Gretchen Sonstroem brings her full self to her vinyasa classes at Yoga Trek: the actress, the nurturing friend, the animal lover, and the humble yogini. Her innate diversity ensures that her students reap the benefits of multiple perspectives in the practice of yoga. While she is originally from the Milwaukee area, Gretchen brings wisdom from her years pursuing an acting career in New York City to her classes. Read on to learn more about her background, teaching, and integration of yoga into her life.
Gretchen has known she wanted to be on stage since she could walk and talk. Little did she know that her acting pursuits would create access to a different sort of stage – teaching yoga. Her first exposure to yoga was in a voice class she took in New York City in which yoga was done as a part of the warm up. “I loved it! I noticed that it centered me more than anything else I’d ever done. From there I sought out traditional yoga for both the physical workout and centering experience,” she shares. “When I performed on stage on the days that I did yoga, I suddenly had very easy access to my emotions and the expression of my inner truth. Everything flowed more freely. I had a deeper and more resonant voice. I gained more authority to my stage presence. And most importantly, I developed strength and conviction in myself. Within 10 years yoga became a passion unto itself – separate from acting. I began exploring all the aspects of yoga beyond the physical – the history, philosophy and spiritual teachings.”
After a time in New York, Gretchen returned home to the Midwest, choosing Chicago as a “user-friendly” environment for her acting career. She was a theater actress for several years and then began directing and teaching as well. Gretchen made her way to the Oak Park area to buy a home (she lives in Berwyn) after meeting her now husband Sean on a blind date. “Yoga’s philosophy of staying open to what’s right in front of you has also helped me in the romantic department,” she quips.
Gretchen has been strongly influenced, like several other Yoga Trek teachers, by the teachings of Suddha Weixler at the Chicago Yoga Center. “The one thing that I found inspiring about him is that he sees yoga as a whole, integrated life choice – meaning it’s not something you study for one or two years and then you’ve ‘got it.’ It’s an approach to your entire life and ultimately about connecting to that deepest, truest part of your self.” With Suddha, Gretchen also enjoys Ashtanga yoga (one of the most extreme versions of vinyasa) because her energy is very high (“lots of fire!”) although she tries to balance that practice with other styles.
Gretchen’s teaching is vinyasa (flow) oriented with a primary focus on moving with the breath. “You have a chance to not just physically be in your body but also mentally and emotionally,” she explains, “and in our fast-paced, information overloaded culture, that’s essential.” She has a core of regular students and drop-ins and will tailor her class to the needs in the room. “I try to give each student the opportunity to listen to what they need during class – if they want to do easier poses (or more challenging) they can…but mostly I want them to listen to their own bodies, feel from the inside what they are being guided to do.”
Since 1997, Gretchen has taken her yoga teaching into the acting community, integrating both worlds. “Yoga is perfect for acting students – their bodies are their instrument. As such, they need to be able to connect to their breath, body and heart, and can use yoga to resolve any disconnect.” She’s also taught at The Conservatory at Act One, integrating theatre, the chakras, and yoga for their two-year acting program, which sadly closed this past year due lack of funding. She still, however, teaches acting at Act One Studios (check out her teaching bio), including introductory and advanced classes, as well as a monologue class for those getting ready to audition. Gretchen often integrates yoga into those classes, using it much as she experienced it years ago as a warm up and a tool for remaining centered and balanced.
Gretchen finds yoga to be a source of support on many levels off the mat as well. “When I find myself being fearful, stressed, or overwhelmed, I try to sit and not react from that place. The physical practice helps, but if there’s no opportunity, I can simply do some of the breathing at work or at home. I’ve learned to energetically connect to my chakras while walking or even using the simple act of one hand on my belly and the other hand my heart or head – gently breathing and connecting myself back up through the seven chakras.” She also tries to practice ahimsa (non-violence), the yama (ethical discipline and first limb of yoga) focused on treating one’s self and others with constant kindness in thoughts and deeds. “I am a people-pleaser. I love people, so I often put others’ agendas before my own. I must continue to recognize my own needs, and be gentle with myself. By creating that gentleness and kindness toward myself first, I can then extend it to others without depleting my energy.”
Gretchen advises new students to start slowly and practice for shorter lengths of time so they don’t push so hard that they get discouraged or hurt themselves. She also feels that finding a class and teacher that match a student’s body and personality type is critical. When considering experienced students, she feels that each student has to be very present with his/her body every time he/she comes to the mat. “I just turned 50, so finding the joy in yoga is crucial for me as I can’t push myself the way I used to do – I need to flow,” she states. “Each individual must find what makes them come alive in yoga, and seek out the style of yoga that most supports their unique selves. For some, this means an extremely physical style, while for others, it may mean a quieter, more reflective or healing practice.”
Beyond yoga Gretchen’s other passions include writing and animals (another love she has had since age two!). She is currently working on a memoir about a mid-life crisis she had when her 19-year-old tabby cat went missing in the woods of her Wisconsin cabin (and her subsequent spiritual awakening). She continues to enjoy teaching and directing in Chicago theaters and spending time with her husband Sean and their three “fur-children,” Smidgen, Casper and Duncan.
Gretchen has a particular affinity for Yoga Trek and the sense of community it offers. “I think building a yoga community where you not only practice but get to know each other a little bit is the beautiful thing about YogaTrek and what I personally want to keep alive in the studio.”
Catch Gretchen’s class on Monday evenings, 7:30 – 9:00 pm, and guarantee yourself a great experience and a fabulous night’s sleep!
Yoga Pose: “Right now I have a knee injury so many of my favorite hip opening poses such as pigeon (Kapotasana) are also my most challenging. I’m usually very flexible, but have to pull back on that now in order to heal.” Instead I’ve been enjoying yin poses more, staying in less intense versions of hip openers or forward folds for longer periods of time to allow openness to occur rather than to force it.
Music: “I have very eclectic taste in music. Currently I love some of the more popular Indian music: Jai Uttal, Deva Premal…you cannot go wrong with them. I also like Komuso: The Healing Art of Zen Music Shakuhachi by Ronnie Nyogetsu Seldin , or even rock and roll on occasion. But my favorite sounds are those from nature, so lately I’ve been practicing to that music – birds or a waterfall, or even the soundsof children playing outside my window work beautifully.”
Foods: “Barbeque chicken in the summer, and jumbo shrimp in the spring. And all vegetables! I love squash for example. I also like really simple cooking. In 2003 I was in Italy on a yoga retreat and the way they can make a wonderful meal out of fruit, cheese, lettuce with a little bit of meat –very simple, tasty, and nutritious. I’m one of those people who have discovered that being a pure vegetarian does not help my body stay centered. One of my favorite books talks about the importance in treating all animals as sacred – especially when it involves food. It’s called When Animals Speak by Penelope Smith, and talks beautifully about the nurturing relationship that can exist between animals and people. This may be controversial in the yoga world, but as Suddha says, all things in moderation.”