Nancy Preston is our Teacher of the Month for April. Nancy has been practicing at Bread and Yoga since it first opened and started teaching at the studio a few months later. A 17-year resident of Inwood, Nancy was inspired by the community’s response to the fire that shutdown our first location in 2012 to become more involved in local issues. She now balances her role as an Iyengar teacher with her work in community activism.
Learn more about Nancy below and check out her classes in person! Sundays at 6pm, Tuesdays at 6:30pm, Thursdays at 9am.
Q: How did you start practicing yoga?
I actually started as a teenager. I had some older friends who were in college and they would bring me to yoga classes. I found that it brought a spiritual calmness, which is great for teenagers with all of the angst going on. I became a daily
practitioner for a number of years. Then I kind of fell out. I got married and I got into a very unhealthy, stressful lifestyle, which is very easy to do when you work and live in the city. I knew I had to get back to yoga or I was going to die. My blood pressure had gone up. I had gained a lot of weight. I was very high strung and unhappy.
I found this ad for a course at an ashram in Pennsylvania. It was an immersion in yoga, Vedanta and Sanskrit. I had no idea what Vedanta was and no idea who the teachers were. I thought, “I’m just going to sneak off to this place. It’s in the Poconos. Who’s going to go there?”
Little did I know that this teacher, Ramanand Patel, was known worldwide. He was a teacher trainer who was very close to B.K.S. Iyengar and there were people from all over the world there. I thought to myself the first night, “What am I doing here? Can I run away?” But I couldn’t because I had gotten dropped off. I was really out of my element, but I was also taken care of and a whole new world was opened up to me there.
From then on I practiced everyday. I’m still following Ramanand Patel. I’ve gone to India three times to study with the teachers and those have been amazing experiences.
Q: It sounds like this workshop set your life on an unexpected course.
It did. It just completely turned it. I was really lucky because my husband and I were licensed street vendors and that gave me the freedom to go to workshops, to study, to arrange my life around the yoga. My husband was very accommodating to that because he saw immediately what it did for me.
Q: What did it do for you?
I think I became a nicer person: calmness, stability, less rigid, less anxious.
It also really changed the relationship I had with my father. I was the baby of the family. I was anti-authoritarian. My father was a retired military man and we fought. There were periods in my teen life that I didn’t even speak to him.
During this time, my parents were both ill. My mother had Alzheimers, and I had to be around and help them. I spoke to Swami [Dayananda Saraswati] about this because I was afraid that I would blow up. Swami was so simple. He said, “Look you understand that your mother’s sick and it’s easy for you to have sympathy for her, but your father is spiritually ill. Look at him as a patient and understand that he’s lost the one person he counted on his whole life.”
Then he said, “I want you to call your father everyday and tell him that you love him. Ask for nothing in return.” I said, “I can’t do that. He’ll yell at me or hang up.” He said, “Who cares? Do it, but do it everyday asking for nothing.”
The first time I did it, I sat in front of the phone for an hour with so much anxiety. I called him up and he answered and said “Ahh, what do you want?” I said, “I love you” and he hung up. Next day, he said “Hi.” Within a week, it was “Hi honey how are you?” This completely changed things. I grew to become friends with my father the last ten years of his life and we enjoyed each other’s company. It was really quite a gift and yoga gave me that.
Q: Can you explain a little bit about Iyengar and how it differs from other branches of yoga?
The founder, B.K.S. Iyengar grew up in India when it was still a British colony and there is an influence of that: sort of strict, there’s a little militaristic piece to it. Certain people are drawn to that while others are repelled from it, but it’s very piece-by- piece and systematic.
[B.K.S. Iyengar’s] wish was for yoga to be accessible to everyone so he learned how to get people into the poses using props. He really developed that as a science so for those people who are ill or have conditions, how do they get into triangle pose? The use of props is not to make things easy. It’s to help you understand the pose. It’s about accessing a pose that you normally couldn’t, to stay longer in a pose than you normally would so you can get the benefits.
Q: How did you start teaching?
It was actually the Swami who told me, “It’s time for you to be a teacher.” I didn’t want to at first. A lot of that was my lack of confidence. I’m not a poster child for yoga and I thought that’s what you had to be. You had to be able to do every pose, to look right.
He said, “You have a passion and you have something really important. You have studied at the feet of masters, which few people have the opportunity to do so now you have a responsibility to teach.” He told me not to quit my day job, but to look for opportunities. Sure enough, my teacher got sick and I offered to teach her classes during that time.
I had been practicing and studying [Iyengar] already for years at that point. I had my teachers sign that I had studied with them for so many hours and that was acceptable, but I wasn’t certified. I felt like a hypocrite because I just didn’t want to go through the certification process. It’s pretty intense. I had heard all these horror stories of people crying.
I came across a teacher who said, “Just make a plan. I’ll help you.” She was so supportive of me. I decided I was going to get my certification by the time I was 50 and I was 49 at the time. So I did the two tests within a year. I went to India to study during that time which helped prepare me because I was really strong and focused. I was able to put everything else on the backburner and I just did it.
The process is difficult and the standard is high, but once you go through it, you have knowledge and sequences in your back pocket so if a class comes and I have two people with hip problems, an older person and a young person who wants to do Vinyasa, I can craft a class.
Q: What does an Iyengar class look like?
In an Iyengar studio, everything is in levels: 1, 2, 3. The challenge for many of us who are Iyengar certified but don’t teach in an Iyengar studio is that people come as they are with no familiarity of the method. Every pose gets taught. There’s demonstration because the eyes can see more than the ears can hear. That’s sometimes tough with people who have never seen that in class. It’s like, “Come over here and watch. Watch how I roll my shoulders under. Watch how I turn my arms. How does that translate into all of the other parts of the body?” My mission is for people to come out with something new in every class.
Q: You have a pretty dedicated group at the studio. What has it been like to bring Iyengar uptown?
I have people who have been with me for years. I feel really lucky that I have a welcome home in my community and the support of Bread and Yoga.
In my years of teaching, I have seen people transform, physically and emotionally. There was a 90-year- old student I had who had to put four blankets under her head to lie on the floor. Within 6 months, she was able to lay with her head flat on the floor. I had another student who was very angry. He used to fight with other students in the class. He was a smoker, a drinker and overweight. But he came. He liked the yoga and it changed him. He changed his job. He became nice. He stopped smoking. It’s pretty amazing to see these things happen.
Q: You’ve lived in Inwood for 17 years and have taken on the role of community activist. How does yoga play into that?
I couldn’t do it without yoga.
It started with issues of nightlife and people not being able to sleep. They were exasperated so as they were trying to speak up and get help they were not able to speak well for themselves. It was too close, too emotional. I felt it was my duty to speak because I could do it from a calm place.
It’s always been my method of community activism that it’s about trying to bring people together. The more people can see each other as people with the same needs, wants, hurts and not as adversaries, the more we can be open to resolution. In the cases where that can’t be, the yoga helps me to say, “Ok I tried my best. This is the
reality. How do I live with it?”
Yoga is how you live your life. It’s not just physical. The physical starts the process and then there are all of these benefits that we never expected, to be able to find humor in adversity, to understand that laughter and happiness is our natural state and that’s inside us always, we can rekindle that whenever it’s needed and it will help us.
Q: Anything to add?
I believe that the more people who are exposed to the practice of yoga, the better the world would become. It opens realms that you can never predict. Like B.K.S. Iyengar, and Marcela, I’d love to have yoga be available to everyone. Right now we still have issues with people that aren’t able to afford it, with access. There are huge populations that can benefit from it immensely that we aren’t able to easily get to, like people with disabilities. I’d love to see more access and I just feel that the more it’s spread out the more people are open to it and that changes attitudes.