By Vanessa Packer
WORKING MY WAY DOWN MULBERRY STREET, amidst the throngs of tourists pouring out of the Italian restaurants that line the block, I duck into an alcove. You’ve probably walked by this dark elevator a thousand times and never thought twice about it. What looks like an ordinary delivery entrance is actually a gateway to one of the most unique yoga experiences in the city. I.AM.YOU unites the world of yoga and music to transform the mindset of the modern healthy urbanite. At the helm, is the statuesque Lauren Imparato who left the world of finance to create a one stop shop for health and fitness tailored to the busy New Yorker. Her approach is, “There is a way to love something in your life everyday if you keep your perceptions open to it, and when you change your habits that is true happiness, and living a healthy life, and it’s not a faux way of life, with smiles and happy faces.” For the discerning yogi who hasn’t found their place in some of the more ‘granola’ ‘hippie’ studios around the city, this is your home. Cool, modern, edgy, this is the yoga of now.
You used to work on the trading floor at Morgan Stanley. What was the moment you decided to quit and start I AM YOU?
I had always been an athlete. My whole life I hated yoga, but then I started doing it and got completely hooked. I never thought I would do a business that would be yoga centric. I had been teaching yoga to friends casually, and all of a sudden people on the trading floor came up to me asking for nutritional advice, muscular advice, postural advice. The whole last part of my day became answering questions and helping my colleagues with their health issues. I did IIN and Kula teacher training. I took my teacher training class, and our homework was to teach four friends, so I bribed them with brunch and had them come over on a Saturday. They told me how much I sucked, but within three months the whole loft was packed with people. It was a hobby at this point, people would come up to me and tell me they hated yoga but they liked my class. Then my boyfriend, now husband, was like you really need to quit and do this, and I thought, “He’s just saying that.” Finally, my a-ha moment happened. I’m a water person, so he sent me away for a week, and while in the ocean after just one day of being on the sea, I was like, “Oh, holy fuck I have to do this with the concept of I.AM.YOU being a new lens for wellness and yoga that appeals to the educated savvy urbanite, as opposed to the hippie health focused individual.”
Where did you come up with the name I.AM.YOU?
Tibetan yoga philosophy is the basis of I.AM.YOU. It’s not spiritual or godlike per se, but there are some people I know who are Tibetan Buddhists or people like myself who are Catholic that follow the logic. There is something called Mahamudra and it’s a chain of logic, a series of events. I would call it exercise for the brain. One of the ideas in there is exchanging yourself. In my yoga class notes, I wrote the phrase I.AM.YOU. When I decided I was going to do this, I initially didn’t think I was going to quit my job. I thought maybe when I’m 40 I’ll quit my job, start my own company, teach yoga twice a week and have a good gig. I didn’t want to call the yoga by my name, so I thought I would call it I.AM.YOU. One of my haters of yoga, free students, a big branding guy offered to help me. He said, “Let me help you. You need to quit and do this!’ One of the names he came up with was I AM YOU. So it was one of those ‘meant to be’ situations.
Did you apply any of the principles from IIN or Kula when you were building I.AM.YOU?
Most of what I’ve learned from nutrition is from studying Chinese medicine and my Cali-girl self education. I never wanted I AM YOU to just be a yoga studio. Schuyler from Kula is a huge teacher of mine, and obviously when you go to yoga seven days a week, you take something away. I started to develop a self practice routine, which pulls from my athletic self and my love of anatomy. Yogeshri at Jivamukti would blast music, and I thought, “Oh this could be cool.” It’s a combination of my Ashtanga pace, Jivamukti and a focus on anatomy. There are a lot of thoughts behind I.AM.YOU, but the idea that we are all everybody else is a big part of it. If you are a banker, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a yogi. If you are a runner, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a swimmer. If you are a rocker it doesn’t mean you can’t also love going to the opera. So now society gets categorized and we stick ourselves in these boxes. I.AM.YOU is about breaking through that, to find and create the best you.
You travel a lot to teach, how do you decide where to go to?
The places I choose are out of the box. I did a 3000-person class in Barcelona, Central America. It happens through word of mouth. I don’t want to do anything cliche ever.
What do you notice about the yoga practice in each city?
It’s different in every city. The class I could teach in Madrid is the opposite of what I would teach in Panama, and even opposite of what I would teach here. I try to tap into the idea of each city and push the limits and mindset. I get told all the time that, “Oh they’re not good at yoga, and they like it nice and easy.” So I bust in there, and maybe it’s not like a super I.AM.YOU class here, but an I.AM.YOU class that is more challenging then the average yoga class, and the people freak out about it. They love it and ask for more. Usually the people who run the studios are panicking that it was too hard, but the students are contacting me on Facebook or email saying how much they loved it.
How do you adjust your teaching style to accommodate a class of 3000 people compared to a class of twenty people?
The classes are always I.AM.YOU formatted. It is a 360-degree experience where music, yoga and mindset unite. In those large scale classes, when I make it challenging, the reviews are much better. In the yoga world, they forget that people like to be challenged. I start with a meditation, we do the OM just as we do I.AM.YOU here in New York. I’m just myself, I don’t turn into some guru on the stage, but you do feel their energy. I try to make eye contact as much as possible. The first time I was so nervous. When this photograph was taken (below), you can see that I’m really seeing what’s happening in that moment. Now, I try to be even more myself with whatever flies out of my mouth, as it does here.
You talk about music being one of the main pillars of I AM YOU. How does the music connect the yoga practice?
Traditionally, yoga and music together is called Nada Yoga, which is the yoga sound. Something that Yogestri really nailed into us. Being more modern, an urbanite, a world traveler, I don’t really want to listen to the sitar for an hour and a half. I’d rather have a variation of music. When I was teaching these free classes, my husband was letting all these people flow into the loft on Saturday mornings and he didn’t complain. I thought why not collaborate a bit, since he’s a DJ. Every I.AM.YOU class has a specific theme whether it’s a muscle focus or Dharma theme or a song, they all link together. So if I tell him the theme of this week is jumping for your goals, I’ll have a class that anatomically makes you feel that, and he will make a mix that inspires it. The idea of the music is to link together the I.AM.YOU 360 experience, as opposed to just a yoga studio experience. Sometimes he busts out a mix and I get inspired from there. Everyday there is something that can make you feel better when you are not feeling your best. Sometimes it’s sweat, sometimes it’s hearing something, or reading something. A song or music that gives you that experience. It can help you bring out something in you that you might not even know is there. The idea of listening, today in society we are incapable of listening the way we used to. Myself included, because i’m glued to the iPhone. The idea of listening, and really listening, and allowing a sound, an idea to open our ears up.
Does he practice yoga?
He was the person who took me to yoga originally. We were at the Bowery Bar, I was 21 years old and freaking out that my legs were fat from running. I’m a huge eater and I picked at dinner, which is not like me. He was like, “What the hell is wrong with you.” I was being girly about it and complaining, which made no sense because I was running 60 miles a week. Anyway, he was like, “Why don’t you just go to yoga.” I got annoyed because I thought that was not a helpful suggestion, but I went anyway to prove him wrong and that’s how the whole thing started.
What do you interpret as the connection between the asana practice and the food?
I feel like we can all be healthier everyday by improving the way we eat, and just being happier everyday. I try to create a one stop shop for solutions. My nutrition approach applies yoga’s philosophical logic. My only rule is don’t eat fast food. No processed, artificial stuff. It’s just gross. Other then that, I base it on a per person situation. When I have my nutritional coaching clients, I don’t tell them you need to be a vegetarian or reduce your gluten. I was vegetarian for seven years and now I’m no longer one. My body has radically changed. It probably changed five years before I stopped being vegetarian, but I didn’t pay attention to what was going on. A lot of things people offer are unrealistic. When I go to nutritional coaching for a corporation, I make it akin to what that work day is. What is around that office and what that office culture is. It’s unrealistic on a trading floor to ask a man of forty years or an analyst in their twenties to bring broccoli every day and not go for drinks with clients. I try to do everything that is realistic, doable, actionable and that’s really the base of nourishment. A lot of people either go straight into these dogmas or rules and they don’t think. They can’t just juice and not think about it. It’s not that stressful, and you shouldn’t be that idiotic. I blindly went into vegetarianism, and it wasn’t the right thing for me. There are a lot of ways of being a vegetarian, and if you don’t do it right it can be a lot worse then being an omnivore. I think a lot of vegetarians and vegans end up eating a lot of processed food that you think isn’t processed. Seitan is made in a factory. It’s still processed, its just a processed plant. I don’t really eat chicken because it’s so dirty. Maybe in France, I’ll have Coq au Vin, but thats an exception. I do try to eat red meat three times a week.
Whats a typical day like for you?
I’m lucky I come from an athletic and fast metabolism family. I eat a lot. I can learn through periods of not eating enough, like college, sitting on the trading floor those first years not knowing how to manage my life and being strapped there for fifteen hours and on a budget. In the morning I get my favorite breakfast, which is an almond croissant and a coffee or cappuccino. I now try to have cooked breakfast twice a week. Egg white omelets with spinach, but I prefer the first one and it’s my go to. When I travel to Europe I don’t think twice about, it’s always a pastry. Then I have a snack, whatever is around. For lunch, I have some sort of large salad, greens, a lot of greens. I stick to vegetarian at lunches. When I go out, I work in different cafes. The Butchers Daughter for example. In the afternoon. I have almonds, apples or a pastry if I didn’t have one in the morning. It’s also based on how many classes I’ve taught or how much yoga I’ve done that day. Dinner is my favorite meal of the day because I love eating and sharing experiences. I think that’s another important part of being healthy. In New York, there are weeks I’m out every night. Today I’m insisting on staying home and cooking. Dinners I’ll put in my animal protein. It’s not ideal to eat it late, but I try to be realistic. It’s probably better for me to ingest that organic beef on the late side around 9:30pm when I finish teaching, then to not have it. If we go out I have a steak or fish. I try to have half if not more of every meal green. Even if I have the steak, I have a huge salad with it. I can throw down a t-bone, but I will also have the salad to start and the side of spinach. It’s that sort of balance that really makes it work.
What do you like to cook?
If I cook, I cook a lot of vegetarian. A lot of sautéed vegetables blended soup. Jorge loves quinoa stuff so I experiment with variations on quinoa mixtures. I eat everything, I didn’t grow up eating ham or shellfish because California you don’t eat it as much, so I don’t like it which is helpful. I think a lot of people are afraid to eat what they are craving, and I’m not afraid to eat what my body wants. You start doing yoga and listening to your body, and your body starts craving other things. Maybe it had been craving them, but you glossed over and didn’t pay attention to what you are actually craving. This morning, I was craving quinoa tabbouleh and thats what I had. It may sound weird, but so what. When you eat what your body wants, you end up being more satisfied and that’s why I’m not afraid to mix things around. Sometimes an afternoon snack where I love a cappuccino and a piece of chocolate as a snack, sometimes I have a bowl of soup. That may sound weird but it also tends to work with my body when its craving it.
So you love to cook and salads and soups?
I love to cook vegetarian stuff because I think there is so much breadth in the scope of vegetarian foods and people forget that Italian food is largely vegetarian. A lot of cultures have largely vegetarian menus. Even in Spain where everyone is obsessed with ham and shellfish, I ate vegetarian there for years. People forget that vegetarian food doesn’t have to be the stinky vegetarian restaurant.
You recently did an I.AM.YOU retreat in Miami at The Standard, is it a detox?
I don’t like to give one mold for people to follow. It depends on the person, who they come with, and what they feel like. In Miami, it’s much more of a free retreat. People fly down, we have the classes, we hang by the pool, but it’s Miami, people come and go they do what they want. The other week long retreat that I do every winter called I.AM.Paradise. We’ve done it in Columbia twice, Mexico last year and Tulum this coming year, that is a more retreat experience. When they come to Miami, they come with boyfriends or girlfriends and they just want to be there, maybe take yoga class or two. It varies, some people do a juice cleanse for the weekend, other people rage with cocktails all day, haha. So it’s very open, if you are taking holiday and you are going on a trip why not make it what it is for you.
Is there a food guide?
For I AM Paradise, I work with a chef or work with something there to tailor menus. That one I really make the I AM YOU nourishment stamp strong. In Miami, we have a family dinner one night and I take care of the ordering, it’s easy, and they get to eat what I like to eat.
If someone is going and they want you to create a program with food, is that available?
Yes, and I’ve definitely done that. It’s a bespoke situation. I’ll bring down teas from my tea line and match what they should be eating. It’s a three day cleanse. Everything I do is very bespoke, and that was before that word ended up on everything. That was the whole idea behind I.AM.YOU. I realized on the trading floor that in real modern life it’s impossible. These guys sitting on the trading floor, they would do these juice cleanses when Blueprint came out, and it was hell on earth for the rest of us. It was hellish because you cannot be sitting there in a high stress environment and successfully, calmly and friendly do your juice cleanse. They would do that and bounce back, and on Friday order White Castle burgers. The whole idea is that there doesn’t have to be this extreme. I try to tailor every nourishment recommendation for one on one clients based on exactly what their lifestyle and body type is then and now, and who they are right now, and what they need in the moment. For a lot of women, I sometimes suggest they eat red meat three times a week, but then for a lot of my guys I tell them to reduce red meat and have five vegetarian days. It’s really about listening to your body and where it is, and where it is in the evolution of you. I felt like a rockstar for the first while I was vegetarian, and it worked great. For the last three years I was sick all the time, I never got my period, my hair was a mess, and I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. In reality, my body was atrophying on the vegetarian diet, and it was not for my very athletic body type anymore. So again, with the concept of nourishment, we all change, we are constantly evolving. These dogmas and rules are so constrictive.Yes in yoga there is the concept of yin and yang, but the idea is to be in the center line and the center channel of the body. That’s what I’m trying to find with I.AM.YOU. Nutrition, music, mindset, and yoga. It’s the whole thing, and it’s about going into the center line. Not being centered and balanced in a cliched way, it’s about body, which acupuncture and yoga agree on getting to that central channel.
Where did your tea line come about?
When I decided to quit and do I.AM.YOU, I wanted to do what I could envision, and what I thought society needed. A solution. The process of yoga, nourishment, music, mindset. The nourishment concept needed for this type of thing. The guys I was working with needed more from their cleanse program. Nourishment combining food and supplements, traditional Chinese herbs, packaged in the I.AM.YOU packaging that’s modern and more palatable. I work with a herbalist who runs a lot of detox clinics in California and we worked to create teas that were going into these detox programs. It’s evolved, at the beginning it was just this detox cleanse program. I could give you the menu with tea for three days, seven days, one week or four week programs. Then you follow up with accessible food you could get and add in these teas, and the results are incredible. From there it evolved a bit because I didn’t want to be in the crowded detox space. Everything I try to do is away from all that. It’s unique. I don’t want to be in the crowd, there is so much. I’ve evolved it into a straight up tea line. They sell them at The Butchers Daughter.
Do you meditate?
I do a Tibetan based meditation, we start the class with meditation every time. I don’t publicize that because it tends to freak people out. Then they come, and they realize it’s actually really nice. They don’t even realize it’s meditation because meditation is actually just about breathing. If you look at brain studies they show the wave lengths of the brain significantly change when you breathe through your nose as opposed to the mouth. I’m super strict about breathing in class and keeping it through the nose as a traditional yoga pulls from. So, the meditation we do is Tibetan based. It’s about creating a blue light body and creating your life from here, and I do that on my own as well.
What is the blue light body?
In this particular Tibetan area, there are a thousand things, but there is a concept of emptiness. In a colloquial way, nothing exists until you perceive it, label it, and experience it. So, the entire world is empty until you add on your tabs and labels. When you think about emptiness and karma, not in the hindu way as we know it, but karma as the idea of planting seeds. Everything you say, think, do, or perceive, plants a seed in your body and along with every experience, whether it’s a perception or a reaction it is a ripening of that seed. So these seeds are planting and ripening over and over. Your world is empty at the same time, except for the seeds you are putting in there, and that’s the basis. That’s a huge thing. That’s a run down of what I.AM.YOU yoga is based on. Blue light meditation is when you visualize light, and being Catholic and studying a lot of other religions, everyone talks about a light body, like a body of light, and what we do with the breathing meditation is we sit, follow our breathes and share our breathing. We empty out minutely using the muscle of the brain. The muscle of the brain visually emptying out everything on the inside of us. Take out what we are attached to, and what we have labeled, then fill it with this body of clear, clear blue light akin to a vast sky where there is infinite possibilities and anything is attainable. It’s up to you to fill that body. The idea is, that when we practice, the whole class is a blue light body. I do a lot of work with marathon trainees, and they actually run through that. A lot of people have done it, and they say it’s an amazing experience to get through the 26 miles in this whole other way. The meditation goes on longer, but that’s an abbreviated version.
You talked about acupuncture, what types self care methods do you do?
My uncle is an acupuncturist so it was something I learned to be comfortable with at a very young age. Back when no one was, thirty-three years ago in California. I grew up with Chinese herbs, with a combination of Western medicine and Eastern medicine. I do acupuncture regularly, I do physical therapy for tune ups, which is an integral part of my life. My herbalist in California has helped me to figure out all the recipes for the teas I have. They are made from traditional Chinese herbs. I do yoga daily, and then every now and then, I do a tune up with my chiropractor, but I try not to be addicted. I drink a ton of water. I talk a lot to my family, everyday. Having fun is another health routine that people forget about. They associate having fun with drinking, but having fun is really important in this life.