It was a chilly November day and I was armed with a yoga mat and furry suede snow boots. I was home for Thanksgiving; it was a spur of the moment trip and I hadn’t really thought much about packing for my destination down south. I was meeting my oldest friend, also in town from Manhattan. I needed to clear my head; winters were hard for me in Vermont. “Meet me for yoga. That will help,” she said. So there I was, meeting her with a busy mind.
For the record, I had been attending classes in Vermont. But in the land of living-off-the-land (or off- the-grid for that matter) I often found myself in classes smelling of essential oils where we connected with our inner spirits with legs up the wall.
But I was back in Winston-Salem and the minute the instructor walked in with a strong stature, turned on The Roots, and without unnecessary small talk, began calling out a steady series of poses it was clear – I was home. And my home has beats; my home has swagger. It was in that moment, for whatever reason, that I realized that Winston-Salem is again where I should be.
Fast forward to a little over a year later and I’m sitting down at Mooney’s sharing that story with Elliott Watlington. He is the lead yoga instructor over at Paz Studios on Trade Street and it was in his class that I had this epiphany. I also told him I could barely walk the next day but that’s beside the point.
If you’ve spent anytime downtown you are sure to have seen Elliott, always coming to and from classes, yoga mat on his back, headphones on his ears. Selected to be a brand ambassador by Lululemon, he might be one of the coolest cats I know.
“People sometimes say they are intimidated to talk to me. It’s weird. I’m just a dude that happens to know a lot about yoga.” I tell him I’m not surprised he gets that reaction; I can see it. But the thing about Elliott is that he’s always just (for lack of a better word) chillin’. His calm, unaffected demeanor is almost so unusual to find these days that it can be hard to take it as just that. “Sometimes people are just uncomfortable with silence. I’m not one of those people,” he laughs. And for him, his yoga practice has a lot to do with that.
His journey to today began in college, as an Eastern Philosophy major, while studying abroad in India. The program consisted of a three-month backpacking excursion with the only requirement being a daily journal of discoveries and experiences for final credit. Originally planning to major in engineering, “I was going to build things”, he made the switch to Philosophy after excelling in a few electives, knowing he was being called in another direction. “Of course my parents were a little concerned about what kind of job I would be able to get but they were supportive and I knew I would make it work.”
In India he attended his most memorable yoga class to date, it was his first. “I remember walking outside after that class and looking around at the mountains and everything just seemed so much clearer, so much sharper.” He was hooked. Upon returning to the states, he bought his first yoga DVD (Rodney Yee, a rite of passage for every new yogi) and practiced everyday. With his Philosophy instructor’s encouragement he began attending classes taught by the professor’s friend. “She really took me under her wing.” And for his remaining two years at East Carolina University, he molded his own independent program of study marrying Eastern Philosophy and yoga. He says he was fortunate to have an instructor that understood his passion early on. “I was able to sometimes substitute classroom time with a yoga class. I just had to tell him what I learned each day.”
A natural athlete, Elliott was on the soccer team at ECU and found that his yoga practice really complimented his soccer training. He was on track to go pro but after college made the decision to take on the role of coach for the Women’s soccer team while also teaching yoga classes at multiple gyms in the university town.
After two years of coaching and teaching Elliott answered a deep calling to return to India, the place where his passion began. There he enrolled in an international teacher training program.
Following the program’s completion, after months of practice from sunrise to sunset, he decided to remain in India for the next year helping with his teacher’s studio and classes. “I lived with my teacher’s family during that time.” Each day they would wake, practice together, meditate, teach, talk philosophy, teach, practice, mediate, and on and on. He remembers those days fondly. He was surrounded with like-minded people immersed in philosophy and practice.
But one day, he felt that calling again. An inner voice saying “Ok it’s time to go,” he says. Simple as that. I asked if it was hard to leave a place where his days were filled with what he loves best. He said he realized that it was easy to have peace of mind when you are in a place that is aligned perfectly to support it. But he was ready to challenge himself and practice in a setting that wasn’t as conducive and really test what he had learned.
He returned first here, to his hometown, with no real intention of staying. He was exploring moving out to California or New York City but he found work was finding him in the place where he least expected it. “I knew that I could move to a larger city where yoga was much more accepted but I felt I could make more of an impact here, sharing the benefits of yoga in the place where I grew up.”
He began at an established yoga studio in town and through that experience was connected by a client to Wake Forest University’s athletic teams. “The soccer team was looking for someone to help them by teaching yoga.” “Well, weren’t you just the perfect fit!” I laughed. Lucky them.
After success there, he expanded his work into additional programs, including the golf and football teams. He continues to work with WFU today, in addition to his classes at Paz.
His classes are based on the Ashtanga style of practice and have gained an impressive following among college students and Townies alike. Ashtanga, sankrit for eight-limbs, is a more vigorous form of practice that emphasizes “matching movement with breath.”
In his class you’ll find that he often gives clear direction… “begin with Sun Salutation A…” and then guides students to “continue on at your own pace”.
“If anyone needs help, I help. If they have an established practice, I leave them alone unless they need me.” His style was developed around the variations in the human breath. “Everyone breathes at their own pace so my flow might be different than theirs.” And because of that he prefers to direct and assist as needed, not consistently lead from first breath to the last.
He’s quick to say, and I wholeheartedly agree, that yoga is not a religion but a life science. “The goal is to burn through the tension of your body.” Ashtanga simplifies the process through asanas (poses) to help get you to that place of peace of mind.
When practicing the ultimate goal is to open up your body, especially your hips, in order to sit in meditation, “to free the mind.”
“I love seeing people progress,” he says. I witnessed that as he quietly gave a student a fist pump after he saw him maneuver into a new pose that the student had been working on. He is grateful to hear students share how yoga has helped them mentally and in their daily lives. High-powered clients and college students alike say Elliott’s class helps “keep them sane”.
He once had a student from the Midwest who was struggling to find her footing after a move into town. “She walked up to me and said ‘my mom asked what I like about living here and I said Bojangles biscuits and Elliott’s yoga class’.
“You have arrived!,” I exclaim.
“I know, right!” he says with a big grin.
He hopes to connect with more people in this next season of his career as he dabbles in his first multi-week series at Wake Forest University in the fall. There, he will teach students the foundations of yoga along with a regular asana practice with the mission of helping them understand that when life gets challenging, which it will, you can always return to your breath to relax. Instead of relying on alcohol or drugs, you can depend on yoga’s “natural high”.
A week later I find myself in one of his Thursday night classes. I sit there as he brings another full class to a close. His students are glistening from the heat, present and calm. It’s quiet as everyone lies in Savasana as they let all of their vigourous work sink into their bodies. Crickets chirp and you can hear the hum of cars driving by and the distant chatter on Trade Street outside.
If there is anything he would like to give to our community he says it is the “feeling of contentment. We all struggle with that, I struggle with that. But that’s what we are all chasing, right?” he says. Yoga helps you get there.
And with those words, we all “take a deep breath in and release.”
Come experience the joy of yoga with Elliott for yourself!
We are thrilled to announce that Elliott, Paz Studios and the good folks over at The Wake Forest Innovation Quarter have generously partnered with us to offer you a f-f-Free community yoga class at Bailey Park.
Join us on Thursday, August 27th for our Downward Dog Days of Summer event.
There, Elliott will lead a (naturally) hot yoga class, starting at 6:45pm. All levels welcome!
Village Juice & Cafe Gelato will be on hand to cool you down after Elliott heats you up.