As the author of the, "Art of Attention," Elena Brower is a master of commanding it. A charismatic force cloaked in white cotton, she manages to be the embodiment of calmness with an edge of wit. As founder and co-owner of Virayoga, she is a veteran in her field – healing and teaching yoga to the tightly wound inhabitants of New York City for over 16 years. Living by the maxim to practice what she preaches – Elena shares the knowledge from her own wealth of experiences to individuals and on a grand scale. I recently caught up with her in-between travels for an intimate chat turned therapy session in the serene confines of the red flower boutique in downtown New York.
red flower: How was the process of opening a studio in New York City what is the culture and community of Virayoga?
elena: Just over 11 years ago, I opened up Virayoga, which is a studio right near the Red Flower shop on Prince and Houston. It has been an amazing ride to own a space where people come to heal, listen, help and practice. It's been a real privilege for me for these 11 years and to do it in the city that I love so much, New York City. The community of Virayoga is an eclectic community of ages: from my son's age (he's six) all the way to 86. We have so many different offerings at Virayoga, from yoga for cancer survivors to yoga for eating disorders, yoga for pregnancy, yoga for post-pregnancy, yoga for a super strong body, yoga for therapeutic purposes. I'm turning 43 this year, so everything is always kind of in flux, and it's all a learning process.
red flower: How did you make the transition from textile and apparel design to yoga and meditation?
elena: When I graduated from Cornell in 1992, I got a job after graduation at a domestic textile firm. It was an incredible process of learning, from fabrications, style, color, everything. From there I worked as a jack-of-all-trades for a domestic designer here in the garment center and then moved to Italy and worked for a U.S.-based company. Italy was a magical place, but I realized I wanted to return to nyc and do something that helps people. After returning, I trained as a children's art teacher at the New School. I never took my exam, but I got two semesters of teaching art to kids. It was a great privilege to be teaching the children of New York and to learn about what inspires their creativity. It was right at that time when I met Cyndi Lee, who was about to open Om Yoga Center. She invited me into her teacher training and I realized I was destined to be teaching yoga. I was not that good of a teacher at the beginning. I couldn't look at my students and was nervous like crazy. Finally, after a couple of years of doing that, I got pretty good at just addressing what I was seeing rather than just what was in my agenda. I got that I'm here to teach my peers. I'm here to teach bodies how to move so that hearts can be opened.
red flower: What would you say are the underlying principles that you try to convey as a teacher? What are the key things you want to get across every time you do a lesson?
elena: One is to make more space in our bodies internally so that we can make more space in our minds. What I'm trying to teach students is what personally works for me. When things don't go my way and my body and mind start to generate drama, I try to make so much space inside, that the body responds with a softening. I feel that's critical for all of us, especially New Yorkers. Aside from that, I want to make people feel incredibly welcomed, comfortable, safe and in love with themselves. I always make sure that everyone feels seen, so I'll address people usually by name. I'll walk around and find ways to connect to everybody and make sure they're all taken care of -- because that's my only job. That's what I bring to all my teachings.
red flower: In that vein, how do you incorporate the lessons you use in your practice into your home and family life?
elena: Anyone who's followed me knows that one of my main purposes in teaching yoga and as a life coach is to make sure that what I'm teaching mirrors what I'm doing at home. More specifically, the tendency we all have to become impatient and reactive is exactly what I'm working on in my own life. So when I lose my temper with my kid, I have little consequences and promises for myself that are working. As a teacher, I want to share the underlying message of -- please let's tell the truth and honor our families. If we want to be great parents and have our kids respect us, we have to go make it right with our own parents. So many of us are never going to forgive our parents for this or that. All of that lives inside of us and becomes how our kids see us. That's been an incredible incentive to build a relationship with my own parents that I'm so proud of. I love them so much and I get that they were doing the best they could -- that's so much of what I bring to the table as a teacher.
red flower: What would you say are the biggest misconceptions that people have about yoga and meditation?
elena: The biggest misconceptions about yoga and meditation mostly surround the concept of whether people can actually do it. "I don't know how to do it, I don't even know where to get started." Meditation in particular, "I can't sit for twenty minutes." Well, you can start with five. You can start by meditating while you're washing the dishes and just watching your breathing. A lot of people feel that they're not flexible enough to do yoga, because that's why you come to yoga. "We don't have the right space to practice mediation or yoga in our house," is another popular one. There are all kinds of excuses and beliefs that people have. The truth is we're only just getting closer to ourselves with either yoga or meditation. So, the misconceptions must be addressed, because everybody can practice yoga. Everybody can sit down and follow their breathing for three, five, twenty minutes to an hour -- however long feels comfortable and start to really know ourselves better. We need to relate to ourselves more supportively. We aren't taught that and it's time.
red flower: What is the Art of Attention and what sparked the idea for it?
elena: When I started to devise this book, it was probably six years ago and nothing came of it so I put it on hold for a little while. Then a graphic designer named Erica Jago e-mailed me and wanted to know if I would be interested in working with her. She sent me this beautiful yoga class laid out like an editorial spread in a magazine. I got scared; she was making exactly the book that I've seen in my head. I thought I'm either having half of a great book or no book at all. So she and I started to do it together. She picked five practices from yoga glow, transcribed them all and we put it together to come up with this beautiful piece of art. The concept of art of attention developed during that process. As two women, living on opposite coasts, who really don't know each other -- we still shared a similar vision and had to work together. That's how the whole thing came together. The way I see the concept of art of attention is: how are we paying attention in any moment? How are we making art with this currency of our attention? It's really the only currency we have. How do we spend our attention? These are all the questions that surround the art of attention.
red flower: What would you say fuels your creativity in different projects, or even in the everyday?
elena: What fuels my creativity is the connection that I have to myself. If I'm not connecting to myself, if I'm not practicing, or sitting, I don't feel as full, so my creativity is forced. On the other side, my kid is six now and I walk around with art supplies all the time, so seeing him interact with art constantly inspires me. There were even a couple pages in the book where we used some of his art as part of the spread. The mind and heart of a kid making art is so free.
red flower: How did you and red flower founder, Yael, initially meet and how do you use red flower in your practice and in your life?
elena: A mutual friend of ours, Alice Marshall, introduced Yael and me. Alice then introduced us via e-mail, and Yael and I met in person. We were meant to be connecting over yoga, possibly private lessons but what we ended up connecting on was matters of spirit, heart, and ritual. We were so inspired at that first encounter we decided immediately to do something together. We arranged to have me teach meditation at the store and it was an incredible success. I got the background on how and why she creates products, the ingredients she uses and was completely in support of her choices in terms of work quality and the red flower's vision. These products are like my favorite little stash of secret, lovely things that nobody else is allowed to touch.
red flower: Do you have any personal rituals, is there anything you do routinely that helps you begin the day?
elena: In terms of ritual, I actually do more of my self-care in the nighttime. I live way uptown and my son goes to school way downtown, so I have to get up really early. What I do now, is work on my meditations, practices and all my self-care rituals at night. So when I'm all finished with work, I will take a shower, use all my products to clean myself off and then do practice. Do my yoga first and then my meditation. Then at nighttime, when everything is quiet and there's nothing else going on in the house -- this is my favorite time to just be with myself and take care of myself.
red flower: As an author, are there any books you find yourself revisiting as a source of inspiration?
elena: I have a few books that I love that I keep close by. One is, "The Reality of Being," by Jeanne de Salzmann; which is featured in the "Art of Attention" as one my major inspirations. "A Course in Miracles" is a big one. I love Gabrielle Bernstein and I love her books. "May Cause Miracles" is her latest one; it is so accessible and applicable and relevant. Neville Goddard is amazing. There's a lot of biblical speak in his books, but he talks about manifesting and lining up our bodies, hearts and minds so that we can make the ideal wish that we have for ourselves and our lives true.
red flower: You travel a lot, personally and professionally. How do you stay healthy on the road?
elena: When I travel, there are a few specific self-care things that I do. I always bring the cardamom amber oil with me. Not just to moisturize my body, but to put on my hands and just inhale. I always travel with a candle; it's usually the Indian jasmine. It travels really well and helps me create a sacred space everywhere I go -- which I find is the key to keeping my whole system grounded. I also bring the hammam lemon coffee scrub, because the coffee and the lemon in the product truly help my whole system to feel grounded, clear, detoxified and recalibrated when I use it.
red flower: What is your next big adventure?
elena: My next big adventure is to create a second edition of this book. It's being printed right now. It's going to be less expensive so that we can get it to teacher trainings all over the world, and people who are training can learn from this book how to incorporate heart into the physical actions. I also have a couple of travels on the horizon that are going to be really nice. The third part of the big adventure is actually going to be stopping the planning and staying at home more. My kid is now in first grade and he can't leave school as much. So, just to stay at home more, be with my family, my friends and stay at my studio to teach my local classes to stay connected to this ground.