The clock approached 6 p.m. as yogis rolled out their mats in the dimly lit studio. Each individual focused on understanding their own intentions as they waited for their instructor to start the practice.
Leslie St. John began class as she always does: lighting sage around the room to create a sacred space. Each person drew an oracle card as a way for them to set an intention for the class and to connect. St. John explained that this connection is not specific. It could be a connection with a god, infinite consciousness, one’s higher self; whatever it may be, she said the goal is to drop out of the analytic mind and come into the metaphorical mind.
The opening meditation on that day was, “I am not my mind.”
“So often we feel that we are just our thoughts and our thoughts are usually so repetitive. Yoga is a great opportunity to realize, ‘No, we are bigger and freer than that,’” St. John said.
A dual passion
English professor St. John said she considers yoga to be one of the major passions in her life. As she reflected back on her initial yoga journey, she said yoga served as an aid that pulled her out of difficult times in life.
During her early adult life, St. John faced multiple adversities that led to some of her darkest moments.
St. John struggled with an eating disorder for many years. At the age of 17, she experienced a traumatic eye injury that caused her to lose one of her eyes. In these moments of despair, yoga became her outlet.
“I started to feel like my body was this medium for experiencing the world and expressing myself and feeling strong and confident as opposed to all the diminishing ways we talk to ourselves about our bodies,” St. John said.
After years of practicing yoga, St. John trained in the practice and later began her journey as a yoga instructor when she moved to California.
Along with her passion for yoga, St. John said she has a love for creative writing and poetry. St. John has been teaching English at Cal Poly since 2007 and focuses on contemporary poetry, creative nonfiction, romanticism and rhetoric and composition. In her classes, St. John finds a way to tie in the spiritual values that yoga emphasizes and prioritizes the well-being of her students.
Nick Lampe, computer engineering junior and former student of St. John’s, said it is clear St. John cares deeply about her students.
“She really prioritized making sure that her students were getting the most out of her class, whether it be appreciation for literature, interpersonal growth, or even help to understand difficult things that were happening in the world,” Lampe said in regards to the class he took with St. John during Fall 2017.
With such strong passion for both writing and yoga, St. John felt a division.
“I was an English teacher and a yogi, and the worlds did not merge,” St. John said.
Prose and Poses
Although St. John said she found it difficult to embrace both passions as one, she said she always found herself connecting one with the other.
“When I was a writer I just had a hard time sitting down to write because I’m such a body and movement person,” St. John said. “I started to say, ‘Well, what if I move my body first as a way to cultivate that connection and then sit down and do that writing when I’m in this free-flowing, creative, associative place?’”
She explains that movement was the “prep work” to writing.
“When we move our bodies, I think we can connect more deeply to our truths,” St. John said. “So when we write from that place, we’re writing from a more authentic and truthful place.”
It was St. John’s friend who proposed the idea of combining the two.
“We were driving back from Big Sur,” St. John said. “I don’t know why I never thought about it before but he just kind of gave me permission to put these two passions together.”
This idea was put in action about five years ago and later came to be known as Prose and Poses: a practice of yoga and writing that embraces self-intimacy and creativity.
Though St. John has continued to teach in San Luis Obispo yoga studios throughout the years, she offers Prose and Poses separately, through workshops, retreats and private sessions.
Although there is not a set sequence for Prose and Poses, St. John says the classes involve opening movement followed by free journal prompts.
One of the workshops St. John offers is “Flip the Script,” which focuses on changing the narratives of stories inherited by society through the practice of inversions in yoga.
“We literally turn upside-down because we’re turning the story on its head too,” St. John said.
She also offers a class called “Fall Back to Move Forward,” where she has her students reflect on their own stories by doing a back-bending practice that allows them to move forward to a new story.
St. John said she hopes these practices allow people to recognize their bodies as allies and to cultivate intimacy within themselves.
Sara Wilson, a sociology junior and yogi, said St. John creates a safe and uplifting space to practice yoga.
“She truly embodies what yoga is all about by making all of the spiritual things she talks about in class relatable,” Wilson said. “She really sees the importance of setting an intention before you practice and in real life so it can guide you in the right direction and helps you connect with the intuitive side of yourself.”
St. John said the classes are helpful for her, too.
“I want to help people find their expression, whatever that is, whether it’s through their bodies or words,” St. John said. “I help people get unstuck and in doing that, I help myself get unstuck, too.”
When asked what motivates her to put these two practices of hers into action, St. John simply replied, “Beauty.”
Her book of poetry is titled “Beauty like a Rope.” She explained it is reflective of the difficult times she encountered in her youth. St. John acknowledged that she is a lot happier now than when she wrote the book because it explored the most difficult moments in her life.
“I feel like beauty is the thing that helped pull me out of a pit of despair.” St. John said. “When I’m feeling gray and unmotivated or uninspired, I seek beauty, whether it’s in nature or art or other relationships. That’s what inspires me.”
St. John said that along with beauty comes this longing for expression and confidence.
“I have a desire to see people expressing themselves and having confidence and not being in their wounded version of their own story. I lived that for so long and I don’t want that for them,” St. John said.
As for Prose and Poses, St. John said she hopes she can continue to expand her practice while making an impact on others. She plans to take Prose and Poses on an international Mayan Riviera Retreat April 15-18.