Master Yoga Teacher Jenn Chiarelli Wants to Guide Students Deeper in Their Practice

In honor of National Yoga Month, we're sitting down with some of the Valley's favorite instructors to find out how they first got involved in yoga, how it changed their life, and why they believe everybody should incorporate yoga in their lives.

Jenn Chiarelli is pretty much a household name in the yoga world. That's true not just because many of the Valley's notable instructors came up through teacher training programs she's been a part of and regard her as a big influence in their lives. Chiarelli, who was a professional ballerina before finding her true calling in teaching yoga, is known for her nurturing presence and her ability to create the space for yogis to be themselves. She talked to Jackalope Ranch about how having a baby changed the way she teaches, how a serious back injury was a powerful lesson on what's truly important, and about her desire to take herself and fellow yogis deeper in their practice, past just the physical poses, or asanas.

See also: National Yoga Month: Events and Deal in Metro Phoenix

You recently had a baby, has it changed your practice or teaching at all? It's definitely changed my teaching for sure, I kind of feel like I've opened up a little bit more to, I don't know, just kind of express myself more through my teaching. With her, having a baby just kind of cracks your heart open a little bit more than it used to be, and I kind of feel like I teach a little bit more openly, I guess. And my practice is hard, because of course I need to practice, I want to practice, but it's so hard, because to be away from her... I teach so much, and then to try to practice and be away from her all that time is hard. But I usually try to stay at the Madison [Improvement Club]. Harmony [Fulton] teaches a class right after mine, so I try to stay and get in a little bit of yoga. But I do a lot of practice on my own, and meditation on my own, it's just getting to the classes, they're hard. But it's worth it, every little bit of it is worth it, because she's just so darn cute.

That's what everybody says, that it's all worth it, but it must be hard What everybone tells you is so true. You know, everyone says "it's so hard, it's so hard." It totally is hard. I'll never say, "Oh my god, it's so easy." It's so hard, but it's like, you come home and you see this little thing that came from you, and they just smile, and you're like, "Oh, god!" It melts your heart, and then you're all goo in their hands, putty. You always think -- I mean for me, I knew I always wanted kids -- it's always thinking about what it's gonna be like, or what she would look like, or he would look like. You have all these visions of what you think a kid will be like in your life, and then when you really have it you're like, "Oh, okay." It's a big life-changer. Complete life-changer. If you ever want to have a kid just make sure you're ready, that's all I would say.

Everybody says you'll never be ready for kids, so you just have to do it though. You know, I thought I was ready, cause I'm older now and my husband [is, too], and we're married. We wanted to make sure we were married for a while before we popped out a baby. And you know, we traveled, and we did all the fun things we knew we might not be able to do as often with the baby, so I think we were kind of ready, I don't know. I guess I have to say we were kind of ready! Before we were married we traveled a lot and we were just those kind of people who are the get up and go, "Let's go here, take a weekend here," and now that's all changed. But you know, but we're trying to get out, my mom's coming out in October around my birthday so we're gonna try and go to a concert, and we're like so excited, we're like, "Yay, we're gonna go out!" How did you get into yoga? I actually was a ballerina at the time. I was dancing with Ballet San Jose in California. I had been a dancer all my life, and one of my friends who was also a dancer, she was practicing Ashtanga yoga, and she got me to go with her one time, and I got hooked right away. It was a bunch of college kids, and the guy teaching it, he didn't speak in Sanskrit or anything, and I loved it because it was something that I hadn't ever done before, so as a dancer it was like super challenging, and I was like, "Oh I can do this, I can do this." So it kind of started like that. And then it just turned into a spiritual practice for me after awhile. But I kind of had a spiritual practice before I came to yoga anyway, but the yoga was a good way for me to just kind of chill out after a day of ballet rehearsal.

How did that grow into you wanting to teach? I always thought with ballet, you only have so long for your career because of your age, you have probably a good, if you're lucky, 20 years maybe? So I always was like, "Okay, what's my plan B?" And a friend of mine had done her yoga teacher training, and I was thinking you know, that could be a good backup plan. So I ended up doing the yoga teaching training program in 2003 in Costa Rica. It was the most amazing experience, and when I came out of it, what I thought was I was just going to have some sort of backup plan. But when I did the program I was like, "Oh my god, this is my life, I love it, this is what I was always meant to be." It was kind of like the gates opened and it was like, "This is it!" So then I started teaching right away, in the back of my friend's chiropractor studio. I just started teaching all the little ballerinas how to do yoga.

How has practicing and teaching affected your life? It's pretty much a life-changer, you know, it's like having a kid. It's pretty powerful, to practice -- it's an inner-practice and it's you and your relationship to yourself, and how you grow and how you change, it's kind of like meditation, when you practice. And then, from the practice, that affects my teaching, the more I practice and the more I meditate, the more I find I grow and evolve, and my teaching then grows and evolves and changes, and I think for me, yoga is just a lifestyle, it's my life. It's not like something I do, or something I teach, it's kind of life. It sounds cliché, but it's like, you are yoga, instead of "I teach yoga," or "I do yoga," for me I would say "I am yoga," and I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but it's true. I live it, I have a spiritual teacher, and I've had a spiritual teacher for 10 years, and that all kind of came before I did the physical practice. So for me it's kind of been this whole spiritual journey. And it's a real easy extension of the way I live my life. I would call myself a spiritual person, so it's the perfect way for me to express who I am from teaching and sharing. It's definitely what I'm supposed to be doing.

What do you think it is about you that resonates with people and causes yogis to gravitate toward you and your classes? I think I kind of, what I think it is, is I create a space for people to be who they are, I'm not trying to force my values on them, or my spirituality on them, I'm just trying to create the space for them to figure out like, "Who am I?" And maybe hold a space for them to figure that out, so I think maybe they leave feeling, I don't know, some people say or think that I'm motherly, so maybe I'm more nurturing. I don't try to be like the hardest teacher, and I don't try to make it really complicated. It's just teaching them to breathe, and teaching them to really look at themselves and examine who they are on their mat, and what things they bump up against, and to really use this practice off their mat and encourage them to meditate, just to kind of be there to guide them, to be more of a guide than in your face. I try to just give them the space to be whoever they need to be.

Other teachers highly regard you as influential and inspirational in their lives, how does that make you feel? I'm honored, and I'm humbled, and I'm appreciative, and I think, I don't know, I love it. I love to see the students that have come through our teacher training programs, some of them have started their own studios, and some of them are doing amazingly well teaching all around the Valley. It's so cool to see how it kind of was birthed through At One, and I feel like they're my kids everywhere. I go and take their classes, and Anton [Mackey], he came through our teacher training program, and he's a huge teacher now in the Valley, so I think for me, I guess proud. I'm just psyched for them. A lot of them have come to me after they went through the teacher training, and a few of them went through a mentoring program with me that I kind of helped them to find the best place for them to be, or where they wanted to teach, and to kind of fine-tune where they wanted to be in their career. I just feel like there's a place for everyone, so sometimes I just end up helping people or guiding people to where they might be best used, I guess. I love to see people succeed, and if they kind of came through me and our teacher training, I'm just excited, I'm happy for them.

So how important is yoga do you think, and should everybody be practicing? The physical practice of yoga is one of the eight limbs of yoga, so I think the physical practice is amazing, and I think if everyone can do it in some way it kind of just opens you up to deeper parts of yourself. But some people, maybe they find their peace running and they're big meditators. I feel like as long as you get to some kind of place where you get quiet and you can get to know yourself better, I'm happy. I think the mind-body, the breath-body thing that happens through yoga, that connection that you get is so deep, that I don't think you necessarily can get it through other forms of movement. So I feel that with yoga, if everyone could at least try it, even if they just tried it once, I think they would find something about it that they love. I always call yoga like the gateway to deeper parts, so the physical part of yoga kind of is the gateway to deeper parts of yoga that you'll perhaps start to explore. So if everyone could do yoga, yeah sure, I'd be happy. I think if you can get into a studio, even if you think you're tight or you think you're not coordinated, it doesn't matter. You don't have to do the fast yoga, you don't have to the hot yoga; you can do a slow flow, you find the yoga that works for you--I think there's a yoga for everyone.

What do you think are the benefits of practicing? I think first, if you're new to yoga, at first it's just this body-mind connection. So most people during the day, they don't sit and think 'I'm breathing in, I'm breathing out,' and with yoga, that's the first thing we talk about, is breathing. So all of the sudden you've never thought about breathing before, and now you're consciously through the whole practice: breathing in and breathing out. You step your foot forward and you lift your arms up and you breathe in, and you exhale. So there's a connection of breath, linked to movement, which is the vinyasa, and I think that benefit of becoming more aware of your body and breathing deeper -- just the physical benefits alone, are amazing for your heart, for your circulation. And for the mind, calming the mind, de-stressing. And then deeper still, meditation and finding out who you are -- so I think it's layers. You can start from the physical, and then go for the mental, and then eventually it's spiritual.

So what did the injury change in your teaching? I'm more open to trying to find ways to help them, I wanna make sure that everyone feels that they're part of the class, and I know that just cause you're injured, that's not a big deal, just 'cause you're limited in some ways, that's not a big deal. If you're in a wheelchair --there's a guy who comes to our classes all the time and he's in a wheelchair, and he still does what he can do. So it was a pretty powerful lesson, it was one of those things that you didn't want it to happen, but in retrospect you're like, "Oh my god, it was such a teacher, it taught me so much about myself and my practice." Injuries are always that way, they always teach you something, that's always their purpose.

What are some of your career or life goals as of right now? I am definitely focusing on taking my yoga to the next level, which would be more meditative, and kind of opening myself to sharing that more. I think for awhile I've kind of held back, just because I thought 'oh people don't want to do that, or people are not ready for that,' but I'm finding more and more that people are asking me for it. I feel like, I've been teaching for over ten years, and I've taught people how to do handstands, and I can teach you how to put your legs behind your head, and I can teach them those poses, if that's what they want--and some people want that, I wanted that at one time--so there's a need for that. But I think for me as a teacher, I've matured enough to go deeper-I've been going deeper myself-but now it's time to take my students deeper. I want to be able to teach the asana because I love it, they love it, we all love it, because it gets us to this great place. But then once you're in that great place, how do we go deeper? So for me it's just bringing people deeper, into the other limbs of yoga instead of just stopping at the asanas. There's more.

You can find out more information on Jenn's upcoming workshops, events, as well as class schedules and how to schedule private lessons on her website.

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