A Moment with… Ally Maz
Slowing things down with the author, teacher, and founder of Girlvana Yoga.
The best wellness guides know true wellbeing doesn’t just consist of physical strength, flexibility, resilience, or mental health; it combines them all. For Ally Maz, this realization was key to her own personal journey, and it’s something her students benefit from to this day. You likely know Ally as the founder of Girlvana Yoga, a movement- and meditation-based mentorship program for youth, and the 2021 book she authored of the same name, but her resume is even more extensive. Ally is also a founding member of Open where she teaches yoga and breathwork (note: if you haven’t checked out her classes do. so. now.), and powerhouse who’s motivated thousands across the globe through her yoga workshops and speaking engagements.
We learned firsthand what makes Ally so captivating and inspiring on a recent morning Zoom, where even through a computer screen, her honesty, warmth, and optimism shone through. See what we mean and get to know Ally below.
First things first: how did you get started in the wellness world?
I grew up dancing competitively, jazz and modern and ballet, very seriously so I just felt like yoga was a natural fit when I found it at 19. I was recovering from an eating disorder and just dealing with the dance industry; I had moved to Los Angeles to try to make it, and my eating disorder was just this really big monster in my life. I moved back to Vancouver and knew I needed to heal. I started practicing yoga and hearing a different narrative about how to move my body. Because I felt like with dance, it was always about perfection and hitting a certain line and pushing and being the best. And then with yoga, I was picking up on the narrative of “honor your body and don't push,” and that felt really revolutionary and was a big tool to bring me into a relationship with my body. I was hungry to learn more, so I took a teacher training at 20 and I'm 35 now so I've been teaching for 15 years.
How did you go from practicing and enjoying yoga to making it part of your career? It seems like that happened pretty fast.
It did! At that time, I had really brilliant female yoga teachers and I just remember sitting in class and watching them speak and share all this wisdom. And they were so in their bodies and they weren't pretending, you know, like what you see sometimes in the dance or entertainment industry. I was just like, wow, these women really seem to know who they are and I remember thinking I want to be like that! So I went to teacher training just to learn and, like most people do, deepen my understanding. I was still teaching dance to teenagers and I was like, oh, I want to impart some of this information, especially with young dancers and their minds and their bodies. And so that was sort of the beginning of Girlvana and why I wanted to work with young people. It just felt so natural to start sharing and teaching the young people that I was already teaching movement to.
When did you officially start Girlvana and how?
I started it in 2010. I was 24 and I had been teaching yoga for four years in Vancouver. I was teaching, you know, people who could afford to go to fancy yoga studios. I thought it would be more inspiring and it was just sort of burning me out. But I had these little pockets where I would teach teenagers dance and at the end, I'd be like, okay, now pull out your journals, let's talk about our feelings. I was starting to infuse the things I felt like I really needed at that time, at that age. So I started to create a curriculum with these dancers. And then I was asked to come and teach yoga at an eating disorder recovery camp for young people and I was teaching them different ways of breathing and writing down their feelings and I just thought, Wow, I want to lead a summer camp for teen girls just for anyone, whatever you're going through. So I started it that year in 2010 as a yoga retreat for teens and now it's grown into lots of different things — a book, trainings, workshops, and classes.
Were you scared to take that leap of faith? Or were you just like, of course I'm going to do this.
I just felt so purpose driven. I had been a deep student of yoga for four years at that point and we talked a lot about your Dharma or your life's purpose and I felt like, okay, here it is! It really is the combination of all the things that I love that I'm healing and working on. When I was a teenager I didn't even know what anxiety was like; we didn't have this mental health vocabulary. It was so stigmatized and it's changed so much. My God, like the girls I work with now, I’m like, I think you should be teaching this class. They just have way more connection than I ever did.
We’ve gotten really into breathwork on the team lately, but don’t know a ton about it. What kind of breathwork do you practice and teach, and how did you get into it?
Breathwork is such an interesting topic because people are like, well, what is it? Like all of these practices, it’s ancient. Breathwork can go from really functional breathing and more science-based — really understanding how to breathe properly, which a lot of athletes are using. And then on the other spectrum, we see transformational breathing, holotropic breathing — reaching psychedelic states through breath. But all of it has its base in pranayama, which is the breathing exercises of yoga, so it's important to note that all of this is very ancient.
I had a lot of training in pranayama, yogic breathing, through my yoga training and then when I joined Open, we were bringing more transformational breathwork experiences. And so the breathwork I currently teach doesn't really have a name; it’s just called breathwork. It's a three-part active breath breath through your mouth. So it sounds like, [Ally inhales twice, then exhales] “Ah, ah, aaaah.” We do it to music and we have a gong and a singing bowl, so there's a big sound element to it. And really what it provides for people — myself included — can be deep emotional release, clarity, stress relief, and anxiety relief. Breathwork is essentially an active meditation. A lot of people have a harder time getting into meditation because you're just sort of sitting there and going like, “Am I doing this right?” And then with yoga, [some people think] you need to be strong and flexible. People have all these perceived notions of what it is. Breathwork is literally like: breathe like this for this amount of time and, guaranteed, you will feel something and you have to do it right, because there's no other way to do it. You can't do it wrong! What I hear the most after class is like, Oh, that's what it feels like to be present. Or that's what meditation feels like. Or that's what I've been trying to get to. And it's just a faster way to get there.
What do you love about what you do?
I love that I get to provide tools for people to come home to themselves. I think that often the wellness industry sells us all these things in order to “be well.” And it's like, actually you just need you in order to be well. Yeah, you can come to class but I'm hoping that I can give you tools so that you don't need me anymore; that you have yourself and these things become a part of your lifestyle, the way you read, how you stretch your lower back, how you speak to yourself. I really feel like these are tools for people to come home to themselves and be themselves. And if I can be a guide and facilitate that, that's the coolest part.
That's beautiful. Many of your classes take place on the beach. What does the connection between nature and wellbeing look like for you?
I think nature is the greatest teacher, period. I feel like if you look to nature, it teaches us so much about life and death and letting go and rebirth. In Girlvana, we do a lot of check-in questions and I often will say, describe your mood as the weather, like misty clouds and rain or whatever. Because nature really reflects our feelings and our moods and it shows us the complexity of our humanness, and that we're not supposed to be sunny all the time — we need all of it.
What are some of your favorite places in nature?
Vancouver is a big one, just for the lushness and the rain and that wet kind of heavy quality of being held. And then the jungle is really special to me. I have spent a ton of time in Nicaragua. It's where I met my husband; we lived there for a while. And I just recently was at a breathwork retreat in the redwoods; I love California. I love to surf and I love to swim and I was in the ocean all weekend. I definitely have deep connections with the Pacific Ocean in particular.
How do you balance being an entrepreneur and taking time for yourself?
Over the years I've gotten so much better. I just love what I do and I want to do it, but I was burning out a lot. So a few things I’ve learned to do to take a lot of baths — I'm a big water girl, so coming home and either having a bath or a shower to me, something about that energetically [says] you're done, don't touch your phone again, don't think about work again. It really just cuts off the energy of the day and transitions into a nighttime routine.
I almost feel like my nighttime routine is more important than my morning routine. Everyone's obsessed with morning routines. I'm all about how are you going to get to sleep that night? So I'm like really into low lights and candles and getting off the phone, reading, journaling. That really feels like sacred time to me.
I'm also in a position now where I can afford to take better care of myself. I have a great body worker. I can go get a massage. In my early entrepreneurial days, I couldn't afford to do those things and now I can, so I just want to be clear about that. Like I have the means right now, but there was a time where I didn't. But it does help, it’s just the season of life that I’m in right now. Also: therapy. I feel like I hold a lot of space for a lot of people through mentoring and teaching and then I need to make sure I have a teacher or mentor, someone to hold space for me so that I continue to be a student of this work as well as a teacher.
What's one piece of advice you could give to someone regarding wellness specifically or wellbeing?
I think it's really just finding what works for you. Like, I taught yoga for years, but it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea and that's fine. Wellness is for you to define it. I think that we've sort of been sold this idea that [wellness] has to cost something. But it doesn't have to cost you to move your body. It doesn't have to cost anything to write a few notes down in a journal or go outside or watch a sunset. Wellness is free. Accessibility is a really big thing for me.
What brings you joy?
I have a chocolate lab named Butcher who brings me a lot of joy. We got him in Nicaragua and he was just the wiggliest, happiest boy. I find a lot of joy from the ocean. I swim as much as I can even all through the year here, which is so nice. There’s something really powerful about being in the water for me. And teaching, I love teaching.
What are some things that you've let go of that don't serve you?
You know, when you're younger and you're like, oh, this age I'll be like this, and this age…? I really let go of what these age milestones are supposed to mean, which has been really freeing. I think also what comes with age is just letting go of people that don't serve you anymore. Some friendships serve their purposes and then the time is up and that's okay. I’ve also let go of perfectionist tendencies — I'm really okay with being messy and my life is a bit messy. I think I really like aging. I feel really lucky.