This month we had the pleasure of sitting down with Elle Potter, found of Yoga Buzz STL. Yoga Buzz is a local nonprofit that hosts yoga events at amazing and unique locations around the city to raise money for various outreach programs and nonprofits. The events themselves are spectacular--think yoga accompanied by live reggae bands at Union Station or staring up at the stars at the planetarium--and the motivation behind them is even more incredible. Elle is charming and funny, and her passion for this city and the people in it is contagious. She’s making an impact on this city, one yoga mat at a time.
Tell us more about you and the inspiration behind Yoga Buzz.
I held a yoga class at the Schlafly tap room with the help of my husband as part of St. Louis Craft Beer Week in July of 2014. And 100 people showed up. We announced it 10 days before so there wasn't a lot of lead time. We had gotten a lot of attention, because it was something really unique as far as craft beer week goes. People were asking “when are you going to do this again”, and so I figured I should probably do it again- and that was it. It was just intended to be one event, but other breweries were interested in participating. The idea has always been, "how do we get a group of people together to share different interests or introduce them to something new by bribing them with something else?" Whether it’s introducing them to yoga for the first time by bribing them with beer or ice cream, or introducing them to beer or ice cream by bribing them with yoga.
We did an event at the Ferguson Brewery in September of 2014. We were raising money to give to the Ferguson Youth Initiative, and we had 35 people who came to the event. It was a really great event, and I was standing in Ferguson in the midst of this conversation about segregation and separation and teaching a yoga class to 35 white women. It was like, “Okay, so I feel like I am making yoga accessible because I’m taking it out of the studio, but I’m making it accessible to the same demographic that would already be showing up anyhow.” Things started to shift in my mind. I found a mission in that moment that was more than just surface. From there the wheels have just been spinning endlessly in my brain about how to build programming that continues to make yoga accessible despite any excuse.
Why do you think yoga is important?
I saw an article recently talking about different organizations across the country that are fighting for equal access to yoga. For me, as a yogi, it's easy for me to say, "Everybody should have access to this practice because I've seen what it has done for others, and I know what it's done for me personally." Feeling good should be an inalienable right, and it's not. The tools for feeling good aren't always accessible to everybody. But one of the points of the article was that it's not really a top tier need for people who are living in poverty. It's not food, it's not income, it's not housing, it's not heat. The article went on to say that people who live in poverty should not be defined simply by their material needs. And that statement was really powerful for me, because it is probably the strongest response to “why is yoga important?”.
Are you a yoga failure if your heels don’t touch the mat during downward dog?
Not at all. One thing to consider for people who have a hard time getting their heels down is that you have bones in your ankle, and everybody is built differently. So for some people, literally, just the flexion of the toes coming back, they can’t go back far enough. It's so empowering for me as a teacher understanding other people's bodies as well as understanding my own body. Everybody's body is built differently, and so it may never be possible for two people to look the exact same in a pose. It has nothing to do with muscles or flexibility or strength. Sometimes it's bones.
What are your favorite places that Yoga Buzz events have been held at?
The Peabody Opera House in the grand lobby. The planetarium under the stars. Union Station in the big open midway space.
Yoga Buzz has started an outreach project with veterans. How does the project work?
So veterans being our first outreach project through Yoga Buzz...I met a woman named Jean Ferguson, and she creates programs for Veterans through the VA to keep them moving, to keep them active and fit, and to promote healthy living. There have been a lot of people in the military starting to actively adapt practices based off of yoga. At the VA they have a program called Breathe, Stretch, Relax which is sort of similar to yoga. We are continuing to build on that. My hope is that, over time, we'll be able to offer programming, if there's an interest and a desire from the community, to be able to work with patients and veterans with traumatic brain injuries or veterans who are wheelchair bound. We're going to start with one class a week at Jefferson Barracks down south, and at John Cochran on North Grand as well.
What is your favorite pose?
It used to be dancer's pose, when I was a little bit more bendy, and that was the pose I used to do for photos. Y'know, for arbitrary yoga photos. Really my favorite pose is Shavasana, the "lay down at the end of class pose". The grown up nap pose. That one definitely has a special place in my heart.
What was your reaction to being named RFT’s “Best place to meet women in STL”?
I didn't know that was happening. It came out, and somebody sent me a link and was just like, “Did you know about this”? I see the link that just says "Best place to meet women in STL: Yoga Buzz". I thought oh, Riverfront Times, what have you done? My immediate reaction was "Have we just been marginalized, what am I about to read?" But I was so impressed by the article. The first line is like, "So you don't actually go to a Yoga Buzz event to pick up women, that would be trashy", and I was just like "Oh, thank you." Yoga in the west is predominantly women, and I will also say that the people who are coming to our events are some of my favorite people in the city. These are people--women and a handful of men-- who are really interested in exploring their city and getting involved. I definitely think that article got it right in saying that "these are some of the coolest St. Louisans you'll meet."
What is the process for choosing scholarship recipients?
We have an online application for people to fill out, and the general guideline is that they make less than 2.5 times the federal poverty line. We're looking for people that will commit to a year of practice, an average of two times a week, and are really willing to use it as a journey of self inquiry, self discovery, and not just somebody who is just looking for free yoga. Somebody who feels this could really have an impact on them.
What do you say to people who don’t like yoga or think it’s a bit hokey?
When I first started doing yoga--before I found the style I really fell in love with-- I wanted to love yoga so much because it felt so mystical and magical, in theory. In practice, the classes I was going to in the beginning were so boring. Now I understand that it was a yin practice, which is much slower-paced (and I love nowadays). But the worst part for me was that there was a candle that smelled like sugar cookies, and all I wanted was to eat some sugar cookies. We would hold a pose for seven minutes, and so I'm just there with my legs falling asleep, bored, and drooling for cookies. I faked a coughing fit to leave early and take the step aerobics class at the gym next door. I was in my early twenties too, so sitting still was already gonna be hard, but then cookies and long holds made it practically impossible. When I found a style of yoga that I fell in love with (flow/vinyasa) it was just like moving, it felt like dance, and there was cool music and that was when I really fell in love. Now I love a yin class. But I still don't know if I could do it with the cookie candle.
I watched a video of a forum you led about trauma-informed yoga. At one point you said that you “want to provoke conversation that starts meaningful change”- What does meaningful change look like to you? What can yoga do for STL?
We can't create change unless we talk about the things that need to be changed. We need to be able to talk about the impact of trauma, the experience of anxiety, and chronic stress, but also say "here are tools that can be really helpful." Because it doesn't help to talk about trauma and stress, but then just be like, “Good luck!” I also want to spark conversation about really trying to create more of an inclusive message of yoga in STL. I have a friend who had always wanted to open a yoga studio in old north. There was an opportunity that opened up recently, and now she'll be the first African-American owned yoga studio in STL that's specifically yoga. In Old North STL, the neighborhood is mostly African-American and low-income, which is generally underrepresented on the yoga mat. And so it's like, talking, starting to have more open conversations about, “Have you ever noticed that in a public yoga class, the majority of students look a lot alike?” And because I'm starting to have these conversations-- I don't know if it's because people are hearing what I'm saying or just because I'm putting it out there that's it's subtly being picked up on--but I'm seeing more diversity at the Yoga Buzz events as time goes on. I'm always really excited to see that, because I want people to feel welcome. I would never intentionally do something to make somebody feel excluded, but if somebody walks in and they don't look like anybody else in the room- they're the one who has a disability, or they're the only one who is bigger-bodied, or has brown skin- chances of them feeling like maybe they don't belong, that being the perception, are increased. I really believe that change and diversity will happen over time. Just gotta talk about it.
We had such a great time talking to Elle and learning more about Yoga Buzz. If you’d like to learn more about Yoga Buzz visit : www.yogabuzz.org. We'll be hosting a Yoga Buzz event here at Revive on May 9!