An Interview with Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher Rachel Mathenia
Things that don't come naturally to me: trust, vulnerability, being upside down. Guess what I have to do once a week in Rachel's yoga class? Uh huh. It's got to be hard enough to teach yoga to a recovering competitive perfectionist, but imagine one with PTSD. Rachel knows I don't feel safe in certain poses, like backbends, so she stands behind me and puts her hand on my back, which has the immediate effect of making me feel safe. She not only holds space for me, she calms me down and makes me laugh. There's a reason she's everyone's favorite yoga teacher.
Rachel is more than a teacher, she is a healer, a spiritual guide, and a wondrously ridiculous weirdo. She wears Wonderoos, listens to the same music your high school boyfriend did, and travels around town with a jug-sized mason jar of goddess knows what, assuredly some kind of beet-sauerkraut smoothie. It took her two years to fill out this questionnaire, so please read it thoroughly. Meet my yoga teacher, my friend, the healer of my knee injuries, Rachel Mathenia!
What is your job title and where do you teach?
I am a CIYT (certified Iyengar Yoga teacher) and IAYT (International Association of Yoga Therapists). Since 2005, I have taught mainly at The Iyengar Center of Nashville and have also been the assistant director to Aretha Blevins for most of that time. I also teach one class a week at Steadfast and True, as well as private yoga classes.
When did you first learn about this field of work?
I took a yoga class at Middle Tennessee State University for a P.E. credit.
How did you know it was what you wanted to do?
I was in my third class, lying in savasana, and I had this premonition that I would do yoga for the rest of my life and that I would teach it. It really is a calling for me. It's a challenging path that is very rewarding, but I have had many times when I have thought that I needed to figure out another career to have security, but I really don't want to do anything else.
What was your path that lead you to the job you have now?
When I became curious about teaching yoga in 2001, there was only one yoga teacher training program in Nashville. The Southern Institute for Yoga Instruction, led by John Charping and Betty Larson. They were the owners of the now closed Yoga Room in Berry Hill. I attended that 1,000 hour program over 13 months. I consider it grace that they taught the Iyengar method and that it is really the only style of yoga that I have studied. I loved the therapeutic aspect of the method and the scientific approach that encourages creativity. No two Iyengar classes will ever be the same!
My first regular teaching gig was at the University School of Nashville, teaching yoga in the middle school. Aretha was teaching Latin there and she had just taken over ownership of 12South Yoga (aka Iyengar Yoga Center of Nashville) and she asked me to teach a teens class. I gradually took on more classes and she asked me to be her assistant after a few years of teaching there. Eleven years ago, I took my first workshop with my teacher Manouso Manos. He has the reputation of being one of the best yoga therapeutics teachers in the world. He has helped me tremendously with my own health issues and I continue to study therapeutics with him.
Favorite piece of advice, business or otherwise?
“Rest in reason, move in passion” -Khalil Gibran
Failure you learned from or that helped you improve the way you teach?
Well, I have little failures in class everyday that I try to learn from. My “teacher training” has never ended. I continue to refine my teaching skills, study, and practice every day.
What would you do with two more hours a day?
Practice, spend more time with family and friends, read more, make art. Oh! And I also am studying Vedic astrology now.
What is your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your professional life?
It makes me so happy when I find out my students have developed a personal practice. One of my goals of teaching is to teach people how to use yoga as a medicine to lessen suffering.
What’s the first app or website you open when you wake up in the morning?
Probably Instagram. But I check my email first and often end up reading something from a website I am subscribed to like, Joyful Belly Ayurveda.
How do you decompress at the end of the work day?
My schedule is kind of weird. I teach private classes sometimes as early as 7am, but I also teach evening classes every week night. So I decompress in the middle of the day. During this time I practice, cook my biggest meal of the day and hang out with my two dogs and husband, who works from home. I love to cook. It's meditative to me, but also is a way for me to be creative. I love food as medicine and I love to cook for people.
What’s the hardest thing about your job that isn’t obvious?
Oh wow! There's a lot. People have no idea how challenging it is to teach yoga well. As we are learning in the West, there is no separation of the body and mind, so when you are teaching 1- 40 people how to do these poses, you are dealing with their muscles and bones, but more importantly their trauma and their egos and their insecurities and their stories about themselves. The practice of yoga is transformational by nature so it makes people more sensitive. If you're practicing by yourself at home it can be a balm and you can experience your emotions in private. But when one is in a class it can create feelings of vulnerability when these emotions come up. And as the teacher, I not only have to pay attention to everyone's alignment to protect them from injury, but also be sensitive to their emotions.
What is one thing everyone gets wrong about what you do?
Hmmmmmm, right now, goats. I kid! < See what I did there. Maybe that my job is relaxing and easy? I think people also assume that you get a practice in when you teach yoga but in the Iyengar tradition we don't practice while we teach. We watch and instruct the students from what we see in front of us. We will show them how to do the pose but that is a demonstration, not an inward experience.
Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?
Right now I love Stranger Things, Outlander, and Transparent. Of all time... anything Jim Henson was involved in. My favorite snack right now is melted cheese on a corn tortilla with sauerkraut or kimchi, and avocado because I usually have one in my kitchen.
All photos courtesy of Rachel Mathenia