It’s early on a Saturday morning at SyteraYoga in a quiet section of Virginia, and students are waiting for class to begin. The room is full with people who arrived well ahead of time. Sunlight peaks in the windows and slants across the floor.
Class begins and at the instruction of the studio’s founder and veteran yoga teacher, Sytera Field, I am rolling a lacrosse ball balanced on a block into the muscles of my inner calf. Then I’m up and I’m revolving my upper thigh bone in my hip socket while I transition from a squat to a kneel and back again. This is wild and crazy! “Is this even yoga?” I think. I’m lost in the breath and the possibilities in my body when suddenly I realize that the lines of an ongoing argument I have with my husband are no longer stuck in my mind on a continuous loop. “If you pitch your sacrum forward, it has no choice but to open,” says Sytera. Whoa! “Maybe I should drop the argument,” I let myself think for the first time in days.
For Sytera, who prides herself on not conforming to any one type of yoga dogma, except to “have no dogma,” and on bending the traditional poses into “evolving art,” this is what she is hoping for. Beyond making a particular, static shape with the body on the mat, she is interested in facilitating an experience that might change something for the student off the mat. It’s what she calls “Find Your Shine,” a motto she’s painted in huge curvy letters on the front wall of the studio and thinks about, a lot.
“I teach using yoga as a tool for leaving here (the studio) and having a much better, fulfilled life where you feel complete, whole, pain-free, full of energy, and ready to be your best self off your yoga mat,” she explains while leaning forward. It’s hard to not be completely with her at this point; there’s equal parts passion and thoughtfulness coming through.
“Find Your Shine” is a concept that, along with a commitment to meeting the individual needs of the student and building a community, are the drivers behind the studio she opened in January 2018 with the help of her husband and a Kickstarter campaign. Since then, two local studios have rolled up their yoga mats for good.
Sytera has taught yoga in Northern Virginia for a decade and in D.C. for several years before that. Teaching yoga is her “life’s work,” an art form, and a career that helps to support her family (she and her husband are raising three children in Falls Church). She is trained in vinyasa yoga and admires Jason Crandell, a nationally-known teacher who merges the practices of vinyasa and power yoga. There is a gentle, flowing momentum to Sytera’s classes—typical of vinyasa—but that is where the similarities end. She is trained in anatomy and physiology, Thai yoga massage, ball rolling therapy, and Kuchipudi, a type of classical Indian dance, all of which show up in her teaching. But, beyond the experience, students say there is something else going on here that compels them to show up.
Sytera has an ability to read emotions, a trait that people respond well to, her students say. She can tap into what is going on in a student’s body with a glance and help a student get perspective on alignment and habitual movement, facilitating change on a physical and emotional level. She has an appreciation for the human body and can sense what an individual needs—and she is good at articulating it, they say. And, bonus, she has a knack for putting people at ease.
“Did I say something wrong?” she jokes. “No? Then why is everybody looking at me? It must be the outfit.” She’s dressed in black yoga pants with a 1980s rainbow stripe down one leg and a matching vital signs stripe wrapping around the other. Her tank top says, “Good Vibes.”
When Beth Saunders’ husband died unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 59 last year, a friend suggested she go see Sytera. A runner, Beth was tight. But, worse, she was also wracked by grief. Sytera was able to help her get through the anguish of the worst experience of her life. Sytera reset her breathing and then moved on to focus on her energy. It was like Sytera was unpeeling an onion, but there was a method to it.
Beth considers yoga with Sytera to have been a pillar of her grief therapy. “She knew I was going through hell, and she could read how the grief was affecting my body,” Beth says.
Mark Frantz, a venture capitalist and a competitive swimmer, was used to answering hundreds of emails a day and spending endless hours in the pool, before his wife insisted he see Sytera. He had inherited sciatica, and soon his leg began to hurt so much that he couldn’t sit. His doctors missed the diagnosis that Sytera was able to see: a bad hamstring tear. For him, yoga was a chance to slow down and focus on his body once a week so that he could heal.
The Beginning of a Lifelong Journey
Sometimes being able to help others who are suffering means you’ve been there, too. Recently, Sytera told me that she has embraced a painful past in a way that allows her to feel the best she ever has in her life. “It is what it is. That’s where I came from and it doesn’t have to define who I have to be.”
Sytera grew up, she likes to joke “without a silver spoon in her mouth” in a modest suburb of Austin, Texas, the oldest of three (she has two younger brothers). Her childhood was punctuated with her parents, relatives, and friends struggling with alcoholism, drugs, violence, and divorce. She grew up with few good examples and “no moral compass for life,” she says. At one point, she was sent to inpatient drug treatment herself because her parents thought it would keep her out of trouble. Ironically, she credits this experience as exposing her to real drug dealers for the first time.
In her early teens, her life could have had an entirely different trajectory. A good friend got pregnant at 14 and had a baby; another died of a drug overdose at 16. Other friends were being jailed. Then, something happened that affects her thinking to this day, and is helpful when telling the story of painful childhood. It was nothing out of the ordinary. But, in her opinion (and this is where Sytera’s ability to laugh at herself is a blessing), it was something “stupid, so stupid,” she says, bringing on her frequent laugh. She stubbed her toe.
It hurt, a lot. Alone and in pain, she remembers thinking, I have a choice: “I was like, this is pain, I don’t like this, but I get to choose how I navigate this.” That moment set the stage for cultivating a level of body and mind awareness that she had never had before.
Like the change in perspective that can happen on a yoga mat, things started to shift. She had been a dancer as a child and she re-committed herself to dance. A couple years later, she met her now husband, Chad Thevenot, a musician and University of Texas graduate. Chad’s influence on her life cannot be overstated, she says. “He is my grounding force in my life. I didn’t have much family support or direction growing up, no mentor, no adult as a role model who helped guide me. I could only figure out so much on my own. Chad helped me grow up. He believes in me always, which gave me the confidence to pursue the things I wanted to do but wasn’t sure I could do.”
After meeting Chad, she enrolled in community college and then suffered a setback that, ironically, helped her find yoga. While rock climbing near Austin, she fell off a cliff and sustained a compound fracture. Two bones in her lower leg tore through her skin, and she ended up in a wheelchair and a thigh-high cast. She didn’t have feeling in her foot for a while and had to teach herself how to walk again.
Angry and in pain, things could have gone downhill. Her body, the one thing that helped her escape the chaotic situations of her life through dance, was no longer to be trusted, she felt. Without sufficient insurance for physical therapy, she had to do something to rebuild herself—and that something was yoga.
She made her way into the yoga studios of Austin in 1994. The first class she went to was … (Sytera loves this story) clothing optional! “It was tough if you were behind someone!” She was pretty sure she’d never step into a yoga studio again, she jokes, but she felt a pull towards the psychological benefits of the practice almost immediately. She experimented with Iyengar, Hatha, and other forms of yoga.
In those classes she worked on strength and alignment, but more was happening. “I thought I went to yoga to heal my leg, which I did, but I began listening to what was going on in my mind, and I realized that the messages I was telling myself were untrue and not helpful (i.e., you’re not worthy, flee, who do you think you are that you should have good things in your life?).”
Yoga class was a secure environment that gave her a level of control and created a platform from where she could safely explore some of the negative ways she was thinking and treating her body. She began to make healthier decisions, she says. “I started to examine my response to fear, uncertainty, achieving. And something great happened. I lightened up on myself! When we moved out of whatever pose was illuminating that particular self-pity, I decided to let it go and even laugh it off.”
In 1996 Sytera left Austin to work briefly as a model in New York, then she followed Chad to Washington, D.C., where she attended yoga classes at the fledgling yoga studios in the city at that time. She attended the University of Maryland and got a degree in art history . She married Chad in 2000 and then, while on a solo trip studying in Italy in 2001, she decided to pursue yoga as her life’s work.
Two decades later, student Mike Fabrizi describes Sytera’s teaching as “unorthodox, in a good way.” He appreciates that she incorporates many modalities and elements of physical therapy in her teaching. “It’s not just about strong muscles, you have to have healthy ligaments and tendons that impart a hemisphere of motion,” Mike says. He appreciates that Sytera brings a functional, therapeutic bent to her classes and that in her teaching there is no blueprint, no set series, and no emphasis on perfect poses. Sytera says her take on what yoga is, is itself constantly changing and growing, like “in nature.”
“I see the signs of yoga changing and evolving to mean it’s healthy. Things that are healthy grow and evolve.” The idea that there is one “set end goal” in yoga doesn’t sit well with her, and it doesn’t work “for a lot of bodies that have been through life,” she says. “Because you’ll never be able to reach that end goal of perfection, and what the heck does that say about you! I start beating myself up, and I don’t need another avenue to beat myself up with. I’m already good enough at that on my own, thank you very much!”
Instead, she’s hoping to help students tune into what it’s like to feel good in their bodies. It’s about recognizing and tuning into your brightness, she says. “That’s when yoga starts to make a difference in your life.”
Sytera and Chad marked the first anniversary of the studio in January 2019. Two months earlier, they had opened an even larger studio with a second space on the ground floor. Every time she makes a new decision about the future of the studio, Sytera goes back and thinks about if it is aligned with her original “Find your Shine” concept. And then she checks the mission statement she drafted for the studio a year ago. In it she writes: “Because I allow myself to be vulnerable, I influence others to embrace their imperfections and find happiness in who they are right now. I encourage others to find their shine by embracing my own.”
Meghan Mullan is a writer and a SyteraYoga student living with her family in Bethesda, Maryland.