My Yoga Journey into Self-Love & the Incredible Teachers Who Helped

I started my yoga journey 11 years ago in New York City, and it wasn’t by choice. 

I’d just gone through a heartbreaking breakup—the kind where you think you can’t go on—and a concerned best friend looked at me on the busy streets of Manhattan and said, you need to go to yoga! 

I went that night. Reluctantly. And I cried my eyes out the entire class. 

I can still see the room in my mind’s eye: the mirrored wall, the battery-powered candles scattered about, the prop cubbies on the back wall. I can still smell the lacquer on newly-polished floors. 

I don’t recall doing any poses that night, but that room provided me just what I needed: space. Space for me to be. Space for me to feel. Space for me to grieve. Space for me to cry.

I’m forever grateful to my bestie, Jessica, for inspiring me to go to that class. I’m also grateful to Equinox for providing the physical space, and to the wonderful teacher who held the subtle space I so desperately needed.   

That yoga teacher, Adrian Molina, ended up being my yoga teacher for the next six years. I practiced with him a couple of days a week and loved his style of teaching, the soft melodies he played in class, and the gentle hands-on adjustments he gave. I especially loved his weekend classes, as did the rest of the Upper East Side—evidenced by the mat-to-mat, jam-packed studio.

The only reason I stopped practicing with Adrian was that I went on a little solo beach vacation to a place I hadn’t been before—only to fall in love and never leave. 

Yup, true story.

It only took a couple of weeks to pack up my life as I knew it in New York. I called a moving company and had them ship all my stuff cross-country and parked myself in an Airbnb while I looked for a place to live. All the while I was saying to myself this is a bit crazy! But, the calling to be in California was the strongest yes I’ve ever heard, so I trusted it.

And let me caveat with this: It was dam hard leaving all the people I love, and all the familiarity that kept me safe my whole life.

Prior to moving, I stayed within the confines of my comfy comfort zone, big time. I loved where I grew up (shout out to Long Island!) and thought I would stay there forever. I went to the same day camp for almost 20 years (I was a counselor for some of them). I went to college 20 minutes from home, and although I lived on campus, I was home five nights out of seven. And, I hadn’t traveled much outside the country. So, moving 3,000 miles from home was a big deal to me! But the desire to leave the good ’ol comfort zone outweighed the fear. 

Santa Monica captivated me right away. I loved the chill vibe, vast beaches, perfect weather, juice bars, all the healthy eateries (thumbs up to you Cafe Gratitude, Kreation, & True Food!), and of course the abundance of yoga classes. 

Shortly after I moved, my goal was to find a yoga studio where I could practice daily and I found the greatest one. Exhale in Venice became a second home to me. It always made me feel safe, comfortable and connected. Not long after I joined, I started practicing with Annie Carpenter and Tiffany Russo. Need I say more?

I had no idea who these two women were and only took their classes because my Airbnb neighbor, who I had a brief yet steamy little affair with (no, he’s not the one I fell in love with!) spoke so highly of these teachers. He told me I must take their classes, and I listened.

And…

HOLY F*CKING YOGA! 

That's probably not a politically correct statement, and yoga gurus far and wide may wince if they read this. But my goodness—this yoga class felt like I was riding on a unicorn and drinking a Cervesa. 

To say I was hooked right away is an understatement. I started taking a combination of Annie’s and Tiffany’s classes five to seven days a week and all I wanted was more, more, more. I loved the teachers, the technique, the intensity, and the way my mind and body felt during and after each class. 

And I clearly wasn’t the only one who felt this way, because I saw the same faces every day and each day we would all show up, take our spots on the floor, and practice our hearts out. Which is how a community is born: Like-minded people doing the same thing.

After a year of practice, I was still as curious as ever so I signed up for Annie’s 200-hour yoga teacher training, where Tiffany was the lead assistant—and that was where I experienced a heart, head, and body metamorphosis.

I learned so much about the SmartFlow technique and I met so many wonderful humans in that group of 50-something students; all of us as wildly curious as the next. I am forever grateful for that training and I will say that it was a pivotal turning point in my life. It was after that training that I decided to combine my deep love for yoga with my passion for design—and my brand, Five Star Hippie®, was born.

Soon after the training ended, Annie moved to Northern California and Exhale closed its doors (both were so sad!). Thankfully, I was able to keep practicing with Tiffany every day, and it’s been that way consistently for the past four years, only now we’re at our new home at YogaWorks. 

I don’t know how to truly explain my relationship withTiffany Russo, so I decided to write her a little letter right here:

Dear Tiffany,

Thank you. 

Thank you for seeing me.

Thank you for providing space for me to explore, push boundaries, and to play. 

Thank you for believing in me when I don’t believe in myself.

Thank you for tolerating my crisp canoes. (Fellow SmartFlowers, you’ll get that!)

Thank you for your humor, wit, sarcasm, and silly jokes on repeat.

Thank you for giving yourself so unselfishly in every class.

Thank you for your kindness and compassion.

Thank you for your kick-ass teaching skills!

And, thank you for simply being you. 

They say that the best teachers are the ones that tell you where to look but don’t tell you what to see—and you embody that through and through.

With deep love & gratitude, 

Janine


I consider myself really lucky to have Tiffany as a teacher, hence the little love note. But in all seriousness, I believe a teacher-student relationship is very special and very unique and it should require trust, mutual respect, and boundaries. Tiffany and I have a healthy relationship, as did I with my past teachers, and I am truly grateful for it.

I also want to take a moment and discuss how intimate the practice of yoga can be (or is) for the student and the teacher. For clarity purposes, yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines.

In a group setting, a practitioner is likely on a mat, moving her body to the sound of a teacher’s cues, and she is likely sweating (and quite possibly giving off some body odor, too). All the while, the teacher is seeing you and may even adjust you, putting her hands (appropriately) on your sweaty body. Sounds pretty intimate if you ask me.

But … back to my love affair.

Do you remember at the beginning of this story when I said I fell in love in California? Well, I should clarify. I didn’t fall in love with another person, rather I started a love affair with myself. It was the first time in my adult life that I was unattached to another human, and I consciously chose to be in a relationship with myself. 

To date, it has been my greatest relationship of all.

That dark night, the one where I discovered yoga for the first time, was a pivotal turning point in my life because it was the beginning of a journey into self-awareness and self-love, which lead me to where I am today.

My yoga journey began 11 years ago and it only gets better and better with each practice. Each day is a new opportunity for exploration, growth, and introspection, and it inspires me to look forward to what the future holds all while preciously enjoying what is right now.

I have been gifted wonderful teachers in my life and I bow to each of them.

This was written with love and deep gratitude for myself, for showing up each and every day. To my teacher Adrian, who nurtured me into a yogi; my teacher Annie, who taught me her brilliant SmartFlow system; and my teacher Tiffany, who is a rockstar of epic proportions.

And to the teachers, the pioneers, and the founders of this beautiful practice—thank you. 

With Love & Light,
Janine Forte
Founder of Five Star Hippie®
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Editor Extraordinaire: Meghan Rabbitt
Photographer Extraordinaire: Patricia Pena Photography

Article also featured in Elephant Journal

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