Editor’s note: Alexa Mergen, who teaches yoga in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, is passionate about bringing the practice to other small towns across the U.S. In Fall 2016, she joined the Yoga Service Council to connect with a like-minded community that would support her dream. Here, she reflects on what she learned from consulting with YSC Board member Carol Horton and YSC Advisor Jasmine Chehrazi. Such complimentary consulting services are now one of the many perks of YSC membership. For more information on how to become an Individual, Organizational, or Sustaining member, please click here.
What role can my small-town teaching space play in the 21st-century’s yoga flurry?
How can I bring my love of yoga to rural places that lack studios of their own?
Why should and how can yoga teachers help students develop their own home practice?
These were some of the questions I brought to Jasmine Chehrazi and Carol Horton, the mentors assigned to me when I joined the Yoga Services Council in September, 2016. My tiny studio, Simple, Joyful Yoga, had been open six months in Harpers Ferry, a small town of about 2,500 people in West Virginia. I taught a full load: up to 15 classes a week, both to private students and groups of two.
The transformations I saw among my students — most of whom were brand new to yoga — astonished me. Close personal attention, combined with the intimacy of my in-home studio space and their dedication to home practice, gave rise to changes in their breath patterns, posture, movement, sleep habits, ease and confidence levels.
Could this model, I wondered, be replicated by yoga teachers in other small towns and rural outposts? My operating costs are low: About a $75 investment in mats, blocks and straps from Walmart; another $250 in good-quality eye pillows, sand bags, and bolsters; and my own time and experience.
Could I take this model on the road and teach others how to teach yoga in their regions?
“Partner,” both Jasmine and Carol advised. Partner with non-profit and community organizations in rural areas.
Urban and suburban studios fill a different niche from mine, often operating as third spaces, as a cafe or a pub does. The populations in these areas support ongoing classes, as well as workshops and the studios’ bread-and-butter of teacher trainings. I was looking to equip people who found themselves far from studios with the tools to develop simple, sustainable home yoga practices that could be supported solo or in pairs.
Among my Harpers Ferry students, there are two sets that encompass three generations of the same family — grandparents through grandkids. They encourage each other. Others come with friends, or turn neighbors into friends through their partner practice.
Carol pointed out that short, specialized trainings for yoga teachers, as well as lay practitioners who do not want or need a full 200-hour teacher certification, are increasingly popular and useful. I could roll up in my RV trailer to a town where I’ve arranged a partnership with a hospital or social service agency, and offer a week-long home practice training for anyone who wants to make simple yoga a pattern in their lives. Such short trainings can go deep, including mindful breath awareness and asana within a framework of yogic philosophy. Participants who want to augment this intensive could travel to a studio-based teacher-training program, or attend a retreat.
This model fits well with my experience outside of yoga as a teaching artist and outreach worker, leading workshops in writing, journaling and creativity in conjunction with social service agencies, prisons, senior centers and schools.
Our conversation inspired and encouraged me. In one hour, I was able to ask the many questions I had. My mentors responded with honesty, patience and wisdom. I felt connected with a broad vision of yoga.
“We just have to do the work we’re inspired to do,” Jasmine commented, hearing through the phone my excitement about the possibilities we examined.
Carol pointed out how a little yoga can change a life, saying “Just 5 minutes in savasana can send someone on a different trajectory.”
Both mentors agreed that the yoga I’m offering operates largely outside the perceived Yoga Journal demographic — slanting, as Carol put it, “back to a more grounded, socially engaged side of things, dealing with the realities of everyday life.”
This is what I’ve found at Simple, Joyful Yoga. I run into my students with their kids at the park when I’m out walking the dog; they show me a pose they’ve been practicing. They invite their sisters, their commute buddies, and their husbands to form classes. Like a stand of trees that communicates through its root system, connections are made that are not apparent to the eye.
Quiet at the end of class, having moved and breathed in new ways, the students rest. Sometimes they offer a final comment before silence, remarking on the breeze through the open window, the crickets’ constant chatter. Then, they still. Like a candle, each student is the focus of my own meditation as they rest in Savasana, in a small room in a small town in the world.
I think of what one of my Zen teachers said: “We need more Zen corners, not Zen centers.” Yes, we need only a corner to offer our own yoga, sustained by the support of peers and mentors — like Carol and Jasmine — in other places.
Alexa Mergen, RYT-500, teaches Simple, Joyful Yoga to people of all ages and experience from an in-home studio in Harpers Ferry, WV. She also travels to leads workshops at teacher trainings programs and to bring yoga and mindfulness practices to rural places. Alexa is a journal keeper, a professional writer and student of Zen who loves the outdoors. Find her on Facebook or at her blog yogastanza.org. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note: The views expressed in YSC blog posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the YSC, its directors, officers, or members.