At my current site I started teaching yoga in a cold, small room next to the river in the Ecuadorian indigenous pueblo of Pambabuela. The space was previously used during the day by an elderly group to meet, do crafts and learn how to write. However, as a result of government cuts the building was abandoned – everything covered with a thick layer of dust. Just another sad reminder of services that no longer serve. In mass they had announced that I would be teaching chair yoga to the elderly population at 2:00pm and I arrived promptly at 1:45pm to ensure that I was there to greet my first students. By 2:30pm I was still waiting alone and incredibly anxious. I had taught in a coastal city before where the people were more open to yoga and some had even seen it on TV, but in this tiny indigenous town where people wouldn’t even make eye contact with me, was I deluded in thinking that people would show up? I was a long way from Corepower Yoga in Brentwood.
At 2:45pm a woman who I would later learn is Senora Rosa popped her head abruptly through the door. She grinned broadly at me, her many gold teeth shining through the grey room, and hobbled over to take the seat next to me. Much to my surprise by 3:00pm the room was a sea of colorful ponchos, black sombreros and glimmering smiles. We sat on broken benches, children’s chairs and rotting bookshelves. Open faces turned their attention to me as I explained a bit of the history of yoga, why it is beneficial to health and how we would modify it to tailor to the needs of the older generation by practicing in chairs. I remember very clearly that I choose to start the class with Lion’s Breath which led to a fit of giggles in the room. It was a risky move but trust me you haven’t lived until you have seen 40-year-old indigenous people laughing at each other, tongues out, exhaling into growls. The joy was instantaneous and the rest is history.
In the past ten years the 5,000 year old practice of yoga has gained an increasing population in the Western world. I first started practicing in high school when one of our kooky librarians started a meditation group. While it leaned too religious for my taste, I learned the power of breath and my interest in yoga rooted from my desire to learn more about my mental ability to find peace amongst chaos. Throughout the years my practice grew from the occasional class in sweats to a full-blown financial and physical commitment in the form of pricey studio memberships and daily sessions. Yoga has carried me through some of the most challenging times of my life and I owe a lot of my success to its community. As yoga gradually developed its trendy image I became obsessed with inversions, going deeper in my postures and sculpting the perfect body. I purchased $100 mats, stylish sports bras and proudly watched as yoga leggings took over my closet. Classes turned into a competitive fashion show that strained my relationship with my body and my bank account. About six months before I came to Ecuador, I canceled my then YogaWorks membership and joined a climbing gym. In the ultimate irony, yoga had shifted from being a form of escape, community and tranquility, to feeling like a forced activity aimed at putting on a show for society.
Almost three years later I teach eight yoga classes a week in two different communities: four classes in the local gym, two to elderly groups, and two with local factory workers. Classes range from three to forty people ages four to ninety-two. Not a single one of my students owns a real yoga mat. Not a single one of my students has heard of Lululemon. Not a single one of my students has ever paid a membership fee. Not a single one of my students is perfect. Yet, in my opinion, we form the purest yoga community I have ever been a part of. Nothing we do is outward facing. We use large sheets of foam crafting material for mats and each session is different depending on who is present but all focus remains on the shared group experience. Every session closes with a group “Ohm” and I am reminded daily of the unifying magic of our breath. Some days the room feels tense or sad or tired but by the end of our time practicing together, the negative energy is nowhere to be found. The vibes of my students are contagious and even in my hardest moments when I have to drag myself out of bed and trudge through frozen rain to teach, I never regret showing up. Getting together to practice yoga provides a safe space where judgement is dropped, health is promoted, happiness is shared and most importantly, a space where everyone belongs. Far away from the glossy, polished floors of the California studios, I have found a home in a different culture, country, language and climate – yoga did that.
To this day I am surprised at how willingly the people here accepted yoga. I would have never thought that yoga would have shaped my Peace Corps service in the way that it has. In two weeks my two years of living in this beautiful little town will come to an end and I will leave the classes to be continued by a few local individuals who recently completed my version of teacher training. My heart sinks when I think about leaving this amazing little yoga home we have created together. However, that is part of the beauty of yoga – it is something you can always carry with you and share. Once you have yoga in your life, you are never alone.
I urge everyone to jump into yoga in whichever way they can. Do not be intimidated by the yoga barbies, expensive gear and large price tag but instead, work with what you have. Yoga is sometimes more beneficial on a dirt floor than on a $100 Manduka mat. As long as you are breathing, you are capable of a fulfilling practice regardless of your physical limitations or age. Above all don’t take it too seriously – happiness is the acceptance of imperfection.
Happy International Yoga Day from my community to yours. *Inhale* Exhale*LIONS BREATH* Laugh*