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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Cultivating Community and Connection with Yoga

May 01, 2020 09:00AM ● By Sheila Ewers
Since early March when the coronavirus epidemic began to sweep across the country, people everywhere have been forced to adapt to being confined in their homes. We face a unique and unprecedented challenge as we navigate the uncertainty of the future, the instability of finances and the fears of contagion. For yogis, who often rely on sangha, or community, for spiritual support and comfort, disconnection from the physical space of a studio can prove particularly difficult.

Nevertheless, the practice of yoga is made for times such as these. The teachings of yoga remind us that even amid great suffering and the fluctuations of external circumstances, we can access tremendous peace and equanimity by directing our attention inward and connecting to the inner light of awareness.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras identify suffering as an unavoidable aspect of human existence. Here’s a passage translated from Sanskrit:

Change, longing, habits, and the activity of the gunas can all cause us suffering. In fact, even the wise suffer, for suffering is everywhere. —Yoga Sutra 2.15

The Sanskrit word dukkham, used in this passage for “suffering,” also translates to “tightness” or “constriction in the chest.” The way to navigate and soothe this constriction, the text suggests, is through commitment to the practices that purify perceptions and connect us to the inner Self—practices such as asana, pranayama and meditation. We can’t change the reality of difficulty, loss, isolation or uncertainty, and we can’t change that those things may cause mental, physical and emotional pain. But over time, we can change our responses to the difficulties that emerge. According to the Sutras, when the fluctuations of the mind settle as a result of practice:

Then, the inner conscious is revealed, we come to know the true Self, and our obstacles are reduced. —Yoga Sutra I.29

Whether you have been practicing yoga for many years or are interested in exploring it for the first time, our current circumstances present a powerful opportunity to lean deeply into the tools that yoga offers to establish equanimity. Studio owners throughout Atlanta understand this and have called upon their own flexibility, adaptability and inner resolve to support their communities even while they cannot share physical space. We connected with some of them to discuss what they are doing to support their teachers and students.

Octavia Raheem co-owns Sacred Chill West, located in the Upper Westside, with Meryl Arnett; Lauren Reese co-owns breatheYoga Atlanta, located in Cumming, with her mother Peggy Smith; and Mandy Roberts is the owner of FORM{yoga}, located in Decatur.

Each of you had to close your studio in order to keep your community safe in these challenging times. How are you maintaining contact with your teachers and students? Are you offering online classes?

Octavia Raheem: Throughout our decision-making process we kept coming back to who we
Octavia Raheem
are, Sacred Chill. This moment asked us to dig deep and honor what is truly sacred, our interconnectedness and collective well-being. So, we closed on March 13. We communicate with our teachers at least twice a week. We messaged every member immediately. We had been working on a pre-recorded Sacred Chill {At home} studio, so we continued to work on that. We thought it was important to offer our community something that was steady, anchored, unrushed and something we didn’t scramble to produce. We moved intentionally, steadily and with many deep breaths as we pivoted. Anyone who wants to join us can access our online studio at SacredChillWest.com/Sacred-Chill-at-Home/.

Lauren Reese: To stay connected to my teachers we have a couple of different sanghas. We
Lauren Reed
use GroupMe and a private Facebook group. We have had some team meetings over Zoom to maintain a sense of community, and we’ve also created a private breatheYOGA member Facebook group to maintain a sense of community for our students. We post positive quotes, recipes and encourage community via this group. We are offering live and recorded classes for members only, and we created an “online-only membership” package for our class package people. We have at least two live streams a day and over 35 classes in our on-demand class library, all of which can be found by visiting  www.breatheyogaatlanta.com  and following the link on our home page.

Mandy Roberts: I made a very difficult decision to close FORM{yoga} on March 15, ahead of
Mandy Roberts
any government orders in our area. Community has always been incredibly important to me, and the health and safety of our community is paramount. As a very active and visible studio owner, my community looks to me to make these tough decisions. That is not always easy to do, especially when you know that economic challenges are ahead. My main priority at this time was to make sure that our studio teachers received clear and concise guidance and communication from me. Yoga teachers are the backbones of our studios, and I wanted to do everything I could to continue to support them, pay them a wage to teach and also to honor those that choose to not teach and stay at home with their families. To help combat the economic downfall and to give our teachers the opportunity to earn money, I created an online platform of pre-recorded classes for our students to access. In addition, we have played with a few live classes that encourage community participation. These offerings have been incredibly well-received and very much appreciated by the community. Currently we have recorded upwards of 80 offerings and plan to keep adding to the library of classes after we reopen as a perk to our members. You can find a link to our online studio at FormYoga.com.

What yoga “tools” are helping you to navigate this new frontier? What practices are helping you to continue your work?

Raheem: My practice has been anchored in yoga nidra, meditation, restorative, and yin for years. I am deeply feeling the benefits of having practiced “chill” yoga for years: yoga that demands stillness, presence, willingness to sit in discomfort, feel to heal, ultimately move through versus around inner obstacles, while also toning the nervous system. My physical practice is free movement, dancing, shaking, and some structured movement that looks like what many call “yoga.” The practice that is holding me steady in this moment is yoga nidra, prayer, and journaling.

Reese: My personal meditation practice has been crucial to keeping me grounded and focused.

Roberts:  I have not had much time for a physical practice since all of this began, however the best tool to keep me grounded has simply been my breath. When I start to feel ungrounded or reactive, I close my eyes, take a few deep breaths and become connected to sensations in my body. This allows me to honor all the emotions that I am experiencing yet stay centered and focused on moving through.

How do you think this chapter in time will affect the broader yoga community when “normal” life resumes?

Raheem: The infinite and inherent value in our yoga practice is being revealed in a way that it never has been. People are accessing yoga from their homes. People are beginning to practice and are finding their way. People will no longer be so concerned about what shape they can make with their bodies. They will know that yoga is so much more than what the body can perform or do. Some studios will make it. Some studios will not. Yet, when we emerge, there will be more of us on the path and on our individual paths toward liberation, truth and freedom via yoga. Our community is stronger than this moment. We will rise.

Reese: I think this experience will make us all stronger. I am excited to finally have an online library option for my students who travel for work and want to take their regular yoga practice on the road. I feel so proud of the human connections we are making even through difficult circumstances. Henry Kissinger said, “a diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.” I believe that right now we are all feeling that pressure, but through our connected community, we will shine bright like a diamond on the other end of this.

Roberts: I think it’s tough to say what the yoga community will tangibly look like on the other side of the pandemic. I do believe that we have a great opportunity to connect more deeply with each other moving forward. Sometimes it takes a poignant experience to awaken us to what is truly important.

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Founder of Johns Creek Yoga and Duluth Yoga Center, Sheila Ewers leads daily yoga classes and yoga teacher training classes and hosts retreats locally and internationally. She has been published in several online magazines, including Elephant Journal and Writers Resist. Reach Sheila at [email protected]
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