interview with Leah Kim
How do you introduce yourself?
Hi, I’m Leah. LOL – is this what you meant?
I teach yoga. I work with Nike as their Global Yoga Ambassador.
Did you change your name legally when you got married?
I did change my name legally in the UK, but not in the US. Professionally I will always be Leah Kim. If only because it’s much easier to say than Leah McCormack.
When did you become a yogi and what does that mean?
I would say I became a serious yoga practitioner when I first took Ally Hamilton’s class – she would become my mentor. That was back in 2002.
I think everyone has their own definition of what it means to be a yogi…for me it meant that practicing yoga and making sure I was prepared to practice yoga became my utmost priority. I arranged my life around it – what I ate and when in relation to when I would be on my mat, what time I would go to sleep so I could get up and practice, the people I was spending time with.
You are a master trainer. What is mastery?
I think “master” is just a word that we use, probably too casually, and there really have only been very few true masters in the history of humankind. The Buddha, Jesus Christ, Gandhi… To have the label of Master Trainer to me just means that I’ve been teaching and training for a bit longer than others in my industry. It’s just a way to categorize experience. It certainly doesn’t make me think I know more than anyone else.
You have been a Global Yoga Ambassador for Nike since 2009. What do you do?
I’m so lucky to be able to do all kinds of work with Nike. I teach classes and events. I design workshops exclusively for Nike, particularly for the Nike Training Club App. I’m filmed for the App. I’m photographed for campaigns. I launch yoga-specific products, named the Studio Wrap, all around the world – Shanghai, Paris, LA, Hong Kong, etc. I consult product design teams. I train trainers. It has been the best job I could ever have imagined.
You have called yourself “unsporty” as a child. How do you feel about being a Nike Athlete? How did that defy your definition and maybe others’ of what an athlete is?
I was so not an athlete growing up. Competitive sports gave me anxiety. Yoga made sense to me because it wasn’t about competing with anyone else, which is why I struggle with the Yoga Selfie and the current yoga world’s obsession with handstands (often in swimsuits), but rather about being my best most authentic self.
It is an incredible and humbling honour to be considered a Nike Athlete. Nike has a beautiful saying – If you have a body, you’re an athlete. I feel like I am a true example of this. I don’t have any championship medals or titles, but Nike considers ME an athlete. It made me understand that being an athlete isn’t about titles or the perfect six-pack (which I’ve never had, by the way)…it’s about caring about your own self and striving to be the best you that you can be.
All that said, when I’m in the company of other Nike Master Trainers who are so strong, fast, and ripped – I do have that little voice in the back of my head saying – what do you think YOU’RE doing here?! But instead of letting that squash my spirit, I use it to further motivate me to keep being my best.
Being a full time yogi is not quite a traditional job. What does it take to be a pioneer? What were your worst fears and hardest challenge?
It takes a lot of patience and trust, and moral support from the people around you. I was so lucky that my parents believed in me. I had given traditional work a shot – 1½ years in finance. But I told them I was really unhappy and uninspired and I could not imagine spending the rest of my life like that. I told them I wanted to become a yoga teacher, and they paused, and then nodded. They could see it happening, and they could see me make a successful career out of it. That was everything to me – and I am particularly amazed at my Asian parents to be able to support this! They are the true pioneers.
I didn’t harp much on my fears. I was too excited. And I didn’t want much. Just the ability to pay my rent and buy groceries in exchange for work that made my heart sing. That was enough. So I figured I could achieve that…even if it meant teaching back to back classes all day long seven days a week. I was ready to work that hard.
My hardest challenge – that actually remains to this day – has been my own self-confidence when it comes to body image. I worried people would think I wasn’t a good teacher because I wasn’t the skinniest, most toned person in the room.
It’s quite ironic that a big part of my work would become being in front of the camera. And I don’t get to choose what I wear. My very first outfit for a Nike shoot was a one-piece romper – with the shortest shorts that they kept taping up to make even shorter. I was mortified! “Everyone can see my cellulite!” I thought – and said.
Several years later and I still sometimes say the same thing to my wardrobe stylists. This issue has become even more intense post-baby. I have not been one of those women who simply “bounced back” one month later. I feel like most of my friends tell me they are thinner post-baby than pre-baby. This has definitely not happened to me. But I buck up, focus on my work as a yogi and a teacher, and do my best. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be 100% satisfied with my body, I just try not to let it bog me down and use my own personal experiences to support others.
What brings you to the mat every single day?
How much better I felt post-practice than without it.
Ally Hamilton is one of your mentors. What was her best advice?
“You don’t have to be able to stand on your head to be a good yoga teacher.”
What advice have you eskewed for your own truth and own experience?
For me I try to be my own sounding board, and have my own filter of what feels right and true to me. I try not to get roped into whatever is trendy at the moment. It’s why you will hardly see me post photos of myself doing yoga on Social Media. I don’t even understand HOW everyone gets this done – do they always have someone there, waiting to take photos? Do they set up a camera before they practice? Or, is it not a practice, but just photo session time? My practice is so private, it does not even cross my mind to want to be photographed while practicing.
Even though when I do post a yoga shot – usually from a professional photoshoot – it gets so many Likes and new Followers – I know I could more quickly grow my following if I did that all the time, but I just personally don’t like what it stands for.
I also don’t agree with teaching someone else’s sequence and using someone else’s pre-scripted dialogue. That makes you more like that person, not more like yourself. And to me yoga is about becoming more YOU.
You are a “new” mom. How has that affected your routine or your practice? Do you yoga with your son?
It took a long time to get back into the rhythm of a regular practice. This was due to a lot of factors. Physically, it took me a long time to heal from the surgery. I still feel pain around the scar. Everything was so difficult, and it took me a long time to mentally accept that I had a different body, and had to learn how to be in this new body.
Beyond that, my own wants and needs no longer drive how I spend my time. This new little human’s needs come first…and these needs are changeable and unpredictable. What works for me is to get a babysitter in so that I can practice in peace, whether at home or out at a class. I don’t yoga with my little one, mainly because yoga has always been my own private time for myself, and although I can do the poses with him running around, I don’t get my true practice that way.
Did you practice throughout your pregnancy? What was different?
I maintained a pretty normal practice for the first six months. Of course I modified for safety, but otherwise I found that I was still pretty strong and open. Slowly I could no longer do certain things because the growing belly is, well – heavy, and really changes your centre of gravity. I also became extremely unstable in my joints in the last trimester, so I had to stop most standing poses as it felt like my pelvic floor was just going to fall open. I never got into prenatal classes though. The usual prenatal classes simply weren’t for me, which is why I created a pre/postnatal series for other moms-to-be who enjoy moving and keeping the feeling-your-baby-move-inside-you stuff to a minimum.
[Editor’s Note – Leah’s Pre and Postnatal series will be available as a boxset on Udaya, a fantastic yoga platform that offers all kinds of yoga for all kinds of people, written from experience.}
You had a c-section and your recovery required time off the mat. How tough was that? It was the worst. I was so angry and frustrated. I had never even broken a bone prior to the cesarian, so it was all a huge shock, on top of the shock of becoming a parent for the first time.
I could not look at my scar without crumpling to the floor, sobbing. I hated it. I felt really impatient about it healing. I had “six weeks” in my mind, because that’s when doctors advise that you can start exercising and driving again. I naively thought at six weeks I would feel all better. But six weeks is when your outer scar is no longer at such risk of re-opening. Internally there is still massive healing happening for six months. In actuality it’s probably much longer. To be cut through your very core, your very centre – this is truly traumatic.
Has that experience affected what you thought a yogi was or what your own identity is?
It’s definitely made me question my own identity. Was I still a yogi if I couldn’t do things that I so easily did just one year prior? Should I still be teaching when I was in such pain? Nothing has made me question myself more.
What started bringing me back was other people. My students welcoming back to my classes. Nike bringing me back to work. It was other people not seeing me differently post-baby, that made me realize, wait, I’m still me. And if anything, what I’m going through makes me understand humankind even more.
What was the toughest part about taking time off?
The fear that I had lost everything I had worked so hard for. That I was now irrelevant and replaceable.
How did you cope?
I’m not sure that I coped that well! I went through PPD and it took me a long time to bond with my kid. I fought with my husband and yelled at my dog probably every day. I tried to start fresh everyday, and I kept telling myself that what didn’t kill me was making me stronger. And slowly, it started getting better.
You are an American of Korean ancestry who has travelled worldwide and call London home. You left the corporate world for something that was not so common at that time. What is the centre of your being? What is your foundation for such flexibility and open horizon?
Since I can remember, I’ve felt different, and I’ve both enjoyed and lamented this. Being one of the few Asians in school was hard. I felt ugly next to my blond, blue-eyed friends. I didn’t see girls or women like me much in the media, so I assumed that meant people who looked like me weren’t as good as Caucasians.
As I got older and became friends with other Asians, we banded together in our similarities. And it started feeling cool to be different. Moving to LA for UCLA was great because it felt so mixed. There wasn’t a clear racial majority.
I started understanding how amazing my parents were for leaving Korea for the US with no money, no support system, and building a home and family in Northern California – one of the most sought after places in the world. I realized I had a lot to be proud of. My parents went against the grain of all their other siblings, who stayed in Korea, so I guess I was born into a very open mentality. My dad has always said to follow my heart, as he did and created a very successful business, so really I’m just following in my parents’ footsteps.
You are relocating to NYC for a few months?
I’ll be based in NYC for the next year! I was really nervous about it because I’m such a California girl, but within a couple days, I felt right at home. NYC is captivating.
What do you envision for the future?
I love working but I equally love downtime with the family. My husband and I both work hard, but we both envision more free time to just hang out together.
It took awhile, but I’m now convinced that it’s pretty awesome to have kids. They bring magic and simplicity back into your life. Like, YES – it IS awesome to just run around the house because we can. And YES – it IS hilarious to go BOO! from around the corner. And YES – being outside warrants shouting and jumping up and down with excitement. Books, cuddles, animals…experiencing LIFE just as it is, through a child’s eyes, it really is a gift. More children, more pets, more quality time relaxing with loved ones. I think that’s what’s most important.