Bret Russman’s style of instruction, an approach that’s “90 percent strength and flexibility and 10 percent everything else,” has students lining up their yoga mats anywhere a studio he’s teaching in has free space—even in the entryways.
“Yoga is powerful and subjective,” he says. “It feels inauthentic and presumptuous to weigh in and add spiritual interpretation, telling people about the experience they are having. Their own experience is enough.”
Russman did not set out to become a yoga instructor. The son of a school guidance counselor and an attorney, the New Hampshire native grew up with an interest in physical pursuits—and in education. In junior high, he taught swim lessons. In high school, it was snowboarding. In college at the University of New Hampshire, he taught Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
After graduation, Russman was living in Boston and still teaching jiu-jitsu, when he decided to try a yoga class. “I was the only guy, and I was surrounded by women thirty years older than me who were so much stronger than I was,” he says. “It was so humbling.” Russman recalls a conversation he had with his mom soon after he started taking yoga. “I’ve always been very driven. I remember telling her, ‘One day I’m going to teach this.’ And she just said, ‘I know.’ ”
Before he would go on to complete his teacher training, Russman earned his master’s degree in mental health counseling—and perfected his ability to sign—at Washington, D.C.’s Gallaudet University. His experience there helped him land a job as a social worker in the deaf services unit of a mental health agency in Portland. Throughout this time, Russman continued to take classes in yoga. “I always knew I wanted to go deeper with yoga,” he says. “I had a regular career in social work, which paid decently well. Teaching yoga was more of a risk, and it took time to build the business.” Eventually Russman gave up his social work career to focus on what he loved.
Now in his tenth year of teaching, Russman guides students through a total of 21 classes a week at Bay Club Fitness, Lila East End Yoga, and Portland Recreation, in addition to teaching in corporate settings such as L.L.Bean, MaineHealth, and Diversified Communications.
When he’s not leading students through poses, Russman finds joy in his own practice. “When I think back to when I was learning, I was always attracted to contortion—the cool, fun stuff—such as splits, deep backbends, and inversions.” It’s something he’s continued. On his website, a photo shows Russman in a handstand, with his body bent backwards and his feet nearly touching his head. “But I don’t want people to think that’s all I teach. My classes are focused on strength, balance, and flexibility. Working on advanced postures is more like a hobby I do.”
Like his students, Russman is constantly learning. He stays up-todate not only in yoga, but in the corrective exercises that physical therapists and personal trainers use. “I’m the teacher who can help you with your hamstrings,” he says. He also acknowledges the boundaries of his yoga instruction. “When my teeth hurt, I see a dentist. When the car doesn’t work, I see a mechanic. I know what my limitations are, and I know when I should be weighing in.” He continues, “On any given day we can have someone losing a job, getting married, having a baby. There are so many things going on in a yoga room. My focus is to make students strong and flexible.”
By helping students connect with their bodies through yoga, Russman enables them to achieve a physical flexibility that may ultimately lead to emotional flexibility—and an enlightened way of approaching the vicissitudes of life.