Over twenty years ago, Erika Greenwell was working at the Moscow Food Co-op when she heard through her aerobics class about a woman who was offering a noon-time yoga class. She signed up. Erica was stressed out and needed a new avenue of relaxation. She began with Iyengar-style yoga because “it was here,” she says, but at the time there weren’t that many methods. After a couple of years of taking yoga, she began courses in advanced study. That led to an opportunity to teach an introductory class, and “off I go,” she says to indicate how she launched her yoga teaching career. “Then the nineties yoga hit and all these other methods started coming along. This is just the first one I started with. Now I’m kind of an old-school Iyengar yogi because I believe what he has to say is amazing,” she says, talking about how westernized most popular yoga has become. “Once I started learning about yoga,” she says, “I watched it help people.” She tells about two of her students, one with a broken back and one with a permanently bent arm. Yoga, she believes, is helping both of them.
Erika says that yoga is “an art, a philosophy, a science.” Hatha yoga means the physical practice of yoga. “How to do Yoga” says, “A powerful antidote to the stresses of modern-day life, yoga is a practical philosophy that aims at uniting the body, mind and spirit for health and fulfillment.” Erika relates how Mr. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga, was a sick boy in India. Iyengar’s teacher took calisthenics that the Indian army was practicing and began teaching them to followers. Iyengar suffered from a variety of sicknesses as a child but was able to regain his health through studying yoga. He was also the first to bring yoga to the West in the 1950s. For the Western audience, he slowed yoga down and emphasized the physical aspects like alignment, strength, and flexibility. Mr. Iyengar, who is still alive and practicing yoga in India, is an example of what Erika thinks is great about yoga: “In our world, as we get older we fade away.” In yoga, students become more limber, practice more, and become more vibrant. She points out that two students in her Tuesday morning class are 70.
“More often than not, stress is the first thing,” that brings people to yoga classes, says Erika. Other common complaints that bring people in the door are lack of flexibility and low back issues. Often, students are surprised at how their stress level has dropped in 2 weeks. Erika says, “It’s easier than aerobics, companions well with biking, weight lifting, rock climbing, walking, and running.” She says it can be helpful for football players and basketball players. She’s taught yoga to the Washington State University women’s swim team and to ballet dancers. Erika has had yoga students that range in age from 12 to 70. She says, “Yoga’s where you come to learn physicality.”
For at least an hour a day, Erika practices her own yoga, and she also practices for class – what she will teach and how she will teach it. Her goals with teaching yoga are “to slow it down” and to work more therapeutically. She wants students to really think about why they are doing a particular pose and to be able to apply their yoga practice to their lives. She wants students to get to know their own bodies so they can self-monitor and self-heal through yoga. For instance, students learn to manage stress, tight hamstrigs, and low back pain.
Erika likes teaching because, she says, “I’m in charge.” She says, “There’s a certain charge in being in charge.” She is able to show students what they can do to create a challenge for them. “To create a challenge for a human and have them be successful is stupendous,” she says. An example is when a student doesn’t think he can do a handstand and then he is successful. She recently began offering some new classes, including yoga for men and restorative/gentle yoga. She says, “I want all kinds of people to understand they can take yoga.” She wants people who are in pain or who lack flexibility to feel comfortable taking yoga.
The advantages, she says, of teaching in a small town are longevity. She says, “students really learn. There isn’t as much turnover in the classes. If our physical practice doesn’t lead us, it’s an empty practice in my eyes,” she says, “I want people to understand their physicality. Yes, I know what a bicep is. Yes, I know what my hamstring is.”
Although she wants the physical practice to come first, she says being together in a room for three hours a week makes way for other things. She says through spending time with community members we get to know one another. “We help each other support and challenge” she says, and other differences, like political affiliation or income level, become smaller. Also, Erika says there is a service and devotional aspect, that to go to yoga is to check in with one’s body and community for three hours a week.
If you’re interested in taking yoga, Erika says to research where you’re taking yoga from. Find out how many people are in a class and what method they’ll be teaching. Get a video. Buy books or check them out from the library. Start to read about it. Go online and research the nine nationally-recognized different kinds of hatha yoga. She also says you don’t necessarily need a teacher. She even points out that self-study is a subset of one of the eight limbs of yoga. You can buy a book or video and learn the poses yourself.
Originally appeared in The Ruralite, June 2011