
Katelin: That's a really important part, because a lot of these rules are being broken, but go ahead and ask them what the rules are. They’re silent. Like crickets. The history is becoming really fuzzy.
Heather: We don't need this to be all Indian, Hare Krishna Hindu. But the ancient yogic philosophy is very universal and important to us. In my opinion, and I think Katelin would agree but I won't speak for her on this, it should not be thrown out the window. Actually, I saw somebody write a review about us. A student to another student who was coming on a trip with us. She wrote something like, "They're not as bad as you think they are." (laughs)
Katelin: I think sometimes people come with us on trips and think it's a joke or not serious. You know, morning session is two hours, sometimes two hours and fifteen minutes or something. Our meditations are not a joke.
Do you guys have any rituals that keep you grounded? Morning routine, night routine?
Heather: This is going to sound really silly, but I'm obsessed with a hot water bottle. If my mind is really busy before I go to bed, if I put a little hot water bottle on my belly, it just takes my energy down. I've got a lot of fire in there. I like pressure and heat on my body. For sleep rituals, someone told me a long time ago to put lavender oil on the soles of your feet, that's something. Flossing teeth is a big ritual in my life.
I get up early. It's hard to go to bed early. I'm not easily exhausted. I have a lot of energy always, so I need to take a hot shower, get a hot water bottle, drink chamomile tea, rub the lavender oil, and then I'll sleep deep.
Morning rituals, sitting and meditating, which obviously was a bigger part of my life back in the day. It's so great to be teaching so many retreats because that meditation in the morning, that's a nice thirty, forty minutes. When you lead meditation, you're more focused than your own meditation because you're leading the minds of the room and you can't wander. My daily at-home, it's really fallen off to sipping coffee and trying to think of my Instagram posts. Sitting in front of an altar, and being like, "The phone should be out of my hands, and the coffee should be in the other room, but..."
Katelin: My night time thing that I've discovered that really needs to happen in order for me to calm down is to get things in order. It doesn't have to be crazy, type A structure. But, I know before I go to bed that I need to do the dishes and I need to clean. I have a two and a half year old baby, and it's psychotic in my house.
I know that I have to put the stuff away. Fold the blankets. I just need all of that to be complete. That way, when I wake up in the morning, you're not starting into the same chaos that you left the night before. I can not handle that. The chaos factor. Because it's coming. It's coming back. There needs to be a part where it feels like you have some sort of control over it. Between the hours of 2am and 6am, there needs to be no chaos. Getting things in some sort of working order where I feel like my brain shut down. That's super important.
I've been trying really hard for the last bit of time to get myself back into reading a little bit before I go to bed. Even if I don't last long, but just the act of it, in reading something that I needed to know.
The morning comes before I expect it to come every day. I can't even front. The coffee starts and the computer opens, and the managing of trying to start a work day and manage the child, and trying to get as much of the coffee in. Then, give me a croissant and let's do this.
What do you want your legacies to be? What's the mark you want to leave behind?
Heather: For me, I'd like people to feel connected to their invisible spirit world and be able to relate it to the physical, visible world. Honesty, transparency, and truthfulness are really, really important to me. I think we're afraid of that. There's a lack of courage and bravery and truth in being, really, just straight up about where you're at, what you feel, what's really in your head.
I felt at least as a yoga teacher, the times when students respond to what I'm saying is always when I'm just really honest. I'm not trying to fit myself into a yoga teacher box and I'm not trying to be spiritual, and I'm not trying to be anything that I'm not. That has felt to me like always my greatest tool in terms of connection with others and with the room that I'm "teaching yoga to". To break those walls down. For people to feel like it's okay for you to be human. It's okay for you to be lonely or jealous or competitive or pissed off.
Sometimes the whole world of manifesting your life and law of attraction, I believe in that. I think that's very powerful and very true. But for whatever reason, I'm like, there's something about the darkness and also the pain around that. The conflict. The complexity of all the layers that feels more true. It's all about the balance. =
In some of our communities we were in, I remember feeling like everyone was walking around pretending to be happy, and I just don't believe them. That doesn't seem always like the right move. So I'd like to leave behind a legacy of feeling free to be human.
Katelin: I think that what I would want people to feel the most was that both myself, because I guess we're supposed to be speaking for ourselves, but also that our company was really a service to bringing as many unexpecting people as possible into some awareness of some aspect of the practice.
It doesn't have to be exactly as it was handed to us. It doesn't have to be exactly how other people do it. But that they tapped into some aspect of themselves that made them feel connected in that spiritual way. Also, in a physical way too. That they saw, through us or through myself, some window into how they could feel comfortable. How they could feel welcomed. How they could feel like it actually did include them. Because they were walking around for long thinking that it was something that they were being left out of. Or they just weren't invited.
Mostly, I would like people to feel like they were always invited and welcomed.