Long-Form Wellness Interview Series with Yoga Instructor Amanda Riker.
Actionable insights and practical advice for your life, health, and business.
Amanda is a 200-hour Yoga Alliance registered yoga teacher and certified AFAA group fitness instructor with over a decade of teaching experience. Amanda has a Master’s in Education and is a former schoolteacher; her passion is to teach, and her instruction method involves lighthearted humor and an approachable yet direct form of communication. She strives to be relatable to her students so they feel safe and supported in their own discovery, exploration, and practice of yoga. Amanda believes that yoga is for everybody and her role as an instructor is to help guide students in asking what their body wants and to show them ways to make it just for them. Amanda is the founder of Amanda Riker Yoga and resides in St. Petersburg, Florida with her partner and dog.
In this interview:
- How Amanda, “the singing yogi,” incorporates music into her classes
- Why and how a consistent yoga practice can prepare you to better address life challenges
- The rise of collective, co-working style studio models
- Yoga movement patterns that frequently go wrong and how to prevent injury
- Business tips: the importance of establishing personal connections with clients and having confidence in your work
- Life advice in a COVID world: “Take a mental child’s pose…”
- Book recommendations and “yoga-myth” busting
Introduction: Amanda’s yoga journey. The path from student to teacher
Anthony Mandela (AM): Welcome, Amanda! I thought we could start by having you tell us a little bit about how you got your start in the wellness space.
Amanda Riker (AR): My journey started in college as a way to seek out stress relief and to deal with confusion, loss, anxiety. I fell in love. I am a physical, movement-oriented, empathic feeler and I really resonated with the practice of yoga to feel good in my body and to organize my thoughts. It was an outlet for me. Also, and I am very candid about this, I discovered yoga at a time when I was struggling with an eating disorder and yoga was a powerful route of recovery for me. The mind of someone with an eating disorder is a mind that does not want to listen or even acknowledge there is an affliction. Yoga forced me to be aware of my thoughts, to understand I had a problem. It also became the road to discovery of self-care and love—a way for me to literally rewire my brain to find gratitude for and acceptance of my body, to stop destroying it.
“Yoga forced me to be aware of my thoughts…it also became the road to discovery of self-care and love—a way for me to literally rewire my brain to find gratitude and acceptance…”
AM: Thanks so much for sharing that personal example. Could you tell me about your specialty areas? What do you most enjoy teaching?
AR: My specialty is teaching the fundamentals of yoga—the basics—to those who are just beginning to practice. This is my bread and butter, what I’m good at and where I light up. I developed a Fundamentals series over two years ago which I teach both in person (in small groups and privates), and online.
I also enjoy working with new teachers who either are currently in YTT or have just completed the certification course. One thing I noticed is that many new yoga teachers want personalized assistance in how to improve in areas they feel are lacking coming right out of teacher training. Right now, I am beta testing a program that will help new teachers become more confident instructors; I focus on the areas not covered well in many training programs—how to read a room, flexible improvisation, adjusting classes in real time, course sequencing, etc.
AM: Tell me about your journey from yoga practitioner to instructor. How did you make that shift?
AR: I continued my yoga practice while attending graduate school—I’ve always been interested in education and find the teaching field to be a natural fit for my personality style. I finished graduate school in 2008, when the economy crashed off the edge of a cliff. There were no teaching jobs available at that time; teachers were getting laid off left and right. I decided to do a year in AmeriCorps and then, after doing a short stint as an assistant teacher, utilized my degree to teach abroad—first in Italy and later in South Korea. While I was in South Korea, I met another expat who started a yoga community for expats in the area. She was offering classes at a downtown studio, on the beach, and I began practicing yoga every day.
I was able to significantly advance my practice during this time. Since I already had a knack for educating, teaching yoga just seemed to make sense as a next step. The other teacher’s contract was up before mine and she asked me if I wanted to take over coordination of the group. After taking over, I more than doubled class attendance and felt, viscerally, that I was stepping into my calling. I get chills just thinking about it. I took the money I was earning and used it to go get my Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) certification. After returning stateside, I traveled to San Francisco for the course—and that’s how my teaching journey began.
AM: Did you come back home to Florida right after receiving your YTT certification?
AR: Yes. A yoga studio owner in the area that had been keeping tabs on me (before and while I was in South Korea) contacted me and asked if I would be interested in a studio manager position. She was in the process of expanding her studio, and was inspired by my journey, so she offered me the job. At that time, it was a dream job for me—I taught 2-3 classes a week and had a salary to help manage the studio. So, that is what brought me back to Florida.
The singing yogi: music, the ideal class, teaching style
AM: You have many different interests outside of yoga, specifically you enjoy music and singing and have even been described as the “singing yogi.” I’m curious to learn a little more about that part of your life. How does your musical background inform your teaching style?
AR: There is an aspect of performance to teaching yoga, although some in the yoga community might disagree with that statement. As a teacher, I wouldn’t say I am acting, but I am creating an experience. There is a level of confidence, voice inflection, tone, and improvisational skills involved in teaching a class. In my opinion, that qualifies as performance.
The singing aspect happened when I first moved back to Florida and established a duo with a music partner where we would play and sing at local venues. My music partner was also one of my students and he suggested we think about incorporating live music into a yoga class. We started one of the first (in the area) “live acoustic flow” classes where we would play and sing music that complemented the flow of the class while the teacher instructed. This happens all the time now, but seven years ago, when we first began, it was a very new concept. People loved it and we ramped up booking events in the Tampa and St. Petersburg areas.
“Singing and music is something I incorporate into class when it feels appropriate. I think this side of me helps make me feel more human and relatable to students…”
As I was developing my yoga classes and teaching brand, I had a thought that the end of class relaxation (shavasana) would be an appropriate time to lend a voice—so I would sometimes sing at the end of class. That’s how the nickname got started. I did get to a point where singing every class started to feel kind of forced—and I didn’t want to do something that didn’t feel natural just because people expected it. Nowadays, singing and music is something I incorporate into class when it feels appropriate. I think this side of me helps make me feel more human and relatable to students and I continue to sing at a variety of small venues in the area, separate from teaching. I also host video blogs for our local tourism department; they found me through an experience I had filming a small concert at a brewery and they ended up hiring me for a few tourism-related projects.
AM: What does an ideal class look like for you? Could you describe it, how it is structured, etc.?
AR: I’m proud to say that I can teach most styles of yoga, every Western style of yoga that is in demand, but my heart resonates with classes that start with a slower flow and build. I like “half and half” classes that begin with a nice flow, an opening of the body, and then a series of progressively deeper stretches, Yin style. I offer this type of class every week.
As far as my teaching style goes, it is very important for me to be able to read a room because I like to change things up on the fly, if needed. I can see it and feel it if things seem not to be working, and I want my students to feel complete and successful in the hour they have committed to their health and well-being. I think this really comes from the innate “performer” part of my personality: reading the room, knowing my audience, and checking in verbally and visually with my students with appropriate cues. I typically walk through the room and give instructions and adjustments tailored to the different levels of students in my classes; I want everyone to feel like they are making progress. I’m an educator, so I do talk a lot in my classes—I focus on alignment and what the body is experiencing in various poses—but I also try to provide a balance of quiet moments for reflection and meditation.
“Yoga is so different from much of the normal movements we have learned throughout our lives, it is like learning a whole different language of observation and understanding of how your body works. I want my students to take their time, to truly understand this new language…”
Yoga is so different from much of the normal movements we have learned throughout our lives, it is like learning a whole different language of observation and understanding of how your body works. I want my students to take their time, to truly understand this new language before they jump into advanced poses, etc. I have been injured in the past, multiple times, and have seen people get hurt by too much yanking and jerking into poses they are not ready for. This happens mostly because they don’t know. Yoga is not an athletic sport in the traditional sense, so it is not meant to just go-go-go or grind 100% of the time. As practitioners of yoga, we want to work hard, yes, but also maintain our energy and harness our breath. The goal is not to yank out a certain number of reps.
Fundamentals class breakdown and the Yoga for Dummies teaching method
AM: I agree, it is so important to focus on the basics first. Along those lines, could you tell me more about your Fundamentals course?
AR: When I was younger, my family and I would often hang out at the local Barnes and Noble bookstore and I was always attracted to the For Dummies section of the store for some reason. I hate that this book series is called for dummies, but they really do work. For whatever topic you might be interested in, they provide a helpful summary of the most important core principles. I’ve always thought people could benefit from a Yoga for Dummies style of instruction in class. If you start using unfamiliar language, or start pushing people into shapes they are unfamiliar with—even if they think it looks easy—they are not going to establish the foundation that is necessary to learn. For the fundamentals series I teach, I take the approach that you are a capable person interested in yoga.
We start off talking about how this is like learning a new language and how it will be slow going at times. But, I encourage students that they will discover their body in ways they never have before. The first session is a brief history of the various yoga styles and their origins; I also speak briefly about the sutras and 8 limbs of yoga. I give students resources to explore if they want to dig into anything further and emphasize that yoga can be as deep of a practice as they want it to be. Next, we talk about anatomy. For example, why do we have back pain? We explore different anatomy-related topics, bones, muscles, etc., and discuss why they are important. In this part of the conversation, I want to know the motivations of the students, so I ask why they came to class. At the end of the session, we have an open Q&A because I want to make sure I am meeting their needs.
In the second session we focus on the breath—because you can’t do any of the postures without the breath. If you are putting your body into a shape you have never been in before and your body is screaming at you, how are you going to stay calm? It boils down to the breath. I emphasize that Yoga breathing is not about just breathing, but also about controlling the breath—which is something many people have not done before. I demonstrate a variety of ways you can control your breath and I use a short Yin practice to tangibly demonstrate why breath is so important.
In the next two sessions I start to teach postures. Depending on who you talk to, there are arguably over a hundred different yoga poses—I pick out 20 of the most common ones you will likely encounter in any yoga class. These 20 give a full body workout: a couple different standing warrior poses, a couple balance postures, some heart openers/back bends, deep folds, twists, and basic inversions. I choose one or two of each and then coordinate an exercise called “dots.” The dots are little, circular label stickers that we put on various parts of the body to visually demonstrate alignment. For example, in a warrior 2 pose, students can see if the dot on their shoulder is lined up correctly with the dot on their elbow or wrist. This is a fun game that students enjoy because they get to actively participate in the process and help each other out. It works equally well for the analytical brains and the feelers and experiential learners. I also split the class into pairs, which allows the students to switch back and forth in the role of teacher and observer.
In the final meetup, I break down some of the different poses, like downward dog, and give helpful modifications. We do a full 60-minute class together—it is a slow class designed to get the students to recall the different poses we learned earlier. I describe my Fundamentals series as a YTT for students.
Yoga as a process, learning happens outside of your comfort zone, the co-working studio business model
AM: As a teacher, have you encountered any “yoga myths” out there you feel like should be debunked? If so, what is the most important one you think should be addressed?
AR: For better or worse, the fitness industry helped make yoga “cool,” and with the continued rise of social media, many became obsessed with a superficial focus—i.e., wanting to look a certain way in a pose or coming with an end goal of being able to do the hardest arm balance. I do not have any problem with someone joining a yoga class because they have one of these goals, but I do want them to know it is potentially the smallest grain of sand of all the sand grains that could be learned. I think this is a complete myth as to what yoga is supposed to be about. The consistent practice of yoga is designed to get you out of the mindset of needing to prove something, the ego. I want my students to commit to yoga and fall in love with it because it is crazy how much you continue to learn about yourself, life, and the world in this breath-focused, ego-less practice that is not about an end goal.
AM: Do you have advice for someone interested in yoga who would like to improve? Any practical tips?
“You must periodically seek out new teachers, and, if you want to grow, it is important to get out of your comfort zone…”
AR: My go-to practical tip is to learn from the people you admire. You must periodically seek out new teachers, and, if you want to grow, it is important to get out of your comfort zone. It is so easy to surround yourself with the same teachers, the same classes—and I have been guilty of this too—but in order to advance you have to get out of your box. If you love power yoga, I encourage you to try restorative classes for six months!
AM: Tell me a bit more about the new yoga collective you are working with, The Collective, St. Pete.
AR: Something I want to touch on here is this is an organization founded by a group of women who are trying to break the studio mold. The traditional studio model does not really empower the instructor to earn more income and it keeps you within a set of constraints. Co-working spaces have been on the rise (and have been tremendously successful), so that is the concept behind the collective.
It is a beautiful, well-kept space that is for anything under the “wellness” umbrella. You rent the space as an instructor, the longer the rental time the lower the cost, and the collective helps promote your offerings in any way they can. If you choose to have a regular class in the space over an extended period, you pay the fee to hold the class but then your class becomes an opportunity for both the space and the teacher. The collective offers member packages: Anyone can buy a member package that allows them to take any class hosted by the collective, and the collective can allow up to nine of their guests (those who have purchased member packs) to participate in any given class. The instructor, i.e., Amanda Riker Yoga, charges her own per-student rate with no fees taken out for the other 30 spots.
We are hopeful that as we experiment with this model in a post-COVID world, it will give professional teachers the opportunity to really earn what they are worth. In my opinion, the collective is taking instructors seriously, as professionals, and trying to change the mind-set some people may have that this is not a serious career.
Authenticity in entrepreneurship, small business challenges, problems with the current yoga credentialing method
AM: I’d like to talk about your business, Amanda Riker Yoga. People reading this blog may be entrepreneurial-minded and/or have interest in running their own business. What do you enjoy most about running your business and what are some of the challenges you face?
AR: Now that I am completely on my own and not representing another studio, I feel like I can really talk to students. When you work for a studio, there is a filter. Now I feel like I can ask more earnest questions about what my students want and need, and I think I get more honest answers back from them as well. This makes me so happy because now I waste less energy wondering what everybody wants, and I feel like I am delivering exactly what they are asking for.
Running my own business feels truer to myself. I’m enjoying seeing how I can build my business to offer lots of different things—I am excited to be able to focus more time on teacher mentoring and, of course, I’m extremely excited about our upcoming yoga retreat in Costa Rica. As far as challenges go, I’m learning a lot about what goes into marketing your own business, and there is the fact that you have to spend money to make money. Some of those initial business investments are a challenge right now.
AM: How about a piece of business-related advice you would like to share? Given what you have learned over the last year, is there anything that stands out as particularly relevant or helpful?
“Set up a Zoom call, to establish a personal connection. That is what is going to convince potential clients to act, buy the package, take your class, etc. Have confidence in what you are offering and in the positive benefit your business will bring to someone who needs it!”
AR: There has been so much. In the past, I would put out an offering on social media and, when someone interested contacted me, I would send all the details via text. However, this year I had a successful business owner tell me it is much better to set up a Zoom call, to establish a personal connection. That is what is going to convince potential clients to act, buy the package, take your class, etc. I think many people do not understand the power of this simple action, and perhaps they are hesitant to put themselves out there, to talk to face-to-face with people. Since this has been so important for me recently, I’d like to share this as my piece of business advice. This year has been a lot about me stepping into my power and having confidence in my business and the services I offer. That’s another piece of advice. Have confidence in what you are offering and in the positive benefit your business will bring to someone who needs it!
Oh, and here’s something else very specific: When you sell a package, make sure you give an exact time frame for when it has to be fully used. This ensures you don’t have clients dropping off for whatever reason and then contacting you 6 months later, out of the blue, wanting to pick right back up where you left off.
AM: On the flip side of this coin, is there anything you have heard about in your area of expertise, on the business side, that you feel like is advice that should be ignored? Or maybe a step you took that you would recommend others do not take?
AR: I don’t want to get myself into too much trouble with this, so I am going to be a little vague. I am not a fan of some of the teacher training accreditation systems out there. Let me say upfront that I have the official teacher training credential; I respect it and pay my dues, but I feel there are some serious shortcomings. Here’s an example: on paper I am a 200-hour “certified” instructor, but in reality (and in my mind), I am a 3,000-hour trained and highly experienced yoga instructor. Keeping up with an online system of manually entering hours taught so the system can tell me I have to spend an additional large sum of money to receive a 500-hour certification (so that I can do a teacher training), seems crazy to me. It is upsetting. I have also seen too many beginning teachers—with the same 200-hour certification I hold—begin teaching and are not ready. You can see the problem. On paper and in the system we look the same, but there is a huge difference in practical teaching experience. I don’t know if there should be a change in the accreditation terminology used, or perhaps a better vetting system. I think there needs to be a way for teachers to connect one-on-one with advisors or mentors. Maybe ambassadors could come out and take the teachers’ classes to vouch for them and certify their experience levels.
With the instructor coaching sessions I am doing now, I started because several new teachers reached out to me. They had received the 200-hour certification, but still did not feel adequately prepared for teaching. What is required in a YTT is the bare-minimum necessities, but there is so much more that you need to be a successful, confident teacher that just isn’t taught. In summary, I don’t love the system of what qualifies us as instructors, since it doesn’t allow for much nuance. Life experience has gotten me so much farther than any degree or credential I’ve ever earned.
Shantaram, being yoga-minded, finding balance, movement patterns gone wrong, injury recovery
AM: Do you have a book (or books) you love that you could recommend? Or maybe there is a book that you have frequently gifted to other people?
AR: Yoga-related or non-yoga related?
AM: How about one yoga-related and one non-yoga?
AR: Sure. The book related to yoga I would most recommend is Be Here Now by Ram Das. This is a popular text in the yoga world that weaves in philosophy and purpose. It’s not a book about yoga per-se, but it is most definitely yoga-minded. I’m fascinated by the way he views the world and the emphasis he places on purpose and consciousness in this interesting book written in the format of a graphic novel with lots of illustrations. This book was especially influential for me in the beginning when I was a new teacher.
The non-yoga book I recommend is a fantastic novel called Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. This is the name the protagonist is given after his time spent in India. I happened to read this when I was completing my instructor training—the book doesn’t have anything to do with yoga, but it does have a lot to do with zest for life and building what you want for your life. It has some elements of yoga philosophy in it, but in a very indirect way. It’s a crazy story that reads like an awesome movie. Action. Romance. Wisdom. Love. It has a little bit of everything. The protagonist travels around the entire country of India because he is a thief. This is probably the best book I have ever read, and I can tell you I have gifted it multiple times. Seventy-five percent of the people I gifted it to called me back and told me it was the best book they ever read, too. It is a cult classic, and never became mainstream popular; it’s also a huge book (over 800 pages), and I just can’t recommend it highly enough. Fun fact: Johnny Depp bought the rights to the book over 10 years ago and still has not made the movie!
AM: You used the term yoga-minded in the description of Be Here Now. What is your personal definition of this phrase?
AR: Always working, never finished. Patient. Quiet in the mind. Belief in possibilities. Focused, but soft. A dance—a balance of the light and dark, hot and cold; the back and forth of oppositions.
AM: In the last five years, has there been a belief, behavior, or habit that has most improved your life?
“It is important to complement your practice with other activities. On the other side of yoga is strength—physical and mental—to balance the soft. It was life changing for me to discover that I needed to take care of my body in other ways than just yoga.”
AR: This one is on the physical side. I got really injured from yoga about five years ago, so I think it is important to complement your practice with other activities. On the other side of yoga is strength—physical and mental—to balance the soft. It was life changing for me to discover that I needed to take care of my body in other ways than just yoga. This looks different for everyone. As a general rule, I would say too much of any one thing is not good. That includes yoga.
AM: How did you know when you found the right balance?
AR: After my injury, I was thrust into a feeling of desperation and I became much more open to seeking answers. I was immobile for a period, and, once I started walking again, I sought out a few different alternative forms of therapy. For me, it was a personal fitness trainer who was very good at understanding how to help me. I worked with him, diligently, three times a week for two years to build muscular structure around my body. This allowed me to support the injury while slowly reintroducing yoga back to my life. It wasn’t a CrossFit type of program or anything like that, just a simple, progressive program that built foundational strength so that I could walk better and decrease my pain. As a result, my yoga also improved. They really work hand in hand. My injury was a common yoga back injury, and now I am much more observant of movement patterns that can go wrong. I am very quick to address improper form that can result in injury.
AM: Interesting you mentioned “movement patterns that can go wrong.” Every sport has overuse movement patterns you need to be cognizant of if you want to maximize avoiding injury. In the yoga world, what is an example of a movement pattern that can go wrong easily? Or something to be cautious of.
AR: The vinyasa flow: plank, chaturanga, up dog, down dog. You see a lot of the wide elbow worm. Or just improper structure of the body. To me, yoga is very linear—I see bone structures and joints. When I see arms and joints not stacked correctly to take the pressure of gravity, it makes me cringe. When people try and take the quickest route to the end, they are often not as aware of alignment. I definitely see this in the high plank to low plank (push up type movement) into the upward dog (back bend). The brain is doing the best it can—it has a puzzle to solve and it is trying to figure it out—but the process can go very wrong without proper attention to details.
AM: If you see a student where something is going awry, do you have a tip, or something you can point the student to, that will help them self-correct and better care for their body in that movement pattern?
AR: I might saw something like, “let’s take this plank we built so strong and lower it slowly,” or “no dancing guys, we aren’t MC Hammer, so no worm right now please!” Giving verbal cues so students feel like they can hold that lowering of weight—commands such as: strong belly, firm thighs, heels reaching down—are especially helpful. There is a lot of potential for things to go wrong at the start of that flow just because you are trying to make sense of it all, and breathe, and keep up with everyone else. I love analogies and metaphors to help people learn. I use the same one for plank pose because every time, the second I say it, everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about and their body changes. When they are in plank, I have them imagine there is hot lava underneath their belly, and they don’t want to get burned. All the sudden everyone’s bellies come up, they push the ground away from them, and their thighs lift. It works like magic every single time!
Creating a retreat experience in a post-COVID world, taking a mental child’s pose
AM: As we come to the end of our time, I do want to touch upon the current state of the world. COVID-19 is impacting everyone. What are some of the ways you have maintained resilience and positivity in this tumultuous time? What has worked best for you?
“The most helpful advice I have tried to live by in this season is: just wait, breathe, and take a mental child’s pose. The answer will come.”
AR: This is an important question and I want to answer it very directly. It has not been a great year for fitness professionals, and it’s been very messy. I have questioned my role as a yoga instructor at least 100 days out of the year so far and have had moments of doubt and questioning. When you peel back all the layers, you are just left with yourself. Because of quarantine, I had plenty of time to get quiet and seek answers. Yoga has taught me I can’t force things and I am so happy I decided not to try and force decisions this year, especially over the summer. Every time someone asked me what’s next, I sat back and said, “I don’t know, I am just going to wait.” I also completely owned the fact that I was tired and burnt out. The most helpful advice I have tried to live by in this season is: just wait, breathe, and take a mental child’s pose. The answer will come.
AM: It has been an especially crazy year, and, I think, the self-care and mental health aspect is very important for a lot of people right now. I’m curious, what you might recommend for unplugging and de-stressing. Is there anything you would like to share?
AR: Self-care for me is reminding myself of my personal goals and trying to stay on course by refreshing myself on why I chose to make these decisions. This may seem a little silly, but hot baths have been especially important this year. I highly recommend them!
AM: We rescheduled your Yoga Retreat with Jen Mons at Bodhi Tree resort in Costa Rica for this upcoming July/August 2021. Could you talk a little bit about why you are excited to host this upcoming retreat? If someone is thinking about attending, but maybe is still on the fence, why would you advise they seriously consider taking the leap?
AR: The reality is we are creating this retreat in a COVID world—and this is an event that has changed life for everyone. I am especially sensitive to the heightened sense of burnout, increased levels of exhaustion, confusion, worry, fear. The wondering if our world will ever go back to normal. I’m interested in exploring more ways to express and release these emotions in a healthy manner. My co-leader and I have a lot of expertise in this area, and we’ll be digging into a variety of methods for how to best do this with our group.
For someone considering our retreat, I think the question to consider is quite simple: “Are you ready for a break now?” We are going to heavily lean on the luxury of the destination and tailor the retreat for the person who needs to reset and recharge. Of course, we will have a variety of yoga and other activities that guests are welcome to join in on, but I want to emphasize that this retreat can be whatever participants need it to be.
I also think this retreat will be an excellent for partners, couples, and friends to attend. It will be a great opportunity to recharge a relationship, friendship, or bond. One of the best ways to do this is to get out of your zone in a beautiful space. My co-leader is looking to highlight the surfing options we will have available and I am going to incorporate the outdoor hiking aspect. For the person who wants movement, relaxation, sun, and yoga, this will be an awesome experience, no matter who you are.
AM: Where is the best place for people to find you and learn more about your work?
AM: Thanks so much for sharing with me today, I really appreciate you taking the time.
AR: Thanks Anthony, I had a lot of fun with this conversation and look forward to speaking again soon!
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