Natalie Kuhn grew up in LA, spent the next 14 years in New York where she studied theatre and dance, followed by several years working off-Broadway and dancing on tours for musicians like David Byrne and Karen O. Now, as the VP of Programming and Founding Teacher at The Class by Taryn Toomey, she teaches at least 4 times a week while also overseeing hundreds of activations per year both locally and internationally, ranging from studio classes to mass gatherings for close to 1,500 people.
I first met Natalie through one of her Santa Monica class sessions and was immediately enthralled. Her hypnotic “cool-girl” throaty voice set the tone while her combined West Coast high vibes and New York humor kept me going (and laughing) my way through the extremely challenging physicality of the practice. In closing, she shared a work by one of her favorite authors, the poet David Whyte. I was moved to tears (it’s no secret that The Class is an ugly-cry kind of place), not only by the words, but by the depth and presence that I felt she exuded in that moment. The experience left me wanting to know more. Where did all that wisdom come from? How does she stay so “on” for both herself and for others? What’s her secret?
Where do you come from and how did you become part of The Class?
These days, it feels like no one is actually from LA. I am a Los Angelino, born and raised, by a family steeped in service. My mom was a nun and later a middle school teacher, and my father is the most brilliant and generous doctor. We’re a family that has a natural propensity for psychology: my dad studied it before choosing medicine, my mom was deep in Jungian work for 25 years, my sister is a Jungian analyst, and though my brother is in tech, he’s one of the most intuitive and insightful people I know. In college I studied theater – but more specifically, modalities from around the world that discover and express emotion through movement. After years of off-Broadway theater and dancing for rock bands, in 2013 I met, by happenstance, a woman named Taryn Toomey at Lululemon. From there, my life pivoted on a dime. I became dedicated to the practice that would eventually become known as The Class.
How can we strive for authenticity and truth in these times of such heightened visibility and filters?
These days, everyone seems to be doing it all – and doing it well – and p.s., they woke up like that. And so we play along too, because belonging is a human need. We do all the “right” things – we listen to Oprah’s podcast, drink matcha, meditate with Headspace for 5 minutes a day. These are the makings of the modern-day hashtag spiritual being, right?
Our tendency is always to do and say the things that will continue to proliferate the image we want of ourselves out into the world. In the advent of Instagram, we operate like our own personal PR campaign. But we really get to know ourselves, what we are attached to, what we truly identify with when the proverbial matcha spills right down our shirt…or much worse.
We may consciously believe ourselves to be one way. But who we really are reveals itself in the moments of disturbance. When the car won’t start, when the contract doesn’t go through, when our loved ones fall ill. “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine,” until I don’t get that thing I need to feel safe, secure and loved. “I’m good, I’m great, I meditate,” until the circumstances breach my control. And then we react.
What is one of your “much worse” moments? What causes you to react?
The most extreme time in my life – my “much worse” – was when my mom passed away. It was completely unexpected. She wasn’t in the hospital. She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t hurt. She was about to take a nap and something either happened to her heart or her brain (we’ll never know), and she died instantly in her bedroom.
In those extreme moments, you have no choice but to meet yourself. I saw all the ways in which I did or did not want to express my grief. I saw how I allowed myself to be cared for and how I cared for others. In the weeks after, I saw how my family leaned on each other and how we grew distant. Sure, spilling matcha will show you your propensity for irritation and frustration. A major life altering event will show you the purity, the rawness, the unmistakably human side of you that no amount of “filtering” can mask. When what is familiar to you is no longer available, you learn a lot about who and what you turn to in order to resource yourself. Ultimately, I grew from the not knowing. Not knowing how life would go on. From learning to live my life knowing only that it would never be the same.
What can you share from this to help others?
We all have different stories, but I believe everyone can relate to a moment of reacting unconsciously – whether it’s someone challenging your opinion in a meeting, or being cut off in traffic, or your partner forgetting to do that thing. The revelation isn’t the reaction itself but what the reaction is protecting: our sense of self. When our sense of self is confronted, we’ll do what’s needed to safeguard it. So, you spill matcha, which makes you look imperfect, which triggers your need to be perceived as put together, competent, and successful, which causes your sense of self to feel unstable, which sets off a reaction.
The very thing that disturbs us is actually us in its raw form. It reveals not who we consciously believe ourselves to be, but who we unconsciously believe ourselves to be.
And there begins the work.
Under our modern day “spiritual being” persona, who we are might be someone who needs to be liked by everyone, or we need to achieve the next level of success, or we need suffering because the familiarity of it is comforting. And should anyone dare challenge that sense of self, that sense of security we have cultivated for ourselves, they will feel the wrath of our reaction.
It is in the reaction that we discover our deeper attachment. Who shows up? The part of us that must maintain perfection? Or who puts down another in order to protect oneself? Or who self-shames instead of self-soothes? What part of us was challenged? This is the part that is still identified with someone or something beyond our true nature.
How do you apply this to your teachings at The Class?
The Class is about paying attention when the going gets tough. The container we offer you is that of physical difficulty: burpees, jumping jacks, strength training. Physical discomfort is no different than the discomfort out there in everyday life. We say this all the time: The Class is about practicing life. We guide students into the moment where they would react and ask them to pay attention in the midst of it. It is there we have a chance at dissolving our unconscious attachments to a false self. Attention thwarts identification.
We cry. The work isn’t to stop crying. It is to watch ourselves cry with compassion and curiosity. What identity was threatened that caused the reaction? And is that identity the real me?
And the part that watches ourselves from that eagle-eye vantage point can relax because we have created some distance between us and the disturbance rather than become enveloped by it. We are in a moment of growth. And that ought to be celebrated.
Incidentally, you don’t have to be going through something life altering to get the benefits of The Class. This practice is about your ability to evolve and awaken – at any stage, at any age, under any circumstance.
What are your thoughts on wellness these days? What do you see and believe behind this super-charged word and this multi-trillion dollar industry?
It’s tricky. There are a lot of things to buy out there promising “wellness.” But those expensive bath salts don’t do much if you’re sitting in the bath recounting all the things you are worried about. Ultimately, wellness comes down to presence. So if you’re going to drink it, bathe in it, lather it and so on, do so consciously.
What’s a method or thought processes that helps you stay well? And can help others do the same?
Sometimes I look at my schedule and immediately feel stressed. Something I do to help myself stay well or sane in those moments, is to remember that all I can do is what is possible in that moment – no more, no less. I don’t believe in multi-tasking, that it’s possible for the brain. So I remind myself that “this moment is like this,” it is no other way. Wishing it to be different is where all suffering lives. Start there.