Model Behaviour: Interview with Christy Turlington

Her name is synonymous with beauty and glamour. One of the first supermodels, she remains polished and refined, and exudes sophistication and allure. But there’s more to Christy Turlington Burns than a career as a glamorous clotheshorse. She is a hugely successful businesswoman and writer, a high-profile anti-smoking campaigner, and underpinning everything she does is her yoga.

Born in California, Christy was more interested in ponies than fashion until a photographer spotted her at the age of 14. Within a few years she was the darling of the catwalk, appearing for top fashion houses such as Versace and Calvin Klein. She has since graced the covers of A-list magazines including Vogue, Time and Esquire. She has also fronted major advertising campaigns as the face of Maybelline and Calvin Klein’s fragrance Eternity. Christy has become one of the most sought after and photographed models of her time.

The adulation hasn’t gone to her head, however. As well as a reputation for being very grounded and charming to work with, she is aware that beauty is more than just skin deep. Perhaps her immersion in the industry has brought this home more powerfully.

“I sincerely feel that beauty largely comes from within,” she says. “When you are balanced and when you listen and attend to the needs of your body, mind, and spirit, your natural beauty comes out.”

That she is more than just a pretty face is also evident from her successful businesses, which have made her a multi-millionaire. It would be easy for her to lose touch with ‘reality’ and immerse herself in a champagne lifestyle, but she takes seriously the responsibility that so often comes with a high-profile career. Since the death of her father in 1997 she has been at the forefront of the anti-smoking campaign. She has also campaigned against fur. And her businesses are closely linked with charitable foundations.

Christy was 18 when a friend took her to her first Kundalini yoga class. She enjoyed the discipline and positive focus that it gave her and she went again. So began her journey into yoga. Her interest led her to explore related disciplines including ecofriendly living and Ayurveda, which is at the root of one of the businesses she helped found. “Ayurveda is a sister philosophy to yoga and I became interested in it through my personal yoga practice,” she says. “Basically, it is the science of life or longevity and it teaches about the power and the cycles of nature, as well as the elements.”

In 1994, at the height of her career, Christy decided to stop catwalk modelling. Instead she was determined to educate herself and learn more about the subjects she was interested in. She signed up for a degree in Comparative Religion and Philosophy at New York University. She put away her frocks, kissed goodbye to Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, the other supermodels of the time, and set off on the ‘yogic-brick road’. This education was to help change her outlook on life, as well as giving her the tools to communicate her ideas more widely.

She graduated in 1999 with flying colours, despite having gone through enormous personal trauma during her studies. In 2003 she married actor Ed Burns and her friend Bono of U2 walked her down the aisle in place of her father who died from lung cancer in 1997. She has a beautiful daughter from this marriage and cherishes her motherhood status.

Her father’s death was naturally a devastating event in Christy’s life, not least because she helped nurse him, and so watched him losing his battle for life. It was the catalyst for her involvement in anti-smoking campaigns, and work with the American Cancer Society.

What makes Christy’s message even more powerful and poignant is that she speaks from her own experience. At the age of 13 she had already started smoking, a habit she was to continue for a further 13 years. Father and daughter made a nonsmoking pact in December 1996 – and quit – but the damage had already been done. He died six months later, then, when she was 31, she discovered she was suffering from early-stage emphysema. The damage was irreparable, though not yet critical.

She is absolutely passionate about this cause and works hard to get across the message that smoking really does kill, and to help expose the truth behind the propaganda of the tobacco companies. In an article written for the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion she says: ‘‘This war against tobacco is not merely to protect young women, and all people, from the bombardment of misleading advertising and lies, but to give them their best defence weapon – education. It is education and becoming more knowledgeable that will arm us with the tools that will enable us to succeed and put a stop to the rising rates of preventable death.”

Death of a loved one is always difficult to cope with. And we as humans deal with it differently depending on our outlook and life experiences. It can also be, as it was for Christy, the catalyst for exploration, questioning and trying to make sense of our purpose in this life, as well as casting a light on our own mortality. For her it is something that ties in closely with her yoga practice.

“Though to most of us it may sound morbid, meditating on death can bring about certain clarities and insights about life,” says Christy in her book Living Yoga. “Most of us harbour a significant amount of subconscious fear about death, and act out of this fear in our daily lives. By meditating on death, its inevitability and yet its uncertainty, it is possible to experience an awakening in this life through realising just how precious each moment, each mental process, and each breath truly is.”

Living Yoga is written from a student perspective and explores many of the themes and questions that newcomers to yoga may have. This approach and the innovative angle Christy takes to the subject makes it accessible for readers of any level of knowledge. It also offers a fascinating insight into her take on the way that Catholicism and yoga can co-exist peacefully. She also explores other spiritual ideologies including Sufism, Hindu mysticism, Buddhism and Christian contemplative traditions.

These are weighty subjects that might seem difficult to grasp, but the book helps the reader to get a real understanding of them. Christy aptly observes that the techniques used in yoga are not necessarily unique to that discipline. “Any spirituality can be enhanced with the practice or study of yoga,” she says. Related mind-body-spirit disciplines and even religions often employ similar techniques to help followers reach higher spiritual dimensions.

The inspiration for writing her book originated from a desire to educate the public about the beauty and reality of yoga and to break down the myths and hype that surrounded it. As she was writing the book, yoga was taking off in the West and really entering the mainstream, where previously it had still been seen as rather mysterious. “There were a lot of people out there with questions and misunderstandings about the philosophy and practice,” she observes.

Aware that many people would associate yoga solely with training of the body, Christy wanted to convey that the true purpose of yoga goes far beyond that. It is not a discipline that you practice for instance 20 minutes a day in a class and then forget about for the rest of the day, but something that actually runs through your whole lifestyle. “I really wanted to share with people the day-to-day joys that yoga can bring into one’s life – not just the physical aspects,” she explains. “And I wanted to do this from the perspective of a student who is constantly learning and evolving – which is what we all are when it comes to yoga.”

As a practising Catholic, Christy has given plenty of thought to the potential for conflict between yoga, religion and personal spirituality. Newcomers to yoga may wonder whether yoga is a religion, whether it has the potential to contradict their own religious beliefs. For her, integrating the practice of yoga into her lifestyle has been a journey of self-exploration, challenges, awareness, and evolution. There has been no conflict.

“I feel there are a lot of people out there like myself who have questioned how yoga and their own spiritual beliefs can come together,” she says. “I have found that yoga – which some might not realize actually pre-dates religion – has only reinforced and grounded my own spiritual beliefs, especially during times when I have been searching. Along with the history and trying to give an overview of the different types of yoga out there, the book is a way of sharing my journey.”

Practices found both in yoga and religious traditions include meditation, mantra – chanting or sacred sound – and mudras, sacred hand gestures such as the bringing together of the hands in prayer pose. Christy says: “Meditation and mantra recitation are a part of the Catholic Church as well, in the form of prayer. In fact, there are many monastic aspects of the Christian Church that delve even deeper into the more transcendental aspects of meditation, such as chanting.”

The transformational power of yoga is evident in Christy’s own self-development and outlook in life. “I think more than anything, yoga has brought me closer to myself – to who I really am and who I aspire to be,” she says. “Of course, it’s helped me realize the interconnectedness of the mind, body and spirit, but it’s also instilled in me a perpetual desire to find the balance in the everyday and to be more compassionate in the Buddhist sense of the word.”

The book is written for practitioners of all levels. For a newcomer to yoga, the myriad styles can appear overwhelming and deeply complex. Knowing your Anusara from your Iyengar is not something you can grasp easily unless you have some basic knowledge of the subject. But where to begin? To a complete novice Setu Bandha Sarvangasana might sound more like an exotic Indian dish than the Sanskrit name for the bridge pose.

However, the basic names of asanas and the key techniques can be mastered without too much difficulty. Living Yoga explains concepts simply so that they are easily digestible. Everything from invocations of mantras to the profundity of silence and meditation, from the adaptability of the asanas to everyday living to the sheer sensuality and richness of yoga is explored.

Some people may have been practising yoga for number of years, perhaps in a class or at the gym, without any real appreciation of the underlying philosophy and spirituality that underpins it. Christy wants to change that. “It is my hope that readers will be surprised by the awesome history of yoga – its roots and its traditions,” she says. “I know that when I first started practising yoga, I didn’t know which style I should try, where to practice it, and what to expect from it. In the book I try to give as wide a breadth as possible in order for readers to be able to explore the many different aspects of the philosophy and practice in the hope that they can connect to what really makes sense and feels right to them.”

Christy’s style will have you practising as you read. “Witness yourself from outside of yourself sitting there peacefully, and just breathe,” she writes. “While you are trying to stay focused, things will surely come into your mind and begin to distract you. Don’t worry when this happens. Be gentle with yourself and your thoughts, and remember that they are just thoughts. Don’t get caught up in them. They bring you away from you. Witness them as they come up, and let them go as you exhale and bring your focus back to breath.”

Breath is what keeps us alive, but it is also influential in the quality of our life. It reflects the inner consciousness, the key to super-consciousness. Yogis have always worked with breath and devised breathing techniques to help energise and strengthen their mind, body and spirit. Christy discusses the beauty of this essential process that so often we take for granted. “It is not only essential to the practice of yoga – it’s essential to life,” she says. “We may not realise it, but many times throughout the day we change our breathing – sometimes we unconsciously hold our breath, other times we use our breath to calm us. Pranayama is the practice of breath control. The word prana refers not only to breath, but also to air and life itself.”

As the mind and body are inseparable, so breath and movement are linked, and this is brought home every time we practice yoga. Christy says: “Keeping the breath moving during yoga helps the flow of one’s practice as much as it contributes to a more fluid mind-body connection, which is what yoga strives to achieve’’.

When you practise yoga and as your practice deepens you will become aware of the effect of yoga on the mind-body-spirit trinity and you may also start questioning your lifestyle. It is a logical progression to want to live a more natural and healthy lifestyle. This can manifest itself in living in closer harmony with the environment, participating in charitable projects and helping others and should become part and parcel of a yogic lifestyle. In fact it is one of the key principles underlying the practice of Karma Yoga, called seva, meaning service. This can make you feel whole and help enrich your experience of the beauty of this world.

Christy has tried to apply these philosophies to the businesses she has helped found. Spirituality and the business world are not always easy bedfellows, but she has managed to combine them as a positive force for good, seeing them as an organic extension of her yoga practice. Her Ayurvedic skincare range was launched in 1999, called Sundari, meaning ‘beautiful woman’ in Sanskrit. The company has now been sold to an Indian hair company.

A year later she launched Nuala, a yoga clothing range in partnership with sportswear giant Puma. “I realised that at the core of our brand – which stands for Natural–Universal–Altruistic–Limitless–Authentic – is this idea of altruism, of giving out and giving back, concepts integral to yoga’s philosophy,” she says. “I think it took writing the book and exploring my own personal beliefs in order to really focus on bringing this out of the Nuala brand.”

Nuala’s emphasis is on clothes that suit an aspiring eco-friendly lifestyle – clothes you can wear in and out of a class. Like Christy herself, the clothes are classy and cosmopolitan. Muted colours, soft luxurious fabrics and practical designs set the range apart from the traditional exercise uniforms more often seen in the gym.

Nuala was created before eco-friendly clothing really hit the mainstream Western market. Christy appreciated that at that time, there was a demand for this sort of clothing. Nuala entranced buyers with its brand ideals of innocence and living an ethical lifestyle. “Since then, Nuala’s focus on altruism has resulted in the creation of numerous charitable projects,” she says. The company also supports existing charities. “In the recent past, Nuala has partnered with Cancer Care, Adopt-A-Minefield,, and presently The One Campaign.”

Christy believes that this is a fundamental aspect of her lifestyle, both professionally through her companies, and personally. “Through personal contributions to charities, I tend to support those organisations that focus on young women and children, global relief, and, more specifically, groups that work towards the preservation of cultures.”

Christy’s mother is from El Salvador, which explains in part her striking looks, and is a reason that she has worked hard for the American Foundation for El Salvador. As with everything she does, it’s possible to see the foundation for her beliefs and actions in yoga. “It’s definitely important to keep in mind that yoga means so many different things,” she says. “Aside from the asanas – the physical postures – yoga is about compassion and generosity towards others. It means being mindful of the world around us. Yoga focuses on strengthening the mind, body, and spirit as one integrated whole.”

Another thread of the yogic lifestyle that Christy has adopted is vastu, in which the placement of objects in one’s environment is held to have an influence on our wellbeing, rather like Chinese feng shui. In the same way that our bodies are transmitters of energy, our surroundings have an impact on energy too. “Sacred spaces can be created in any environment,” she says. “I explain in my book how to make that space in your home using objects that are important to you and taking account of traditional philosophies concerning energy flow. If you place a few objects that warm your heart in the north corner of your room, you will begin to feel the effects.”

With such a breadth of knowledge about yoga, but maintaining the refreshingly humble approach of a novice it’s no surprise that Christy doesn’t limit herself to one style of practice. She has practised and learnt under a number of teachers. “I have countless teachers who continue to inspire me,” she says. “In fact, my book is dedicated to all past, present and future teachers, many of whom appear throughout. To name a few, they include the Dalai Lama, Robert Thurman, Robert Svoboda, Sharon Gannon and David Life, Shyam Das, Rodney Yee, Pattabhi Jois, John Friend, and the list goes on and on.” Her yoga training has ranged from studying Ashtanga to Kundalini, and she is currently practising Anusara together with other kinds of vinyasa yoga styles.

Asked if she has any yoga asanas she particularly likes to practise, Christy says Salamba Sirsasana (supported headstand) is one of her favourite poses. “Inversions are great both for the body, especially with regards to circulation,” she says. “Also, we walk this world ‘right side up’ with our feet always on the ground, so it’s nice to turn upside down sometimes, to switch perspectives and experience things in a new way.” This asana is excellent for nourishing the hair, skin and for improving stamina and energising the body. “Padmasana is another favourite – the lotus pose. I find that the seated lotus postures are an amazing way to go into meditation, or simply just to take a moment to ground oneself.”

As well as the traditional techniques of pranayama (breathing), meditation and mantras it is possible to exist in a state of closer connection with spirit simply by being consciously aware of your actions on a day-to-day basis. “Yoga is not just about practising poses but about living the philosophy through our daily lives,” explains Christy. “From simple breathing exercises when we get overwhelmed, to being mindful of others, yoga can easily be a part of each day.”

It is her ability to put her ideals into practice that makes Christy Turlington’s words so powerful. She is living by her own example, and is willing, determined even, to share all that she has learned with others. Aware of the power her fame and position have earned her, she has used that to try and help others. Of course it was her looks that first catapulted Christy to fame. And she will remain a beauty icon for years to come: she was the perfect choice to be the face of Calvin Klein’s Eternity fragrance, since her beauty is both timeless and enduring. What is remarkable is the transition she has made, and the integrity with which she has made it.

She’s willing to share one of her beauty secrets, though. “Yoga is the absolute best set of tools I can recommend to help one feel and look one’s absolute best at any age,” she says. “Simply because it helps establish and maintain interconnectedness between the mind and body – an important connection to nurture throughout one’s entire life.”

Yoga Magazine


1 Response to “Model Behaviour: Interview with Christy Turlington”

  1. 1 anonymus May 17, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    He usado la fragancia de Eternity desde que apareció en España en 1994 hasta hoy y la he convertido en mi esencia cuando para los momentos en los que me arreglo en Otoño-Invierno. Siempre que miraba los anuncios de Eternity donde aparecía Christy pensaba que era imposible que otra modelo pudiese representar tan bien la imagen de esta fragancia y no me equivoqué, cuando ficharon a Doutzen Krose los anuncios de imágenes en blanco y negro en la playa eran los mismos pero no me transmiten la misma sensación que cuando aparecía Christy en ellos. Espero que Calvin Klein vuelva a ficharla.

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