Rebekah Deter, a great friend and yogic mentor of mine, is leaving Champaign-Urbana to further her scientific career in North Carolina. This prompted me to dig up a little something I wrote after I caught up with Rebekah at Amara Yoga & Arts back in 2013. Here is my (long overdue) interview:
It’s March – a very chilly March – and it’s time for me to get the story behind one of my favorite yoginis, our very own Rebekah Deter. We had agreed to meet at Amara, which on Thursday evenings is the place to be for those in need of some warming restorative yoga. The class over and the mood mellow, a chatty crescent of Amaris avail themselves of Rebekah’s experience. I notice immediately that this is not just small talk, a keeping up of appearances, per se. It’s just a little more real – for want of a better word – a little more sincere. Eventually, my patient loitering is rewarded, and as the students leave, Rebekah and I seat ourselves, cups charged with hot tea. The few lamps lit at this hour throw long shadows across her, shadows that would cause any other visage to take on a mysterious quality. But they seem to paint even more kindness onto her young face, to weave even more truth into the tapestry that is her yogic story.
Hers is a story set in several states, notably Kentucky, but it was not until her time as an NC State undergraduate a decade ago that yoga really found its way into her life. “We were those students”, she exclaims while describing to me her first yoga class, a broad grin on her face. Curious as to what the whole yoga thing was about, Rebekah and her friend Angela had stumbled late into a Raleigh studio, and hurriedly set their mats at the back of the room. The pair had immediately entered a new world, it seemed, their baggy clothes out of place among the form-fitting yoga attire which hugged the asana-tempered bodies of their fellow students. Embarrassed, Rebekah made every effort to emulate those around her, finding her way nervously into something resembling downward-facing dog. Still, it seemed hard for her to focus, not least because the pose Angela had struck was one in which a hand was madly texting her boyfriend, her other three limbs in adho mukha svanasana (not something you’d find in Light on Yoga). The others in the class are surely better yogis than I am if they didn’t have at least had some judgment for the pair.
While it would be some time until Rebekah attended her next yoga class, the self-confessed teenage brat entered her early twenties with newfound vigor. That she would take to asana practice like a duck to water was never in doubt, her gymnastics background affording her plenty of strength and flexibility. Above all, it was the yogic focus - the dharana – that truly changed her. This she attributes to a yogini by the name of Yvonne, whose classes she first attended in 2004. Stunningly beautiful, Yvonne had a bubbliness that inspired scores of yogis each morning to salute the sun even before its rays lit the Raleigh skies. More than a decade Rebekah’s senior, the teacher possessed not only irrepressible individualism and charisma, but also a physical prowess Rebekah also saw in herself. Yvonne proved to be the perfect role model, and showed that a supremely energetic young woman (a vata-pitta for sure) could also be grounded and focused. Unbeknownst to her teacher, Rebekah was escaping a troubled youth and, breath by breath, venturing into a new phase of her life. However, Yvonne soon left the suburban studio in search of greener pastures in the city. Just as quickly as yoga had found Rebekah, she had lost her mentor. Rebekah’s practice – her sadhana – waned, although she did perform the occasional asana at home and continued to educate herself through podcasts. The remainder of her free time was spent dabbling in everything from weightlifting to aerobics to breakdancing. But the void yoga had left was hard to fill and while asana shapes manifest themselves in breakdancing, the awareness Rebekah was seeking – the very aspect that sets hatha yoga apart from other physical pursuits – was not to be found. Rebekah’s arrival in Champaign-Urbana marked the end of a five-year yoga hiatus, after which she dusted off her yoga mat in search of some yin to offset the yang of her hectic UIUC graduate studies. The creative flows of local yogi Deb Lister as well as the soothing stretches taught by Lauren Quinn were now integral to her wellbeing. The prospect of teacher training, if ‘only’ to deepen her own practice, had already crossed her mind in Raleigh. Now, it was well and truly a goal, one that would be achieved in 2011.
I look at my phone – it’s almost 9 pm and we haven’t even started to discuss Rebekah’s yoga teaching. She takes her last sip of tea, and explains “yoga helped me find my voice”. And as cliché as that might sound, it also seems somewhat unbelievable. Just a while ago she was charismatically sharing stories with students and now she’s telling me she was shy and had no voice? I look a little deeper though and begin to see a more internal person, one who gravitates towards reading and self-study (and lots of forward folds!).
After her completion of YogaWorks teacher training, Rebekah might not have led classes at all had it not been for the belief her teachers had in her (Rebekah’s trainer Tatiana gave her the book titled “The Courage to Teach”). Support also came from her peer Jim Rector, whose gift to her of a little cactus,* she explained, was to represent the blossoming of her yoga teaching (suffice to say that the little cactus is not so little anymore!). What motivated her most to leave her comfort zone and teach yoga were the people. Meeting them, helping them. She eschews any thoughts of attaining yoga celebrity (‘yogalebrity’) status, such a position being unsuited to one who genuinely wants to connect with individuals. Rebekah concedes, however, that there was undoubtedly business savvy behind the self-promotion of some prominent yogis. This savvy would be essential if she is to bring to reality her ideas of establishing a prenatal yoga training program.
Prenatal yoga? Hardly fashionable stuff, right? Not something you’d see the Kino MacGregors and Kathryn Budigs of the world teaching. Such niche yogas had piqued Rebekah’s interest early on, her belief being that the mindfulness, strength and flexibility afforded by yoga should be accessible to all. “Women are tired”, she asserts, her aim being to unite groups of pregnant women who might otherwise feel very isolated. You’ll find plenty of workshops (and YouTube videos) teaching fancy arm balances and inversions. But how many yoga workshops do you see dealing with yoga for incontinence? It didn’t surprise me that Rebekah’s attraction to these niche practices was borne out of her willingness to help people in need (among these her mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis). This empathy, this ability to identify with others and meet specific needs with yogic awesomeness is particularly refreshing. One of her students told me that Rebekah “loves indiscriminately”, something that goes far beyond being young and bendy.
Most people will agree that good yoga teachers are good yoga students. As Rebekah refers to her passion for continuing education (necessary for teachers to be registered with the Yoga Alliance), she points out that “practice is decades”. It’s hard to imagine so much patience from someone who used to have road rage and an inability to wait in line for anything. As someone who’s attended many of her classes, it’s clear to me that she’s in a good place and that her positivity is extremely contagious. If one measures a teacher by the impressions they leave on their pupils, then the smiles etched onto the faces of Rebekah’s many students speak volumes. Add to this her ability to deconstruct asanas and lead new yogis into deep poses (she had a class full of newbies in eka pada koundiyasana ii) and you realize you have someone quite special. Much of this ability stems from her creativity at finding new stretches (you put what? where?) that almost magically enable a ‘full expression’ of ridiculous-looking postures.
As the popularity of Rebekah’s classes grew, she realized that instructors often have no idea who they’re influencing (Yvonne, the yogini who inspired Rebekah, didn’t even know her name). You could have a class full of trauma victims and wouldn’t know it. She tells me the best teachers show preparedness and sensitivity to individual students, skills that undoubtedly were with Rebekah before her yoga teaching, but which matured as she led classes both in Illinois, and later, in the wilds of Alaska. Rebekah’s style of teaching mirrors that of her practice, which, from yin to the more dynamic vinyasa forms, spans the entire hatha yoga spectrum. Her appeal is remarkably universal – from older yoginis to the cliques of sorority girls to all the guys – her classes are often standing room (samasthitih, of course!) only. If you believe only one sentence I write, let it be the next. You’ll find a more experienced teacher, one more well-versed in Sanskrit, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone better able to connect with such a wide variety of human beings.
* In contrast, Rebekah gave yours truly a fragment of that cactus and I killed it.