January 18, 2017It's 1994 and I'm in a classroom at Almont High School. The lights are dimmed. There's some drumming type music playing low in the background.
It's an adult education class, back when the school districts had enough cash in the coffers to offer 'enrichment courses.' They ran the gamut from photography to beginning computers. I'm in the 'introduction to yoga' class.
The desks have all been pushed against the wall in the room. The teacher is sitting atop a horizontal strip of rubbery-looking material, her legs are crossed and she's got a smile on her face. Though the room is dark, there's a light in her eyes that draws me in and makes me feel safe.
I've got a pad and pen with me, ready to write down all of the pearls of wisdom and what I'm certain are going to be complex inner-workings of the discipline I've been interested in for so long.
There are three others in the class. It seems interest in the discipline isn't huge around the area, but it doesn't matter as the teacher is committed to guiding us nonetheless. We are living proof of the sage adage that 'when the student is ready, the teacher appears.' And here we are.
The teacher's name is Shirley Fillion and she lives in Allenton. She is in her early 60s—62, perhaps, if I recall correctly.
Whatever the age, I am blown away at the positions in which she arranges her body with ease; by the calm that seems to emanate from her being and by the light that's dancing in her eyes.
She starts out with one sentence that in hindsight I understand is aimed to put everyone at ease.
"Yoga is not a religion," Shirley says. "It's a 5,000 year old system of exercises for mental and physical health; a Hindu philosophy that teaches a person to experience inner peace by controlling the body and the mind."
Shirley tells us that the physical postures are just a small part of the practice; that they're a gateway to the bliss and freedom of controlling one's own thoughts, of focusing on the here and now, of being "mindful" of what's happening in the present moment, which is really all we have at any given time.
We learn the key to all of this is the breath—pranayama—the life source. Connecting with the breath, learning to breathe deeply with awareness. It's simple and accessible to all, and it's a practice that you can take anywhere, into any situation. Shirley points out that medical studies have shown that mindful breathing is beneficial in a variety of stress-related situations.
I'll admit I'm a little disappointed that we're talking about something so simple and so mundane. Later I learn that the mindful breath is everything, and I take that practice off the mat and into every day life often. It keeps me from reacting badly when someone cuts in front of me on the road; from crying when it would be too revealing to the present company, and from screaming out in pain when I've injured myself. Breathing through all of these things helps me remain calm.
That's not the only lesson I take away from Shirley's yoga classroom. Nor the only revelation or inspiration that would lead me right here.
Today I walk in the footsteps of my first yoga teacher—and will be offering my own yoga series at the Ruth Hughes Library in Imlay City. Called 'Peaceful Moon Yoga,' the series is designed to increase flexibility and range of movement while decreasing stress; to reconnect with the miraculous bodies which carry us through this life in a serene setting. The first class is next Thursday, January 26 from 6:30-730 p.m. It's free to library card holders. Later I'll set up shop at Extreme Cheer and Dance in downtown Imlay City, where the beautiful and gifted entrepreneur Sue Howard has kindly offered to mentor me.
It's a little surreal to me to be where Shirley once stood. Close to the same time in life she stood there as well. I can only hope I do as good a job as she did in inspiring a lifelong discipline. I welcome all who wish to join me on the journey. Namaste.
Email Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.