Interview with Yogi and Word-Lover Kat Heagberg

Interview with Yogi and Word-Lover Kat Heagberg
Photo by Andrea Killam

Kat Heagberg is Editor in Chief at Yoga International and a yoga teacher since 2005. In her writing, Kat loves sharing ways to make challenging poses more accessible, illuminating the power of language in yoga culture, and offering encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Kat’s initial training was in alignment-based styles, but her favorite style to teach is vinyasa flow!

In our interview with Kat, she shares her journey to finding yoga, how her practice and teaching style have changed over the years, what helps her open up and shine her radiance into the world, and more!

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How did you find yoga?

When I was in high school, I bought an “MTV Yoga” DVD at my local grocery store because I thought practicing yoga would make my arms look like Madonna’s (who I had heard practiced yoga!). But I didn’t step into my first asana class until a year or so later, in college. I was studying dance and taught Pilates classes at my university’s gym, and yoga seemed like it would be a nice complement to those things. I started taking asana classes at my local YMCA, where I was fortunate to have some really wonderful, experienced teachers, and I continued soon after at local studios my teachers at the Y had recommended. The more I practiced, the more I fell in love with yoga, and I soon began replacing my daily dance classes with daily asana classes.

What inspired you to dive deep into the practice and become a yoga teacher?

I had been teaching movement of some sort since I was 15 years old, so teaching the form of movement I had come to love the most (yoga) seemed a logical next step. I started teaching yoga pretty early on in my practice, after taking classes for only about a year (which, in retrospect, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend). And although at that point I had yet to complete a formal teacher training, I was constantly attending workshops and trainings. I wanted to totally immerse myself!

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Eventually, in 2008, I completed my first 200-hour teacher training. Then, the following year, I moved to Pennsylvania where I continued to study yoga at the Himalayan Institute, completed their 500-hour teacher training program, and began working for the Yoga International editorial team—which is probably the most comprehensive yoga immersion that anyone could ask for! During that time, I also traveled back and forth to New York for Anusara Yoga workshops and trainings. My first teachers at the Y had been Anusara trained, and I was very impressed with their knowledge of alignment and their ability to artfully break down complicated poses and philosophical concepts. So I wanted to learn what they knew in order to teach as well as they taught.

How has your personal yoga practice and teaching evolved since you started?

In the early years of my yoga practice, a huge part of my identity was wrapped up in being a “yogi.” I tried my hardest to dress, speak, eat, and act the way I thought a yogi was supposed to. Looking back, I think I was pretty pretentious and annoying about it! To be fair, I suspect a lot of this had to do with the fact that I became interested in yoga in my late teens/early twenties, when I was really trying to establish an identity—and if I hadn’t wrapped my identity up in yoga, I probably would have wrapped it up in something else. Now, though, I’m a lot less concerned about “being a yogi.” These days I view yoga as a huge, wonderful set of tools that I can use to inform, empower, and enhance my life—tools that help me to be stronger, calmer, and kinder. I wouldn’t say that “yoga is my life” (anymore). But I would say that yoga makes my life a lot better—and as a result, hopefully, also the lives of those around me (at least a little bit!).

Because I began teaching when I was so young, I was overly focused on trying to appear uber-knowledgeable, and teaching the types of classes that I thought I “should” teach. Now I try to teach the types of classes that I myself would want to take—which for me right now are fun, feel-good classes with a lot of movement and plenty of opportunities for challenge sprinkled in. I know those aren’t the kind of classes that everyone wants to take, and that’s okay. No teacher is going to resonate with every single student.

I’m also discovering and rediscovering other forms of movement that complement my yoga practice: dance, interval training, Pilates, running, barre… At one point, my philosophy was “yoga is all I need!” but my perspective has definitely shifted in that regard. Integrating other forms of movement (back) into my life has not only helped me to grow my asana practice, but it’s helped me to feel more balanced overall.

And of course, there is WAY more to yoga than just the physical. I would say that for me, over these past couple of decades that I’ve been practicing and teaching, my practice and study of the more subtle aspects of yoga have become a lot simpler, and a lot more personal. I’m trying to be okay with all that I don’t know instead of trying to “know it all.” I’m trying to spend more time listening, learning, and absorbing, and less time immediately trying to teach a meditation, pranayama, or philosophical concept. I really don’t talk a lot about philosophy these days. And the breathing and meditation practices that I practice and teach, when I teach them, are very simple—focused less on the esoteric, and more on things like stress relief and self-care.

What have you found to be the most effective yoga practices or philosophies for shining your light brightly into the world?

As far as the physical practice of yoga is concerned, what has been most effective for me is not a single pose or sequence, but consistent practice every day—even if it’s just 15 minutes. Making the choice to show up for myself, and taking the time to do something that makes me feel great has had a major impact on my overall sense of well-being. It also inspires me to share the practice of yoga with others—along with the message that practice doesn’t have to look a certain way or be done for a lengthy period of time each day in order to “count.”

And the philosophy? That’s perhaps a little harder to pinpoint, because I’m constantly re-evaluating my relationship to yoga philosophy and the concept of spirituality. Right now, I’m not really sure I have an easy answer for that—but a really big part is self-study. Making “getting to know myself” a priority. This is particularly important when it comes to seeing and acknowledging my own preconceived assumptions, biases, and previously unquestioned beliefs, and then making the appropriate changes, and taking the appropriate actions in response. While this is (at least to the best of my knowledge) a little different from more traditional definitions of svadhyaya (self-study), it is a practice that’s informed and supported by my yoga.

What has been your biggest obstacle to uncovering your inner radiance?

Probably self-doubt and my very human tendency to compare myself to others and to feel inadequate as a result. This is particularly tricky in the yoga world, because we’re so often told that our practice is just about us, not the person next to us, and that there are no comparisons or judgments in yoga. All of that sounds lovely, and I think it’s usually so, so well-intentioned. But it’s also a bit of a double-edged sword because when we DO inevitably end up comparing ourselves to others, we feel guilty about being “unyogic.” (And by “we,” of course, I mean “me”!) Hmmm…perhaps it’s the “yoga guilt” that is ultimately my biggest obstacle?

Well, that and my tight quadriceps…which are perpetually throwing a wrench in my backbend practice ;)

Who or what has been your greatest influence? Who are your yoga heroes?

As the editor of Yoga International, I’m fortunate to have access to so many first-rate teachers and resources. Every day feels like a mini-yoga workshop/study session. I’m particularly inspired by teachers like Jenni Rawlings who offer a really refreshing, non-dogmatic science and research-based perspective to practice. And I’m constantly learning from and inspired by Dianne Bondy. She has SO much knowledge and experience as an asana teacher, and I’m perpetually inspired by her cueing, her sequencing, and her brilliant “prop hacks” and tips that make challenging poses accessible. Even more, though, I’m inspired by her message of body positivity, inclusion, social justice, and self-study—as well as the profound way she sheds a light on the conversations we need to be having in the yoga world.

In that same regard, I have a deep admiration for Melanie Klein and the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. As someone who has had an eating disorder, I’m especially grateful for their message and their work. In my role at YI, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to work with all of these teachers!

My teaching is also influenced and inspired by my teachers at the Himalayan Institute. They gave me a really solid foundation for meditation and pranayama in particular, and a strong appreciation for seemingly simple practices that can have a big impact. And even though my teaching is much less overtly alignment-based these days, and I no longer subscribe to the idea of “universal alignment principles,” my teaching is still very much influenced by the alignment-based workshops and training I did when I was studying Anusara—particularly when it comes to incorporating alignment into a vinyasa flow, sequencing toward a peak pose, or breaking down a complex asana into smaller, more digestible pieces.

I’ve also been very influenced by one of my first yoga teachers, Karina Mirsky, who helped me develop a more curious, inquisitive approach to practice, as opposed to accepting without question every single thing I’d ever been taught in a yoga class, which was definitely my tendency in the beginning.

What sources of inspiration do you draw upon to fuel your personal practice and teaching?

First and foremost, it’s my practice itself that fuels my teaching—and my practice. I practice every day. Some days that means just 15 minutes, while other days it might be two hours. But having that constant in my life is both comforting and motivating, and it keeps me feeling excited about yoga. Even on days when getting out of bed and onto my mat feels like an ordeal, I’m always glad that I do it. I’m a big planner, and I really and truly enjoy planning and thinking about the poses and transitions I’m going to explore in each morning’s practice.

I’m also really inspired by online yoga—both online yoga classes and little yoga snippets on social media platforms like Instagram. I’m constantly coming across new ideas and learning new things. This is particularly beneficial for me since I live in a very small town where there aren’t a lot of opportunities for taking in-person yoga classes. Prior to moving here, I lived in a big city where there were tons of studios. When I was getting ready to move, I was a little worried that my practice would suffer, and that my teaching would become stale or outdated if I couldn’t take a class every day. In fact, the exact opposite happened! Both my practice and my teaching grew significantly, thanks to online classes and workshops. I’m better able to focus my practice now, because I can choose the exact classes I want to take. And I move forward accordingly, and my teaching feels fresher and more inspired than ever.

Thanks, Kat! Read more from Kat or take her video classes at Yoga International.

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