Mark McDermott

The laughing yogini: Suzy Nece keeps it loose, and deep, at Manhattan Beach’s Yoga Loft

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Suzy Nece and her daughter Izzy at Yoga Loft in Manhattan Beach. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Suzy Nece and her daughter Izzy at Yoga Loft in Manhattan Beach. Photo by Brad Jacobson

One by one they arrive in flip-flop-clad feet, wearing loose shirts and carrying yoga mats under their arms.

Some are older and graying and possess the creaky backs and various bumps and dents that with time accrue on a human body. Others are middle aged, still mildly athletic, but with a slight hitch in their gait — a blown knee here, an arthritic hip there, or perhaps an overall tightness from the combination of the commute, the cubicle, and the next mortgage payment. Then there are the most common of South Bay yogis, young women, pony-tailed, donning brightly colored yoga pants, toned arms swinging so loosely that just unrolling their mats serves as a lesson in yoga for the uninitiated.

In the lobby, a tall man in his early 40s is signing up for his first class. The paperwork includes a liability waiver. “Congratulations,” says a woman with intense blue eyes and flowing brown hair, grinning from behind the counter. “You’ve just bought yourself a yoga studio.”

The man says he has never done yoga and has his doubts. This was his wife’s idea, he says. He can’t touch his toes.

“Well, you were mentally flexible enough to walk in the room,” the woman says. “So you totally won yoga today.”

He laughs.

“Are you breathing?” she asks. “You are doing yoga.”

She gives him a hug and introduces herself. “ I’m so glad you are here, brother,” says Suzy Nece, owner of Yoga Loft, a little studio tucked into a nondescript office building just south of the Manhattan Beach pier which has become an epicenter of the burgeoning local yoga scene.

More than 100 people pass through the studio every day, ranging from beginners to advanced yogis, yoga teachers-in-training and some of the leading yoga practitioners in the Beach Cities. The room itself is also part of what makes Yoga Loft such a unique draw for those studying the ancient art of body movement and breath. Though small, perhaps 50 feet by 30 feet, the studio is perched above the ocean and seems to move and breath with the roll of nearby waves just beyond the deck garden.

Suzy Nece. Photo by Remy Haynes

Suzy Nece. Photo by Remy Haynes

At the center of the epicenter is Nece herself. She’s a standup comedienne and former professional dancer and more generally a force of brazen good nature. Nece was inspired to take over the Yoga Loft after the birth of her daughter, Izzy, who was born eight years ago. The intent of her practice includes being the best mother possible by being more available for her daughter than most jobs would allow, and by giving her child an ongoing lesson in balance — showing that it is indeed possible to have it all.

“It’s all about being the woman I want her to know — yes, a mother, and all of that, but I want her to see that you can have a business and you can have a family,” says Nece, who is 43. “And you can drink a lot of wine on the weekend to balance it out.”

Balance is fundamental in the practice of yoga. Poses require balance, which itself requires the core yogic values of alignment, strength, and attention. Nece somehow makes all of this more possible — whether a student is struggling to stand in the one-legged Vrksasana “Tree Pose,” or struggling with anxiety in his or her life — by adding an element that is rare on yoga mats. Laughter is part of how she brings her students to equilibrium; nearly every pearl of wisdom Nece offers is leavened by a one-liner.

One of Nece’s particular gifts has been to make yoga just as accessible to people who can’t touch their toes as to those who can do so backwards, forward, or upside down. Her yoga offers lightness of being. By not being so serious, people are able to more seriously delve into yoga.

“Her way of combining humor with her teaching I think is just a whole new, unique dimension,” says Sandy Abrams, a student of Nece’s. “I have been doing yoga over 20 years and been to so many yoga workshops and met so many yoga teachers, but I have never met someone like Suzy. You just don’t experience laughter in many other classes. It’s not only the laughing you do, but the poses and the flow she is explaining so playfully. When you leave her class, you feel lighter in so many ways.”

It is, of course, humor with a purpose. Nece often references the Victor Borges quote, “The shortest distance between two people is laughter,” and the laughter that peppers her yoga classes also enables her both to relax and find connection with her students.

“If people aren’t laughing, crying or snoring,” Nece says, “I’m not doing my job.”

Downward dancing dog,
or Afro Fu Manchu yoga

It all began in the Spartan Gym in Alexandria, Virginia.

Nece’s father, Woody, was the owner of a decidedly old school gym — “Spartans carry the dead home on their shields” was a presiding ethos — and she grew up as the son he never had, a bubbly sprite hanging around Spartan and performing one-girl shows in the middle of the living room at home.

Nece knew from early childhood on she loved two things, movement and stories, and so she naturally gravitated toward dance. She studied dance and theater in college, obtaining an MFA at Virginia Commonwealth, and headed off to New York City as a young woman. She worked in both ballet and modern dance.

“I was a top-heavy ballerina. Not good,” she says. “But I stayed off the poles, which is good. Still trying to that.”

In New York, she tried yoga for the first time. She hated it immediately.

“It was so slow and boring and a cranky lady was teaching, and boy, I just didn’t dig it,” Nece recalls. “Because I just wanted to move.”

A little later, in the more familiar environs of a gym, she found a yoga teacher more suited to her sensibility.

“This guy was a seven foot tall brother with a Fu Manchu who had studied in India but was a martial artist who could kill you with his bare hands,” Nece says. ‘And he was like, ‘We ain’t chanting, we ain’t saying om. We are working here.’ And guys really liked it because he was like a coach and it didn’t have all the soft fuzzy yoga. There was philosophy, but it was in a vocabulary you could understand, not in Sanskrit or from a sutra. He was hardcore and would just kick your ass and the ladies loved him. So that got me more into the physicality of it.”

Meanwhile a few things were happening in her dance career that would draw Nece more deeply into yoga. Foremost, she was getting injured — stress fractures in her feet, and herniated disks in her back — from her somewhat unorthodox approach to dance.

“My injuries were because I picked up a dude and I was going to partner him — like I would throw this guy around,” Nece says. “I wasn’t going to be that girl who got picked up.”

The injuries didn’t happen at once but over time, but she was also longing for something dance didn’t really offer. Nece is nothing if not full contact, and she wanted more interaction with an audience. She also loved spoken word, and found herself increasingly drawn towards acting and comedy.

She eventually moved to San Francisco, where she ran a theater company and did one-woman performance pieces. Her original performances include, “Grit, Tit, and Wit” and “Stalls, Life in the Toilet.” She also had a five year struggle with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which along with her injuries drew her to more meditative and restorative yoga.

“Yoga has always either found me when I felt like I had nowhere else to go,” Nece says. “There would be these different styles and these different branches of what we call yoga that would bring me back and kind of put me back together.”

She moved to the South Bay 15 years ago to find work in the LA entertainment scene. She has acted in movies and on several television shows. But she made her biggest mark as a standup comedienne, performing at the Improv and the Comedy Store. And, finally, on the mat.

Nece became a teacher without premeditation. Shortly after arriving in the South Bay, she impulsively walked into Planet Yoga in Hermosa Beach, asked if yoga teaching certification classes were offered, and signed up. In the early 2000s, the local yoga scene was relatively small, and Nece’s unusual style immediately attracted students, as well as other teachers.

Yoga teacher Genevieve Pujalet recalls being struck by Nece’s humor from the first time she met her. Pujalet founded Yoga Loft in 2004, and one of her first calls was to bring Nece in as a teacher.

“I think it’s very rare and it makes her so much fun and so unique in the yoga community,” Pujalet says. “She’s a standup comic and she’s been able to bring that talent into yoga. She is so quick, so witty — I don’t think many people in any field, never mind yoga, have that ability. She could have gone two directions, a standup comedienne by night and yogini by day, and not combined the two. But she brings the two together, and it makes yoga so much more accessible for people who might be daunted by it.”

Nece bought the Yoga Loft from Pujalet and her business partner five years ago. Her husband, Fred Reardon, a local environmental activist who works in the solar industry, is co-owner and silent partner in the studio. His motivation has been less yoga and more in support of the larger environmental mindset that tend to flourish where yoga is alive.

“If it weren’t for his love of the ocean and support, we never would have bought that place, because I never would have done it on my own,” Nece said. “He works in solar — selling solar arrays — so he’s very cause driven. Not a lot of people would back you when you say, ‘I think I’m going to buy a yoga studio that is struggling.’ Fred rallied.”

“He’s been super supportive,” she adds. “It’s a lot easier to live with me if I am happier, and I love what I do. I am so lucky.”

“She is such a dichotomy I had never seen before — this raunchy comedienne and this amazing yoga presence,” says Abrams, her student. “I mean, she can turn on a dime. You can be cracking up, and then in a zone.”

Suzy Nece teaching yoga to American soldiers in Afghanistan in a tour that featured both standup comedy and yoga for the troops. Courtesy Suzy Nece

Suzy Nece teaching yoga to American soldiers in Afghanistan in a tour that featured both standup comedy and yoga for the troops. Courtesy Suzy Nece

 

Nece says that yoga is ultimately about union, and no union between people is greater than through laughter. “People don’t walk in here because, ‘Oh, everything is perfect and my life is fantastic,’” Nece says. “You know, they usually walk in because they are jacked up, or life is so busy, or somebody begged them to finally do it…Yoga is about connection. That to me is laughter.”

“The concept of ‘om’ to me is a belly laugh,” she adds. “It’s not this crunchy hippie thing; it’s the religious experience of a deeply felt belly laugh.”

On the mat

Suzy and Izzy at play at the Yoga Loft. Photo by Brad Jacobson

Suzy and Izzy at play at the Yoga Loft. Photo by Brad Jacobson

On a late Friday morning, a dozen people sit cross-legged on mats at Yoga Loft. Nece, standing at the front of the room, notices a brown-haired woman near the back, runs to her mat and embraces her in a full hug.

“Is the baby in the car?” she asks.

“It’s the first time I’ve been away,” the woman replies. “It’s a big step.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Nece says. “Just lie down and snore.”

Nece turns down the lights and the room falls into silence. The only sound is the roll of the ocean. “Breath like the waves wash up,” she finally says.

The students, 11 women and one man, range from 20 to about 60. But on the mat, as Nece slowly guides the group into a flow of poses that include bending, wiggling, and — especially — breathing slowly and deeply, the wonder of the human body and the simple sensation of living makes everyone in the room seem childlike in their playfulness.

“Wag your tail, just a little bit,” Nece says at one point. “It makes it interesting for me!”

She seems to be everywhere, one second with one hand on the small of a woman’s back and the other on her torso, gently moving her into alignment, a moment later holding another woman’s hand, extending her pose more fully.

Nece is wearing a bright red tank top with “Keep back 200 feet” printed on its back. The quote she shares with the class this day is from comedienne Joan Rivers, who died just a few days earlier: “I now consider it a good day when I don’t step on my boobs.”

Nece translates the quote into a lesson, “I don’t trip on my own action,” which is not far from a quote she also likes to use from yoga master BSK Iyengar: “Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.”

Shelley Williams, a teacher of yoga teachers who has studied under some of the great American yogis, including Max Strom, says that Nece is among the most talented she has seen in her ability to reach everyone in a room.

“She can have a real range of students, from first timers to a guy with a bad wrist to a pregnant woman, and make sure there is a place at the dinner table for everyone,” Williams says. “What makes a teacher good is not just the ability to demonstrate and fire off cues. The sign of a really caring, loving teacher is a teacher who can teach 10 classes at once, one who can attend to every need in the class and make everyone feel welcome and able to learn without self-judgement. She has that gift.”

Student David Kammarman has had just the experience Williams describes at Yoga Loft. He arrived on the mat at his wife’s insistence, reluctantly, after two back surgeries left him still dealing with chronic pain.

“I say this with all sincerity: Suzy is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, of any kind, not just yoga,” he says. “She is just incredibly caring and gifted. She has a way, it could be a class of 30, and you feel it’s a class just for you.”

Kammamaran, the director of soccer operations for the LA Galaxy, has been around professional sports his entire adult life. He’d tried everything to regain some semblance of motion, and health, but it wasn’t until he found Nece that he found, though yoga, something that gave him back his body. He was so astonished he urged a player to go see her — none other than Landon Donovan, widely considered the best American soccer player of all time.

“Believe me, I am very careful with our players and where we send them, especially when it comes to their bodies,” Kammamaran says. “I believe so much in Suzy, I kind of harangued Landon to start going to her, and he really enjoyed it…She has such a good spirit, such a light into people’s lives, that it just transcends going to a yoga class.”

Suzy and Izzy with a Manhattan Beach pier backbend. Photo by Remy Haynes

Suzy and Izzy with a Manhattan Beach pier backbend. Photo by Remy Haynes

Pro beach volleyball player Will Montgomery says the rigors of travel are perhaps the hardest thing on his body, and he makes a point to visit Nece before and after each flight to a tourney. But what he really relies on is beyond the physical nourishment.

“She is maybe the nicest person on the planet,” Montgomery says. “It’s something more than yoga when I go to one of her classes. You could take the grumpiest person in the world and I don’t think they could get out of there without laughing. Because she is so good at what she does. She lifts you up.”

Back on the mat, the Friday morning class has very gently gone from spine-loosening wiggles to abdominal crunches to  handstands, the latter which are so challenging only a few achieve the pose — including the new mother.  “Look at you!” Nece exclaims. “I’m going to go out in the world and do things!” As they finish, there’s a palpable sense of happy exhaustion as everyone lays silent on their mats. At at very end, the students’ voices rise together into one overriding “Om.”

“Exhale,” says Nece. “Namaste.”

People rise from their mats, and leave the room, laughing.

For more information on Yoga Loft and Suzy Nece, see yogaloftmb.com.

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