April Penland

April Penland went from teaching high school Latin to teaching yoga. On stage April manages to find stillness and grace, attributes she’s acquired through a decade-long, consistent yoga practice. This consistent practice is what earned her first place in this year’s Midwest Regionals. We caught up with her as she traveled to Mexico, Austin, and back to Virginia to teach class and lead workshops.

How did you become involved in yoga?

My now husband brought me to my first Bikram yoga class when I was stressed out in college.

What year did you start teaching?

Officially 2016, though I led advanced classes, competition training, “homework” sessions, and workshops before that.

As a teacher, what’s advice you try to give to your students?

Try everything without any preconceived beliefs of can and can't, but accept wherever you are.  You're stronger than you think.  You can do anything with practice, time, and patience.  So do more yoga.  Also, remember you don't have to touch your head to your butt to get the therapeutic benefits of the posture. 

You also teach youth yogis, particularly for competition. Why do you think yoga is important for children and teens?

In my opinion yoga fosters a sense of optimism, teaches calm and patience, and is good for one’s physical (as well as emotional and spiritual) health.

How did you become involved with USA Yoga?  

About two months after taking my first advanced class, Garland Hume (my former coach, studio owner, teacher, and now-President of USA Yoga) said something to the effect of:  “Hey, we all do this competition thing.  It's so fun.  You should do it.” And I didn't know enough to consider any option other than, “ok.” I discovered she was right though, and I've done competition ever since.

Did you see a change in your mindset or approach going from teaching yoga to being a yoga competitor?

Hmmm, well I was a competitor first and then a teacher.  I've learned a lot though from being competition oriented about alignment and the kinds of corrections/suggestions that help people progress in both beginner and advanced postures.  One thing that I learned quickly when I first started teaching is that some people don't care about progressing in the postures (they just want to feel better), and in my opinion there is nothing wrong with that.  I'll happily share what I know but respect when students, barring doing something that will cause them to hurt themselves, decide not to listen (it's their class).

April, you’re known (at least on my Facebook feed) for your impressive handstands where you push up from a prone position. How did you start doing that? How long has it taken you to get to the point you’re at now?

I started with kicking up onto the wall and then eventually took it off and could do a banana back handstand in the middle of the room with a few attempts.  Then I found Adrian McCavitt, saw his handstands, and started going to every class he was teaching here in Richmond, Virginia, that I could—hand-balance and otherwise.  I was straddle pressing within six months, consistently within a year, pike pressing within a year though not consistent at all, and now I can do so pretty consistently. 

I taught myself a lot of the crazy shapes and lowering down to various poses (because once you know the technique you just apply it to the new stuff you want to work on).  He is an excellent teacher (I've learned and continue to learn so much), but as he says, your handstand progress is directly proportional to your lack of social life.  I consistently worked on it for a long time everyday over that period of time.  That's the road map.

How many years have you competed?

Since 2012 I believe, so 6.

From all your years of competing, what’s something you would offer as advice to new competitors and what would you offer as advice to people who have been doing it for a few years?

New Competitors:  I was lucky to have a coach who emphasized how wonderful and awesome it was just to get up and share your practice.  No matter what happens on that stage, you’re an inspiration to those who witness you.

Seasoned Competitors:  Don't take things too seriously.  I've run the whole gambit of placing (I've been first, second-to-last, and all over in between) and at the end of the day it doesn't really matter.  Just get up there and show what you've learned and have fun.  Also I'm of the mindset that I like to see people do well.  So if someone asks me about technique or how I trained something, and I can help them, I tell them.  Maybe this makes me a bad “competitor,” but I'm ok with that because first and foremost I'm a teacher.  Besides, if I ever win first internationally I want it to be because I had the best present moment on stage, not because I stifled someone else's growth.  

How often do you do the advanced, 84-posture series?

Twice a week.

Would you recommend that other competitors vary their practice?

Hmmm, depends.  I only did Bikram class for the first 8 years of my practice.  I found vinyasa because I found a teacher I liked and respected.  If something comes up organically that resonates with you and is beneficial, add it.  But don't ever lose your foundation, your “maintenance” practice.  It's most important.  I personally practice a lot and lots of different styles because I like to practice.

Is there any type of exercise outside of yoga that you would recommend to people who are competing?

Depends.  I do calisthenics and handbalance classes.  I'm considering adding ballet (never too old right) to help with lines, splits, and toe point.  Add what you want if it makes you feel good and is beneficial. 

How has yoga enriched your life, what has it brought to you?

I'm an introvert and it's really given me a community I can connect with.  It's helped me learn that I can do anything (seriously, anything).  It's helped me manage my anxiety.  It's led to me being a healthier person.  It's taught me to be kind to myself and to take care of myself.  It's lifted my mood.  It's offered me a career I find satisfying, rewarding, and fun.

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