In my continuing series of interviews with yoga teachers finding unique voices within a practice built on tradition, meet Kate Walker. Having grown up in New York and Los Angeles, Kate Walker (nee Harrell) started studying yoga in 1998. She was the weakest, most inflexible person in the yoga room, but persevered as the quiet and calm internal state was unlike anything she had ever known. Kate now teaches a slow, mindful, conscious but strong and challenging style of vinyasa flow, with attention to breath and alignment. Kate is one of the most popular teachers at London’s top yoga studios: triyoga and the life centre. She also teaches privately to an extensive client list including celebrities, mums and stressed out businessmen. She also teaches weekend, 5-day, and weeklong retreats worldwide. She is married to James Walker and they have a dog called Billy.
You have studied with numerous prominent teachers including but not limited to Max Strom, Seane Corn, Rodney Yee, and Annie Carpenter. How has your individual style developed from these teachers and other influences?
My style has developed through time and experience in my own practice as well as watching bodies move. I have learned something from each time I’ve had an injury or a pain, or been tight or weak somewhere! My sequences are born out of watching people move through the sequences that I explore in my own practice. I take a bit from every yoga class I attend, whether it is a class that didn’t work for me (and then I try to figure out why!) or really worked for me (and again I try to figure out why!). My teachers have also given me different gifts and tools – I love Annie Carpenter and Rodney Yee for their alignment, sequences, and ability to explain a posture succinctly. I love Max Strom for his intention behind classes (“stretching your body is good, stretching open your heart is better”). I love Seane Corn for her inspirational speaking during her challenging classes. My style that I practice and teach has changed over the years, due to my knowledge, age, experience, and intention.
You make a conscious effort to create an inclusive environment in open or mixed ability classes and to provide options for all levels. How do you define levels of practice (e.g. Level 1,2,3) and how do you keep them all working safely and happily as one group?
It’s so overly simplified to put people into a level 1 or 2 or 3! I mostly teach open level classes because I believe we are all open-level students. Physically, someone might be very open in the hips but very tight in the shoulders. Emotionally/energetically, someone might come to class and realize ten minutes in that they’re exhausted, so they need more time to rest and restore rather than time to work hard and sweat. On one day in my practice I might feel like level 3, and the next time I might feel like level minus 12! I don’t think of level 1 as beginner or ‘easy’ – in fact, if someone’s tendency is to push push push, taking level 1 might be the most challenging thing they can do! It shows humility and wisdom to know when to take rest. In life, having options is a blessing, so I think the same goes for the yoga mat. It is difficult to divide a class into 3 levels as there are obviously probably about 100 levels in each pose, but it keeps it clear and simple. The tricky thing is when a beginner is struggling and pushing themselves through level 3 poses. That’s the darn ego getting in the way – as though they have something to prove to themselves or someone else. My job is to keep them safe, but also give them the space and time to discover their own limitations rather than being told what’s right for them. I might give a verbal cue such as ‘if your chest is turned down to the floor now, you’ve come in too deep and you’re missing out – come back up again and you’ll be able to feel more.’ That kind of language invites them to come back to an easier position, while tricking their ego to believe it’s the “better” version of the pose. I have all kinds of tricks like that!
You mention on your website that the strong, dynamic classes you used to love you eventually found were missing deeper breath awareness and time for alignment. In pacing a class now, how do you create a balance of effort and challenge with opportunity for depth, detail, and meditative experience?
The main thing is to simplify and leave time. Not to try to do everything in every class. In the beginning of each class, I start with a simple sequence that allows the student to rebalance, check in with himself or herself, and slow their internal rhythm down. Then we start to move slowly and simply so that I can diagnose where they are tight, what their energy is like on that day, and what they seem to need out of that particular class. I’ve learned to read the bodies in front of me, physically and emotionally/energetically, and prescribe an appropriate class. I keep my sequences slower than the average vinyasa flow class to allow time for detailed alignment and time for slow breath. I’ve refined my verbal cues to keep them concise and clear. I build the verbal cues from the ground up – for example, starting with the base of the
pose (the feet, in standing poses) and moving progressively up the body, so that the cues don’t dart around the place, thus confusing the students’ minds. By keeping things simple, the student can get out of their head and into their breath and body. I also leave time for floor work, supine work, and relaxation. I recently have been using restorative yoga and longer savasanas (Judith Lasater is my teacher who I highly recommended) towards the ends of classes to find a balance between effort and surrender.
You’ve been quite prolific with recorded classes, and now streaming classes – how do you create a yoga experience that can translate virtually?
The main thing is to be clear and concise with verbal cues so that the student can know exactly what you mean without having to see a visual demonstration. If your students in class need to look at you, or at one another, to figure out what they should be doing, it takes them out of their own body and practice. I mostly do not demonstrate (also so I can be adjusting and assisting the students rather than in my own practice!) which has allowed a clarity to my instruction in such a way that the recordings work. When recording a live class, I know I have to keep it sometimes even simpler so there is no confusion, and not reference “turning to the mirror” or “the door” or something like that which might be confusing to someone at home! It’s also important to address any injuries in postures, so those at home can self-prescribe the most appropriate options for them to take. I often think about how to teach those who I can’t see practicing, but to a certain extent the student has to accept responsibility for their practice and their choices.
You’re not shy with touch and manual adjustment – when do you offer adjustments and what do you feel your role is as teacher in offering them?
Adjustments are potentially the most lovely things, and potentially injurious. It’s important, I think, for the teacher to be clear about their intention behind adjusting. I adjust to support and nurture, while implying to the student’s body where the pose might be able to go. It’s vital not to try to put a student into a pose or to try to impose a shape on their body that you think might be more ‘correct.’ You never know what their history is with injury or even with touch. I am conscious not to invade someone’s personal space, make eye contact with them while adjusting that might be too intimate or confrontational, or use fingertips that might be ticklish! Often with a very large class, it’s more about making sure you put out little fires around the room – bad habits forming in alignment that could be injurious long term. However, with smaller classes or more seasoned yogis, the adjustments are there to find greater space and comfort within a pose, allowing for deeper breath.
What are you working on in your practice?
I’m personally working on patience and grace. Ease in more challenging sequences. A sense of meditation while moving. I think a pose itself does not make an advanced student, rather, the internal ease and peace through challenge within a pose makes the posture ‘advanced’. I have moved away from the poses I refer to as ‘party trick poses’ and simplified, accessing greater happiness while I practice. In fact, accessing greater happiness while I teach too.