Deena Robertson & Emily Morwen, Co-Founders of Modo Yoga LA | Los Angeles, CA
Deena Robertson & Emily Morwen in conversation with Natasha Samtani in Los Angeles, CA | January 2018
Deena: My name is Deena Robertson and I'm one of the co-owners and founders of Modo Yoga LA.
Emily: I'm Emily and I'm one of the co-founders and co-owners and also a teacher, and a Mama to a baby, and I guess to Modo Yoga LA.
Deena: Yeah, we're the Yoga mamas!
So together you guys not only own and run yoga studios. But it's also part of your life and your being. So what inspired you to choose this path?
Emily: For me, I feel like this path literally followed me around. Like, I tried to actually avoid it.
Deena: She totally did.
Emily: Yeah. I didn't actually think that running a studio and pursuing this was something that I could do or really fit and then it just kept showing up in the form of Deena Robertson! And the second I said yes, it was like, oh right, this is what I'm meant to be doing. [To Deena] So you have a slightly different story.
Deena: Yeah. I grew up with yoga. But it wasn't something that I super connected to when I was little. It was kind of something my hippie parents did. I came from a competitive sports background, so really the physical aspect. But then I had a lot of really challenging emotional traumas as a kid. A best friend committed suicide. I've been sexually assaulted. All of these different things. Best friends have been murdered. Like it's kind of comical the amount of tragedy I had by the time I was 18. And I stepped in and started practicing [yoga] and it completely changed my life. I started sleeping again, I started waking up happy, which if someone had said like, "Oh hey, I'll bet you $1 million that you'll wake up happy." I was like, I'll take the bet. Cause I was so low, so depressed, and then started practicing more and more inspired by my incredible sister who founded all of Modo and Moksha. Moksha is what it's called in Canada. And I was so incredibly impressed by the physical and mental changes that happened in myself that I was like, how does everyone not know about this? So when I was 21, I opened my first studio in Toronto and it was just beautiful. It's an incredible journey to be on because every single person, whether they're coming in for tighter abs or more peace of mind, they're coming in to better themselves. So we get a curated community of people that are stepping up to their lives and stepping up to themselves, which has always been so amazing. And that's where I met this one. [leans on Emily] Kind of. We we go way back.
Thank you for sharing that. You said that you've had some hardships in your life, and this kind of just fell into your lap, but now this is your life. What is your motivation each morning? What gets you out of bed?
Emily: I mean, the community here. It's a really special community, and also the practice, like the connection to the practice. The group of people that this space attracts is pretty spectacular, from the teachers to the students. So yeah, it feels good to wake up and show up for the community, I would say.
Deena: Ditto! Yeah, community is a huge aspect of this because we live in Los Angeles, which is, you know, before moving here people were like, "oh my God, you're moving to LA, it's the most unfriendly city," and this and that. And we're both Canadian, so this is both of us moving into a different zone and a different country and all new people. And when we got here, we were amazed at the quality of humans that are in this city. I think there's a special thing when it can bring amazing humans together. And I think that's what the studio does. And literally I travel constantly, and I get off the plane and sometimes before I go home, I come home [to the studio]. I just come here because when you're on the go so much and there's so much pressure and there's all these high stakes - to come into a place that you feel seen and loved for exactly who you are. We were just writing something the other day, and our slogan right now is "three studios, one community, no judgements."
Wherever you are, whoever you are, you're welcome through this door. And that includes us. And it's a group of people that support each other. There's no inner competition. It's not like "who's that girl kicking higher than me?" It's, just like, "Hey, hi, nice to meet you. I've never met you." And then all of a sudden they're meeting up for coffee. So it's really cool how in a community, a community has evolved.
When I first came to Modo initially it was for class, and we even came to your East opening. I've never really felt that same happy, positive energy in one place in LA.
Deena: And I think that joy - we get so caught up in “do this and this.” What it all boils down to is can you wake up happy, and wake up and go, hell yeah. And I feel like that's what Modo and the Moksha practice gave me of just coming again and again and being like, okay, you've done this pose 700 times. What is different today? How can you slow down today? How can you be present today? How can you be a beginner today? I say I met the man of my dreams, and I'm in an incredibly happy relationship because of what I've learned in that hot room of just coming to the same thing again and again and again, but coming into it in a different way. So how can you wake up and see the person that you've been with for four years but see him like as the first time, in that wonder. My mom's an incredible example of this. She just sees everything in wonder. And when you live like that, everything is wonder, and it's a really nice way to live.
And how do you convey that to people who have never tried yoga?
Deena: We give them a little shot! No, just kidding.
Haha! But, how would you convey that every day is a new beginning, like you said?
Emily: We had a meeting with some of our studio leaders the other day, and one of them, who's our studio manager at one of the other studios, used to work at La Brea right when we first opened. And she said that when she first walked in, she felt like everybody who greeted her had the feeling of like, I've been waiting for you. And it's genuine. It's like really seeing the people that walk through the door, really taking an interest in, like, who are you? Welcome. And making an effort to create community by introducing them, not just to themselves, vicariously through introduction to breath and body connection, but also by introducing them to their community and creating connection that way. Again, back to the community.
Deena: Community and also, I think the element of giving people the okay to care about themselves. I feel like it's almost an epidemic now that we're so good at like, "Hey, let me help you with this. I can do this for you. I can do this for you." And then it turns to [ourselves] and we're like, "oh, no, no, no. I can't take five minutes for that, or I'm not deserving of that." And I think coming to your mat again and again and again, you hear what you need. The teacher can say the same thing a hundred times, and by the hundredth time you go, "oh, I get it." So just practice. We have pillars that we live by - all our teachers and all our incredible people that help around the studio, and our students to a certain degree, that we hope they are living by and one of them is accessible. It's not saying you need to look like a certain something or be able to touch your toe or anything like that, but it's be accessible to where you are in your life. Be accessible, that every single person is welcome here. They don't need to look a certain way. We've had that comment a lot that people were like, "oh, I feel like I fit in here. Not everybody looks the same here." Which is really a beautiful thing.
Emily: Yeah. I think something that I'm most proud of in this space is that there is a space where everybody can kind of congregate and go on this adventure together and connect with each other and with themselves. It's not geared towards a specific type of person. It feels really special in that space.
We are women living in LA at a time, especially now, where women are finding their voice more and speaking up for themselves. Tell me why you think it's so important for women in particular to feel strong in their mind, their body, and the role that yoga can play in that.
Deena: I mean, women are life. Take women away, you take the universe away! I think for me, and I think a lot of women, we get wrapped up in the story that we have to always be strong and that we're strong women, and we believe in women's rights, and we this and that, and we always have this like, Wonder Woman vibe on. And what I think is so important for women is to have the balance that strength is softness and softness is strength. A perfect thing is when you're in that room and it's challenging and you want to get in a pose, and your muscles are shaking and you're using so much strength and where can you soften? Can you soften your expectations? Can you soften your jaw? Can you just soften in the strength? So I think to me, this practice gives me balance to find my strength and to find my softness, which to me is so important because if we're all strength, what doesn't bend breaks, you know? And I think we're seeing that a lot with women. We can juggle all the balls until we just can't. And then we're knocked on our asses and we're saying, hey, can we juggle all those balls and also know we can sit down every once in a while. And then go back up stronger.
Emily: Yeah, I totally, totally agree. Especially as someone who is trying to find that sweet balance, being a mom, and an entrepreneur, and a teacher and wearing all these hats. I absolutely personally as a woman need this practice like 100%. And I also love that we have so many men in the studio. I think it's universal that we need to learn that ability to be strong and soft. And so I think that actually the more men that practice in this space, the more women are going to rise as well because the more we'll all be lifted. I love that women take to this practice like I do, but I also love that men do as well. And then men are really strong in there. And they weep and they're also kind of on that journey as well.
Deena: I also kind of feel like for women, for men of course, but I think women instinctually, we kind of learned to give our power away at a young age. And it's like, yeah, that's what he says. Or that's what the power person says, we'll, just go along with that. And I think because every person is met by who they are as opposed to what they're supposed to be, they start to get a confidence to be themselves. And when you're met with like, hey, you're awesome, just as you are, you start to kind of believe that and feel that and walk that out. And then five minutes after you're still feeling good. And then eventually it's like, yeah, I am whole as myself and my voice is valid. And again, I think that wraps into community...it is literally the most beautiful thing. I think to women and humans, to have that community that is silently repeating, "you've got this" behind your back, then we got this.
You mentioned power. In your own words, what does it mean to be powerful?
Deena: I think the first thing that popped up in my head was truth. I think we can easily coat ourselves in a cloak of power. But I think the more we can really listen, and for me, I've had my biggest epiphanies in that hot room I'm like, oh my God, there it is. There's the answers. You know what I mean? There's this amazing teacher I used to study with and he would say if we can just listen to the whispers before they become screams. And that's always just so resonated with me. So just like off the cuff thinking and just putting it out there.
Emily: Yeah. I think I would agree. And just this idea of having your own back. Giving a voice to that truth. Showing up for yourself and when you hear those whispers, like Deena said, like having your own back along the way and expressing it. Allowing yourself to express.
Deena: Yeah. And I think to me that's power. I think the other thing is really knowing when to say yes and when to say no. Say yes to opportunities that spark and kind of scare you. And say no to things that don't feel right. I think especially as women we're like, yeah, sure we can do that. And I think it's okay to say no. Sometimes "no" is the biggest "yes" you can possibly say. As someone, probably brilliant, quoted, I'm pretty sure I'm quoting that from someone.
Can you guys tell me about a moment that you felt powerful?
Emily: Well, I think giving birth was pretty powerful!
Deena: [laughing] I was like, I'm pretty sure I know this one's answer.
Emily: Yeah. That, I guess, sounds cliche, but for me that's for sure. That's magic. That's wild. It's absolutely wild. And I mean, talk about female power, and it's so cool that we get to do that. It was one of the times where I felt most connected to my voice in a way that I didn't even know it was possible. It almost surprised me actually. I was like, oh, okay. Wow.
Deena: I think for me, with a lot of the trauma that I had as a young kid, I had debilitating fears, so I couldn't be in the dark alone. There was a lot of things where I would completely become shut down. I couldn't breathe. I would have massive anxiety, which I know Emily's struggled with a bit. And I remember I was practicing twice a day, every day. And really just to have those moments where I just felt free. And I remember studying and kind of getting the concept that fear can't exist in the present moment. And I was like, I will debate you on that one, my friend. And then when I really, really broke it down and I did debate it with this teacher for a very long time. He gave a really great analogy: there's a bear chasing you in the forest and you're running, you're not afraid of the running, you're afraid of the bear catching you. So when fear comes, you're just running. And it's the, what if that happens? And what if that happens? And for me it was like, that creak in the door means someone's coming to get me; that darkness means I'm completely alone, and all these things. And I decided that I was just going to commit to 30 days with only thinking positive thoughts about myself, and 30 days to say no to fear. And when it came, I was like, stop, do not come in my body. You are not welcome here. And it wasn't like, oh be gentle with myself. I really stood up and said, no, no fear. You are not welcome here. And it completely changed my life because then I was able to start doing all these different things that I just never could do because fear was going, "yeah, yeah, go walk away, walk away." And I was like, "it's so hard!" cause I was just being stuck. So I think that was a really mighty thing for me that I was like, oh my God, I can do anything if I really choose it and go for it. Completely. My mom has this great saying that like, "shit happens, but suffering is optional." It's the Buddhist way of thinking like there is no bad or good. It's our reaction to that. And when you can really claim everything as yours and say it's all me, all of a sudden you have that. You have endless power, you got anything because it's you. I think it's power and freedom mixed into one.
"A perfect thing is when you're in that room and it's challenging and you want to get in a pose, and your muscles are shaking and you're using so much strength and where can you soften? Can you soften your expectations? Can you soften your jaw? Can you just soften in the strength?'
Do you have any mantras?
Deena: Music to me is such a big part of my life. My fiance's band has this line that says, "drown the darkness in the light, let it shine." And it's impacted so many fans of theirs, to the point of getting tattoos and stuff, but really that element that there's always going to be darkness and there's always going to be light and you can feed the fire of either one. But just drown the darkness in the light. And to me that's what community is. And that's what practice is. It's saying "yeah, I feel beaten down a bit and I'm still going to show up on my mat." And in that moment everything is possible because nothing's there.
Emily: I love Pema Chodron. There's so many quotes of hers, but one that I come back to a lot is...I'll say two. One is, "you are the sky and everything else is just the weather." I think that is really powerful. And then, kind of tying into your [Deena's] fear stuff, she says that fear is a natural response to moving closer to the truth, which I think is an interesting way to look at fear. What am I responding to? That's not really my daily mantra, but those are two things that I definitely come back to a lot.
Deena: I look back on all the challenges I've had in my life, and there's been many, and there's not one that I wouldn't choose to do again, especially because it all got me here, sitting beside this one in this community of incredibly inspiring people. There's a wonderful thought of like, if it's still challenging and you're still in the muck of it, you're just not there yet. You just haven't learned the lesson. And to me, anytime I hurt myself, anytime something struggles, I'm like, what is the lesson in this? How can I become greater from this?