A holistic veterinarian and yoga teacher in Saint Cloud, MN, Laura Willenbring teaches through her own platform, Back to Center. Sheworks on her family farm with her husband when she’s not tending to animals or guiding yogis. I talked with Willenbring about the interconnected web of nature and how she finds balance in a busy world.
Reeve Klatt: You have an interesting story because you’re a yoga teacher and a veterinarian – two things you don’t often hear in the same sentence! How did you get into both of those areas?
Laura Willenbring: I got into veterinary medicine due to a childhood love of helping animals in their suffering. As a little girl, I would hold armfuls of farm cats! I took my first yoga class in college and there was very much an exactness to it. With a right and a wrong, my practice was focused on conquering the body rather than partnering with it. In retrospect, if we spend time to really study the things that need studying with compassion, with curiosity, it’s more about “what is this here to teach me?” rather than “how do I conquer this?”
I went to veterinary school overseas with the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The culture was a little bit different – and beautiful. The intersection of nature and humanity buffered right next to each other. One of the first times I started doing more yin and restorative [yoga], I absolutely fell in love with yoga nidra. I spent a month in India with an animal charity, where we stayed right next to an ashram; the bells would start ringing at two o’clock to three o’clock in the morning. We spent all day working with the animals and working with the villagers that would literally spend all day walking to this location for their goat to be looked at and [I’d be] exhausted and then “Da da da duh!” – these bells, this call of awareness.
I did my 200-hour RYT with what was then the Yoga Center of Minneapolis. Tara Cindy Sherman, my main facilitator, shared about yoga nidra, and yin, and some of those very lunar, very feminine, very kind practices – and that’s what I kept coming back to.
RK: What spoke to you about those practices?
LW: I realized I had so many things in boxes. I could be the veterinarian over here, the yoga teacher over there, the partner and community member over here. It seemed as if these things couldn’t touch. And the reason why the things couldn’t touch tended more to be buffering against people’s perceptions about what a ‘fill in the blank’ should be.
I’m an integrated veterinary practitioner, so if a client comes to me with their sick pet, I’ll sometimes ask what’s happening with the people in the house – adding in the intersection between animals and humans. We affect everything around us and everything around affects us. And if we just pause for a moment and acknowledge we are with rather than over, that we’re part of rather than having special dispensation over – it totally changes the story.
If we can’t talk about how people feel about either the medications they’re taking, or the medications they give their pets, or the side effects they’re seeing – it’s another version of people’s stories going unheard. I found common threads between all these boxes we use, the threads of wellness and balance and acknowledging how we come in conflict with things. It’s about wanting balance, or wanting wellness, or wanting something currently not there. We hold this belief that “I have to get that thing out there,” rather than looking at, “how do I give my body, how do I give my home, how do I give my patterns the ability to meet that thing I’m needing?”
RK: You mention balance – how does that look in your life?
LW: Balance is not linear. Balance is a web. Balance is almost like a spherical experience where maybe it’s something in front, maybe it’s something over here, maybe it’s something inside, maybe it’s something below. I am growing in the observation of things; the pattern of constantly worrying about other people or being concerned about other people sometimes diminishes the needs of me as an individual. And when I can take care of those things for myself, how can I better show up in the world? I can better ask, what do I need today? What do my students need today?
RK: How does this play a role in what your personal yoga practice looks like?
LW: My personal practice consists of restorative yoga nidra, womb yoga, and some yoga therapeutic perspectives on women’s bodies and cyclicity. Partnering with my body allowed me to say, “Okay, I can show up in this place because this is where I am.” My practice evolved by asking, “How am I? Who am I? What am I? How am I showing up in a genuineness, in a groundedness, to meet what feels like a lot of whirly-swirly opposition to anything resembling sovereignty and self-authority?”
RK: What do you say to people scared to ask themselves those questions? Our culture tends to help us avoid those questions about who we really are. There’s a lot of fear in that area – am I enough when it’s all stripped away?
LW: I would ask that student, “Where is the fear in your body? What color is it? What is the fear trying to tell you you have or don’t have?” I love the capacity of each individual being able to learn in the awareness of who they are, and the gift they are, and to know all the questions are universal. I’m afraid of failure. I’m afraid of being an impostor. I’m afraid I’m not enough. I’m afraid I’m not going to be accepted. Underneath those questions is curiosity: how do you accept yourself? We all have the questions. We don’t all have the answers. And sometimes the answers have no words. It’s an action, it’s a feeling. It’s listening to the conversation next to us and how, for just a moment, we might be united in a humanity of “Oh yeah, me too.”
RK: You describe the beauty and importance of community so well. Where do you see it growing in the next five years?
LW: I dream of establishing an integrative wellness center acting in that inner space of people and pets with the lens of community. I wonder, if we were a culture of love, if we were a culture of acceptance, would that also become a culture of healing? When people recognize their cyclicity and the nature of them and in them, they show up in the world. There’s a richness to it and it starts with people, but [it’s] inspired by the nature that’s always been around us. That is foundational for coming back to the center of who we are and what we are in our humanity, or what we are in our creative, what we are in our creation – what we are as part of nature.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.