Judi Checo is our teacher of the month for September! Check out her Bilingual Yoga classes (by donation), now at a new time – every Saturday at 12:30PM.
Q: How did you get into yoga?
My first class was at a studio in the Union Square area. I wasn’t really a big gym person, but I wanted some kind of movement and yoga appealed to me because it wasn’t competitive or aggressive. I was going to Baruch at the time so just walking around [down there] and seeing the studios was how I found out about yoga. There were none up here back then. I took my first class and really fell in love. Vinyasa wasn’t the big thing then, it was Hatha, so it was slower and I just found it to be really relaxing and grounding.
Q: Did you become a regular?
At that time my practice wasn’t consistent. I would go when I was stressed about tests or feeling like I needed to relax. I don’t remember talking to any of my friends in the neighborhood about yoga. I think that might be why I was inconsistent at first. I was living between two worlds a little bit. I would remember yoga when I needed it and then go back into my day-to-day.
It didn’t become more consistent until around 2010. There was a studio called Sal Anthony’s Movement Salon and there was a teacher there, Kerry Freidman. That’s how I ended up becoming more consistent because I really loved her classes. And then I started going to Kundalini yoga. I did that for a good year, very devotedly. From there, I finally started to open up to Vinyasa.
Q: Was Vinyasa starting to become more popular in general then?
Definitely, but when my practice started, I didn’t care about anything challenging, no challenging poses, no inversions, no crows. I couldn’t care less. I just wanted to breathe. I found the breathing and the meditative aspect of it really grounding.
Q: A lot of people that I speak to initially come to yoga from the physical aspect of, “Oh I was an athlete or a dancer first.”
Not me. That’s why I was wary of Vinyasa, but I think that’s what happens with your practice. It evolves and it’s like, “Ok, I’m ready for this now.” But it took me years to be ready.
Q: What were you doing before you were teaching yoga?
I was working as an executive assistant. I worked in a bunch of different industries; publishing and retail and insurance, but basically doing office management and being an executive assistant.
Q: How did you do decide that you wanted to change that up and become a yoga teacher?
I didn’t. I just wanted to deepen my practice, learn more about the philosophies and the eight limbs, so I thought, I’ll do teacher training. I didn’t think I was going to teach.
I was also going through a hard time then, a lot of life transitions and a tough break up, so I signed up for teacher training and it was life changing for me on so many levels.
Q: Obviously it led to a new career path. Was it transformative in other ways as well?
Yes, in so many ways. I started meditating, which is the biggest life-changing tool I could ever recommend to anyone. Just being aware that I’m not everything I think and feel and connecting with that true self. [It was] also about beginning to see myself in relationship to the world, seeing that I could serve and help.
Q: Where did you do your training?
It’s a program that’s not active right now called Conquering Lion Yoga. It was a 9-month course and we met on the weekends. It was really helpful for me to do it that way because I had to immerse myself in this way where it became part of my day-to-day life.
One of the first classes I taught was a bilingual class that [my teacher Kelly Morris] recommended me for while I was still in training. She was like, “You speak Spanish. You should go do this.” I was like, “I don’t know if I can.” One of the reasons that I feel like it was a transformative training is that she pushed you. She was like, “You can do it. Go.”
Q: Where was that?
It was with a support group for women who were mothers of autistic children. They were all Latino and only spoke Spanish. They were looking for resources for their kids and they were stressed and really needed self-care. The organizer thought yoga would be a good thing to introduce so that’s how I started teaching in Spanish.
Q: Was that what made you want to teach more?
Absolutely. We focused on super simple Asanas, breathing and some meditation. When I saw how responsive these women were who’d never even heard of yoga, I was like, “Oh there’s something here.”
I realized, I actually really like doing this. I don’t think I’d ever had that feeling before. I’d been working and making good money at some big corporations… but I had never felt such a sense of purpose.
That was how I ended up proposing the bilingual class here and got my first full-on teaching gig. At the time I reached out to Bread and Yoga, it wasn’t like, “I’m gong to quit my job.” I just wanted to make this a part of my life.
Q: Was there a reason you wanted to teach here specifically?
I thought it would be so cool to teach in the neighborhood that I grew up in. It felt like giving back to the neighborhood and the community.
I wanted to extend yoga to people who would maybe never try this unless somebody like me came into the room, somebody who speaks their language, looks like them who said, “This is helpful. Give it a shot.”
Q: When you first started doing yoga, you said that there were no studios up here and people didn’t really know what yoga was. Do you think there is more awareness now in the Latino community Uptown?
There is more awareness. There’s also just more awareness of the word yoga in the mainstream. I’ve gotten in cabs with drivers who say, “What do you do?” When I say I’m a yoga teacher, they’re like, “Is yoga for men too?” And I’m like, “Of course it is!” We get into a whole discussion about what I do and what the benefits are so I think it’s more in the vernacular now.
There’s a curiosity but it can still feel intimidating or like “That’s something that is not for me.”
My mom, for example, has come to class at the studio with me, but I can tell that the studio setting still feels very foreign and formal to her so she gets a little intimidated and self-conscious about the movements whereas when she was taking class with me every week in the park she was so much more chill. So I also think that there’s a cultural thing of like how do we make it not so serious? In the park [classes] I just crack jokes and try to get people laughing and loose and then get them breathing and moving and relaxed so I think sometimes the studio setting feels a little bit formal.
There’s still a lot of information gathering that we’re doing [through the bilingual class], but I do think that there’s a lot of interest. It gives me hope that over time and with more outreach there could be more yoga for everyone.
Q: You stepped away from Bread and Yoga for a couple of months. What have you been up to during that time?
I actually ended up moving to Fleetwood in West Chester. A friend of mine has a studio for pre and post-natal yoga and it’s growing really fast. I started to teach pre-natal with her and really loved it. Now I’m helping her out with the business aspect of it and am the program director there as well. I had to take a small break to get all of that settled, but I didn’t want to lose this class. It was so important to me so I had a conversation with [my friend] where I said, “This is a labor of love for me as well,” the bilingual teaching and staying connected to drawing the community in more.
Q: So we’ll have you back once a week now?
Yes, I’m so excited.
Q: Does that also mean you’ve transitioned into teaching full-time?
Yes. I’ve taken the big leap, just this month. Before, I was still doing some gigs on the side. It’s taken three years, but I am now officially a full-time yoga teacher, which is wild.
Q: Does it feel scary to take that jump?
Not anymore. It did whenever I considered it before but I think I just needed to be ready and now I am. It feels really good.