“I am always doing yoga.” An interview with Jeanne Heileman

By: Jill Rivera Greene, Conference Blogger

I caught up with Jeanne Heileman on a day when things were not going as planned. Her retreat partner had a change in plans, and she was unexpectedly left to set up and lead an intro session on her own, right after teaching a yoga class. When I called, Jeanne graciously agreed to do go ahead with our interview, despite being in the midst of a last-minute trip for supplies before the evening events began.

You have studied many forms of yoga—including Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vini, and Jeanne HeilemanTantra—and with some of the country’s most renowned teachers. Could you talk about one experience that has had a significant impact on your practice?

I would have to say it was when I started to study Tantra with Rod Stryker. That’s when I realized that all of the joy and excitement I got from working on the physical level could also be found by working internally.

As a Sting fan, I have to admit that when I hear “Tantra,” the first thing I think of is … not yoga. What does it really mean?

It’s not what people think. When I think of Tantra, I think of embracing every aspect of my life, the difficulties as well as the joys, and seeing it all as part of my yoga practice.

Every moment of my day, I am trying to live as a yogi … being stuck in traffic, finding out I have to manage this info session by myself, lack of sleep, body aching … all of these things. It’s about reminding myself in each moment: Okay, this is surrender. You’re not breathing enough. Use your mantra.

In these moments of difficulty, I call on the Yoga Sutras. I ask myself, am I going to believe all the thoughts in my mind? Or am I going to watch them? Sometimes life throws us a little test with the challenges: How’s your yoga doing today? The quality of my mind is the mirror that shows how well my practice is going. This is living the yoga; this is the practice.

Is this an aspect of yoga that you think is often overlooked in the U.S.?

Well … I will speak for myself and say that I had not initially interpreted yoga this way. I was brought up in a very strict Catholic environment. There was a lot of “No, you should do without” engrained in me. And in yoga there’s a lot of discipline. You might think, ”I can’t have this, I can’t have that …”

When I started to study with Rod, I had just gone back to acting … and I realized I actually could do both. I didn’t have to pick one. That was so liberating!

The practices and exercises we did also helped me to realize, I am always doing yoga. I’m doing yoga right now, having a conversation with someone while trying to remember what I need at the grocery store, and hoping to get to the studio in time for my class. Or as I’m sitting and trying to meditate and my body is aching and I want to cry … that’s it, too. The question is, can I accept it, whatever “it” is?

When I do surrender to this … there’s usually some amazing shift. It’s like you can feel a loving caress from the Divine Mother.

It almost sounds like you rediscovered joy …

Yes! Although it was more like I discovered joy, because I don’t know that I ever had it before. Except maybe through coffee.

What are some things you keep in mind when putting together a sequence for a class?

I use a lot of principles from Ayurveda. For example, the weather is really Vata right now, so I’m going to sequence differently than if it was hot and full of Pitta energy. I also adjust my sequencing based on the time of the day.

Jeanne radiates joy while leading a class.

Jeanne radiates joy while leading a class.

I might keep to a similar shape throughout a sequence, to help someone go even further and deeper toward a goal, a peak pose. I also take into consideration who is coming and what is going on in the external environment: politics, financial markets, world events, as well as the state of mind/energy of the students.

In any case, I’m always thinking about affecting energy. It’s not just pose, pose, pose … what I have learned from Rod, in Tantra, is that we want to help the person remember their luminous essence. Do we want to increase that person’s energy, or bring it down and help them calm? I look at where they are and where they need to go to reconnect to their Center.

In my conference workshop [Creative Sequencing that Makes Sense], we will actually sequence a class together, considering various options. If someone doesn’t know about Ayurveda, that’s fine—I’ll cover some of that so that they can follow. Even if you’re not a yoga teacher, it’s fine. This is useful for home practice, too.

I saw on your website that you struggle with scoliosis. How does your own experience of chronic pain affect how you work with students?

Once you have any sort of pain, if it’s really good and juicy, I think it opens you up to your compassion, to realizing that other people are in pain too. As I walk down the sidewalk or drive on the freeway, I look in windows and think, “I wonder who else is in pain?” You realize that everyone’s pain is different, yet the same: it’s hard to breathe, you want to cry and give up, etc.

Helping a student with an adjustment.

Helping a student with an adjustment.

When I have a student who has an injury, I’ll ask them to describe it. I’ll try to put myself into their pain because it helps me to understand what’s happening for them and discover what they need.

At the conference, one of your workshops is a “Closer Look” at the Bhagavad Gita. For those of us who have not studied that text deeply, what is something that we might find surprising?

The book is just pure love! It’s about how to give and receive love, and how to be a yogi in the present world.

People should know that even if they don’t know the book, if they haven’t looked at it, they can come to the workshop. A lot of people think it’s going to be heady and difficult to read, like Shakespeare … but it’s so accessible and so beautiful. I will break it down in a way that people can really relate it to this present day and time. Students who take this workshop leave loving the experience, and the Gita.

I am really honored to be part of this conference and have this opportunity to share not only asana, but these other aspects of yoga.

What advice do you have for a new student of yoga like myself?

I used to teach new students … they would take a class or two and then ask what they should do, and I would say, “Promise me that you will come once a week for 6 months.” And they would say “Sure, of course” … but it’s the holidays, things happen. Stay with once a week no matter what. If you have the time and energy, by all means do more, but never drop any lower than once a week.

Then try to appreciate the experiences happening inside your body—not what’s happening on the outside, how it looks, or whether you’re hitting the pose just right. Let the yoga do its job. Don’t you do yoga, let the yoga do you. The rest will unfold as is necessary.