Our intrepid reporter took Rosenthal-Greene’s Cleveland Yoga class—a heart-pumping hour that incorporates everything from hip-hop music to crystal singing bowls and ancient Sanskrit language. Here, that reporter shares her experience, and Rosenthal-Greene’s story. By Cassie Neiden
On a November night, I hurry to Cleveland Yoga to escape the cold. While driving from the West Side to Beachwood, my thoughts swirl in a flurry of a dozen unanswered emails, holiday gift shopping, and an upcoming trip. I ache for a break.
Time-pressing duties such as these can often leave exercise in the back seat. But tonight, I’m on assignment—which makes yoga part of my to-do list—and I’m thrilled. When I enter, all my anxiety comes to a halt, and my energy instantly syncs with my fellow yoga students.
We whisper “excuse me” as we squeeze past one another and make our way to the studio, tiptoeing, barefoot, across the floor as we select our space for the next hour. The room is heated to 80 degrees. The lights are dimmed to a warm, yellow-orange aura—a beautiful break from the white fluorescents I sit under each day. About 10 of us roll out our mats, sit down on the wooden-paneled floors, and exchange soft smiles and stretch. I feel comforted—perhaps because of the studio’s Cleveland-esque industrial feel or the heat that’s wrapped me up like a blanket or the curtains drawn over the windows, blocking out the rest of the world—or even, simply, the soft gray wall on the studio’s right-hand side.
It may be calm now and the pace slow, but make no mistake: Our asses are about to get kicked by tonight’s 42-year-old instructor, Ylonda Rosenthal-Greene. And those who have taken her class before know the intense, cardio-fueled sweating and muscle burn that is to come—with a killer playlist to boot.
Rosenthal-Greene is rare in Cleveland’s yoga community. I’ve attended classes from more than a dozen yoga instructors in Northeast Ohio, and I can say from my experience no one teaches yoga quite like she does. Many people think of yoga as a challenging but relaxing practice. That’s not Rosenthal-Greene’s style—not exactly. “There are parts of my class that are calm, but it’s certainly not all calm,” she says.
Instead, participating in Rosenthal-Greene’s classes is more like attending a concert of exercise, with your blood pumping and your breath sure to be lost. To facilitate her unique fusion of traditional and modern teaching, she brings instruments to the studio, such as singing bowls—a type of inverted bell played with mallets—and chimes. She sings to you in ancient Sanskrit—a vibrational language with supposed healing powers. She crescendos her instructions to the build-up and release of the music.
She’s not afraid to incorporate hip hop. She’s not afraid of silence. It’s this build-up and release of quick and slow, intense and soft, loudness and quietness, that leaves you with a feeling of completeness after she’s finished with a workout. What Rosenthal-Greene teaches is yoga, yes—but it’s also more than that.
We start class laying on our mats, some of us in Child’s pose, laying belly down with our knees in a “V” and our arms stretched in front of us, others laying on their backs, with soles of the feet touching and knees falling open. We’re finding our breath, paying attention to our inhales and exhales, connecting to the class and the present moment—to-do lists be damned.
We move on to a few more stretches to work out the kinks of the day; the sounds of bones cracking and popping sprinkle throughout the room. Rosenthal-Greene is instructing us to breathe slowly, taking in air until our lungs can’t hold any more, pausing, then sending the breath through our open mouths. We do this over and over again. As we tune out the clutter, she shares the reasoning behind the intention around which this class is centered:
“I choose to trust myself.”
Yoga classes typically start this way, with a message to call back in your mind when it starts to get tough, like when you think you can’t possibly hold Warrior 2 for a second longer or when your thighs are lighting on fire during Chair pose or when you’re channeling every ab muscle you have to keep you in Airplane, a pose in which you’re standing on one foot leaning forward, your arms suspended in the air behind you.
Rosenthal-Greene explains that sometimes, the best teacher is the one within yourself, and shares her own experience of how she came to this discovery. At this point in the class, we’re laying on our sides in a long shoulder stretch, taking in acapella notes sung by Rosenthal-Greene as she hums in a hypnotic, hymn-like soundtrack.
Rosenthal-Greene’s musical inspirations started in elementary school, when her music teacher played a classical piece, “Adagio for Strings, Op. 11,” by Samuel Barber, and Rosenthal-Greene was brought to tears. It was then, at just 9 years old, she decided to become a cellist, she explains to me on the phone.
“My parents never had to ask me to practice,” Rosenthal-Greene says. “I was obsessed with it.”
The first musician in her family, Rosenthal-Greene was labeled gifted by many of her instructors over the years. She received full scholarships to play with groups such as the Cleveland Youth Orchestra, the Music Settlement, and Cleveland State University. She even taught cello professionally in Chagrin Falls before she taught yoga.
Rosenthal-Greene was one of the few African American musicians in her groups growing up, she says. That came with its own set of pressures, but she explains in tonight’s yoga class that it was one teacher with whom she studied during the early ‘90s that completely crushed her spirit.
Rosenthal-Greene tells us that when she floundered during practice, this teacher told her she wasn’t good enough. He repeated it so often she started to believe him. “I had never been around someone that had the idea they would break you down to build you up,” she later says to me. By the time she was a junior in high school, it had gotten to the point where she couldn’t perform solo in concerts. She’d cry; she’d get sick. “After I graduated, I stopped playing,” Rosenthal-Greene says. “Because I knew that when I graduated—to play in the [professional] orchestra—I was going to have to audition. And I could not get past that.” She had given up her power to him, she says, because he was her role model at the time.
When Rosenthal-Greene shares these experiences and lessons in class, she orates with dramatic pauses, exuding bouts of energy and unwavering directness. Rosenthal-Greene’s voice is as smooth as it is booming, her message as compassionate as it is motivating. You begin to get a sense of her mental strength in addition to her visibly physical strength. (Rosenthal-Greene is 5’3”, with a slender-yet-muscular build, like a gymnast’s, impeccable posture, and a huge, contagious smile. If you look at her Instagram account, which has amassed more than 2,100 followers at press time, you’ll frequently find her smiling while she is sharing poses. But she posts even more positive messages that talk about pushing yourself past your limits, finding your goals and sticking to them, and self-love and acceptance.)
To use the mantra she’s picked for today’s class, Rosenthal-Greene invites us to think of the words “I choose” when we inhale, then “to trust myself” as we flow through our poses and exhale. Try this now, while sitting still, with your eyes closed, and you will get a glimpse of this particular intention’s power.
Now it’s time to move. The music is picking up—an ambient and dreamy soundtrack. Into Downward Dog pose we go, with hands and feet on the ground, hips in the air. We use our momentum to leap or walk to the tops of our mats, reach to the sky and stretch, touch down to the floor and jump back into a push-up position, use our arms to lift our chests to the sky—Up-Dog—with an inhale, and exhale as we slide back into Downward Dog to start all over again. The last two moves are the Vinyasa flow that happens in every class of this kind, where breaths are tied to movements and you continue in this momentum for most of the class. We do the sequence—called a Sun Salutation—so many times I lose count. Percussion drops into the track and amplifies its intensity; we flow faster, our heart rates rising.
Rosenthal-Greene attended her first yoga class in 2009 after a friend asked her to come along. “I was a mom of three toddlers,” she tells me. “I just thought it was quiet and you could just lay down and take a nap. It was obviously not that at all. I remember shaking and being like, ‘What is happening?’ [but] I was like, ‘I need more of this.’” She started going to yoga three times a week, and after about a month, she knew she wanted to teach it.
She began teaching at a studio about eight years ago, and later partnered with another instructor who made her feel as the cello teacher did all those years prior: beaten down and disempowered. Rosenthal-Greene realized she needed a break, a getaway, to restart and refresh—so she traveled to India in 2014.
“I went because I needed to prove to myself that I was strong enough,” Rosenthal-Greene says. After a six-week trip there, she came away with more of the spiritual aspects of the practice, beyond its obvious physical benefits. The first two weeks, she studied in an Ashram, a monastic community in Northern India and practiced Bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion. There, she did lots of chanting, “like all-flipping-day, eight-hours-a-day chanting!” she says. But she loved it. “I was fully saturated in so much tradition and faith,” she says. Then, she traveled the country, from Varanasi to Chennai, and through to Kerala.
She returned to Cleveland with new ideas—especially those that incorporated the sound healing she discovered—but those new ideas were met with resistance from her partner. Rosenthal-Greene received feedback from her and other instructors: You’re too dramatic; class doesn’t have to be that dramatic. She laughs when she recalls those encounters. “I’m like, ‘OK, but I’m dramatic!’” she admits.
“And this is what I find so interesting about it when I look back on it now,” Rosenthal-Greene adds later about the experience with her former yoga partner. “She was my yoga teacher, and to me, the word ‘teacher’ superseded all of my beliefs,” she says. “[She was] my teacher, so what [she] said must be true.”
Eventually, the stress built up to a breaking point, and Rosenthal-Greene had a stroke at the age of 39. “[The doctors] couldn’t find a reason why. They looked everywhere, but I knew [what was wrong with me],” Rosenthal-Greene says. “I was sick. I was giving all my power away to everyone else.”
Rosenthal-Greene quit her job, and about 20 months ago, found a new home as an instructor at Cleveland Yoga. “From that moment, that’s when I started teaching empowerment,” she says. “And the moment I changed my teaching, everything changed for me. It evolved, and I figured out how to bring music into the yoga classes, and then I felt like [I] was whole.”
“To me, it’s so much deeper than a yoga class. I may not remember everybody’s name—I’m not going to—but I remember my experience with them. I know their soul. I know their face. I know their practice. I know their spirit. We’ve shared that together.”
The stroke came with repercussions Rosenthal-Greene still feels today, including short-term memory loss. “I’ll be honest,” she says. “Day-to-day activities—like not remembering names and places, my children’s friends’ and teachers’ names—suck. I hate that I have to write every little thing down. I hate that the minute I start living on autopilot, I forget. That I forget where I am driving if I don’t use a navigation app.” It’s another reason why her practices are driven by emotion. When she’s connected to her feelings and the present moment—looking within herself—that’s what she calls being “in her body.” A lot of times, it’s that feeling of connection, of being “in her body,” that helps her memories stick.
“I need to be in my body if I want to remember the moments my husband tells me he loves me, or when my children say, ‘Mommy, I need you,’” Rosenthal-Greene says. “If I’m out of my body, it’s gone. I’m not going to remember it. So to me, it’s so much deeper than a yoga class. I want to remember it. I may not remember everybody’s name—I’m not going to—but I remember my experience with them. I know their soul. … I know their face. I know their practice. I know their spirit. We’ve shared that together.”
But while being “in her body” helps, Rosenthal-Greene also incorporates tricks to guide her through her classes if she’s having trouble remembering her place. She structures classes so students switch sides of the mat. She strategically times her playlist so she knows where she is in the class, and how much time is left.
At class, we begin the next sequence, a series of lunges, hip-opening poses, side-body stretches, one-leg balancing, Chair poses, then a Vinyasa. A pop power-ballad remix by Tiësto is playing. Then we do everything again, leading our lunges and transitions with our opposite foot—and again, two more times. And then Rosenthal-Greene wants us to go faster, much faster, to the point we’re basically jumping and leaping backwards and forwards, high and low, from pose to pose. She tells us to forget how it looks in the mirror. That’s good, because I can’t remember which side I’m on or which foot is supposed to lead what’s next. Once, I make a mistake of beginning with wrong foot, and end up facing my peers. Whoops.
But that kind of mistake doesn’t matter to Rosenthal-Greene as a yoga instructor, not in the least. For her, improving in your practice does not come through the flawlessly aligned, flexible poses social media yogis show off on Instagram. “It’s not about being perfect,” she’s says. Basic alignment is important, especially so you don’t get hurt. But, “many of us get caught up on, ‘It has to look a certain way.’” she says. “To me, it’s more important to feel in your body.”
We’re moving, we’re flowing, and we don’t know how many more times she can possibly ask us to do this. Then, she throws down the volume and lets us rest back in Child’s pose. I become innately aware that both my heartbeat and thoughts feel a little scattered, out-of-focus, wild.
On the phone she says something that sticks with me—and I realize it’s one of the reasons I come away feeling so fulfilled by Rosenthal-Greene’s style of yoga. “I want you to realize you’re fine, even if it doesn’t go as planned, even in the moments when you’re not calm. You can still do this. … If I just try to create a perfect environment every time you come in—first of all, that’s not real life. That’s not teaching you anything,” she says. “I’m all about [that] you can’t control everything. Know what you’re going to do when you can’t control it. And to me, that’s empowering—to know I can do it even if I can’t control it. … I am still going to come out whole on the other side.” (She credits this portion of her practice to a notable yoga instructor from Cleveland, Diane Vitantonio, and her “Breathless Yoga” style of teaching.)
Yoga is centered around the elements, and Rosenthal-Greene pays homage to these four in her class: Earth, Water, Fire, and Space. Earth is how the class typically starts, lying on the ground. Next up is Water: “My Vinyasa is beat-driven,” she says. If the music is fast, so are the movements. Slow music slows the sequence. “We’re moving one breath per movement to the sound of the music,” she says.
Then, Rosenthal-Greene holds students in Fire—a pose you stay in for a very long time. Maybe it’s Chair pose; maybe it’s a plank; maybe it’s Humble Warrior pose, where you’re in a wide lunge, your arms stretched long and clasped behind you, and you bow forward toward your front leg, your shoulder aligned with your knee. But tonight, our Water-Fire combo is squats and mountain climbers—and a lot of them, to the beat of “Closer” by The Chainsmokers. Our legs burn. And each bridge and chorus seem longer than I remember. “No more,” I think to myself, and then Rosenthal-Greene grants that wish by letting us sink into a low squat called Goddess, where our knees are wide apart instead of in front of us, our hands in a prayer serving as an anchor, and our elbows pushing our knees even wider apart.
“When that is over, we have Space, quiet,” she says. This is the resting part of the practice, when you’re finding your breath again, preparing for the next challenge. Once the challenges are over, and we find our Space for the final time, we come back to Earth. We do a few stretches in unison to a soft and slow P!nk ballad, “Barbie.” Then the music turns off.
It’s during this moment that Rosenthal-Greene incorporates her own instruments, showcasing her true musicianship. She brings out two sets of chimes, each with two wooden cylinders; we’re laying on the ground in a deep hip stretch, eyes closed. She rings them slowly, almost hypnotically, waving them in short, circular motion, and their twinkling sound fills the room. She brings the chimes to each person so they can hear their magic a little closer than before.
Now, we move into our final resting pose, Shavasana, or Corpse pose. We’re laying on our backs, our hands at our sides, our feet spread toward the corners of the mat. It’s a moment of complete stillness that happens at the end of each yoga class. But in Rosenthal-Greene’s class, something special happens: She brings out a set of crystal singing bowls, which are hollow and accompanied by mallets. She rings the bowls with the mallets like a gong, then sweeps the mallets around their sides, creating a full, continuing, and warbling sound. They ring together and their notes harmonize. Their vibrations can be physically felt, and you can almost hear the sound move from one ear to the other. She sings in ancient Sanskrit, the same few lines seven times over with bowls’ sounds as they transition from fully loud to delicately soft.
Om gam ganapataye namaha
Om gam ganapataye
A loose translation, the chant is one that is meant to help you envision obstacles in your life disintegrate, and her delivery is captivating. Her voice is so articulate that when I first hear it, I think it’s part of the soundtrack. It isn’t until I slit my eyes open that I realize she is belting out the sounds live.
This part of the practice is supposed to leave you open to receive positive energy, and Rosenthal-Greene acknowledges each person’s “chakras” during the workout. She doesn’t talk about chakras during practice, though she teaches them to her students who go through her advanced teaching training.
“We have seven major [chakras] in the body,” she says to me. “Each one represents a different way we hold energy. So, for example, our first ‘root’ chakra, that is our tribal energy—all the beliefs you have based on what your family has taught you. It’s your security, it’s your home. If you have dysfunctional relationships with your family, you are going to leak from that part of your body. Then we move up, to your hips, that’s your ‘sacral’ chakra, and [involves] your one-on-one relationships. If you’re in a relationship [and] you’re giving away [your power], you leak from that part of your body. Up to your belly button, that’s your self-esteem. If you have thoughts of lack, you’re literally leaking from your gut.”
She continues, “As I’m talking in class, I make sure to speak to every single one of the chakras in your body. I speak to your self-esteem; I speak to your relationships you might have with someone else … so by the time you get to Shavasana … I’ve touched [each chakra] with a yoga pose, or I’ve said something with my words to touch [the chakra-specific] parts of your body. By the time you get to the ground … your body is ready to receive.” That’s when she plays the chimes and the bowls, hoping their sounds will resonate deeper with her students.
Not every yoga student is on board with this aspect of her instruction, Rosenthal-Greene admits. “People don’t want to [participate] if they’re closed or they’re stuck in the [idea that] ‘she’s not alignment-based,’” she says. “You can tell they don’t want to do the Water; they fight you through the whole class. And that’s fine, it’s their practice, and they can do whatever they want. But when we get down to the bowls, it’s not going to [have] the same effect to someone who hasn’t gone on the journey with me. It won’t make sense to your body. There’s always one in every class—and sometimes two or three.”
However, Rosenthal-Greene’s endgame is to get her willing students to this point. Every part of the class is designed to achieve it. She lists the components of each session: the nature elements, chakras, playlist, poses, chants, instruments. “It’s a lot of work,” she laughs. “It’s a little bit of an obsession.”
But it’s an obsession with a purpose. To Rosenthal-Greene, yoga is “a moment of reflection without the outside world,” she says. “I feel that, in these current times—and I’m raising three teenagers—with social media, that’s changed everything. It’s so easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing. … And [thoughts like], ‘I don’t know why I can’t do it like they do it.’ … You kind of feel helpless. I think that yoga … always comes back to you. It comes back to what you can do for you first. … You can’t do anything for anyone else, you’re not going to be good to anyone else, until you take care of you. …”
She adds, “For me, it’s so important and, it looks different to everyone else. It doesn’t mean you go to Cleveland Yoga. … It’s making space for yourself to sit and think about, ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing?’ and, ‘How am I contributing?’ and, ‘How am I going to be significant in this world?’”
It’s that combination of—and inspiration for—self-care, self-awareness, and self-motivation that keeps students coming back to Rosenthal-Greene. It is how she, herself, is so significant.
4 Tips for Finding Success in the Face of Challenges
Between a cello instructor who nearly crushed her spirits to a debilitating stroke that took her ability to retain short-term memories, Ylonda Rosenthal-Greene has faced her fair share of challenges—and she has found incredible success despite them. Here, Rosenthal-Greene shares four secrets for facing whatever life throws your way—and coming through the other side, successfully.
2. Be you—whoever that is. Rosenthal-Greene is a different kind of yoga instructor—and she’s OK with that. “It’s not about being like everyone else,” she says. Instead, “use how you are different to offer new or different opinions or views.”
3. Dream big. You might have been told that your goal is unattainable. But according to Rosenthal-Greene, “No dream is to big. As long as you believe this dream is possible, it is.” And you shouldn’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.
4. Only you can get in your way. “It’s easy to fall into the thought of being a victim,” Rosenthal-Greene says. Instead, “notice how you handle challenges and fears,” she instructs, and develop ways to cope without victimizing yourself.