Long before Christine Chen was an Upper West Sider, she was living in Great Falls, Montana. A year out of U.C. Berkeley, she landed her first gig in broadcast journalism—a job that transplanted her from her native Bay Area to a small town in Big Sky Country. For Christine, it was the beginning of a very impressive career that included anchoring at KCPQ, the Fox affiliate in Seattle, and hosting About the Money on KCTS, the PBS station in Seattle. Along the way, she won two Emmys for her work as both a reporter and an anchor.
After dealing with severe back pain, Christine knew her body needed a change. Looking for relief, she sought out yoga, which quickly evolved beyond exercise into both a lifestyle and career change. Today, New Yorkers in Chelsea, the Upper West Side, and Westchester have the chance to learn and take classes with Christine.
6sqft recently spoke with Christine to find out how New Yorkers engage with yoga, and what they can look to forward reading next March.
Image via Genuine Montana
What was it like working in Montana?
Christine: It was an eye opener for sure. But one of the best things I ever did for myself was to move there because I had grown in in the Bay Area and lived my whole life there. Montana is drastically different. We would drive all day and not see anybody. I learned how to fish for trout and make it for dinner.
Everybody called me Connie Chung because there were no Asian reporters, and except for the military base, there were also very few Asians in Montana. At that time, it really made me aware of my heritage. (Christine recently wrote an essay for the New York Historical Society’s website in conjunction with their exhibit, Chinese American Exclusion/Inclusion.)
Can you share your journey from journalism to yoga?
Christine: That industry is really stressful. There is not a single person in the industry that would say that it’s not. I was working a high stress job. I had odd hours because in broadcast journalism you really only do mornings, or evenings, or weekends. So my sleep and eating patterns were different. I just started to have back pain. Looking back, I know it had to do with stress and my lifestyle habits.
I lost the ability to do my high impact cardio kickboxing so I went to yoga for two years on and off. I really fought it. It was really hard for me to go from high intensity to that quiet, and I quit a couple of times. After about two years, it stuck with me, and the more I felt peace, calm, and healthier through yoga, the more I started to really reevaluate the choices I made everyday in my life.
Why did you move to New York?
Christine: I left the business in 2006 and I had my own consulting company, and was teaching yoga on the side because it was my passion. My husband received an offer to work in New York, and we had never really pictured ourselves living here. But I have always loved visiting New York and my best friend lives here.
We went back and forth and decided to take a leap of faith. We thought this would be a great experience, adventure, and investment in our future. We came here and my dog was sick at the time, she had cancer, so I had to create a whole new life for me. Once we got here, a bunch of circumstances presented themselves, and I just thought I am not going to do what I used to do and really pursue my passion and study yoga with teachers I didn’t have access to in Seattle. Some of the premiere yoga teachers are in New York. I dived into more advanced studies and started teaching here.
How is New York different from Seattle?
Christine: Space for one thing. We went from two houses to one house when we got married, and went from one house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms to an apartment. We are lucky to have a two bedroom in New York, but we had to get rid of so much. We have stuff in storage, which was a foreign concept for me. Our stuff barely fits in. We curate everything we buy or bring into the apartment evaluating do we need it because do we have space for it. Climate is another. Even when it’s cold here, the sun shines regularly. Seattle grey is a major factor. And then obviously it’s much more intense here. In fact, I had to change the way I teach when I moved here because people arrive at class and want to get right to it just like everything else in New York.
You teach uptown, downtown, and in Westchester. Do you find that each neighborhood engage with yoga differently?
Christine: Absolutely. On the Upper West Side, which is the first place I started teaching when we moved here, it’s very much a neighborhood feel. People fit in yoga around very real lives. A lot of my students have families and events. Downtown is a younger demographic. There is a greater population of singles so there weekends and evening schedules are different. Where I teach downtown at Laughing Lotus is lively. In Westchester they are quiet and laid back.
Did working as an anchor prepare you for leading yoga classes?
Christine: For sure. I still tell stories. At the beginning of my classes, I’ll have met someone or have experienced or noticed something that allows me to frame the practice of yoga. Generally when you come to my class or read my blog, you’ll meet somebody or be introduced to an experience that lands in these ancient practices.
With your focus on health and wellness, what is one are some of your favorite health spots in New York?
Christine: One of the things I really love the most is living near Central Park. The fact that we are so close to Central Park allows me to enjoy it all the time. Before my dog died, I was there every single day. One of the reasons I feel this is a health benefit is because in New York space is at a premium. So when you walk into the park, even in a crowded park, you see and experience trees, flowers, plants, light, and sky. It’s different than when you are in the Financial District. This is something that is a balancer for New York. In terms of spas, I really take full advantage of Chinese foot massages in Chinatown and on the Upper West Side.
You are publishing a book in 2015 called Happy-Go-Yoga. What inspired you to take yoga from the studio to the bookstore?
Christine: It originally started out that I was doing yoga on the subway. I was stretching because when I first moved here, my body was saying, “What are you doing to me?” We walk everywhere and my body was feeling it. I was stretching on the subway and this woman asked me, “What are you doing?” I told her and she started copying me, and this other woman was literally eating a bag of chips next to me. She was listening to the whole thing and the only thing she said was, “You should write a book.” It’s so New York. She said it just like that — like she knew. And so I thought maybe I should.
People were so taken by how I transformed my body because I was really injured. In between being on camera sometimes during commercial breaks, I would lie down in pain. It’s really through yoga and several other things that I became healthy again. People were encouraging me to write a book. I think what speaks to everybody is that they are always looking for ways to feel better or change their lives in a way that makes them feel better. I was really lucky I was able to do that. Over time I realized there is a greater audience for how to do it for themselves rather than just read about my story. It’s more about how do they apply what I have learned in their own life.
Photo by Jimena Diaz
If you could select one yoga pose that epitomizes New York, which one would it be?
Christine: If I were to personify New York in a pose it might be Lion’s Breath. It’s a pose in which you open up your mouth wide from your guts, you stick out your tongue, you blow out the air from your core, and you make a fierce noise. It’s a release and simultaneous expression. You can hear it — it’s like a roar. I think one thing that’s really clear about New Yorkers is that they always have something to say and at the same time, they need kind of a release. I feel like that’s where New Yorkers can really be in the balance. Being able to express themselves, but also release themselves because this is a high stress city.
Why do you think New Yorkers return to yoga again and again?
Christine: Because they need it.
What has practicing and teaching yoga taught you?
Christine: It has really taught me how to live better off the mat. The things that I practice in class I really try to bring off the mat and embody in my life. It’s not always easy — that’s why we practice. Even the master golfers are never perfect. It’s always this evolution.
Christine shares 3 ways to get the most out of yoga as a busy New Yorker:
1. Schedule yoga like a doctor’s appointment
I think there are some things that are very specific to the way New Yorkers live and how yoga can be helpful. I think one of things is that we are run by our schedules. Any time you decide to do something in New York, you have to figure out what time you have to be there, how you get there, when you have to leave, and then you have to build all of that into your schedule. What you can’t do because you have chosen to do something else. I think one of the best things New Yorkers can do is schedule yoga like a doctor’s appointment because it’s not going to just happen. You have to make it a priority. I actually put it in my own calendar too.
2. Learn from NOT having it your way
As New Yorkers, we have access to anything we want, which has made us very particular when it comes to… everything. Rather than obsessing about a certain teacher, class, or spot in the room, get to your practice, period, and focus on you. Your ability to be the best of you in a situation that is not ideal is one of the greatest lessons in yoga. You may learn something new and unexpected! In the long run, what you’re really doing is practicing your ability to find calm and contentment in any moment, which reduces your stress/mental suffering and invites more sustainable happiness into your life.
3. Practice yoga when you leave the yoga space
Our cramped quarters in any studio in New York are the opposite of the original intent of the yogis, which was to be close to nature (and be more natural within). That said, it’s important to recognize that yoga rooms are places to reconnect and learn, but the real practice is how you can keep your yoga intact when you leave your mat. Do you chant “Peace (Shanti)” in class and then immediately shove someone aside for a cab with angry words? Do you pay as much attention to how you move your body in the subway station and within your office cubicle as you do on the mat? It’s not easy to do, but the more we use the awareness we practice in class in our everyday lives, the happier and healthier we will be.
[This interview has been edited]
Lead image by Richard Velazquez