A Lesson in Balance: Ayurvedic Yoga Teacher Leila Johnson

When one first encounters renowned Ayurvedic yoga teacher Leila Johnson, they might marvel at the level of grace and simplicity carried by this former actress and now celebrity yoga instructor. One would normally presume a yoga teacher to exude a calming and balancing aura; but with the popularity of yoga around the world and its increasing influence into areas of fitness and health, it is now not so common to find a yoga teacher who brings the spiritual and life balancing components of yoga to their practice. Leila specializes in Ayurveda and bringing the body into balance through ‘yoga-ing right for your type’, eating properly and integrating a philosophy of self-acceptance more than self-improvement.

My session with Leila focused on digestion and yoga, and more specifically, how to get yoga from your food. We spoke about stress, travel and diet and how such elements all have an effect on our mental and physical wellbeing. There were just two of us in the class which made for an intimate and personal workshop. Leila guided us through a brief and calming meditation before we each told her details regarding our sleeping habits, work, travel and daily diet. Leila then approached each us differently – advising certain foods which would balance our digestion.

She introduced what she calls The Handmade Diet, which is about ‘chewing on prana’ – in order to take in life and give out energy. The ideology behind this is that we eat with the seasons, take in locally grown organic and homemade foods and most importantly, create good energy surrounding our meals.  As Leila emphasizes, the ritual of eating is a practice of balance and of ahimsa or ‘non-harming’ which in turn fosters the union of giving and receiving. When we follow this asana (known as movement in yoga), we will have a stronger digestion, more vitality and a higher quality of life.

Ayurveda, as we were told, measures one’s health by the strength of their digestion. If one’s digestion is off, this means that one’s physical wellbeing is not optimum. We were given a breakdown about which foods would be beneficial for our particular concerns. For clarity and life promoting foods we were told to eat lots of whole foods; whole grains, which have good strengthening properties; mung beans and brown lentils and fresh, clean fish. When one has too much Vata (the Ayurvedic term for energy) and has trouble sleeping, thinks too much or has stressed nerves, Leila suggests to try to drink warm milk with cardamom, cinnamon, raw sugar, ghee with the option of ginger before bed. For a quick fix to foster good digestion and a healthy immune system as well as a good cleanse, mix 1/2 a teaspoon of grated ginger with a pinch of sea salt and a sprinkle of lime 20 minutes before each meal. A good mid-season cleanse, and one which I have personally tried and continue to adhere to, this mix helps to break up AMA or toxins, stimulate digestion as well as aids in a healthy metabolism and weight loss.

After we each went through our list of concerns, Leila strongly advised us to follow a strict diet for one week. We were to eat only soups for dinner, ideally from around 6:30/7pm; eat no dairy,  no meat or fish in the evening, no raw food in the evening for five consecutive days, take in no sugar or wheat, no salads in the evening, but could have salads for lunch and could eat as many cooked vegetables as we desired, no vinegar or wine, and finally, we were told to wake up at the same time everyday, eat at the same time everyday and go to bed at the same time everyday. All of this would calm down our Vata. We were also advised to eat the ginger mix every time the season changed and before every meal as well as drink plain hot water each morning with no honey or sugar.Lastly, we were highly encouraged to go to sleep at around 10pm for one week. Leila explained that from 10pm to 12am was the time in which the skin was most regenerative and that it is very important for the body’s wellbeing to get enough rest.

While all of these food guidelines are pivotal in promoting wellbeing for the body and the mind, it is equally, if not more important, to foster a positive mental philosophy towards life and towards your food. Leila quoted Swami Sadashiva Tirtha, author of The Ayurvedic Encyclopedia as saying ‘If we are angry, working, or rushing while eating, Ayurveda says the food will turn into this energy – causing our thoughts and actions to be more angry and rushed.”  As Leila showed, food is energy and it is that energy which we take into our body influencing our daily movements, thoughts and feelings.

While the workshop was incredibly beneficial and inspirational, learning from Leila and her background as a yoga therapist and former actress was just as much so. She told me about her previous career in acting and how many times, when she would get a lead role, she’d suddenly have a breakout of psoriasis, and often, ending up losing the role because she had to search for treatment. The skin problem lead her to yoga and to Ayurveda. It was in 2004, that Leila became certified to teach after completing her basic training under renowned yoga instructor Max Strom, Founder of Sacred Movement in Venice Beach, California. She then pursued yoga as medicine and in 2006, she was among the first graduating class for Yoga Therapy under Dr. Larry Payne of Loyola Marymount University. Desiring to go further, in 2007, she entered The American University of Complimentary Medicine, an Ayurvedic-Yoga Therapy Masters Program.

While she is now renowned for her work as a celebrity yoga instructor to such names as Courtney Kardashian, Leila similarly commits to numerous charity initiatives around the world. She has created and directed yoga therapy programs in Los Angeles for women with addiction problems and self-harm disorders. She has also taught yoga to child prisons in Eithopia with fellow Zen Yoga instructors Michelle Terry and Emily Gilchrist.

Leila was first brought to the United Arab Emirates in 2011 for the International Middle Eastern Yoga and Ayurvedic Conference, where she was a principle speaker. She then continued to set up Women’s Heath Yoga Therapy Programs in Dubai’s renowned Zen Yoga studio. “I love Dubai,” she says passionately. “Dubai is full of this entrepreneurial spirit that is so contagious. In many ways, it reminds me of Los Angeles and the strive to continually create something new.” Leila’s been returning to the Middle East ever since 2011 leading workshops on Ayurvedic health and Yoga at Zen Yoga. When asked about her work with celebrities, she says “They are so dedicated to their work that they prioritize their health and wellbeing.” This is how it should be. Balance mentally and physically is the key for a sustained and healthy work ethic and, as Leila shows, this can be achieved through simple ways of taking care of body through the right food, proper rest and being surrounded by good energy.

To contact Leila, write to her at leila.johnson@gmail.com