March 23, 2013

Bringing Yoga to Rural America. ~ Cathy Woods

As you walk through city and suburban streets it is common to see yoga studios, people wearing yoga clothes or yogis with a mat in tow.

Most of us don’t think twice about it.

It’s different in rural America. There you’ll more likely see a hunter wearing camouflage with a rifle slung over his shoulder.

On occasion I still hear a comment like, “If you participate in yoga you will go to hell,” or I get the occasional “Jesus Saves” sticker adhered to one of my flyers.

You may find this hard to believe, but there are still residents here that have never heard of yoga. Because of this, I feel compelled to share my story as a “Rural Yogini /Yoga Teacher” and tell the story of yoga in the remote parts of our country.

I have been teaching and practicing yoga for 23 years. My yoga roots began at the Kripalu Center with Yogi Desai. From there I continued steadfast on this wonderful journey of self-realization, sharing it with others as my right livelihood.

My teaching formally began in Florida, where yoga was quite accepted in 1990. In 1996 I felt guided to move to the North Carolina Smoky Mountains, to an area that is barely on the map. Living in the Appalachians has been a 17-year delight, and I have come to love the richness of the local culture and community.

Yoga has never been a part of this culture and is actually quite foreign to the folks that reside in these mountains and remote hollows.

When I first moved to the Smokies, I kept my practice pretty quiet and dove deep into my personal practice/Sadhana.  After becoming more accepted as part of the community, I gradually started mentioning my yoga teaching. Finally, a woman said, “Why don’t you teach a yoga class here at our community center?

I didn’t immediately jump on this opportunity, as I had heard rumors and stories about the first person to teach yoga here in the 80s—a local, progressive physician who served the community’s medical needs.

I heard things like, “The locals think it’s witchcraft or devil work,” and that the residents were praying for the her in church services. Some even reconsidered going to her as their doctor.

For various reasons, she eventually discontinued the classes. Keep in mind, Southern Appalachia is very much part of the Bible belt and still replete with some very “primitive” churches.

After talking with my husband about being asked to teach, he suggested I lay low and half jokingly made the comment, “We don’t want someone burning down our barn.

I fudged a bit and told the community center I would offer a “stretch class” and not call it yoga. But my local contact (who was born and raised here) exclaimed, “I believe we are ready for yoga.”

With that I embarked on my first rural yoga class. About 15 people attended, and in these parts that’s considered a good turnout.

I think half came to see if I was doing any sort of hocus-pocus, but the majority really enjoyed the class and continue practicing yoga today.

Soon after classes started I noticed many students were naturally changing: they were doing more exercise, eating healthier diets, had more positive attitudes and were open to the teachings and philosophy of yoga.

I believe these positive life changes helped the practice of yoga blossom in this area. That, along with my dedication and non-threatening style of introducing yoga, as well as the gaining popularity of yoga in our culture, has made yoga an accepted and valuable part of our community.

I guess you could say I helped pioneer yoga into these mountain towns and hamlets.

I began teaching in the village over the mountain as well. Eventually I offered some of my classes through the regional community college, which by institutionalizing it a bit, made people feel more comfortable.

Gaining the trust of my students has been a delicate and gentle process.

For instance, to promote ease and safety, I initially used English rather the Sanskrit names for the asanas. In my initial classes we did not do any chanting. Once the students became more comfortable, I gradually interwove the practice of sound with carefully explaining any new concepts or language.

I have found it an art to choose the language to teach and promote the classes while still maintaining the essence and integrity of the tradition.

It is important for a good yoga teacher to be able to “read the class,” gear the class toward the comfort level of the students and to teach to a wide variety of participants.

Through my many years of teaching, I have learned that one does not have to call it yoga or teach in a specific way to be able to transmit the energy and essence of yoga.

It is much like the theory of mantra—the student that gets the words wrong but wholeheartedly repeats the chant will often attain the same benefits of the mantra.

An adamant ego can insist upon calling it yoga, but a rose by any other name smells as sweet. The most important thing is that students benefit from this practice in a way they can understand.

On occasion I still hear a comment like, “If you participate in yoga you will go to hell,” or I get the occasional “Jesus Saves” sticker adhered to one of my flyers.

I take it in stride.

It’s no longer unusual to see yoga flyers posted around town or spot a press release in the paper, as the residents have embraced yoga as part of the community offerings.

I happily believe the new openness to yoga in this rural area continues to expand. It also supports other wellness practices such as acupuncture, massage, Qigong, guest teachers and workshops.

Even some small studios are popping up. It has been wonderful to watch the consciousness rise about self-care, wellness and soul-enrichment practices.

Introducing this beautiful practice to Southern Appalachia has been a meaningful journey. I continue to watch its transformative effects.

So the next time you visit a small mountain town, you may just hear about a little yoga class that meets in the community center—come join us!

In the meantime, check out my video for more. It won an honorable mention through Yoga Alliance in 2012 and was shown at the California Conference.

Cathy is a long-time teacher and practitioner of yoga and healthy living. The roots of her teaching are expressed through her own self-realization, insights and creativity, knowing that her teaching comes from Divine Essence. Though she has maintained a connection to the Kripalu lineage and Yogi Amrit Desai for many years, she teaches the “yoga of her heart.” Her principles of teaching are to assist the students in creating an overall healthy lifestyle, helping them to embark on their own inner journey to Peace, Joy, Wellness and Love. Cathy’s classes, workshops and seminars have been offered in community programs, colleges, yoga retreats as well as resorts and spas.  She is truly suitable for ANY venue, always leaving the students with a positive experience regardless of their level of experience. Cathy is a registered multi-style teacher through Yoga Alliance. She is an ERYT 500 (experienced registered yoga teacher). To learn more about Cathy, visit www.cathywoodsyoga.com.

Like elephant yoga on Facebook.


Assistant Ed: Stephanie V./Ed: Kate Bartolotta

Read 8 Comments and Reply

Read 8 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,490