Welcome to Yoga Moves for Every Body.
My name is Sandra Leigh.
I’m delighted to meet you here!
I’ve been teaching yoga for 25 years
in Vancouver, B.C.
Here is a link for my yoga classes for Fall 2023.
I hope to see you on the mat, soon.
This is my yoga story.
Part 1: A Healing Journey
I’ve recently decided to begin sharing some of my history in the hopes of making a difference to others who are seeking connections that heal their lives naturally, through yoga, breath work, meditation, music, art and community.
Yoga has been an ever unfolding journey that began for me in 1991. As a young adult, I wisely established myself in the process of recovery from the harmful effects of a traumatic childhood. Like so many people, I grew up in a dysfunctional environment. Addiction and abuse were a part of every day life for as long as I could remember. Because it was all I knew, it was quite normal for me and life went on, as usual. That was until age 18, when I developed a health condition and ended up requiring a number of lengthy hospital stays and series of surgeries that left me permanently injured and devastated by my early twenties.
I became interested in breath work and eventually meditation and yoga as part of my healing and rebuilding process.
A few decades later, we now understand and accept that the effects of childhood trauma and abuse are quite complex and can often lead to serious ongoing health conditions. If my healing experience helps even one person, then it will be worth it for me. So, thanks for letting me share.
“Trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you.” – Gabor Maté
When I first found yoga, it was as if a light went on. It was a natural response, like an awakening took place, not just once, but each and every time I went to a class. At that time, I really had no idea what a daily yoga or meditation practice looked like, much less that one day, I would become a teacher, myself.
Those pivotal experiences took place at Monday night beginner’s yoga classes at my local community centre with my first teacher, Lilian Bianchi. Lilian’s expertise and gentle guidance in Hatha Yoga has always been my most precious foundation. I attended every class with her that I possibly could. I would help her put equipment away after class and sometimes we would go for tea. We became friends and eventually, I would become her unofficial yoga assistant in the classes at the community centre.
In 1995, my fairy tale marriage crumbled. The relationship that I thought would last forever had unconsciously mirrored all of the dysfunctional patterns of my upbringing, and then some. It was a difficult time, but with Lilian’s encouragement and compassion, I dove deeper into yoga. I started practicing at home, too.
After about 5 years of weekly classes and weekend workshops, Lilian asked me if I felt ready to take the next step in my yoga development, and would I consider becoming a yoga teacher, myself? I was not expecting it, but after the end of my marriage, I had been growing increasingly curious about yoga as a healing path and a new life direction. I had grown to love my yoga practice, and I certainly admired Lilian’s experience and abilities as an advanced yoga teacher. In fact, I clung to her mentoring. So, with her blessing, I took a “leap of faith.” I began researching possibilities of places or schools where I could go to develop and deepen my understanding of yoga.
In the 90’s, Yoga Teacher Training programs were relatively rare in Canada. I found only a few advertised schools in the back pages of the “Yoga International” magazine. One opportunity was in Quebec and the other two were in B.C. They weren’t called schools, but rather, yoga ashrams. An ashram is a Sanskrit term given to describe a place where a community of like-minded people choose to live simply (without material luxury), away from society, and who sustain constant practices and disciplines that include various forms of yoga, meditation, and philosophy. Much like a monastery, an ashram is self sustaining, often supporting charitable causes as a form of karmic duty. Activities, such as farming foods, teaching courses and retreats, publishing books and sometimes music, provide the means for their scope of a communal and spiritual lifestyle.
After researching my options, I chose to go to Yasodhara Ashram, near Kootenay Bay, BC, participating in a 10 day retreat called ‘The Hidden Language of Hatha Yoga’ as taught by Swami Sivananda Radha. I resonated with the esoteric nature of this yoga ashram community whose daily activities included in depth study of the kundalini system, expression through music and art, and so much writing, chanting, dream work, karma yoga. These intriguing activities at the ashram and the pristine natural surroundings are the legacy of Swami Sivananda Radha, who was an original pioneer for western women teaching yoga. Swami Radha also taught the ‘Divine Light Invocation’ that would become my first spiritual practice and an important step on my healing journey.
I ended up returning and staying at the ashram for about a year, completing the yoga development certification course (YDC) and later receiving a Hatha Yoga Teacher’s Certificate. I enjoyed taking part in the karma yoga youth work program working in various positions, including cooking, cleaning, gardening and shipping and receiving for Timeless Books. I looked forward to twice daily satsang and chanting in the Temple of Divine Light. Nestled away in the Kootenays, I felt this to be a safe environment for spiritual growth and healing. Yashodhara Ashram is now in their 60th year. I fully recommend their programs.
When I returned to Vancouver, I went back to work in the restaurants. I saved my tips and bought my first harmonium. I knew I wanted to keep yoga in the forefront of my life and I was eager to share what I had learned at the ashram. I had started subbing for Lilian and then, I was hired for yoga programs at the YMCA, both downtown and in South Vancouver.
I enjoyed teaching yoga so much. I wanted nothing more but to continue training and to become a better instructor and helper. I was not able to do many of the advanced postures due to physical limitations, but after my ashram experience, I understood that yoga is not only physical exercise. Yoga is a Sanskrit word: योग, meaning ‘union’ or to ‘yoke’ the physical, mental, and spiritual bodies, and to still the mind.
It was around then, that Lilian introduced me to her friend and local teacher, Sandra Sammartino. Sandra offered a complete modular yoga teacher certificate course at her Kairos Studio in White Rock, BC. I was intrigued by Sandra’s approach, recognizing yoga as a therapy.
There is no doubt that my previous recovery efforts and long stay at the ashram had helped me to awaken. Rebuilding a fragmented self is a life long journey, though. In order to understand my life, so far, I knew I needed to “stay on the path” and continue educating myself in a supportive, nurturing, safe, empowering environment. In early recovery, the counselors I saw would say to keep my chin up and just “let it go”. I wanted desperately to heal, feel “normal” and move on, but the effects of preverbal, childhood and teenage trauma had written a story deep into the fiber of my nervous system. I had developed a dissociative condition. Sandra would help me to work with the armoring that kept me frozen. I learned to feel my emotional triggers and stay present. We also had a lot of fun, practicing yoga inversions, hanging ourselves like art work on Sandra studio walls. I mostly loved our extended deep relaxation sessions, gazing at the night stars through the sky lights. We would be so open and grounded from hours of (sometimes difficult) asana, that would ready us to focus inward for breath work and emotional energy release in a final cosmic sound healing exercise called toning. The group consciousness became almost womb like and this level of support was vital for many of us to safely reach the “issues in the tissues.” The truth is, we all have varying degrees of trauma trapped within ourselves.
Sandra Sammartino was also the original pioneer and heart behind BC’s ‘Yoga Outreach’ programs. As an optional part of our teacher training, Sandra would mentor us for Yoga Outreach teaching positions. My first Yoga Outreach teaching experience was 1:1 therapeutic yoga for a home bound trauma survivor. I would share mostly breathing practices with her while she was immobilized in her bed, lost in a major depression. I remember her sitting up and putting all her effort into the simple exercises. We both appreciated our visits.
Yoga Outreach placements allowed me to experience and explore teaching yoga in many unusual circumstances and challenging areas.
Through the Yoga Outreach program I brought the yoga to adult women at a drug and alcohol treatment facility in South Vancouver. Sharing yoga with women in recovery helped me as much as it helped the participants.
The Yoga Outreach program also sponsored an after school program called “The Avengers”, where I taught yoga for children and youth with Autism. This program inspired me to continue working with younger people, as well as appreciate the gift of neurodivergency, although we did not call it that back then.
Neurodivergence is a term we now use for a brain that processes, learns or behaves differently from what is considered typical or “normal” function. What used to be considered a problem has grown to be more readily recognized for it’s societal benefit. Today, health care providers are ever more accepting that a spectrum of mental health conditions such as ASD, ADHD, traumatic brain injury, chronic dissociation, to name only a few, can be traced back to unresolved childhood trauma. Of course, this is not always the case.
I believe that a structured routine, physical exercise, attention to nutrition, connection to nature, sunlight, socialization, as well as down time, helps to restore the nervous system, bringing balance to the neurodivergent brain. Personally, I’ve anchored a twice daily meditation practice. For me, meditation practice is what makes the most notable difference, and in the long run, has allowed me a much better quality of life.
I enjoyed my kid’s yoga teaching placement with “The Avengers” so much that I would go on to earn a Kid’s Yoga Teaching Certificate. I have since developed a children’s program called Kid’s Music + Yoga that I offer at a private school on a weekly basis. I have been teaching the kid’s program for over 15 years.
Through Yoga Outreach, Sandra also mentored me to teach men’s yoga to young offenders who were being held at the youth corrections centre called Willingdon, in Burnaby. Looking back, I’m sure these incarcerated young and vulnerable men were themselves bottling up the effects of unprocessed childhood trauma. They lapped up the yoga and deep relaxation, and would return to their imprisonment a bit less on edge.
Aside from Yoga Outreach, I applied for a position to lead a women’s yoga program at St. Paul’s Eating Disorder Clinic. Having experienced an eating disorder in my teens, even more of me was required to show up for a trauma-informed approach to yoga. Although “trauma-informed yoga” would not become a buzz word for more than a decade. The women in care were often extremely fragile. We would mostly focus on breathing techniques and again, deep relaxation became the favourite yoga pose.
These early days of sharing and teaching were certainly helping me, too.
Then one day, Lilian moved to Vancouver Island. Our entire community was devastated to see her go as the end of our Monday night yoga group loomed. After some attachment issues on my part, it was decided that I would “inherit” Lilian’s Monday night yoga classes. I signed my first City of Vancouver instructor’s contract and began teaching the long time participants. Of course, no one could ever fill Lilian’s shoes and a few of the participants left the group, but I gave what I could, and I have been teaching for the West End Community Centre Association ever since. We are blessed to have a core group of original participants still attending the yoga classes, some 30 years later, we are still practicing yoga together.
In 1999, I met a visiting yoga group and became interested in an energy based style of yoga, called Dru Yoga. The group was based out of the UK, and Lilian agreed to have them come to the community centre class to give a short presentation. I was drawn to Dru’s hallmark de-traumatization techniques, energy block release sequences, affirmation, and meditation. The guests spoke of an upcoming World Peace Flame project, which came together in July, 1999. The group of teachers would later return and offer a complete a 3 year course of Dru Yoga Teacher Training modules in BC, Canada. I would also travel to the main Dru Yoga Centre in North Wales, UK, visiting Dru in London, Scotland, The Netherlands, and India, attending yoga conferences and retreats. I’ve earned a Dru Sound Healing & Mantra Certificate, and a Dru Meditation Teacher’s certificate. More recently, I have been certified as a Dru Breath Coach. Dru Yoga is popular in the UK, Europe, Australia and parts of India, and specializes in trauma sensitive yoga. Dru Yoga is naturally incorporated into all of my yoga classes.
In 2001, after an entire wonderful summer in North Wales, UK, I took a job at Banyen Books, a local independent “metaphysical” bookstore where I trained as a cashier & eventual floor manager. It was an excellent job and I loved being there. At that time, yoga (as an industry) began to really boom, too. We would see a new yoga book, yoga video, or DVD arrive on a near daily basis. The yoga book section eventually out grew itself, from one small shelf of the classics, to into an entire room, dedicated to both traditional and western influenced yoga media. Banyen then moved locations to bigger, permanent premises. The yoga section expanded, yet again! I would work part-time at the bookstore and teach a few weekly yoga classes. The yoga industry continued to grow and my classes were full to capacity. There were no signs of slowing down.
Part 2: The Courage to Sing! (coming soon)
We are grateful to live and work on the unceded, ancestral territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh Nations.