Featured Teacher: Ellen Butler

Ellen Butler has been practicing yoga since 2008 and teaching since 2012. She received her 200-hr certification through Yoga Alliance in 2012 and completed her 500-hr certification in 2013. As a yoga teacher, Ellen has had the opportunity to work with students managing depression, anxiety, and chronic illness, as well as brand new yogis and seasoned practitioners. She strives for inclusion of all types in her classes, and welcomes questions and feedback, always. Outside of yoga, she works in User Experience for a web development company. A native of Des Moines, IA, she now lives in West Harlem with her fiancé, two cats, and dog.

1) How did you start practicing Yoga? Tell us about your early yoga experiences

After years of people telling me I would love it, I finally decided to take a yoga class with a friend my junior year of college. Our teacher was this absolutely delightful woman named Erin, who was slow, precise, and methodical with how she taught postures and alignment. It was the perfect introduction to yoga for me: it helped me better understand my body and the subtle alignment cues that take poses to the next level.

Once college ended, I moved to Michigan and decided to become certified as a teacher. That was one of the best decisions I ever made. I trained at a very small studio owned by a woman who is extremely advanced in Sanskrit and Hinduism. Because of that, my training was rooted in philosophical principles (as well as alignment/anatomy), and I loved my 200-hr certification so much that I immediately pursued my 500-hr afterward.

2) When was the moment you knew that Yoga was different or special – more than just another “exercise” or way to be physical?

I think I connected with yoga right away. It was probably the breathing that got me hooked—I was classically trained as a singer and knew how to breathe deeply, but I’d never thought about how to use breathing as a skill to relax and guide my state of mind. That kind of blew me away (no pun intended).

In terms of asana, I had the honor to work with students managing various chronic diseases (Rheumatoid Arthritis, for instance). As a yoga teacher with this group, I had to be extremely mindful not to push, not to move too quickly from one posture to the next. Sometimes we would do 6 or 7 asanas in 90 minutes and that would be it—and every time class ended, it was like a completely different group of people left the studio. They were smiling and relaxed and alive. It was the most beautiful thing to witness.

3) What is your favorite and least favorite pose, and why?

I have been having so much fun with arm balances lately. They eluded me for a long time, but patience has paid off. Astavakrasana and Tittibasana are two I’ve been working on specifically; Flying Pigeon (Eka Pada Galavasana) is next on my list.

Least favorite is probably seated forward folds like Paschimottanasana. I just never find them to be that comfortable or relaxing, and I think it can be tricky to make them feel right, in terms of spinal and hip alignment.

4) What practices do you use to feel more peaceful, present and content?

I turn primarily to pranayama for peace and contentment. The great thing about breath work is that you can do it on the subway, at work, on a plane, as you lie in bed—you don’t need to move your body or grab a mat or anything like that; you can do it exactly as you are, where you are.

Nadi shodona (alternate nostril breathing) – I love how balancing this feels to me, especially with slight retention after the inhalation. If you’re not sure how to do it, come to one of my classes and tell me you’d like to try it! I always geek out about pranayama and love to teach it.

2:1 Exhalation to Inhalation – my anxiety has gotten worse over the past few years, and one thing that consistently helps calm me down is counting my breath and working to extend the exhalation to be twice as long as the inhalation. This helps stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us relax and reset.

Yoda Nidra – if you’ve never experienced yoga nidra, I highly, highly recommend it! It is like the spa for your mind. I even have an app I use for it, called “Yoga Nidra – Deep Relaxation Practice.” A lovely Australian man narrates it and you can choose 10, 20, or 30-minute practices.

5) What Yama or Niyama do your find most helpful in your daily life, and why? (Yamas are “observances” that are recommended for relating to the outside world, and Niyamas are observances for dealing with internal struggles)

I think Isvarapranidhana has always spoken to me. There is nothing that resets my ego quite like dedicating what I’m doing (whether it be on the mat or off) to something other than myself. Setting a sankalpa (intention) or thinking of someone who might need a little extra love/support always reminds me to stay humble and let go of any ego-driven concerns about perfection or performance.

6) Question of the Month! September = Asana
What is your own personal asana practice like outside of the studio setting?

My personal asana practice is admittedly often driven toward teaching: prepping for what I want to focus on in class. However, I have lately become more and more enamored with yogaglo.com, and have been taking a variety of courses from it. I definitely recommend it!

7) What days do you teach at Harlem Yoga?

I teach Vinyasa 2 on Mondays at 7pm and Open Level on Thursdays at 12pm.