The yoga community received a big blow when the COVID pandemic started. Good thing teachers and practitioners like Stephanie Williams never gave up, anchoring the community so that others could still learn the art of yoga. Jordan Levin sits down for a chat with Stephanie, the Founder of Yoga Harbor, as she talks all about the yoga space in today’s post-COVID world. She speaks about the impact the pandemic has had and how they kept the fire burning for yoga. Stephanie also talks about the positive impact yoga has on the body and over-all health and fitness of its practitioners.
Listen to the podcast here:
I am meeting with Stephanie Williams, the owner of Yoga Harbor. I have gone to know Stephanie quite a bit in the last few years and I am honored to allow you to have the opportunity to be on my second show.
I’m happy to be here. Thanks, Jordan.
Go ahead, Stephanie. I would love to know more about what you do and go into a little bit of detail about how you came about to getting Yoga Harbor.
Yoga Harbor has been around for a few years. It was first called Zen Movement Studio. When the pandemic hit, I was already on my mind to change the name. It made for a perfect opportunity to rebrand as Yoga Harbor. A lot of signs were pointing me in the direction of starting a yoga community over the years. I have even had a couple of offers in the past to purchase yoga studios and they never came to fruition in any way. I remember, Jordan, you had your space at CrossFit. When that space became available, you approached me and I was like, “I’m not ready.” A year went by as things were adding up and I kept thinking about your space.
I was like, “Maybe I will call Jordan.” I remember texting you and you’re like, “I put the space back up on Craigslist. I’m going to take it down. Let’s talk.” At that moment, when I was considering starting a yoga studio, I felt good about your space. We had already known each other. I was going to CrossFit. I trusted you, Hillary and the community there so it felt a good starting point. Things added together. It was helpful that I have been teaching in this area of Michigan for a good few years and another few things added up to help bring people to Yoga Harbor. Unfortunately, we were there as an in-person community for those couple of years and the pandemic hit. It was disorienting for all of us.
We need to give ourselves a lot of grace at this time and just do our best.
I remember you and I have conversations during the pandemic trying to discuss how we were going to go about it. I have got to say you did a wonderful job of pivoting with everything going on with the unknowns of whether we can go back to in-person. For both of us and especially for you because of such a tight-knit community. I wish I’m going to startle them and say, “I know that it was a difficult decision for you to make that transition into the virtual gravity.” What was going on? How did you continue yourself at that moment and say to yourself, “This is what’s going on. I can’t think about the past. I have got to think about forward.” How did you regroup yourself?
I did my best every day. Part of what was disorienting and you know that this space in the community was in a vibrant moment in early 2020. The group of yoga teacher trainers had graduated from their training. We had plans to build things up more and more. The community was growing and I felt vulnerable when the pandemic hit being a newer business that is still in the startup phase. I didn’t have many stable finances to document for all the grant applications and things like that. I was in a vulnerable time and I had to think smart and think safe with the known.
I had this gut feeling that the pandemic was going to be bad and it proved to be bad. I had to take things one step at a time. I managed the full class schedule through June. I got the first Zoom classes up online within a few days and thanks to some of your help with you and Hillary, as you were doing the same. People were appreciative of the live classes. People had a similar experience at CrossFit being able to connect during such a challenging and dark time. I was motivated by being a source of reliability for the community. That is part of what Yoga is about. You can come to your practice, rely on it and almost always feel that much better by having taken some time to slow down, take care and process the stress especially in those first couple months of COVID.
My motivation was the community. Naturally, a lot of members fled here and there and that was normal but I’m so thankful for the core group of members who have stuck around and they give me much positive feedback. Once Yoga Harbor, the name came out, it felt like a new beginning. I was able to downgrade the amount of time I was alive so we reduced the number of live classes. I have a small but growing collection of shorter yoga practice videos. Although I do look forward to having at least some, maybe a monthly or a weekly class here and there in-person, once we are able to do that. The virtual format has allotted me more opportunities to write, communicate with the written word, which is something I wanted to explore. Honestly, I still feel we are getting onto our feet. There is always much more I want to do. Like a lot of people, we need to give ourselves a lot of grace at this time and do our best. Staying there as an anchor for the community is my biggest motivation.
That’s very wonderful and a good point that you made about mobility. I notice that you and I are on the same boat. We are entrepreneurs. It’s an important point for people to understand that being vulnerable is such a motivating point for us especially when we are dealing with something so strong as the unknown of COVID. We have been threatened by something like this. I have to commend you for sticking to your guns, sticking to what you know in this city and to the community. That’s a big thing that I could repeat through my clientele across the community that holds you and me together. That’s what makes us stronger to help out at all times.
With that, come around June 2020 was more of a pivotal month. It was when I announced us as Yoga Harbor. With that change, I also at that time recognized that I had to take care of myself too. I know you can relate. It was to hunker down, do the work, pivot with this COVID stuff going on and do your best. I got exhausted. That was also part of the reason why I scaled back a little bit. Winter is a good time to be doing yoga and things are building back up in an interesting new way.
I want you to talk a lot about your yoga practice in general and about breathing. For me personally, I remember talking to you years ago on a call when I was struggling with my own yoga practice at your previous location. I was having a hard time adjusting the whole breathing aspect. You and I talked about it. After that, it started to make sense. I have a two-part question about that part. How do you take somebody like me who is being stiff and non-mobile especially because I’m a male? Most males do not want to do yoga. How do you overcome the objection of somebody who comes to you and says, “Yoga is not for me?” How do you overcome that and how do you ease their pain in answering that question?
At Yoga Harbor, we have a good amount of men representing yoga so that’s good. Anyone who comes into class maybe for their first or several first yoga classes, I recognize that there might be a vulnerability, some apprehension or nerves about being there. I’m giving the reassurance to anyone who is showing up for their first few times that, “You made it. You are here. Stick with the class while you are here. Do what you can.” Start by figuring out what’s feeling good and stay with it. You will see the benefits start to add up with every class and practice.
When it comes to someone who might be more resistant to trying yoga like you are asking, that is all about meaning somebody where they are. Maybe encourage them to give it a try and follow-up with some questions like, “How did that feel? Are you feeling a little bit better now? What have you noticed? Are there any differences?” More often than not those questions come back affirmative and leave the practice open-ended for that person. There is one way I like to share Yoga. It’s definitely not about me. It’s all about who is practicing and their moment, how their day is going and asking them, “How was it for you?”
I have to agree with that because that was me in that situation. Normally, when you are talking in a class, as you know I’m going to hear what is being said so I rely on what I can see. It took me a long time to understand that. That is a challenge for me. I’m sure it’s a challenge for you too.
For a Crossfitter, yoga seems really basic and simple and almost too fundamental.
It’s a pleasure to work with you for sure.
I have learned to appreciate yoga through the years and I try to make sure that I at least do yoga a couple of times a week but that doesn’t always happen.
When you have got a yoga teacher in your home and she is your wife, that is helpful.
Let’s talk about the complementary things that CrossFit and yoga bring together. In CrossFit, we have this mind and body connection. You have done CrossFit. What have you noticed that Yoga has helped in CrossFit and vice versa?
Let’s start with my experience with CrossFit. I knew that yoga was helpful for me approaching CrossFit as a beginner with body awareness and being comfortable with starting slow. Maybe with you as my coach, there might have been moments where you are a little frustrated with me because I wanted to do things right, safely, not injure myself and be able to breathe well during it. Cardio exercises are a little different. The body awareness and a sense of confidence that I was moving mechanically fairly well and especially when I had never done weightlifting. I have never touched a barbell before CrossFit so there is that.
Definitely with mobility, it was helpful at CrossFit. Anyone who might be coming from CrossFit and then trying yoga, definitely there are challenges and slowing down. There is a bit of what I observed as a big challenge with just not needing to be competitive in the yoga studio but being comfortable with taking a slow exhale and being comfortable with lying still for a few minutes in the end. There is that challenge. When one starts to take that type of care, tuning in and the mind-body connection, that is a big aspect of yoga. We have got that time where maybe from the outside for a CrossFitter, yoga seems basic, simple and almost too fundamental. When you infuse your presence into your body, that is part of what a yoga practice is about. It’s filling yourself head to toe with full embodiment and awareness. When you cultivate that type of practice on your yoga mat, it can only translate to heightened performance and growth in the CrossFit gym.
I know exactly what you are getting at there when I’m working out. We tend to move through the movement so quickly and fast that we have to bring it down a little bit and pay attention to what is happening in that actual work we are focusing on. What is your time? How fast are you going? I do it personally. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still want to get a good time when I work out. In the last few years since I have been involved in yoga, I tried to just be part with the actual workout. In my defense, it’s hard for me to do at the gym. I’m looking and seeing what other people are doing because even though somebody else is coaching, somebody might come up to me and go, “You know me.” I start walking. I have to pull myself away or look like an idiot.
I have said many times, “Spread your toes. Activate the arches of your feet. Tone your lower belly.” Those fundamentals, when you practice them, it supports CrossFit performance.
In the same token when I’m coaching, when I was insisted on yoga, I always found myself taking some of the yoga practice. I learned from you and taking that into gym and teaching kinds more so on the physical part of it and not so much the breathing part. That is a hard thing for me to do but the physical part of placing your feet in a certain position to get a better position. I appreciate being able to have that crossover in that.
I would try a lot to encourage a lot of my yogis and students to go over to CrossFit like, “Give it a try.” Although some of my classes support body conditioning, I might be pulling from my gymnastics background for some gentle strengthening exercises. For the most part, a lot of my classes are all levels, half a style or gentle yoga. That tends to be the clientele I reach. We all benefit from strength training so we can’t forget that. I love the bodyweight exercises. Those are my favorite in CrossFit but adding a little bit of weight and having that stability brings a beautiful balance between the two.
There are other yoga therapy programs in the country and around 50 or so programs internationally.
Have you been involved in yoga your entire life?
Yeah. My first proper class was in freshman year in college. Before that, if there’s any connection, I grew up in dance and gymnastics.
After that first class in yoga, you made me inspired. You traveled quite a bit through the years in search of your own yoga practice, if you will. Tell us what you learned about each experience.
Travel is a huge part of my personal history and I love learning. I love learning from other people. I can’t seem to stop being in the educational environment. That type of enrichment is so supportive to me. I had started formal training in terms of education as opposed to just yoga classes in Spain. I had lived in Spain long-term and I would go to the countryside of Spain to this old olive farm mill. I go for weekends every month and learn from a down-to-earth grassroots teacher. I realized a lot of that was going over my head because it was in Spanish. I still have my notes and my notes are good but they did not sink in.
It’s a supportive environment. That was enough for me to want to start some studies in English. My time in Spain came to an end so I found a program that caught my attention. It’s an international program but partly based here in the States. They held a training. The one I went to is in Canada and that was my first 200-hour training. It kicked off from there. I had a good connection with that teacher at the time. She invited me to her home-based yoga studio in Massachusetts. I managed there for a year and started teaching. She invited me to work with her as a supportive staff on her teacher training so that brought me to Costa Rica and Bali. I started my Thai massage training with her too. Her name is Jennifer Yarro of Frog Lotus Yoga. I have a lot indebted to her in terms of mentorship and learning. I continued with part of their advanced training in India.
Things kicked off and took me to Thailand to do formal studies of Thai massage from a bunch of different schools in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I’m fortunate that all of my travels were longer-term. They were at least a month in each place and sometimes, a lot longer. I sought out meditation teachers. I did a meditation retreat with an influential teacher in Stockholm who’s based in Chicago. I was fortunate to go to a lot of places. I continued my studies here in Michigan. I was impressed with this yoga therapy program called the International Institute of Yoga Therapy. After all those worldly journeys with yoga, I was like, “There is this premier and stellar top-of-the-line program practically in my backyard.” That was a new experience for me, too.
Is that the only yoga therapy in the state or in the country?
Not in the country. There are other yoga therapy programs in the country. There are around 50 or so programs internationally. Here in Michigan, this might be the only one. I don’t think it’s the first but it is the first program to be hosted within a hospital. That is the first-ever in the country, which is also interesting. With that experience, I was learning how to offer yoga therapy, which might be a simple 5 to 10-minute breathwork guided relaxation with someone who’s bedridden in the hospital, for example, or different symptom-specific populations.
Does that mean that if someone didn’t have specific body parts, say that they don’t have limbs, how do you do yoga without limbs? How would you approach that?
That would be something I would be inspired to do. It’s funny you bring up that example. The lead teacher and director of this program, Veronica Zador, opened Namaste Yoga in Royal Oak. She doesn’t own it now. When she was owner, she brought in paraplegic patients from Beaumont Hospital over to the studio. Every week, they had a two-hour session. She had them leave their prosthetics in the waiting room. They were brought into the studio and they have their own sessions. Yoga therapy is a gentler approach but it’s that symptoms-specific approach that makes it more effective. It centers on breathing, stress management, pain management and peaceful embodiment.
Yoga therapy is a gentler approach, but it’s that symptom-specific approach that makes it more effective.
To me, to think about it that way that you can help somebody with any type of disability is always a way that you can work with anybody. What is admirable for somebody in yoga as well as in fitness is the combination to bring it all together.
Yoga therapy helps us see how portable the practice can be. One of my experiences in the hospital was walking into a room with a pain management doctor. The doctor gave the patient a strong injection in the neck and I was in the room. I hear the patient’s scream from this treatment and then the doctor is like, “I happen to be here with a yoga therapist. She is happy to stay with you for a little while with guided breathing and relaxation.” I was with this patient for about ten minutes. She observably started at level ten of angst and she was like this after her treatment. To watch and help her guide the process of settling in and finding restfulness to the point that she was able to say, “Thank you so much.” That was that.
That goes into my next question. Before we close up, what brings you joy and the fact that you were able to help somebody? I want to speak for you but I’m thinking in my head. With all the things you have done overall, when you go to bed at night, what brings you joy at the end of the day?
When it comes to yoga, it is that simple. It is knowing that I’ve been a supportive part of someone’s day. I remind anybody who comes to my classes or who I work with that they are the ones doing the work. I’m just there to maybe support or facilitate the process. It’s such an honor to watch the process. Maybe in an hour’s class, someone walks in riled up and then at the end they are good to go. To witness that transformation on a regular daily basis is rewarding.
I’m glad we had this talk. I look forward to more talks. Every time you and I talk, we always have a good time.
I want to leave you with a quote by Helen Keller. I am a big fan of Helen Keller because she did things that most of us take for granted. The quote is, “Keep your face to the sunshine and you could not see shadows. It’s what the sunflowers do.” Thank you.
Thank you, Jordan.
About Stephanie Williams
Whether you’re here locally in southeast Michigan, or if you’re visiting from afar, I look forward to connecting with you. I’m on a mission to help others cultivate peace from within and walk this earth with comfort, confidence, and compassion.
As a yoga therapist (C-IAYT), teacher (E-RYT 500), studio owner (Yoga Harbor), and first and foremost, a practitioner (#neverstoplearning), the lifestyle of yoga has woven its way into every open space and corner in my life.
Day after day I’m continuously inspired by the simple nature of yoga and how it brings me into deeper connection with every moment. Like threads of a blanket, yoga teaches me to use each breath not only to sew together a safe place to cultivate personal growth, but also to bring yoga into conscious, content, and creative living.
I have always embraced yoga throughout my life in some way, shape or form. Being formally trained in ballet, gymnastics and an active athlete, I grew up in constant playful wonder of the body. My first yoga class in college (Go Blue!) fortunately led to many more, studying intimately with a variety of yoga and meditation teachers from around the world.
All the physical technique and post-yoga glows aside, what kept me hooked on yoga was that I instinctively knew it was providing me with a sense of nourishment I hadn’t known before — my deep rooted anxiety and spiritual stagnation was *finally* receiving some well-needed fresh air and attention!
Having lived many years with active eating disorder, body shaming beliefs, and other dampening addictive behaviors, my yoga and meditation practices were enlightening me to a peaceful sense of embodiment that felt like a whole new frontier. My love for learning and exploration lit up with true contemplation of yoga and eastern philosophy as experienced in modern day living.
People sometimes ask me, how did you come out of your eating disorder? The best answer I can come up with is quite simple… Breath awareness.
My training in yoga therapy through the International Institute of Yoga Therapy, based here in Michigan, is unique and progressive in our modern day yoga culture. Not only do I work privately with clients, but I can also work clinically in hospitals and health care facilities and be in professional communication with your providers.
Through living a yogic lifestyle and adopting applications of yoga therapy, I hope to create experiences of substance, meaning, and value that guide others to better manage their stresses and anxieties in order to live a self-empowered life.