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How Tara Stiles Ignored Her Haters, Reinvented Yoga and Found Success

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Tara Stiles of Strala Yoga. Courtesy of W Hotels.
Tara Stiles of Strala Yoga. Courtesy of W Hotels.

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To anyone who's tried traditional yoga, Tara Stiles' dogma-free approach might be surprising. The 33-year-old Illinois native is behind a new, free-flowing, accepting type of yoga that's utterly divorced from the ancient practice's religious roots. Stiles started her career in modeling, but after teaching free yoga classes in her New York City apartment and posting videos to YouTube, she gained a following and opened her own studio, Strala Yoga, in 2008. Strala emphasized Stiles' own unique approach to yoga and soon, she began to train other instructors. Strala now has a global training program with studios and teachers and is available in 15 countries. Last month, W Hotels launched a partnership with Stiles, where she, and other Strala instructors, will stay at exotic W destinations and teach yoga to hotel guests.

Racked recently caught up with the self-professed "anti-yoga" expert to talk about the early days of sneaking class attendees into her apartment building, her opinion on the yoga Instagram movement and how yoga studios can stand out from the crowd.

Stiles teaching a yoga class. Photo by Getty Images.

What is your background?
"I grew up in the Midwest, in Illinois, and went to a classical dance school. Out of high school I got picked up by a modeling company that was bought by Ford. I didn't know much about that world so my first modeling job was for Coca Cola. It was very commercial! I [first] tried to go the high fashion route and moved to Milan to do runway. Then I talked to my agent about how much that would pay, and that Coke ad paid $5,000 and it seemed like the commercial route was [a good option] because I wanted to dance and explore. I moved to New York [originally] to do dance. I did some fashion modeling but it was mostly commercial—I got picked up especially when a company was looking for someone flexible to do something like put their legs behind their head! Modeling was fun, it paid my bills. I bought a small apartment and at the same time [in 2007], I started leading yoga classes."

Were you always into yoga?
"Kind of. I grew up doing meditation on my own but didn't know much about yoga. My ballet teacher from the American Ballet Theater was into it and I thought it was fantastic. But I found the community to be small and insular and wasn't really mainstreamed. You had to be a certain way, and a lot of it was about Buddhism and Hinduism. I grew up Catholic so it reminded me a lot of the Church. But I explored yoga and would help friends with back pains or stress. I saw pockets of opportunity where you could evolve yoga instead of popularizing what yoga already is."

How would you say your yoga method is different from others?
"The idea is to find ease in the movement. The one main problem I saw with yoga is that you had to be in a specific position and if it didn't feel good, too bad, you had to stay. Yoga, for me, is about finding individuality with the movement and you can get more physical and mental benefits if you allow yourself to move however it feels good. I don't want to tell someone how to feel amazing. I say that a rabbi, priest, supermodel and NYU professor all walk into Strala and they all had a good time because no one told them what religion to be. We call yoga instructors 'guides' not teachers, because it's one less layer of 'listening to the teacher.' We don't wield that weird authority, because how often is your yoga teacher a 24-year-old unemployed girl."

Stiles practicing yoga in a glass box to promote her W Hotels partnership. Courtesy of Patrick MacLeod Photography.

How do you respond to critics who say things like you're watering down an ancient tradition?
"Some critics say [my teachings] aren't spiritual and I say it's not! But talking about spirituality does not make you spiritual. Everyone is spiritual, everyone has a mind, body and spirit. Lecturing someone is quite the opposite, it's very rigid and I think it's wrong. We're offering an approach where people can connect and expand and attach to what they want or to nothing at all. We don't preach. We are hands off and that why it's caught on."

How did you build such a strong following?
"I've always been into tech and the Internet. I started writing for the Huffington Post, like quirky posts about yoga for jocks or hangovers. Some people thought it was crazy, some people were mad. But I built that audience without meaning to, especially on YouTube."

Why did you decide to start your own studio?
"I was hanging out with friends who wanted yoga one-on-one and I thought it'd be fun to do something on a regular basis. I wanted to create a space for myself, and for people who had similar interests. People on the internet were asking me where they could go [to practice with me]; I had the number views but it's hard to discern your following that way so I started a local business."

What were the steps to opening the studio?
"At first, the studio was in my apartment. I had a class every day at 7. I've always been really conservative with finances and didn't want to get into something if it wasn't going to work. So I just did it under the radar at first, sneaking people up. People in the building would say, 'hey, what are you doing, you can't do that,' but we didn't make noise and everyone went home. But then it grew beyond myself and journalists wanted to come over for interviews because I was writing a book and I figured it would be more legit to get a commercial space."

How did you get a steady flow of students?
"I saw social media as a way to connect and share, not to promote, like a TV effect of just putting a product out. I like to connect and make friends and get feedback to improve. On YouTube I posted one video a week and received good feedback from there. When I first started Strala, we didn't have a website, we just had a Facebook page. I'm not the type to post ten time a day and look at reports. My book publisher would tell me things like how I need to write a newsletter at 7 AM and I'm like, 'I don't want to that! What if I have nothing interesting to say?'"

How did Strala go from just you to a global movement?
"I started hiring instructors that were cool and fit the vibe. At first, people were only coming for my classes and I thought maybe it's just a cult-personality thing and I didn't want it to be that. I was worried that maybe it couldn't expand beyond me, maybe it wasn't a method. It definitely had its growing pains and I had to have conversations. Sometimes it would be saying that maybe the instructor wasn't right for the space."

Is it difficult to train instructors and let them go off with your brand name?
"Yes. There is clear structure; I want them to come back for training every few years. It's like that with CrossFit. Some teachers are great and some don't know what they are doing. I think it's self-selective, so the people who aren't great won't get followings. I also am going to create a website for Strala instructors to be used as a resource. I have to be clear about what to expect, to keep standards and integrity high."

Photo from Tara's blog.

What do you think of the Instagram Yoga movement?
"With anything that becomes popular, there's always space dust that explodes. I think it'll change and evolve. I saw something similar when YouTube first happened and everyone was hopping on because they thought this was the path to make them famous. Instagram definitely is the next movement, but people also pay for followers and are playing the game. Some people make a business out of it and it's great, but [only] if you're coming from a place of good intentions and not just to get famous. People in yoga tend to get riled up about everything. The only thing I think that's off about [the whole movement] is that I'll discover someone with like two million followers but no one even knows who they are, except on Instagram. They are like ghosts! There's no physical following. It's wild."

Do you miss the world of modeling?
"It's funny because I think I get my picture taken now more than I did back then and I don't even have to go to casting! I feel like I've graduated because I have a line with Reebok and a partnership with W. And when I do photoshoots, it's about a mission I'm trying to do and not about holding a Colgate toothbrush. I love the modeling world; it's like summer camp. I still have a lot of friends there and I work with them now on different projects."

What is the ideal yoga outfit, in your opinion?
"I've always worn super cozy clothes, stuff that almost looks like you borrowed it from your boyfriend's closet. Sweats and cozy t-shirts. I've always gravitated to burnout t-shirts and loose-fitting sweatshirts, anything you feel comfortable in and want to do yoga in. I never liked super-tight performance clothes that stick to your body. I don't think that's necessary."

What are your current challenges?
"I've trained so many people, it's hard to keep track. I feel like a mother. There are full-time employees in New York or people doing the program that always need support. With working with other instructors, you get into the business of elevating other people. Then they become monsters or your allies. People can be like, 'Now I have followers and make six figures!' I try to create structure to support people but also need to be nurturing. If you turn into an egomaniac, you can't go far. It's become a mentoring program. But I have mentors myself to keep the structure in place."

What would you say is the secret to your success?
"Having a clear intention and following what interests me are two things. Hard work is not the key to success, because it's also about what you have. Some people just don't have it. I direct a lot energy into finding clarity so it doesn't spread into nonsense. Going after clarity is my quest."

What are some branding tips you would give to yoga studios?
"It's important to have clear intentions. I go into a lot of studios and it looks like someone's apartment. They don't know if they want the Buddha vibe so they just have everything. Some people go corporate, some go hippie, and all that's fine, you just need a clear intention of style and offer that through classes and social media. A lot of studios don't know how to use social media so they just post generic web images that have nothing to do with their studio. The thing about having a physical business is it should be a place that people come to and love. Make it about the people who come instead of just treating it like a business. At the end of the day, it's a group exercise and an empty room so how do you promote that? Show people how cool it is and how much fun you are having."

What advice would you give to yoga instructors looking to make a name for themselves?
"A lot of yoga instructors have five other interests and also want to get into the food space. I'd say to follow what interests you, understand why the heck you're doing this and not working in something else.

You have to cultivate your own skills. Do your own classes and have your own practice. A lot of people get into their own heads with social media even though they are just on the couch, posting. If it's about getting more followers than there is nothing to head towards…except the Internet, which is a black hole. To be an instructor is about creating a physical community. You can be online but both are important for success."