20 Questions: Ashley Bell

Ashley Bell
Ashley Bell

photo credit: Jess Spence

Ashley is one of those teacher’s whose brilliance permeates every facet of her Lotus Inspired Flow classes in Charleston, South Carolina. There isn’t a movement that isn’t somehow infused with her wit or conscious choice of thematic structure. One of our favorite teachers in town, Ashley gave us a little peek into her process.

GY: What is your go-to yoga pose when you’ve only got a few minutes to practice? Why do you think it’s so appealing?

AB: Handstand.  I tend to think too much and start to feel really trapped in my own mind, by my own thoughts, so handstands are a good way to get my heart above my head.  They’re playful.  And they’re elusive – at least for me. Some days I can hang and some days I just wink at them. I like that.  It gets me back in the space of being willing to let go of the need to do so I can come into a more awakened sense of being.  And it’s like one of Hafiz’s many brilliant offerings: “Love sometimes wants to do us a great favor: hold us upside down and shake all the nonsense out.”  Handstands help me to shake the nonsense of needing to know, solve, fix, perfect, out of my head.  And then there’s feeling the ground, earth, with my hands…I could go on and on!

GY: Early morning routine? What’s yours? Coffee? Tea?

AB: I’m really bad at morning routines.  I’m not super at mornings, to be honest.  I love the nighttime, the moon and the stars.  It’s always been my natural rhythm to be up late, since I was a little girl, but my life demands that I’m up to teach or take my kids to school most days, and even if not I really am only able to sleep until about 7:45 at the latest since my mid-30s.  So some mornings I’m with my kids, other mornings I teach early in one part of town, others later in another part of town.  Regardless of where I am or what I’m doing I like to drink something warm.  I can’t do caffeine so herbal tea or warm water is good.  I try my darnest to get a good, big, breakfast in my belly.  I need food like some folks need caffeine.  Gotta eat!

GY: What is one song you never get tired of hearing?

AB: I have a hard time with favorites and they always change.  I love love love music so very much.  Off the top of my head I find the Meklit & Quinn cover of This Must Be the Place by Talking Heads pretty infectious.  It usually does me right regardless of my mood.

Ashley Bell

photo credit: Jess Spence

GY: Do you have a favorite quote, affirmation, or saying that gets you through the tough times? What is it?

AB: I have so many.  This one always comes back around:

Dear Human: You’ve got it all wrong. You didn’t come here to master unconditional love. That is where you came from and where you’ll return. You came here to learn personal love. Universal love. Messy love. Sweaty love. Crazy love. Broken love. Whole love. Infused with divinity. Lived through the grace of stumbling. Demonstrated through the beauty of… messing up. Often. You didn’t come here to be perfect. You already are. You came here to be gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous. And then to rise again into remembering. But unconditional love? Stop telling that story. Love, in truth, doesn’t need ANY other adjectives. It doesn’t require modifiers. It doesn’t require the condition of perfection. It only asks that you show up. And do your best. That you stay present and feel fully. That you shine and fly and laugh and cry and hurt and heal and fall and get back up and play and work and live and die as YOU. It’s enough. It’s Plenty.  – Courtney Walsh

GY: How would you describe your yoga teaching style?

AB: I aspire to support students and create a framework for them to explore their individualized expression of the human experience.  I went to grad school for art education.  I began teaching the arts because growing up as a shy and introverted, super-careful rule-follower, I felt great empowerment and liberation in dance, painting, drawing, and writing.  Encouraging expression and connection to process have always been a huge part of why I teach regardless of what I’m teaching.  I come in to the asana classes I teach curious about the energy and eager to create the practice along with the students.  I am fascinated by patterns and therefore love sequencing, but I also love the challenge of finding ways to make complex concepts accessible and exciting.  And I think most of all I want students to know that I am as human as they are.  We don’t escape our humanness through this practice, but we can learn to embrace it through the lens of asana.

GY: How old were you when you fell in love with the practice of yoga? What was so appealing about it to you?

AB: I took my first official yoga class maybe 15 years ago?  I was stressed at work and have struggled with depression on and off throughout my life and a friend knew a girl who was teaching at a holistic health center after hours.  I fell in love with it instantly because it reminded me of dance, which I’d studied for a long time.  I liked the embodiment piece instantly.  The spiritual aspects came later.  I also took a “modern dance” PE class during undergrad and realized after my first few official yoga classes those college classes were actually yoga.  We’d hold stretches for a long time and I remember realizing that when I exhaled my whole body dropped deeper into the stretch.  It was an interesting consideration at the time – how could doing less actually move you in the direction you hope to go, more so than pushing?  Now I get it.  At the time it was all very curious, but I was definitely intrigued.

GY: What made you want to become a yoga teacher?

AB: I’ve taught everything I’ve ever loved.  Yoga seemed like an even better way to teach expression and empowerment because there can be no “product” to hold onto or over-analyze.

Ashley Bell

photo credit: Andrea Maksimowitz

GY: Describe yourself at 21.

AB: Scared shitless.  I was gaining confidence in some ways and thought I pretty clued in to what was going on, but ultimately I was still ruled by my fear of being less than perfect, of disappointing my teachers, parents and advisors, and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was a senior at W&L, and during that year I experienced the deaths of a classmate, my brother’s best friend, one of my boyfriend’s band mates and my grandfather – three from car accidents and my brother’s friend from an undetectable heart condition. The sudden and startling nature of each of these losses combined with my uncertainty about the future sort of made me numb from time to time.  But still there was much joy – painting with my fellow art majors in the studio in DuPont Hall, hiking in the VA mountains (home), live music and bourbon by the river.

GY: What would you say has been one of the best parts of growing up, getting older?

AB: I love getting older.  I don’t look like I always did, but fuck it.  I have no interest in preserving the illusion that I haven’t grown up.  I have, and I’m still growing.  I hope I never stop.  My age makes me a much better friend, teacher, partner.  Every day I stay awake I learn, grow, evolve.  I try more things and meet more people.  I’m shaped, broadened by these experiences.  I’m learning to skateboard at 41, that’s the latest new endeavor.  I listen better than I did when I was younger and thought I needed to prove my worth and my right to be here.  I’m over a year into my fifth decade on this planet.  How amazing is that?  I dig it.

GY: Snack wise, what is your greatest weakness, what can you simply not pass up?

AB: Salt over sweet.  But I don’t like pretzels – lame.  Sometimes at home we cook popcorn in a saucepan with some coconut oil, smother it in melted Kerrigold butter and shredded parm.  Can’t stop, won’t stop.

GY: What are a couple of traits of your own that you hope your kids (or future kids) may inherit. Maybe a couple you hope they don’t?

AB: Well I’ve gAshley Bellot an 11 year old son and a nearly 7 year old daughter, so it’s all pretty much a done deal on that front.  My son is much like me in that he is introverted and likes to provide the right answer, follow directions.  I think in some ways that’s a firstborn thing.  He finds little ways to rebel, like I did.  Safe ways.  He has really long hair despite (although in truth probably in part because of) his father’s objections, for example.  I don’t want him to grow up as fearful as I did, so we’ve nudged him out of his comfort zone by encouraging drum lessons and summer camp, both of which he loves now but wouldn’t have ever elected to do.

My daughter is like me in that she feels things very, very deeply and passionately.  She inherited my strong and quick temper, which many are shocked to hear that I possess, because I have always swallowed my feelings. She lets them fly and I’ve learned a good bit from watching how much more quickly she is able to get over/move through things.  She’s also very comfortable in a creative environment, especially dance and drama where I was more at ease in a quiet individual pursuit like drawing.

Most of all as I’m learning to risk, trust and find my way by following my heart I hope that they will find the strength and courage to do the same.

 GY: Describe your first love, in six words or less.

AB: Oh this is a tricky one.  It could mean so many things.  In general when I feel like I’m experiencing a kind of love I’ve never felt before it’s been a similar sensation regardless of the circumstances: a potent, heady cocktail of exhilaration and tranquility.

GY: A Sunday all to yourself, how do you spend it?

AB: That depends…what time of year is it?  I like to be outside whenever possible.  I run so hard from one studio to the next, and it’s so hard for me to align any time to hang with my friends that I’d ideally gather somewhere to enjoy some good food and the company of people who make me laugh.  Outside in the sunshine or if it’s cold, around a fire or in another cozy spot, with an abundance of good food.  I’d also get in some sort of dynamic movement – yoga, climbing, running, jumping, skateboarding, swimming, hiking, dancing – all of the above would be great!

GY: What about a night out on the town? Who would you spend it with? What would you do?

AB: Same as above.  But I do love to get dressed up every now and again, in a good pair of heels and a dress or a skirt. I also love some live music.  Charleston Music Hall is a good spot.  I am fortunate to be in a relationship with a great man and any time I can catch with him, given our busy schedules as single parents and professionals, is a gift.

Ashley Bell

photo credit: Jess Spence

GY: Who have you been friends with the longest and how did you meet?

AB: Technically my oldest friend Kat lives in Massachusetts, we were born about 24 hours apart in the same hospital and our parents were friends.  We grew up going to different schools but taking dance classes together – several evenings a week through the high school years.  We don’t see each other much because I work most every day and she has four kids, but I know she’s always there for me, and trust she knows that I’m always here for her. Not far behind that chronologically are Kelly – since 4th grade, now in Maine, and Owens – since junior year in college, who has been living here in Charleston for the last year after many years in DC.  I’m so grateful to have her nearby along with so many other great women who truly keep me grounded, sane and inspired.

 GY: What yoga teacher has most influenced your practice and teaching?

AB: Each and every yoga teacher I have the good fortune to study with influences me, but Dana Flynn has probably had the biggest impact.  I had been teaching for a few years when I went to Ojai, CA for Kira Ryder’s amazing Ojai Yoga Crib.  The last class I took was from Dana and she was a mash-up of music, poetry, storytelling and these fluid, funky postures I’d never done before which were named after Hindu dieties.  I knew I wanted to do more training with her but at the time I had a two year old and she was based in NYC.  All of the Laughing Lotus trainings were every weekend for a few months, a format that simply wouldn’t work for me.  Finally in 2012 they offered their first 300-hr training module in smaller, condensed increments.  I was there.  I’m about to attend hours 200-250 next week.  Dana celebrates individuality and freedom while acknowledging the importance of discipline.  She’s built a center that is colorful and creative, magical even.  It’s my well.  Going back there to practice, to be a student – heck, to be a sponge – always realigns me with my heart’s calling.

Truth be told though, my greatest teachers are my children and the people I encounter everyday.

GY: Can you name three traits you cherish most in this teacher?

AB: Dana is soulful, wild in all of the best ways, and incredibly welcoming.  She wants everyone to come to the party, sit at the table, sing, dance and play.  And she knows that when we gather in these ways we are all bettered, strengthened and lifted up in the process.

GY: What do you love most about your home space?

AB: It’s cozy.  And it’s ours.  I have had to work very hard to keep a roof over my head and my children’s heads, and it’s not been easy but it’s so worth it.  It’s colorful and lived in.  Loved.  It took me awhile to get to the place where I really felt like I loved it but I do truly now.  It’s got low ceilings and old appliances and dingy carpet but it’s perfect.

 GY: What was the last thing you binge watched on Netflix?

AB: I don’t have Netflix.  Someone convinced me to try it for a month, so I did but I never rented anything.  I usually work until I am ready to go to sleep.  I haven’t followed a series in probably 20 years.  I am hopelessly lost when it comes to these aspects of pop culture.  I’m not anti-TV, I just don’t get around to it.

GY: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

AB: I was having a hard time around sixth grade.  I was getting shit from some cool girls – typical middle school stuff – and had a few conversations with my mother who always told me to be authentic above all else, never to do things, wear things or say things just to make friends or fit in.  You start to realize that compromising in that way might make you feel more comfortable in a particular crowd but less comfortable in your own skin, and really, which is more important?  And that’s been a guiding principle for most of my life.  I definitely need external validation from a treasured few on a regular basis, but most of the time I am good doing what I do.  I have no interest in being popular or cool, I just hope to offer those I encounter some realness, because I think if we could all be more comfortable in our own skin, we’d be more in alignment with our potential and our power.  When we aren’t afraid to be seen, when we drop that veil, we can see others more clearly.  And so by embracing our differences we reveal our sameness.

Learn more about Ashley and her goings on here: www.ashleybellyoga.com.

Starting in 2016 she will be teaching exclusively at a new space called “reverb“.  In her words:

“After more than a dozen years teaching yoga and other wellness practices in the Charleston area, I’m putting all of my heart, soul and experience into this space, which I hope will serve as a vital resource as much for curious skeptics as die-hard yogis; for dedicated athletes as well as those who have been searching for the motivation necessary to begin investing in themselves again…  The space will be full of light and color and so will the staff.  We embrace music, laughter and the opportunities that we have to support one another.  We believe that when we feel better, we do better.  Our willingness to take care of ourselves, to stay resourced, gives us the power to change the world – that’s the ripple effect from which reverb draws its name.”

Thanks, Ashley!

Photo credits: Jess Spence @ jessmariespence.com

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