Resilient Communities and People: How Yoga Can Help

Guest post by Gaynell Collier-Magar

Hi everyone! I am so honored to be a guest blogger on Shawndra’s amazing website. Shawndra is one of my Irvington Wellness Center yoga students. She has a beautiful, thoughtful practice, both on and off of the mat. She personifies how yoga can help with resiliency in life.

Yoga is a 5000-year-old tradition of practices (the Eight Limbs) to reduce suffering and still the mind. It is not a religion. However, the practices have been incorporated by many religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, and contemplative Christianity to name a few.

The physical practice or “asana” (“seat”) is meant to create resiliency in the body and mind to enable sitting in meditation for long periods of time. Unfortunately, in the West, the physical practice is often perceived as the path to buns of steel, pretzel poses, and very thin 20-something bodies.

The first lines of the Yoga Sutras state: “Now, the teachings of yoga. Yoga is to still the patternings of consciousness”. The Sutras explain how our habitual ways of thinking create suffering and how we can remedy this.

When we are reimagining a future for our communities, yoga could be a useful tool.

Photo by Jenny Spadafora

Photo by Jenny Spadafora, via Flickr Commons

So how does this happen? In the physical practice, it begins with being in the present moment—in the body and the breath. To get a feel for what I mean, try this:

Notice how you are sitting now. Are you slumping? Good…notice how you feel heavy in your body. Now, sit up straight, feel your bottom sitting in your chair, feel your feet on the floor, and lift your chest. Do you feel any lighter in your body? Slump again and notice. Sit up again and notice. Now close your eyes, put your hands on the tops of your thighs and take three deep, slow breaths. Focus on the exhale.

What was your mind doing? Chances are it wasn’t making a to-do list, obsessing about the person at work who drives you crazy, or yearning after a piece of chocolate. You begin to get a glimpse of the mind becoming more still—an experience that increases in depth and length with further practice.

The practice is to notice what is happening in the present moment, practice non-reaction, and return to the present moment. Neuroscience is showing that these practices literally re-wire the brain.

Two of the liabilities of community work are burnout and lack of fresh ideas. Our ego-driven “monkey mind” robs us of tremendous energy and creativity. As we engage in practices that still the mind, we create a mindspace in which to think outside the box—and the energy to act accordingly.

Photo by TZA, via Flickr Commons

Photo by TZA, via Flickr Commons

We also create a mind that is equanimous and unattached, yet deeply caring. We create a mind that is focused and in the present moment. We create a mind that is resilient.

It is not a leap of consciousness nor faith to realize how resilient minds can create resilient communities. The Buddha said, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”

Gaynell has been a yoga practitioner for over 14 years. She was certified as a Vinyasa yoga instructor in 2009 by Rolf Gates and is a registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance. She is certified to teach adaptive yoga to people with physical disabilities, having studied with Matthew Sanford of Mind Body Solutions. She has taught Vinyasa, adaptive, and 12-step recovery yoga classes in Indianapolis and Cozumel, Mexico in Spanish and English. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work and owns her own landscaping business, Growing Connection.

Join Gaynell and other terrific instructors at Shine Out Yoga Celebration, July 11-12 in Indianapolis, benefiting Mighty Lotus.

Yoga: Leading with the Heart

I’ve practiced yoga for many years, starting in my 20s. My practice fell off in my 30s, around the time my health went wonky. For a long stretch, whenever I attended a class or practiced at home, the result was exhaustion and pain.

But in the last several years I’ve come back to yoga as I’ve rebuilt my health. Now I see my weekly Irvington Wellness Center class with Gaynell Collier-Magar as one of the pillars of my spiritual and physical self-care regimen.

Photo by Lyn Talley, via flickr Commons

Not a picture from our class. Photo by Lyn Talley, via flickr Commons

In Gaynell’s classes, you won’t find that punctilious solemnity that infects some yoga classes. She teaches with a lightness and authenticity that nourishes all comers. And she brings her whole self to teaching. I love that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Nor does she shy away from the spiritual underpinnings of yogic practice.

Week after week, she nudges us to experience the support of unseen energies around us, to feel into our physical bodies and the air around them.

As we move into a standing posture, Gaynell might say something like, “Lead with your heart; allow your heart to move toward the wall…and now [a smile in her voice], loosening the grip with which you normally hold your life, raise your arms overhead.” Which makes us laugh in self-recognition while carefully forming our bodies into the shape she models.

Photo by Ariane, via flickr Commons

Not a picture of our class or anyone I know. Photo by Ariane, via flickr Commons.

Sometimes it takes stillness to open us to the love that’s all around us. It happened in last week’s class when I found myself holding a posture called the Half Pigeon. This pose has us fold the torso over a bent knee while stretched out face-down on the mat.

Gaynell queues up her play lists with care, and for this extended hold of Half Pigeon, she played a song celebrating the Divine Mother. The vocalist sang her tribute with piercing simplicity. With my forehead pressed to the mat, I felt tears well up from deep inside.

In previous years I might have cried in yoga classes out of grief, out of frustration, out of anger at my body (or at the instructor). Sometimes I cried from plain old weariness and physical pain.

But my heart is full now, and my body and spirit feel replete. My tears are not expressions of hurt. I weep because I feel steeped in love and gratitude.

Photo by Nicolas L., via flickr Commons

Photo by Nicolas L., via flickr Commons

Have you felt that—that opening in your heart center like a flower’s petals unfurling? I hope you have. I wish it for everyone.

I used to believe (or part of me shouted loudly enough to make me think I should believe) that an open heart was less essential than, say, large dramatic projects. It was the outer stuff that would change the world, not the inner.

Now I tend to think that this infusion of love is foundational to any external work, and that any worldchanging shift must manifest on both an internal and an external level.

Gaynell’s own writing will take a turn on this blog in coming weeks. Stay tuned to learn her perspective on how yoga supports resilient communities.