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My Personal Yoga Journey

So much has happened in the Yoga world in the past few years as the practice has continued to become more and more popular, and even Western medicine has started to incorporate Yoga into healthcare. As we watch the practice of Yoga evolve and grow, I want to share more about my personal Yoga journey – why I started practicing, why I started teaching, and what the practice means to me. Especially in light of changing perspectives and the movement to (finally) honor Yoga’s roots – indeed the SEEDS of Yoga and be more inclusive of all communities of people who have been left out of typical images of “yoga” in the Western world. (for the purpose of this article I am capitalizing the word “Yoga” to mean the actual 5,000 year traditional practice and “yoga” to mean the yogic exercise that is popular in the West that leaves so much of the tradition out.)

To understand a bit more about Yoga’s history, how it got here in the West, and how it changed over the years, I recommend watching this brief lecture by Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani:

My own personal journey to the practice of Yoga did not start in a studio. Studios were never affordable for me, and the culture around them always turned me off. I came to yoga through personal study in my 20’s. I was reading Krishnamurti and Rabinadrath Tagore, Hermann Hesse, Rumi and Thich Nhat Hahn and many other Eastern philosophers, as well as Indigenous writers of North America (there are similarities in some cultural beliefs when you look at practices like Ayurveda and North American medicine – both living in balance with the natural world). I was very interested in Buddhism and began practicing meditation, again on my own, and largely uninstructed. I was also exploring my own heritage and learning how to work with Earth energy and Reiki energy, and how to heal with medicinal plants. My soul searching led me to Inipi ceremonies with Wallace Black Elk and Arvol Looking Horse, keeper of the sacred Lakota pipe brought by White Buffalo Calf Woman.

I began practicing Yoga on a rug in my home with a book on Hatha Yoga. I occasionally picked up a class here and there where I could find it – usually in a gym. I developed a daily practice on my own. As I got older and began dancing as a career, yoga helped me to keep limber and naturally accompanied my dancing. I still did not go to a studio, and still could not afford membership, nor did I feel a need or desire to join one. Finally, after watching my grandmother (who had once been a very athletic woman, at a time when not many women were encouraged to go into sports) deteriorate due to arthritis, and lose her mobility, I decided I wanted to learn to teach Yoga to help people keep their mobility as they aged. I already had a basic understanding of the therapeutic aspects of Yoga.

It was at this time that I took my first 200-hour course – which was self-paced through the American Fitness Professionals Association – They are similar to ACE fitness, but, unfortunately less well-known. However, they used to host an annual conference in Ocean City, MD, in my backyard, where I could go for CEU’s each year. They were affordable and offered me an entrance point in teaching methodology so that I could explore if I even wanted to pursue this as a serious career path. However, they also taught “yoga” without grounding it in one particular lineage, and ignored much of the spiritual aspects of Yoga. I began teaching older adults in small group classes, as well as residents at an active adult senior living community. Then I decided to get a second certification that was Yoga Alliance approved (even though the standards of that organization are now known to be not very stringent, and in fact it is quite easy for anyone with the money to get a yoga teaching certification). My second 200-hour certification was with Marianne Wells, who studied in the lineage of BKS Iyengar. It took me a year of searching to find Marianne. I did not want to learn a “style of yoga” invented or branded in the West. I did not want to learn a Western teacher’s “trademarked brand” of yoga. I just wanted to learn how to instruct Classical Hatha Yoga. When I found Marianne, her teaching philosophy spoke to me. Under Marianne, I became more and more interested in how to make the practice of Yoga accessible for all. This had always been important to me in my work with older adults, many of whom had “disabilities” (or “different abilities”) including movement limitations, heart conditions, neuro-muscular diseases and partial paralysis from strokes, and visual and hearing impairment as well as dementia. Marianne encouraged me to join the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), and continue my studies at Kripalu. However, I did a year of research into IAYT approved schools before deciding to study with Joseph LePage at Kripalu, eventually completing the Integrative Yoga Therapy 800 hours to receive my Yoga Therapy certification. I still did not belong to a yoga studio, though I had tried a few drop-in classes at various studios at this time, but still found them to be largely expensive, and still unaccessible.

By this time, yoga was becoming incredibly popular, and sadly the image presented nearly everywhere was of young, white, thin, bendy women in tights doing crazy pretzel postures.

I could not relate to those women. I was 40 by the time I got certified to teach Yoga, although I had been practicing most of my adult life. I am relatively athletic, b/c I have made my living dancing, and ever since I lost my excess college weight, I have made exercise and a healthy diet an important part of my life – although not to any extreme. “Everything in balance” is pretty much my motto. I am actually not all that bendy. I struggle in many postures. Yoga has helped me strengthen my core and to increase my flexibility, but I am still not “bendy”. More importantly, Yoga has helped me maintain mobility and stability in my joints and the 8-Limbed practice has helped me to be a better person, improving both my physical and mental health.

It has always been my desire as a teacher to help others on their journey towards wellness in a world that has mostly lost its connection to traditional medicine and spiritual practices that are holistic and connected to the Earth. I came from a Buddhist background into Yoga, and taught more from that perspective than from the Hindu perspective of Sanatana Dharma, although I understood enough about Yoga’s origins to honor the tradition in my teaching, using proper Sanskrit names for postures and breathing practices, but also explaining these concepts to my diverse students so they did not seem foreign and they could relate to them in a way that helped them progress on their own path of Awareness.

Throughout my Yoga therapy studies, I have learned trauma informed practices and how to make Yoga more accessible for all. There is nothing in the 8-limbed practice of Yoga that makes it geared more towards white, wealthy, bendy, thin women. Although, certainly these women may benefit from the practice; Yoga also benefits men, larger bodied people, older people, people of color, LGBTQI, people of all religions, people with disabilities, and people who are too poor to take lessons. Yet, yoga studios still continue to miss the boat on serving most of these populations. For this reason, I have taught mostly in "non-traditional" spaces including assisted living and senior residential communities, dementia care, small fitness centers (not big franchises) like Meadowbrook Aquatic Center and Body in Motion Fitness with more diverse clientele, and for City employees (including Salisbury and Baltimore City), school systems, the YMCA, the Anne Arundel County Board of Education and private businesses promoting wellness to their employees, just to name a few places.

As it has become more “mainstream” to be inclusive, studios are marketing more broadly and some are taking measures to appeal to a wider audience, but often it’s simply to increase their profit. The seeds of Yoga are often still missing. And that’s because too many yoga studio owners don’t know the seeds of Yoga. It’s impossible to be well educated in the practice of yoga after only 200 hours of study – or even 500 hours of study and little exposure to the culture where Yoga comes from. Even 1000 hours of yoga therapy does not make one an expert on Yoga.

I’m glad studios are, at the very least, trying to become more accessible and inclusive – that is a positive step forward, but sadly, in the process, many younger teachers think they have somehow invented this “inclusiveness”, when in fact, Yoga itself has always been inclusive – it is Western teachers who have made it not inclusive. We can learn a great deal by listening to teachers from India who have been sharing this practice with the West since the early 1900’s.

So, how does one go about honoring Yoga and teaching Yoga? I think it takes a lifetime of care and study – of honoring the lineage and only teaching what you know. It’s important to know your own lineage, but to also be open minded and listen to elders who have carried this tradition – explore different translations of the Sutras. Learn Sanskrit. Be open-minded, but don’t be gullible.

Since the rise of “guru scandals” among not only Indian gurus, but also American gurus, some have coined the term “post-lineage” yoga. For more about this concept, read Theodora Wildcroft’s article, “What Dandelions have to teach us about ‘post-lineage yoga’.” Link: I personally think it is important to begin establishing a strong foundation and to know the lineage of your foundational teacher, to ground one’s self in a firm understanding of the practice and culture. Do your research and find the right teacher, and if during your study with that teacher you begin to suspect that they themselves are not honoring any of the 8-limbs, by all means, find a new teacher!

Once a foundation is established, I think it is important to explore and listen to other well-respected teachers, in order to broaden one’s views and experience. We all see the world in different ways and it can be helpful to expand your own horizons by considering different perspectives.

I have personally considered many times whether or not I am qualified to teach yoga. I do know that I am trained to help people help themselves therapeutically through yoga. I do know the research on the benefits of yoga on a variety of conditions from heart disease to dementia to anxiety to PTSD, and I understand how to meet people where they are, and how to teach people who suffer from a variety of health conditions. As long as my students are benefitting, and I feel I am following my own Dharma, I will continue to share these practices with them in a way that honors the tradition. I will also continue my own studies – always learning more and respecting those who gave us this amazing practice. The more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn. To this end, I recently enrolled in Yogamaharishi Swami Gitananda’s Yoga Step-by-Step program, which will take a year to complete, and give me an even stronger foundation in this incredible practice, grounding it in the Rishiculture Ashtanga tradition.

Thanks for being here and taking time to listen. Until next time, hope to see you on the mat! (Photo by Lana Foley Photography)

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