JKT Spotlight: Christine Felstead of Yoga for Runners

Most people don't think about running and yoga being connected. Much like fusion food, Christine Felstead discovered two different practices that could complement each other beautifully.

In the early 1980s, following her first of two kidney transplants, Christine discovered her passion for running, taking on marathons and leading aerobics classes with zeal. As years of running passed, injuries, mainly in the hips and hamstrings, began to plague her. Christine recalls that she could run for hours but struggled to bend over to tie her shoes. Something wasn't right, and Christine began to search for answers. Then she found yoga.

In 2001 she studied to become a yoga instructor, and in 2002 she piloted her first Yoga for Runners Workshop for her runner friends. It was an instant success. To date, Christine has been able to teach thousands of Canadian and international runners in her classes, workshops, and teacher training sessions. Others who she can't work with in person have become acquainted with Yoga For Runners through her instructions book and DVD.

What first drew you to running and marathons?

I had my first kidney transplant in 1978 when I was in my 20's. Being on dialysis and the surgical procedure left me feeling really out of shape. At the time I was active and thin but wasn't really into exercising per se. I was in the hospital for over a month, lying in bed mostly, so all my muscles began to atrophy. When I got out of the hospital, I started out walking, then running and walking, and finally running. From there I began running five miles, and then ten, and once I did that, I began to think about whether I could run a marathon.

What made you decide to move from the practice of yoga to teach?

I just loved it so much! I had been practicing yoga for a year or two and after 20 years of running. I came to realize what the impact had been on my body. I was in my early 40's and noticed I had bad posture and wanted to do something about it so I sought out yoga. This was during a time when yoga wasn't what it is now and I had to really search for it. All of a sudden I didn't feel so fit any more as I felt my movement limitations. I stuck with it and as I started to see the changes in my body and a lot pains that I had learned to live with disappear, something clicked. I even hung up my running shoes for a while because every time I ran, I felt as if I was undoing what I was doing in yoga.

What are some of the most important lessons your students have taught you?

It's hard to pinpoint one or two things. It's more about what I've learned as a whole. I try to be in tune with my students, in 20 years of teaching, I'm constantly learning because of feedback from students. They always direct me on what I should be doing based on their needs, wants, and making my classes about who is in front of me. Because I was working with runners, I researched what they need, what are their weak spots, and I listen to what they’re giving me towards an open dialogue.

If they're sitting at their office all day, I know what they should be doing next. My teaching tries to be geared towards what they need. If I'm teaching at night, I'll ask my class "how many of you have sat at a computer all day?." Feedback is interesting and when someone says after class, "you did exactly what I needed tonight" chances are everyone in the room needed the same thing.

I want to empower my students with information about their own body, anatomy and how things work to help them with their practice. Yoga shouldn't be about trying to force everyone into the same shape. I'm big on working with the needs of the individuals in the class as opposed to a set routine. I want people to focus on understanding their own bodies' way of moving and make adjustments accordingly.

What advice would you offer someone beginning running?

Get up in the morning and put your running shoes on. Don't talk yourself out of it. Running is a basic instinct in our bodies. Set reasonable expectations for yourself and make a point of getting out there.

I have mixed feelings about organized running groups – they are a great way to start and the group effect can be motivating. I believe people should be prepared to be out there on their own using their intrinsic motivation. If you're out there for the social aspect alone you won't continue your running if the social club falls apart – you'll stop running. So run with your buddies, but run alone also. Spend time with yourself.

What advice would you offer someone beginning yoga?

The same thing as with running – plan to get on your mat regularly. If you want to take classes, mark them in your calendar. There are many online resources available for home practice. Don't be afraid to just get your mat and do a few poses – the ones you remember and grow your practice from there. Just tell yourself you're just going to do 10 minutes and sometimes that 10 minutes becomes 30 minutes, other times it doesn't and that's okay too.

In the beginning, learning the foundations is key. Find a yoga style and an instructor who knows what they're talking about. Yoga shouldn't be just about a choreographed sequence of moves. Get a sense from whoever is teaching you that they know what they're talking about and make you feel at ease. It takes a more knowledgeable instructor to provide a foundation. Be a discerning customer. Yoga is offered everywhere. There is one word for yoga, and an increasing number of styles of yoga, but everyone just calls it yoga. If I were to say I was going to a fitness class, odds are you would ask "what type of class?" whereas when someone says they're going to a yoga class people accept it as "just yoga." A lot of other activities are capitalizing on the yoga boom by adding "yoga" to the activity – beer drinking and yoga??

The work I do now has many elements of yoga, but I also have students doing a lot of strength and stability work, which I prefer to simply call "movement." I used to give an eight-week yoga for runners class and I'd break things down. Even people who had practiced yoga before ended up learning things about basic yoga fundamentals, like downward dog. They need to know where their hips are, how to avoid overstretching, and being mindful of not putting all our weight on our wrists after working on a computer all day. Something I used to say to runners, tell your instructor you're a runner – if they try to talk you out of running, leave the class. There is no reason why you can't do several activities, period. Most recently an instructor admonished a student for weightlifting – that kind of stuff infuriates me!

What are some of the most surprising ways that yoga and running have enriched your life?

When I came across the finish line of my first marathon in New York – that is an all-time high as I never thought I'd be able to do it. Strength, confidence, self-esteem, and managing stress all came from running.

With yoga, it was feeling a sense of balance and enrichment. After some years of doing yoga, I had a student ask me if I was in pain in the morning when I got up before I got moving around. I'm not in pain, and I want to make sure it stays that way. I had a second kidney transplant in 2006. I walk upright, and I'm not afraid of ageing. Over the years I have been able to adjust my practice to my life. I need stability so I make sure to work on strength; I think it's just a sense of purpose feeling good and trying to install that in others. It's so wonderful to know you're having a positive impact on people's lives. Rehabilitation never ends – know your body and you have a better chance of knowing what to do.

Part of our human tendency is to want to have the problem removed, and not want to do the work. That's part of our culture – we want the pill. I have learned from a hardcore Ashtanga practice to invest in a practice that is going to help me. Then I bring that to my students, to find what helps them practically in their lives. If you're just flexible and you slip on ice that won't help you. If you have the strength and stability, that will help you avoid a fall. It's really rewarding. I am so passionate about it for my own body that I want everyone to know my secret.

What inspired you to start offering yoga retreats in Italy?

I have a passion for Italy because we have a house there. I came across this retreat centre in Umbria and I wanted to share it with my students. It's such a pretty part of Italy and I wanted others to experience its beauty. I have written about it on my blog.

What are the most challenging and rewarding things about running your own business?

It's such a blessing and a curse – I have no one to blame or share the workload with, but it's all mine! Luckily my husband is retired and helps me with my accounting and a lot of things. It's having to do everything, something comes your way and you must deal with it. Time management is critical; it's the challenge of constantly managing to keep several balls in the air.

I went to Edmonton to teach and, as I was looking at my manual, I realized that everything inside it was all my own creation. I didn't need to run it by "levels of approvals." I can do what I want and trust in myself. When you are doing the work you love, it's so rewarding as it's making a difference in people's lives.

Who inspires you? Why?

My mother. She lived to 97.5 years old and had a hard life but she kept plugging away. Growing up I wanted to be nothing like her. I was the youngest, and growing up it was a constant clash with her and I. Then I got older, and now I hope I have half of her grit. Her ability to survive and hold the family together was really something. She lived through times when my dad was in the war and she didn't know whether he was alive. She came to Canada at 40 years old, not knowing a word of English, adapting to a foreign environment and maintaining a busy household. Now I hope I've inherited her substance and want to be more and more like her.

What are some of your proudest accomplishments?

I think the fact I've had two kidney transplants, and I have my energy level despite having significant surgeries. I have never seen them as a liability, I've just moved on. I see people around me, and I feel lucky keeping up my overall energy, my outlook on life, and remain active. Sometimes I go to the transplant clinic and see other people around me who look so unwell. I wonder what it is about me, why I'm so lucky, and I think some of it is my mother's spirit inside of me. I don't let these setbacks get in the way.

What are you happiest doing, when you're not working?

Hanging out with my husband and dog, going on long walks with them both. I also love to read – my favourite book recently was Cutting for Stone which immediately made it to my top five overall favourites. I also recommend the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, a four-book series that takes place in Naples about the lives and volatile friendship of two women.

Where are some of your favourite places to run in Toronto?

For most of us, our favourite routes are close to where we live. I've always enjoyed running through cemeteries, and when I worked in the area, I used to enjoy running through Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

What upcoming projects are you most excited about?

I am shifting the home base of my practice and beginning to work with a studio called Mindful Bodyworks. It's near my house and I'm going to be working alongside them to add more vibrant classes, to help them harness some new potential, and bring new people in the neighbourhood into the studio. I am going to be integrating yoga with weights and some other exciting new classes into their program.

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