An interview with Leah Dubbin-Steckel
Do you find it difficult to focus on yourself during a yoga class? Are you constantly distracted by those around you? Have your classes turned from self care to a focus on competing with those in the room around you? This week I speak with Leah Dubbin-Steckel about the competition that can happen in a yoga class, how to make the competition work for you, and how to overcome it when it is no longer helpful.
Ariel: I am joined today by a good friend of mine, Leah Dubbin-Steckel. Leah is a Calgary native, she lives currently in Brooklyn, New York. She is an actor and a body positive activist. Leah is going to talk to us today about overcoming the competitive side of a yoga practice. So, Leah, welcome. Thank you so much for joining me today. I am very excited to have you here.
Leah: Hi! I’m so happy to be here. This is exciting.
A: So, for those of you that don’t know Leah was the first friend that I made when I moved to New York several years ago. We went to college together. And Leah is actually the reason that I got into yoga. I don’t know if you remember, Leah, but when we were living in the dorms you forced me to go to hot yoga and I did not want to.
Leah: (laughing) I do remember!
A: And it was horrible!
L: It was so bad! It was carpeted. Why was it carpeted?!
A: It was a hot yoga studio with carpet, but it was very inexpensive and it was literally one block from our dorms, so we went. It was a very interesting start for me in terms of my history with yoga. But I feel like my journey really started with you, which is exciting, because you’re a big part of my life. One thing that you and I know about, having sort of lived a little bit in this acting career is that competition is a really big thing. So I want to talk to you today about your experience with competition in a yoga class and how it compares to other things. But I want to start at the beginning, so tell me a little bit about you and a little bit about where your yoga practice started.
L: Okay, so, a little about me. I grew up- I didn’t do yoga ever in my childhood. It’s not something that my parents were active in or anything. I did a lot of sports. One at a time for maybe one or two years before deciding that they were too hard or I couldn’t get something done so I would quit them. It was soccer, then I tried to be a goalie and we lost our game worse than we had ever lost ever-it was embarrassing. And figure skating and I couldn’t do a jump so I quit and gymnastics and a lot of different things. And dance intermittently. Dance I always came back to, but would leave because I felt bad about my body and the more I quit the further behind I was, thus not great for my competitive nature. So the more I couldn’t be the best person in a class, the more I would just bail out of it. I essentially found yoga the year after I graduated high school and I think it wasn’t a coincidence that it was sort of at a similar time that I finally found a dance studio that was really inclusive and I didn’t feel like I needed to impress anyone and so at the same time I jumped right into hot yoga. Because for some reason it was like if I’m gonna do yoga, I’m gonna do the hardest version of yoga I can do. And so that was hot yoga. So I did that for a year before I moved [to New York]. And it was great, but it was-as a person who struggled with my body for a long time, it was rough because the majority of people who did hot yoga were very traditionally athletic looking people.
A: And I think it’s important to say that while I’m a certified yoga teacher, and Leah has what I would consider a pretty long history with yoga, we’re not-I don’t even really know how to world it- we’re not super professional yogis. We’re just normal people and it’s interesting because you and I talk about this often-there is- and I don’t know if this stems from our history with theatre, which is a very visual art. So, I remember a couple of calls that you and I have gone to together where you go into a room, and it’s called type casting, and this company is looking to fill a certain role. They line everyone up, and walk down the row and say “yes” or “no” and if you get a “no” it’s because you didn’t look right and so we very much have a basis of what you look like is very important
L: It’s how you market yourself.
“So the more I couldn’t be the best person in a class, the more I would just bail out of it.”
A: Absolutely. So to go to these yoga classes and you and I have been to several studios and we’ve done things separately and together and we used to- I used to make Leah lead a yoga class in our apartment because I didn’t want to go to a studio because there is a lot of discomfort with somebody being uncomfortable in their body or they don’t look a certain way or don’t look the way they think they should look. When you’re put next to someone who has what you would consider a more ideal body type, it’s difficult. It’s difficult to be next to that person, and you can’t focus on your practice, you’re focusing more on, ‘does she look better, or do I look better than her in this situation’. So I’d love for you to talk about the differences or similarities that you notice in the competition of acting or dancing and the, I guess, made-up competition of a yoga class.
L: Oh, yeah. I honestly didn’t really put those two and two together until this moment but when you’re in a yoga studio and there’s a mirror and you’re packed into a room full of people and you can essentially see everyone because of the mirror-
A: And in New York City where we do yoga primarily there’s a lot of people in a little tiny studio-
L: Oh, yeah. It’s insane. But it does sort of have a similar vibe to a dance class and therefore coming from that background makes it a little performative. And especially because it’s not a traditional fitness class it’s much more fluid and has a much more dance like element to it that I feel like exacerbates all of it and makes you feel like you are being put on display and that people are watching you even though they’re not, even if it’s entirely in your head but it had its positives and negatives. It definitely helped push me in my practice when I first started out and I didn’t know what I was doing I would pick the best person in the class and I would emulate them and I would try and get to as close to their form as possible and then as I got better and started getting comfortable being in the front of the class, then I would pick people in the same line as me and that’s, I think, where this trigger of, ‘I’m going to do better than you’ kicked in, especially if that person was smaller than me.
A: That’s interesting that you say that because, and you know this about me, in college we studied musical theater, and a big part of that, of course, is dance and I don’t have a history of dance in my background, so I was very uncomfortable. I would do the same thing where I would think of somebody in our class that I thought was really, really great, and I would think to myself, ‘okay, I want to be like this person today because they do it so well and they do it so confidently, and there’s no way that I could ever have that confidence.” Regardless of what the reasons you’re doing it for, I think it’s kind of a natural thing to pick somebody who you think is better than you and try to be like them. Whether it’s, ‘I want to be as good as you,’ or ‘I want to be better than you because you’re better than me,’- So let’s turn this into more of a competition.
Do you find that with your practices now, do you still have those same feelings and those same tendencies? Or now that you’re sort of dabbling more into this world of body positivity have your feelings changed?
L: Yes, definitely. It is still a struggle every time I’m on my mat and I’m in class, but much like I know a lot of people when they go to a yoga class struggle with the concept of clearing their mind and thinking of only their breath- For me, when my eyes are closed, I actually have a pretty decently easy time just thinking about my breath, maybe because I’m a vocalist and just focusing on something like that has been something I’ve worked on for years, but it is a constant battle and now every time I start to compete with the person next to me it is immediate, ‘No, back to your own mat. Look at what you’re doing. Look yourself in the eyes and push yourself to your own limit.’
A: Is that a new feeling or was there a specific turning point that got you to that point or is that something that you think has morphed over time as your practice has continued?
L: I think honestly, and I’m going to plug you plug you a little bit here, when I started doing more exercise outside of yoga and I started feeling better about my overall fitness level and my overall health, it instilled a sense of confidence that even though I am not, and most likely never be- I say most likely like I’m about to grow an extra foot on my extra tiny T-Rex arms- even though I will never look like a classic, stereotypical yoga body, I am confident and happy with my strength and with what my body can do. So, yeah, it took a little of knowing my body can do other things than yoga to make me confident in my own practice.
A: Do you find that these natural competitive tendencies are helpful for you in anyway?
“Look at what you’re doing. Look yourself in the eyes and push yourself to your own limit.”
L: Yeah, it’s definitely a detriment, I think, to my mental yoga practice. The basis of what yoga is is spiritual, and so I I think the competition is not a part of that but physically if it makes me hold my plank a little bit longer, or makes me push through one more thing, one more moment of Warrior 2 when I thought my legs were going to get it give out, then there is a benefit to that, but I would like to get to the point where I am pushing through it not because the person next to me is pushing through it, but because of myself. So it has its benefits but it is 100% unnecessary if you’re just focusing on yourself.
A: So how do you in your practices and in your workouts and really in your daily life even if you’re going to an open call- How do you find the balance of allowing this little bit of competition to be very beneficial to you but also not going so far into being hyper focus on somebody else and sort of letting yourself fall away- how do you find the balance?
L: It always comes back to you sort of have to internally shirk a little bit of your humility. And you have to go back to, ‘I am worthy, I am good, I know what I’m doing, I have skills.’ It’s less putting yourself above another person specifically, but just knowing that you are enough and that’s really meditative. It’s just using that as a mantra, ‘I don’t need to worry about those people because everyone is dealing with their own stuff, and so I don’t see it and I don’t need to know what it is.’
A: So would you just call that a basis of confidence in your own abilities?
L: Yeah. Absolutely
A: How did you find that, because when I look back on our friendship I would always consider you a very confident person. But I think a lot of people that put that off are just a little bit quieter about their insecurities. So would you consider yourself forever a confident person, or is this a newly found ability? To look at yourself and say, ‘you know what, I am enough, and let me see how I can be a better me and not just a better yogi than the person next to me.’
L: It’s totally new. It was a facade for a very long time. For a long time with my size I just wouldn’t talk about it. If you don’t mention exercise, if you don’t mention your weight, then it doesn’t exist. And so that would allow me to feel my self-consciousness privately because I would never talk about it publicly. Then eventually I got to a point where I would use it be openly self-conscious and use it as a punchline. So I went from one extreme to the other where now all of the sudden it’s like I would point out my food baby and joke about my fat and just really let everyone know that I know. What changed is the more people I had in my life who were confident, or at least acted like they were confident, even if they weren’t in private, made me feel more confident. Plus I had a real turning point in college- we had just gone through one of our dance demonstrations and I had a girl come up to me and say after our ballet performance, she said, ‘I’m really inspired by you. Everyone I see, everyone who is doing well in dance is so small and it’s really inspiring to see a girl who isn’t succeeding, and being able to do everything that they can do.’ And at first It was like, ‘she knows that I’m not tiny!’ And then I was like, ‘no, wait, it doesn’t matter!’ So, yeah, I think the more everyone normalizes being the size that you are, as long as you are healthy, the better you feel and that’s why the media is so important, and that’s why surrounding yourself with positive people of different sizes and backgrounds, and not to make it sound selfish, but there you go.
A: To me, the idea of being selfish is, I think, misrepresented a bit. I think that you and I have become much more selfish people as we’ve grown but not in a negative two other people sort of way, but a, ‘you know, here’s where I feel good or I feel comfortable and here’s where I feel confident,’ And our friendship has had sort of a with that some growing pains along the way and there were a few times where we lost touch a little bit as we tried to find ourselves. But I look at us now compared to what we were then and I’m proud of us. We are able to say, ‘this is the size that I am now, and maybe I’m not super stoked, maybe I want to push harder to look XYZ but at the same time I can feel good about me and I don’t really care what anybody else thinks about my size.’ And of course you’re allowed to say you no. ‘No, I don’t want to go and do this because I am busy working on me,’ or ‘I don’t want to go out and go drinking because I’m trying to feel better about myself.’ There’s a selfish aspect to that but I think when the word selfish is used there’s a negative connotation and it doesn’t necessarily need to be.
L: It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are disscompassionate or you don’t care about other people you just at some point have to put your own mental health first because no one else is going to.
A: So that girl who came up to you after your ballet performance, is that what planted the seed of this body positive activism? Because over the past couple of weeks and months you’ve really jumped in and it’s been sort of amazing to watch.
L: It’s a seed that sprouts slowly, that Sprouts self-love. It’s not like she told me that and I went, ‘a-ha! Now I’m going to love myself!’ you know? It’s a process and so it’s just a moment that sticks out to me. But there have definitely been several over the years and they all just build you up.
A: Looking at where you are now, would you consider yourself someone who can embrace every part of who you are or do you still deal with self-doubt and the occasional unhealthy competitive aspect?
L: Oh, yeah. I think I’m winning the battle but it is always a battle We’ve been trained, especially as women, to analyze everything about ourselves and to be quietly competitive with other women. Men can be openly- as I get on my pedestal to preach this- men can be openly actively competitive and for women it’s a little quieter. So it’s about quieting the thoughts. But sometimes they win and sometimes they lose. You can’t beat yourself up over it either. As long as you’re not actively sabotaging another person to get ahead, that’s a good start.
A: So what would your advice be to somebody who- maybe they go to yoga class now and they don’t feel super confident in their body, maybe they’re afraid to go to classes, maybe it’s too much competition for them- what are your recommended first steps to get out of this idea of the competition of being the best in the room or being better than somebody else?
L: First of all, find a studio or a practice that doesn’t have that competitive energy. That helps. Find somewhere that you really feel comfortable, that you feel is a community. I think your yoga studio should feel like a community. Which luckily mine does. Really it’s very simple. Just focus on your breath. If you’re focusing on that and you’re focusing on doing everything to the best of your ability and not pushing too hard and just being kind to your body, then there’s no space left to think about other people.
A: I like that. I think that’s very Simple and while there are difficult parts to it, it’s a pretty clear starting point and it’s something that you don’t have to reserve for a yoga studio or your yoga practice. It can be, if I’m sitting on the train and I see somebody across from me and I start to compare myself to her, I can say, ‘you know what, now would be a good time to do a mini meditation’ and to focus on my breath and feeling solid.
L: And be kind to yourself to when that doesn’t happen because we’re human and everyone slips sometimes. So if you find yourself comparing yourself to another person don’t get down or anything just stop it in that moment.
A: So to sum it up just stop it.
L: (laughing) Just stop it. That’s the whole thing That is the final, brilliant piece of information I have four people is just stop it.
A: I like that. Is there any last little bit you’d like to add?
L: Tidbits of information- wear what you want. Wear what makes you feel comfortable. No one can tell you what is or is not a yoga body. These are feel like cliches, but they’re true. Yoga is good for you, so don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it go do yoga.
A: Thank you so much for joining me. I think this was really helpful and we did stray a bit from the competition aspect, but to say it’s just competition is incorrect, because there’s a lot of reasons behind why it becomes competitive. And I think we touched on a lot of those reasons and I appreciate you sharing your story. I think it will be really helpful for a lot of people. If you are interested in contacting Leah, you can go to her website or find her on Instagram @dubsetck.