The Southern Yogi

…on the Power of Breathing Through Your Struggles

By Minda Honey  | Photography by Clay Cook

For most of her adult life, Morgan Haley had been holding her breath. Haley, known as the “Southern Yogi” to her 361,000 Instagram followers, dedicated 10 years of her life to competitive swimming with the goal of making it to the Olympics, “In swimming you hold your breath… I was doing the only sport where you actually can’t breathe.” Three years ago, she gave up on that dream. She was burnt out and her marriage was in an uncertain place. That’s when she found yoga.

She tells me over tea at Please & Thank You that at first she constantly fell back into her old habit of holding her breath, “It was a huge adjustment. I was like, ‘I’m supposed to be moving with my breath.’ Especially in harder poses, I’d find myself just holding my breath through them.” She went on to say, “Yoga is just accepting where you’re at and yourself and your body. There is no competition. It’s just you and your mat.”

Haley, who will soon be 27, brought all of the challenges she was facing at the end of her marriage to her mat. “At that time,” she describes, “it wasn’t a person or a roof over my head – my mat became my home. Especially when you don’t have anywhere to turn to emotionally or physically, you’re just dumping emotions out on your mat.”

“For the first month, I was like ‘I’m fine, this is fine.’ I wasn’t really feeling anything,” says Haley about her entry into yoga. “Then the second month, I allowed my feelings to hit me and started accepting them and realizing it’s ok to be sad and excited at the same time – to be ok, but not ok.”

Slowly, she began piecing together a new life through yoga, her faith and therapy. “I found a bomb therapist,” Haley shares. “Anyone who’s going through anything should have a therapist because it’s such a safe space to open up. She pulled me up out of the trenches.”

In need of a flexible schedule to focus her time and energy on yoga, Haley left her role as an ultrasound technician at an area hospital and worked as a barista at Starbucks. Then in January 2016, her popularity on Instagram took off. Haley, who couldn’t even touch her toes when she first began yoga three years ago, now travels around the country and the world teaching yoga classes and sharing videos and photos every week with her followers. Regular cameos are made by her handsome, fun-spirted acro-yoga partner – Keoni Glory aka @keoniology – who is her partner in all things.

Instagram success is rarely a direct formula. Haley says her follower count is the result of a mix of things, but mostly her efforts to remain relatable. “I try to be as open as possible so I post bloopers. It’s not just a feed of perfect yoga poses. I try to show people you can start from anywhere and do this,” she expains.

That openness means not shying away from the contradictions. Despite her super cute yoga wear (she’s sponsored by “Studio to Street” brand Alo Yoga) and her fandom on a social media platform known for its filters and contrived reality, she’s no “yoga Barbie.” People are often surprised to learn she isn’t a vegan or even a vegetarian. She says with a giggle, “I live in the South. I really love hot chicken from Royal’s.” And she loves to bake. “I bake desserts all the time that aren’t gluten-free or dairy-free, Haley confesses.”

She’s also been transparent about her hardships. “It’s been really neat to be able to help other women,” she says, “to be able to pull someone up out of the depths of despair and let them know that it doesn’t matter what you’re going through, you’re going to be ok.” Throughout her twenties, Haley has learned, “As soon as you get out of your comfort zone, that’s when you’re being pushed in the right direction.” She says, “When your life is so one foot after the other that you don’t have think about it or have any feelings about it, you’re probably stuck in a pattern that you shouldn’t be in.”

Most of Haley’s Instagram followers are women. A recent post on the “female body” has more than a million views. In the caption beneath the short video, Haley is essentially stating her body is her body and she won’t be shamed into wearing anything uncomfortable because of someone else’s discomfort. During our chat, she adds, “The human body is such an amazing thing. It doesn’t have to be sexualized. I just wear whatever I’m comfortable in. I wear that stuff whether 350,000 people are watching me or no one is watching me. That’s what I’m comfortable in.” Haley, invites anyone who disagrees with her stance to seek out another feed to follow: “I tell people you can be the juiciest peach on the tree, but somebody’s not going to like peaches.” 

One of her favorite aspects of Instagram fame is when her followers send her progress photos. Haley has two e-books in her Ab’Asanas series. “There’s ‘Expanded and Updated’ which is all levels,” Haley explains. “It’s pretty much for anyone and everyone, but it really hones in on creating a functional strong core. I’m not so much focused on a six-pack as I am something that’s functional, something that’s not only going to help you on your mat, but also going to help you carry in 10 bags of groceries.” Her other book, she says, “builds off the first one, but is very heavily focused on arm balances and inversions. So, it gets people comfortable with the idea of being upside down and how they can incorporate that into their practice.”

Prospective students can follow Haley on Instagram to keep up with where she and Glory will be teaching next. When in town, they teach at Crossfit Covalence on Barret Avenue on Sunday mornings. It’s the gym where they met and the class is pay-what-you-can. The day after our interview happens to be Sunday and she happens to be teaching, so I blow the dust of my yoga mat and go.

As I’m trying to tug my body into poses and positions that do not come naturally to me, I begin to look around at the other women in the room. I begin to feel insecure. I begin to wish I’d stayed in bed instead. Then, I remember a bit of yoga advice that Haley gave during our interview, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” It steals the wins you’re having every day if you’re comparing them to other people.” It’s not just in yoga, but also in life. You can either lead a life focused on checking all of the right boxes or you can lead a life that breaks free from the boxes, a life that is truly your own.

I look up from my mat at Haley – former competitive swimmer, former wife, former ultrasound technician, current yogi, current world traveler, current woman-loving fiercely – and she’s smiling at me. I smile back. And then, I look down and I pour it all into my mat. The other women fade away. It’s just me and my breath and endless possibilities.

You can follow Morgan Haley on Instagram at @the_southern_yogi or learn more about Ab’Asanas at @ab_asanas. Order her e-books and keep up with her blog on her website: www.thesouthernyogi.com.