One of my favorite aspects of the yoga world is the people who exist in it. At times I’ve reached out to various yogis to ask their opinions on certain hot-button topics, which I’ve then assembled together into articles for my blog. Today I’ve done something different. I decided to interview two yoga teachers I admire immensely who share a unique quality in common: they’ve both been practicing or teaching yoga since the early 1980s – much longer than most of the rest of us. I had a feeling they would each have unique perspectives to offer about the ways in which their yoga practice, yoga teaching, and the yoga world in general have evolved over the past several decades.
Please meet our two special guest interviewees: Diana Rilov & Joe Miller:
Diana Rilov, 73, is an Iyengar-based yoga teacher who has practiced and taught yoga in New York City for nearly 40 years.
Joe Miller, 61, started practicing yoga in the early 1980s and has been teaching yoga since 2000. He is also a knowledgeable yoga anatomy and physiology educator.
(Learn more about how to connect with and learn from Diana and Joe at the end of this piece!)
QUESTION 1: What year did you begin practicing yoga? Have you practiced yoga consistently since that time, or did you take some breaks?
I started practicing yoga in the early ‘80s and have never stopped. It’s taken different forms through the years (such as when my children were small and when I have traveled), but it has always been with me.
I started practicing yoga in the early ‘80s, I think 1983 or 1984. I practiced on and off for a few years, mixing it with other forms of physical activity: running, weightlifting, martial arts, etc.
In the ‘90s, I discovered vinyasa, and then Ashtanga. I fell in love with vinyasa and started diving more deeply into yoga philosophy. I’ve practiced consistently since then.
QUESTION 2: Have you regularly participated in any movement/exercise practices in addition to yoga?
I’ve tried many different exercise and movement practices: dance, tai chi, gym workouts, etc. But I was never as consistent or faithful to any other system other than yoga.
I have. I started practicing yoga at the Y, where I had been lifting weights, so I came to yoga from strength training rather than the other way around. When I started practicing yoga more consistently, I stopped strength training for a while, but I came back to it about a dozen years ago.
I do many varied practices now, including yoga, strength training, calisthenics and Feldenkrais.
QUESTION 3: What does a typical yoga practice look like for you, and has it changed over time?
My yoga practice has evolved over the years – mostly because of injuries more than age-related issues. (Just to be clear: the injuries were not a result of my yoga practice!)
When I first started practicing on my own, my practice was fairly strict. My teacher Dona Holleman followed an Iyengar daily practice in which each day’s morning practice was dedicated to a different group of asanas. Afternoon practices consisted of long-held headstands and variations of shoulder stands (up to 20 minutes or more of both!).
Today I practice a mixture of Iyengar-based yoga and a flow that emerges from my own energy body. There are days on which I need a lot of movement and days on which I go slower. I never do very fast yoga and I never have. I really like to explore and inhabit the asanas.
My practice has changed quite a bit. When I first started yoga, it was mostly a recovery practice. It was a way to relax and work on my flexibility after working out with weights. When I discovered vinyasa and Ashtanga, I fell in love with the vigor of those practices and stopped doing any other physical activity for many years.
Eventually, I found that a yoga mono-diet wasn’t the best thing for my body. Around that time, I was practicing with Glenn Black, and one of the things Glenn emphasized was that to have a sustainable practice, you can’t just do asana. He would bring kettlebells and medicine balls into his workshops, and taught what he called “human movement.”
I started strength training again and began to incorporate other types of movement into my routine. That led to discovering the Feldenkrais method, which further expanded my movement repertoire and deepened my understanding of how we move.
Over the years, my practice has had ups and downs. I’ve had injuries and illnesses. I’ve gone through periods when I was busy and didn’t have much time for practice, and other times when I could devote hours a day. Over a lifetime, things change. I’ve learned that I need to be flexible in my expectations for my practice.
QUESTION 4: What year did you start teaching yoga and with whom did you take your YTT? Have there been other influences on your teaching style (yoga-specific or otherwise)?
I took my first YTT in the early ‘80s and at the Sivananda ashram in upstate New York. I was living out of the US for many years and my teacher asked me to take over her classes when she went to Pune, India. In order to do so, I needed a certificate, so I came home to New York and did my first training there. (To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed my time at the Sivananda ashram, but the yoga style didn’t fit me.)
My more intense training was with Dona Holleman in Italy over the course of several years. (Dona Holleman is a senior yoga teacher and one of the first women to study with B.K.S. Iyengar back in the 1960s.)
I have also studied with many other teachers over the years. The ones who have impacted me the most after Dona were Shandor Remete, Genny Kapuler, and Carrie Owerko. Carrie has been my primary teacher and mentor for the past 10 years.
As a side note, I personally I think that a 200 TT is a very short time to be qualified as a teacher. I think that trainings are great and encourage people to delve deeper into their practice and their education on yoga. But to declare yourself a teacher after 200 hours is presumptuous and sometimes dangerous.
I started teaching in 2000. I took my YTT with Cyndi Lee at OM Yoga in New York.
The program was called “Joining Heaven and Earth,” which summed up Cyndi’s approach. When she taught dharma, it was always grounded in real world experience. There was no “woo woo” in her teaching, but she also taught us that the mindfulness and resilience we develop through yoga practice are important and profound. She emphasized the importance of teaching, not just leading classes. All of those things really resonated for me.
Lots of teachers have influenced me in addition to Cyndi, but Glenn Black was probably my biggest influence after YTT.
I also went to grad school at Columbia and studied applied physiology. I learned how to read research there, which led to a more evidence-based approach in my teaching.
I also trained as a Feldenkrais practitioner. The Feldenkrais approach to teaching is non-corrective. The method emphasizes awareness and movement variability, so that students have more freedom of choice in movement. It’s about expanding the capacity of the nervous system to respond and adapt to changing circumstances on a moment to moment basis. That approach has also influenced the way I teach.
QUESTION 5: Would you say that your yoga teaching has changed over time? If so, how?
You know when you are a young, new teacher, you follow your notes or a program or sequencing that you decide in advance. I think we all do that because it’s daunting when you begin. What a responsibility! Today, I teach very intuitively. I feel the room and adapt the class for them. It’s never about me.
My classes are always based on an idea. It could be the position of a foot or hand, or sometimes it’s an abstract idea that grows and clarifies itself during class. Of course I change courses and ideas swiftly if I see and feel that the idea I started with is inappropriate for the group. That ability only comes after years of experience and mistakes! It’s always about the students and not me.
Yes, it’s changed.
I draw on a wider movement repertoire than I did when I started teaching, although I would say I still teach vinyasa. I’m less interested in teaching crazy deep poses than I was when I was younger, but I teach sun salutations and recognizable yoga asanas. I like practicing those things and haven’t felt the need to completely reinvent the content of my yoga classes.
What has changed more is the way I teach. I was never a believer in strict notions about alignment, but I tend to focus even less on that than I used to. I’m more interested in proposing options and guiding students’ awareness so that they can feel what they’re doing and make choices for themselves.
QUESTION 6: What are the most noteworthy changes you have seen take place in the yoga world as a whole between the time you started practicing yoga and today?
Where do I start??
When I did my first TT in the early ‘80s, nobody was walking around with yoga mats! My mother was terrified I was joining a cult!
At that time, there were very few yoga teachers and they were the pioneers who traveled to distant places by ship and trains and hitchhiking to find their teachers. There was no internet and all the teachers were older because they had spent years studying and practicing with their guru. You really had to seek out teachers and trainings because there were so few.
Now, EVERYONE does yoga which is good and maybe not… Yoga has turned into a billion dollar business and we know that when that happens, something is lost.
For example, before the pandemic, I was teaching in a very prestigious gym. People would just wander into class because they had a free hour or because they wanted to sweat. I understand that that is also important. People are under a lot of stress, and after sitting in their office all day, people need to move. But sometimes the essence of yoga is lost in the shuffle.
Another change I’ve noticed is the role of Yoga Journal magazine. Yoga Journal certainly was a great source of information before the internet. It really had interesting and educational articles about the yoga world and teachers. It was a pretty serious magazine when it started and that continued for many years until they started looking like PEOPLE magazine.
Another difference I’ve noticed is that when I started yoga in the early ‘80s in Europe, there was no music in yoga classes. Around 1984, I took a class at the original Jivamukti on 2nd Avenue in downtown NYC, and that was the first time I heard music played in class. The music was eclectic: rock and roll, soul music, Indian music… I found it new and interesting and… LOUD!!
Music is very personal for me (and I imagine for everyone), and some of it was pleasing and some of it not so much… Later on, I went to other studios in the city like OM and they, too, were presenting every class with music.
Today, many people who come to yoga assume that all classes automatically include music and are surprised to find that a few teachers (myself included) have chosen to teach in silence. It’s good to have choices, I always say…
Lastly, too much of the yoga I see today on social media is gymnastics. Now I love watching gymnasts, but yoga is not only handstands on the beach. Don’t get me wrong – I learned drop backs and handstands on a beach myself! But as you know, there is so much more…
Obviously, the rise of social media and online classes has changed the yoga world dramatically. When I first started teaching, there were a few yoga videos, but for the most part, you either practiced at home on your own or you took class with a teacher in person. Now there are far more opportunities to practice online, especially since Covid. That’s been great for my practice during the pandemic. It also creates new opportunities for teachers, and that’s a good thing, but I think practicing in person with a teacher is important too, so I hope we don’t lose that.
[Editor’s Note: In case you missed it, in July my collaborator Travis Pollen and I surveyed 659 yogis about their preferences for in-person and online yoga before, during, and after the pandemic. You can read that post here.]
There’s more skepticism about gurus and less tolerance for abusive behavior in the yoga world—a very good thing.
I also see more interest in teaching yoga in a way that’s based on science, rather than tradition. Even ten years ago, the yoga world was very insular. It was rare for yoga teachers to have any knowledge of research within the wider fields of biomechanics, exercise science, neurobiology, etc. That’s changing, which is also a good thing.
QUESTION 7: Do you think ageism exists in the yoga world? Have you personally experienced any examples of this?
Ageism… oh yes! I turn 74 later this month. I let my hair go silver 3 years ago.
I remember when I first moved back to NY after years of living abroad and I went to an audition for Equinox. All the teachers were in their 20’s and I was 50 then. I was sure I wouldn’t get a spot, but I did! I think they saw my teaching skills as a plus and I was hired!
I’ve also noticed that sometimes, especially in gyms, people would walk into class and see me and I could hear their minds saying, “What the hell can she teach me?”
I took it all in stride (one of the BEST parts of aging!) There were some who never came back, but many many did.
On the other hand, I know that I can inspire because I often hear from people, “I want to be like you when I’m older.” I like being an inspiration. It’s an honor.
I’m sure ageism exists in the yoga world, but I haven’t personally run into it. Maybe that’s because I’m a guy. I haven’t had issues finding work as a teacher as I get older, even though the majority of my students are younger. Maybe some people look at my gray hair and decide not to take class with me, but I think others see it as a sign of experience and knowledge.
Many students are surprised that I’m as old as I am (61). They sometimes say things like that they hope they’re as strong and mobile as I am when they’re my age. Hopefully, my example will encourage them to understand that if they practice intelligently, they can sustain a practice and can keep moving well throughout their lives.
Thank you to Diana & Joe for sharing about your experiences in the yoga world with us! Learn more from and connect with both of these inspiring yoga teachers here: