Real People, Real Yoga


“Healthy plants and trees yield abundant flowers and fruits. Similarly, from a healthy person, smiles and happiness shine forth like the rays of the sun.” – B.K. S Iyengar

People from all walks of life can improve their quality of living through the practice of yoga. There are so many benefits to the heart, the body the spirit that I don’t think there’s a person on this earth who doesn’t benefit from taking up a practice. I encourage and sweet talk people into taking up yoga every single day.

I’ve worked with autistic children, stroke survivors and cancer patients. I’ve taught in spas, in schools, in fitness centers targeting the wealthy, in a homeless shelter and in inner city gyms. I have never left a class without feeling like I touched someone in some way. I have also never left a class without feeling like someone touched me in some way.

“Do your practice and all is coming.” – Sri K Patthabi Jois

A few months ago I started teaching yoga at an inner city gym. I walked into that gym thinking I was going to instruct the members. Instead, I find that I learn lessons every time I walk in the door.  I admire the people; they have little money, little education and very little experience with fitness. They come in, they do their best and they try hard. They try really hard. Not only are they trying, they’re laughing through the classes and encouraging each other in ways you normally don’t see in a gym setting.

It is a challenge for me to take classes I’ve been teaching for years to full classes and break them down to a lower than beginner level for a class of 3-4 people. I also have to try and relate the movements to things they’re familiar with. I have even had to break things down to the level of explaining to a group of grown women that they would be much more comfortable if they worked out in a sports bra.

Teaching in the inner city is sometimes frustrating, but what an opportunity to serve. Having to take my work down to the simplest but most impactful level is a difficult but rewarding task. I truly feel I am helping people get healthier. I am very grateful for the opportunity to do so.

“The sun shines down, and its image reflects in a thousand different pots filled with water. The reflections are many, but they are each reflecting the same sun. Similarly, when we come to know who we truly are, we will see ourselves in all people.” – Ammachi

I learned another lesson recently when I taught a yoga class to 20-30 grade school children and their parents.  What fun to change the asanas into games and to have the kids giggling while doing yoga. We did Lion’s Roar and Simon says with the asana. The meditation became a story. Contrary to what you would think, I believe that children actually do a better job of letting go and relaxing than their adult counterparts. I hope to have other opportunities to flex my imagination muscle and work with kids again.

“Yoga is about mind, body, and heart,” she says. “It helps you stay focused on a task, it helps you feel good in your body, and it helps you feel good in your heart. That’s sustainable for the lifetime. It’s a time to just shut everything out, and it builds community with these kids. I think it’s important to offer that early on.”- Marilyn Pace, Diary of a Children’s Yoga Newcomer

Working with autistic teenagers at a summer camp was a lesson in learning how to project my instructions in a literal manner with no shades of grey. Even the high functioning campers, while enthusiastic, took each and every word of instruction at its face value. My favorite question was when one of the teenage boys asked the meaning of “Namaste.” When I told him the word is a recognition of each other’s light and energy, he was greatly disappointed. He was hoping for a more mystical answer. It was hard not to laugh at that comment, but I knew with his literal mindset it would hurt his feelings if I did. I’ll try to come up with something more mystical for the next time I’m asked.

Another group of people with an upbeat, but literal mindset are the stroke survivors I work with. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with these heroes. Every time I work with them, I am overwhelmed by their every day courage. It takes courage to force yourself to move limbs that don’t want to move. It takes courage to do tasks that used to be simple but that you now have to dig deep down to accomplish. It takes courage to communicate when the words no longer flow as easily as they once did.

Another thing that fascinates me about the stroke survivors is how supportive they are of each other. Recently, the group worked with one of the female survivors to help prepare her for a job search. The entire group threw themselves into the process. They did a make-over for her using clothing that had been donated and with others donating their time to help her do her hair and makeup. The result was a stroke survivor who was glowing with all the praise and attention. The whole group glowed in her reflection.

“Remember the emphasis on the heart. The mind lives in doubt and the heart lives in trust. When you trust, suddenly you become centered.” – Osho

Many years ago, the executive director at the gym I worked for was constantly stating how yoga wasn’t a real workout. He was a former professional football player and worked out with the weights every day. Even though he supported yoga in the gym and was generous in his praise for what I was accomplishing with my classes, he scoffed at the idea of actually doing yoga himself.  I told him almost weekly that if he’d take my class I’d teach that class for free. He never would do it. Eventually, he left our facility and went to a local homeless shelter as the fitness director. One of the first things he did was ask if I’d volunteer to teach yoga at the shelter. The only possible response was “of course.”

The hope and intention of the classes was to give the homeless a tool to help them cope with the stress of their homelessness. The group was open and receptive to the moves and the message, but I don’t know if it helped relieve any of their stress. I was surprised and disheartened by the fact that I kept seeing the same faces week after week. I would’ve loved to have one of the regulars disappear because they had found a way to move off the street. Unfortunately, after just a few months, my friend left the shelter and the shelter chose not to continue the classes.

Too often modern American society views yoga as something that is done in spas and new age thought centers.  I see my yoga practice as something to be brought to everyone no matter their circumstances. I feel truly blessed that I’ve been able to bring my thoughts and my practice to so many different groups of people.

 “Yoga is the unifying art of transforming dharma into action, be it through inspired thought, properly nurturing our children, a painting, a kindness or an act of peace that forever moves humanity forward. “ – Micheline Berry


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