Founded by NYC based Greek-American Libby Nicholaou, Setu Yoga aims to make the world of yoga more inclusive for people of all backgrounds and body types
While it may appear to be a bastion of “love and light,” the yoga world is not exempt from the same issues that plague many other industries. In recent years, it’s come under scrutiny for promoting unhealthy body images. Yes, we’re talking about “yoga Instagram,” and how an ancient philosophy gets turned into influencers posing in expensive yoga clothes on exotic beaches holding poses that are beautiful – but which you may not even try at your average yoga class. Setu Yoga, founded by Greek-American Libby Nicholaou, aims to battle this very trend by creating a healthy, inclusive space for yogis.
DR spoke with poke with Libby about her path from working at Adobe to falling deeply in love with yoga. After experiencing a major perspective shift, she decided to leave her more traditional (albeit still badass) career behind to focus on teaching yoga and making systematic changes in the yoga community through a grassroots, impactful community. Enter Setu Yoga, which she founded earlier this year. The website and blog are beautiful, and it’s an incredible way to discovery yoga teachers from all backgrounds.
Without further ado, read our interview with Libby. We touch on everything from growing up Greek-American (and the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in these communities) to why yoga Instagram is kind of a monster.
Tell me a bit about how the idea for Setu was born?
After completing my 200-hour yoga teacher training, I realized how valuable yoga is for people across all ages, body types, and life experiences. I saw how yoga encompasses more than Asana (physical poses). It’s more than being in Warrior 2 with your shoulders relaxed, front knee bent 90 degrees and chest open. I experienced the meditation in a new way, through practicing it regularly over 2 months. I made connections with people who I hadn’t encountered in my previous day-to-day life. I read books that supported self-reflection and challenged me to be honest with my opinions and perceptions. Yoga teacher training taught me so much about myself and my community in ways I didn’t expect.
Ultimately, the issues of diversity and the social impact of yoga stuck with me. I wondered what I could do to create greater visibility around the richness of the yoga community. I felt the least eligible to act on this but, with enough encouragement and critical feedback from others, I decided to create a way to support inclusivity with Setu.
I love that Setu aims to be an INCLUSIVE community, something that can feel like it’s missing in the ‘Instagram yoga” world. Tell me a bit more about what this means to you.
Inclusive for Setu means making space for everyone to practice yoga and feel welcomed into the yoga community. It means making yoga available to everybody, sending out the message ‘you can practice yoga, you can be a yoga teacher if you desire.’ It means highlighting stories of many yoga teachers, rather than a select few who mainstream society has deemed the model yoga teacher.
We need to be aware of the social dividers our society has created and make an effort to undo them. Our society has made yoga exclusive. We’ve done this through marketing imagery and messages showing a certain type of person wearing yoga clothes; through the prices associated with popular yoga gear and apparel; and through the neighborhoods and locations where yoga classes are offered.
In a recent interview with Dianne Bondy on the Setu blog she brought this up saying, ‘There’s a whole group of underserved communities that get swept under the rug or don’t ever get thought of in general. I know the culture is shifting…But we’re not there yet. It’s important to call this stuff up and call it out.’
The culture I’m trying to nurture with Setu is one where we all welcome and acknowledge anybody interested in yoga regardless of how similar or different we are from each other.
You somewhat recently took the leap from a longtime job at Adobe to teaching yoga + becoming an entrepreneur. (Funny how many Greek Americans end up as entrepreneurs….). How’s that been? What major lessons have you learned so far?
Yes I did. It’s been pretty intense and fulfilling at the same time. While I was at Adobe and the years prior, I had incredible mentors in my life who taught me a lot. In my last role at Adobe as Manager of the Creative Residency, I was running a program that supported creatives in the early part of their career as they developed a product. Both of those experiences largely prepared me for taking the leap to start Setu.
So, I had some foresight into the challenges I would face – not saying I’m cruisin’. The biggest challenge I encounter on a daily basis is time. I wish I had more of it. There is only so much you can do before the day ends. Being a yoga teacher I know and feel the importance of rest – whether actual sleep, meditation or self-care. Finding the balance between accomplishing my Setu goals alongside taking care of myself and personal relationships is something I’m putting a lot of energy towards.
Yoga and “mindfulness” are having a major moment in the US. Why do you think this is?
That is a good question. I think we’re feeling the need to take care of ourselves. We’re a fast-paced society and sometimes cut corners to accomplish what we want. We see this with the growing prevalence of food allergies, which may be a result of how our food is grown and produced. There are also more undiagnosable neuromuscular conditions, which may be a result of stress. I mention these because they are both challenges I and friends face. I think our physical bodies are asking us to slow down and we’re finally listening.
What are you most excited about bringing to life with Setu?
I’m most excited about the relationships teachers and practitioners will form with each other. Already I’ve seen some teachers comment on the photos of others in our Instagram feed. They’ll say things like ‘yes @name 💗’ or ‘🙌🙌🙌 and hi @name 👋❤️’. Those supportive interactions are why I started Setu. I can’t wait to read and experience more of them!
Do you see Setu being international, or staying stateside?
Setu is already international. We have teachers in our directory from Australia, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and India. Setu is available to any teacher with 200+ hours of teacher training. Our events will begin in the US and we’ll eventually bring them to international locals. Our site is in English for now, we’ll consider localization down the road as the need is presented.
A question I ask everyone: do you think it’s important to identify with your Hellenism? Why or why not?
It’s valuable for me to identify with my Hellenism because it’s always been a treasured part of who I am. My grandmother was born in Greece, lived in Athens through her teenage years, then moved to New York. Her decision to move to the United States with little knowledge of the English language and stay here her whole life has been a big inspiration for my life decisions. I had the chance to visit Greece for the first time this summer and visited the address where she grew up. It felt like I was home. Something in me was vibrantly alive while I was in Greece, in a way I didn’t anticipate. I’m grateful to have a heritage that I can clearly identify and connect with.
Visit Setu Yoga on the web to learn more or join!
Enjoy this piece? Read our interview with the founder of One Breath, who’s bringing mindfulness to Athens in a major way.