TARA STILES HAS heard it all before.
As one of the planet's premier yoga practitioners – and more simply as a person whose own life was transformed, she says, once she established her own practice – Stiles knows full well what keeps people coming back to their yoga mats. “It's all about moving and it's all about feeling good,” says the American, who in the past decade has taken her own style of teaching from a small studio in her New York apartment to studios in 15 countries.
What really interests Stiles, and has since she first traded in her career as a Tom Ford model for yoga teaching in the early 2000s, is finding out what might keep people away from the yoga studio.
“I've kept asking people why they don't do yoga and the answers have always been pretty much the same,” reveals the 34-year-old. “They think something is wrong with them - they're not flexible enough, they're not open enough. They think it's religious.
“There have always been all these problems with how yoga is perceived. And people would go to a class and feel they're not being included.”
So Stiles has made it her life mission to change such perceptions and during a recent visit to Hong Kong she was obviously keen to talk up the benefits of a regular practice and to allay any fears some might have when it comes to taking that first step inside a yoga studio.
“The main thing is that it should feel good,” says Stiles. “If it doesn't feel good, just back off. It shouldn't be about the picture of the pose you've seen in all these magazines and trying to match that. That's the common thing, the worry – that people won't be flexible enough. Especially with guys, they think they'll be embarrassed or it's too tough. But it's all about feeling good. That's the goal. It's a process of feeling better, of improving, and about feeling good.”
Stiles was trained as a dancer in Chicago after growing up in a small town in Illinois, and it was a dance teacher who first suggested she try yoga to increase her strength. Stiles later moved into modelling and on to New York where she started making YouTube clips to share her passion for yoga with fellow models – and with anyone else who wanted to tune in.
Pretty soon she was being asked advice from all quarters. And so she started her own studio in 2006, and shortly afterwards launched the Strala Yoga brand.
Stiles was in Hong Kong to promote her collaboration with W Hotels – a series of yoga videos designed specifically to inspire the traveller into a little bit of in-room exercise, and a range of health-conscious meals and drinks.
“My videos have always pointed the poses towards specific problems – yoga for hangovers, yoga for back pain, even yoga for when your partner has broken up with you and you find yourself down in the dumps,” says Stiles. “And it's a privilege to share what I've learned. If you're doing even 10 to 15 minutes a day, it will have a big impact on your life. That's one of the reasons I set up the videos – you can just tap in any time and follow along. You can do it on your own. I tell people mornings are a good time to practice – before you get going you can set the day up. Ten to 20 minutes is enough to get the mental and physical benefits of where you start to know how you feel, you're changing how you feel and learning what makes you feel good.”
Diet is also a main focus of what Stiles teaches – and how what you feed your body impacts how you feel.
“I don't think I realised how important my diet was until I moved to New York after high school and my mom wasn't there cooking for me,” she says. “I would go to deli, eat gummy bears and pretzels, go out for drinks with my friends. I suddenly thought, ‘This isn't working any more. I feel crap.' So I started to go to the market, buying fruit and vegetables and experimenting with putting them together in ways that simply tasted good. You have to put the effort in and find what combinations work.”
Stiles says the effect yoga has had has been far more than physical – even though her style of teaching tries to veer away from yoga's more esoteric edges.
“The main benefit for me is that it helps me know more about myself, know my tendencies both negative and positive,” says Stiles. “I came into yoga from dance and I was much more open than I was strong so I've seen how getting stronger has given me more structure in my life too. I'm stronger in life.”