In the brief time I spent with Katelin Sisson and Heather Lilleston, founders of yoga retreat company Yoga For Bad People, they hoisted me into a handstand, got deep about astrology, and showed me how to do eagle pose while giving the middle finger. Their lighthearted approach to challenging postures kept me going through the two hour-long class (and helped me power through my soreness the next day). They are two seriously bad dudes — and two seriously talented yoga instructors.
I spoke with Sisson and Lilleston ahead of their upcoming retreat at Scribner's Catskills Lodge as part of their partnership with Mr & Mrs Smith boutique hotels to learn more about their yoga philosophy, how to start practicing, and why you can be a "bad" person who loves yoga.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you know you were going to work well as a duo of instructors?
Heather Lilleston: "Katelin and I met a long time ago in New York, and yoga was very different then. People thought you were in a cult, there were no activewear lines, and there was no mainstream yoga. It just felt more traditional. We were bouncing between really strict spiritual practices and, at the same time, living our lives as 20-year-olds in New York, wanting to date and go shopping and get our nails done and go out to dinner and dance all night. When we met each other, it was kind of natural. We wanted to give this sense that yoga wasn’t this exclusive thing. Sometimes there’s a time and a place for doing deep practice and really being completely immersed, but at the same time, every now and then, you’ve got to bring some balance into it."
Why is it Yoga For Bad People?
HL: "There’s a book called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This is the book of the physical practices of yoga and it states that one of the obstacles to yoga is adhering too strictly to the rules. Like everything else, you can get imbalanced when you just go a little too far [into your yoga practice]. You just get kind of too rigid on the rules, and then it creates guilt, competition, and judgment. That’s actually the opposite of yoga. Being disciplined and consistent is important, but you need room to breathe. What we try to do with YFBP is make people feel welcome and included, no matter what state of mind they're in, no matter what their diet looks like, no matter what their physical state is — whether they’re young, flexible or inflexible, healthy or unhealthy. There’s something for everyone."
So you may not like to have too many rules, but are there any guidelines you like to set at the start of class?
Katelin Sisson: "If you don’t feel like it, if you’re tired, if you’re hungover — whatever it is — the practice depends on you doing it. That’s really the only prerequisite. It doesn’t mean every single day you’re going to get on the mat and feel epically amazing. A lot of the time, it feels like you’re stepping into a whole new body and a whole new mindset. That’s the beauty of the practice, of working through those daily stages that are just inevitable. It’s not like you’re going to be in a great mood every single day. Just roll with it and see what it brings up. If you don’t go, if you don’t show up, it won’t work."
HL: "We like to teach a really solid yoga class. We come from strict, disciplined practice backgrounds and there is something important about actually following the rules and sticking to the tradition. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a lighthearted approach to these disciplined, traditional practices. Just because we like to break the rules or color outside the lines doesn’t mean that we’re being messy with the practice, and I think that’s a really important distinction. You can do the real practices, but you don’t have to be some preachy yoga person."
What sets apart the practices you teach during your retreats from the regular classes you teach in NYC, LA, and Boston?
HL: "In a retreat setting, you just have more time. You can really do a complete practice. And whether it’s a weekend or week, people get to know each other [better]. You get to know someone’s name and you get to know where they’re from, and that follows you into the classroom. You’re not rushing into the yoga class from work, and you’re not rushing out to meet a friend for dinner. You’re not in a room full of 60 people and the teacher maybe touches you once. You’re getting attention. You’re on the local train when you’re doing your daily practice — you’re getting somewhere but it’s going slowly. Then, on a retreat, you're on the express train. You need both: Sometimes we have to chip away slowly and then you can speed it up a little."
KS: "There’s also a safety to it. The teacher knows your injuries; she knows whatever drama is happening in your life at that moment. [The teachers] are going to hold the space for you to have that experience, and you’re not going to get that in an hour and a half."
Describe your yoga style in three words.
HL: "The first words that come to my mind are playful and athletic."
KS: "Hilarious? No, we think we’re hilarious. No one else does. What’s a word that says we know what we’re doing without sounding like jerks?"
HL: "Inquisitive. Yeah, part of letting everyone in and being inclusive is asking questions. So, yeah, playful, athletic, inquisitive."
What would you tell someone who’s on the fence about getting into yoga
KS: "I would tell people at the very start to be open to moving around, to finding the kind of practice that’s going to resonate with them. A lot of the time, that means finding a specific teacher. Keep showing up until you find the kind of practice that’s going to work for you."
HL: "For someone just starting a practice, you have the best mind. That beginner’s mind is precious. It’s the best place to be when you come in with no expectations of yourself. I miss being like, 'I don’t know what I’m doing here.' That is one of the sweetest experiences you can have. And don’t worry, nobody’s looking at you. Everybody else in the class is obsessed with themselves and they think people are thinking about them. Nobody’s paying attention to you."