Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Living your dream: Interview with Yogini and Writer, Molly O' Neill

c. Molly O'Neill

What’s it like live your dream?... To be doing exactly what you want to do?... What you were meant to do? I’ve been conducting a series of interviews called Living Your Dream. This week I interviewed Molly O’Neill.

I just finished a Modern Poetry [ModPo] class from University of Pennsylvania, through Coursera. Molly was one of the Teacher’s Assistants. Through the course of the class, I friended some fellow classmates as well as some of the TAs on Facebook.

I found out that not only was Molly an Ivy League poetry expert, but she is living my dream career as a self-employed writer, blogger and yoga teacher. I wanted to find out how she did it, and how she handles her stress.

Hi Molly. Thanks so much for doing this! Tell me a little about the time-line for your career. Which came first? Was yoga a way to keep sane from the writing? [or maybe vice versa].

I've been a writer since I was a kid. My mom is a journalist/editor and my dad taught 7th grade English and Literature, so it's definitely in the blood. I used to journal a ton and write a bit of poetry, and English classes have always been really easy and enjoyable for me.

Yoga was something I had been wanting to try for a while, and they offered classes at my gym, so I began practicing a couple of days a week. I've always been really athletic and competitive, so I was pretty skeptical at first. But I slowly learned to surrender, and my yoga practice took over and replaced all my other exercise routines (besides walking the dogs and riding a bike for transportation). I actually didn't become certified as a teacher until just this past August - I've only been practicing for two years! I had some money saved and the ModPo filming was ending, so I had some free time, and it seemed like a good time to do a teacher training. I did a month-long intensive YogaWorks 200-hour training at my local studio, Dhyana, and began offering donation classes pretty much immediately afterward. Within a couple of months, I was subbing a ton and managed to snag my own class at one of the big gyms here in the city. 

What is your writing specialty? I met you in a poetry class, where you were one of the TAs. Do you write poetry? As a writer, myself, I know the stresses of marketing, wondering if it’s worth it to stress about a client who is on a completely different wavelength. Tell me some of your best stories.

You know, I don't really write poetry. I went through a phase where I did - I actually won the Iris N. Spencer Undergraduate Poetry Prize for a sonnet I wrote about Morrissey (no joke!). I got to read at the West Chester Poetry Conference - I think this was in 2009. But I'm a nonfiction writer/blogger/memoirist. I'm at my best when I'm learning other people's stories or exploring my own. I love people, and I love drawing them out, and finding stories in unexpected places. I live for the moment when the angle reveals itself in conversation. I'm a profiler at heart.

I'm also really into food writing. I got my start writing for Penn's food magazine, Penn Appétit, which was the first of its kind in the country. It's a pretty great little publication. I'm a huge locavore so I've blogged about cooking and eating locally, growing your own food, etc. I've written about a lot of local artisans who cook or otherwise make awesome stuff. Like I said, it's all about the people behind the product.

What about cold Pennsylvania attracted you from sunny California? Was it culture shock, or at least climate shock when you got there?

Actually, the story is much more complicated than California to Pennsylvania. I really wanted to get the heck out of NorCal, so when I was 17, I moved to New York to study journalism at NYU. There were several complicated years following, during which I left NYU, moved back home, moved to North Carolina to study at UNC-Chapel Hill, dropped out, moved to Philly, and spent several years spinning my wheels before applying to transfer into Penn. Truth be told, I made several of those decisions based on romantic relationships. I also converted to Mormon and got engaged somewhere in the middle there…but that's a story I'm still figuring out how to tell.

Culture and climate shock, yes - the urban setting wasn't entirely new after my time in NYC, but Philly is a different animal. It's got a certain grit and danger, but also a very small-town feel once you've been here a short time. And I still hate the cold. I'm miserable in wintertime. I now save up to take a vacation somewhere warm every winter, just for a week, so I can have something to look forward to.

What did you study at University of Pennsylvania?
Penn doesn't have a Journalism major, so I studied English with a Creative Writing concentration. Because of all the transferring and time off, I didn't receive my BA until I was 26.

What does a typical day look like for you now?
I'm not sure I really have a "typical day." During the week, I'm usually up around 8 to walk the dogs, then I head to yoga for a 90-minute practice. I come home, cook myself brunch, shower and work for a few hours. "Work" usually means freelance writing (mostly journalism, a bit of copywriting) or taking care of administrative details to further my career as a yoga teacher. It could also mean blogging, doing research, etc. Then maybe I teach a class, see friends, have dinner, walk the dogs some more, etc. Some days I teach yoga at the beginning of the day, and practice at the end. Or practice after teaching, at the studio or at home. Some days I practice at the studio and come home and practice some more. I like to meditate in the evenings; that's something I'm trying to integrate more consistently into my days.

On the weekends, I still work as a bartender. I'm so new in my career(s) and so fresh out of school (May 2011!) that I haven't found a better way to make ends meet. Plus, I'm really into craft beer, and it's a good social outlet for me. 

My boyfriend is a yoga teacher, among other things, as well. So I know first-hand, that it is not completely the stress-free a job it might seem. Tell me a little about what sorts of yoga practices you lead.

My first instinct was to teach very intense Vinyasa flow classes [a faster paced, more choreographed practice]. But as I begin to ease into my skin as a teacher, I'm finding that my priorities are alignment and focus. I do like to flow, but I like to do so in a very meditative manner. I like to hold poses for a long time to really lock them in, achieve the full benefits, and challenge myself and my students. That's something I learned from my teacher Joan Hyman - once you find the pose, and you stay quiet in it for more than a few breaths, "that's where you find the yoga."

Of course it all depends on the weather, the moon, the season, and what's going on in my own life. I spent the post-Christmas week teaching very quiet, meditative flows with lots of twisting for detoxification and really gentle backbending. Next week for the new year I'll be focusing on the foundation - starting from the feet and working into the hamstrings and hips to begin to open up possibilities from a very grounded place. [It's funny, I'm noticing how my authorial voice changes when I start to talk about yoga…"teacher voice" really has a way of taking over!]

c Al Filreis. Screenshot from a Modpo video discussion
of Ron Silliman's “Albany” Molly is on the far right.
You are self-employed, which lessens stress in one sense. You are your own boss so you don’t have to worry about bureaucracy, displeasing ignorant higher-up bosses who have never set foot in your class. Yet it heightens it in another, everything is your responsibility.

First of all, there is ALWAYS bureaucracy. When I freelance, I have editors who want certain things. If I want to continue writing and get paid, I need to keep them happy. When I go into a new gym/studio and audition, I have to make the owner/director happy if I want to get hired. I have to keep my numbers up if I want to keep my classes. I think being self-employed is really a lot more difficult, BUT I find that it's worth it to be able to make my own schedule, spend time at home, etc. And I'm doing what I love, which is worth a LOT.

How do you combine the artsy side with the business side? Many artists I know, myself included, have a really hard time with this. What advice do you have for people trying to meld their right and left brains?

I still have a really hard time with all of that. I'm really dependent on my iPhone calendar to remind me when things are due or when I have meetings or classes. I definitely think the best strategy is asking for help - I'm always turning to my mentors for business advice, and reaching out to friends for help with accounting/web stuff/photography/pitching/making contacts/etc. For me, it takes a village to do anything! Of course, the golden rule is to always, always make a list.

What is your stress personality? Some people know how to let it roll off of their back, while others ruminate, tossing them in their heads all day. How do you prioritize what to stress about? What is your best stress-busting tip?

I tend to get stuck in my head a lot. It's been a pretty tumultuous year for me - I did my Yoga Teacher Training, then left a five-year relationship, accidentally moved in with a crazy roommate who also happened to work at my restaurant, had to move a second time within a two-month period…so you can imagine the financial/physical/emotional turmoil I've been through in the last six months. You can see it on my face toward the end of some of the ModPo videos. Poetry does make me cry, but there were other factors at work there.

Yoga is my stress-buster. It's my way of turning off the voices in my head telling me that life is too hard, that I made too many mistakes, that I'm not doing the right thing. Yoga - and not just asana (the poses); I'm also talking about the other seven limbs, particularly the ones related to meditation - helps me see clearly. It helps me find gratitude when my immediate reaction is to complain or cry. It gives me a community to turn to. It makes me laugh. It gives me immediate goals to work for. It teaches me to be gentle with myself. It helps me to turn outward, to share and teach, when I'd rather hide. It humbles me. 

As far as prioritizing stress, I always think of the Serenity prayer, which is something I grew up with. Although I'm not a believer in "God" as Western society characterizes him/her/it, I think that those first few lines convey a powerful message:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Yoga also teaches us this idea of letting go, and this is how I manage my stress - accepting that some things just are. They may be negative, unpleasant, painful, but we must simply acknowledge and embrace them as part of our human experience. The more we move inward, toward our own true nature, the less those outward forces can affect us.

And with the other stuff - the stuff we can change, the stuff that needs to be taken care of - make a list! And then start doing the work of crossing those things off.

Thank you so much Molly! This has been great!

Molly is a regular blogger for HyLo Boutiques, Grid Magazine, and  Philadelphia Generocity. 

 c. 2013


  1. good interview. strange how yoga takes over. I recommend Ayurvedic training to complement yoga teaching so the teacher can adapt the yoga to the students' doshas rather than just teaching their own. California college of ayurveda teaches this. yoga trains the mind to simplicity and clear expression, so leads to poetry.

  2. thanks so much sandra! yoga does, indeed take over. great advice! i'm always on a quest to find simplicity and clear expression ;)....b

  3. "I also converted to Mormon and got engaged somewhere in the middle there…but that's a story I'm still figuring out how to tell."
    I think that could be an interesting story

  4. sounds like good memoir material! i'd buy it!...b