Why Yoga? How ECI’s Community Yoga Classes Relate to Our Mission by Dr. Marc Fasanella
The Ecological Culture Initiative is a secular, community-based organization geared toward improving our connection to the ecosystem through cultural intervention. Yoga is seen by some as a religion and by others as a form of exercise - so why do we offer Yoga?
There is a personal story I’d like to share that should help make the connection clear.
A decade ago I emerged from a ten-year period of intense personal challenge. I took responsibility for my late father’s artistic career; my academic home shut down around me (Southampton College); my mother developed Alzheimer’s, I took charge of her affairs, and her eventual hospice care; my beloved father-in-law as well as intellectual compatriot become increasingly feeble physically and mentally until he too passed on through hospice; and (surprise, surprise) my marriage of twenty years dissolved - halving my full time residency with two beautiful young children whom I longed to read stories to every night. I knew that my tragedies and struggles paled by comparison to so many who have suffered violence perpetrated against them (such as the murder of loved ones or the vagaries of war) but my head was spinning, and it was hard to focus, stay positive, enjoy life, and move forward. I spent little time outdoors and felt disconnected from nature, ate poorly, was disinterested in my creative pursuits, etc. My gaze was very inward in destructive ways and I needed help. I began teaching sustainability at the time but it all to seem so meaningless. I was exhausted, out of shape, and disengaged.
I had a good friend and colleague who had endured a series of personal challenges of her own and had developed a Yoga practice. She touted the benefits of attending classes regularly. I was lonely, depressed, felt empty, and often lost - what did I have to lose? I had always been a very physical person prior to this period and accustomed to long hours of outdoor labor. I had from all of this work developed a range of arthritic conditions (knee, back, elbow, shoulder, hip) having carried loads that were a bit too heavy or working a bit longer than was rational takes its toll.
I remember struggling during the first beginner yoga class with the exercises, being amazed at my own lack of flexibility and functional strength, and surprised by the strength and flexibility of others in the class who appeared less physically active than I was. At the end of the class, there was a rest period called savasana. The intent is to allow the body and mind to calm completely after a period of physical challenge that demands concentration. You are restful but the goal is not to sleep, but to lie for ten minutes or so in a position of physical and mental repose that has you calm, focused, peaceful, reflective, conscious, but blithely unaware of anything physical. You become immersed in the most essential self, not connected to the external world in any way.
I felt that peace – profoundly -- that first evening. I remembered having felt the same peace when I was younger, looking up at the stars at night or a cloud-filled sky on a sunny day, marveling at the beauty of just being in that place at that time, aware of the beauty and nothing else. I had no worries about who I had been or who I was going to be. I was able to just enjoy the sensuousness of life for that perfect moment, and the immediate moments that followed. That first night and many thereafter, I left the Yoga studio feeling lighter, more engaged, connected, peaceful, and reflective with the world around me. I often walked to a café with the friend who encouraged me to take the first class, and was able to enjoy our and conversation and the coffee I was sipping fully without distractions. I didn’t dwell on the intense dull pain that I had felt in the center of my forehead or the pit of my stomach for so long. I was just me again for a few moments, until the subtle cues that reminded me of my troubles crept back into my consciousness, as time passed.
I don’t really remember how often I attended classes after that first evening, but I did start a regular practice of attending them. Not always, but often, I left yoga classes with the same calm and inner focus I felt the first few nights, and had the added benefit of gaining flexibility and usable strength when I labored outdoors. Many of my arthritic afflictions were abated as long as I practiced Yoga. If I stopped my practice for more than a week, back came my arthritis and anxieties.
Last June, after more than a decade of irregular practice, I took on the challenge of completing Yoga Teacher Training with my wife Anne. I was looking for a curriculum directly connected to the origins of Yoga in India, and we decided to take an intense, month-long training at the Sivananda Yoga Ashram in Woodburne, NY. The philosophy of Yoga was taught in equal proportion with the physical practice, and I found much in my training that deepened my understanding of our collective relationship to world we inhabit. The concepts in Yoga philosophy that describe our connection to all that is around us are mirrored in many other cultural traditions, but for me, I was able to shed many of the trappings of religion and ethnicity and parse an ethos that is applicable to modern life, and the changes we must make in our culture in order to tread lightly on the landscape we inhabit. Three Yogic concepts I find particularly relevant to the work that ECI has set out for itself are:
Atman: a Sanskrit word that means inner self, beyond identification with phenomena; the transcendent, metaphysical, essence of an individual.
This is what I experienced that first night at the end of the Yoga class during savasana. I think we all need to step out of the mental effects and pressures of our relentless consumer culture for a few moments to breathe and reflect on nothing in particular, just the essence of being alive. In the center of that reflection, we can become aware that we are not our car, or our house, or an eye or skin color, or type of hair. We are a consciousness that can reflect inward and outward in ways that do not connect us to the trappings and constraints of everyday life, but does connect us to each-other and the ecosystem that supports our life. We need this ability if we are to develop a clear sense of perception of how we as a species fit into the ecosphere that contains us.
Isvara: a Universal Absolute that connects and is the Oneness in everyone and everything. Here I update this term from a monotheistic Deity to a modern notion of Kincentricity (more on this in the next reflection). We are connected to our ecosphere through the bacteria in our stomach that enables us to digest our food, the fungus on our skin that keeps it healthy, the microbes and minerals in the food we eat, the air we breath, etc. We are a continuum, constantly evolving with our ecosystem, connected to it in profound and often unseen ways.
Ahimsa: means ‘not to injure' and 'compassion' and it applies to all living beings through the rich connection between ourselves and all that surrounds us.
Yoga is a path to accomplishing both mental and physical strength and flexibility. In my case, when I break my yoga routine after a short time the arthritis begins to affect me, and my mental clarity, focus, and connectedness to nature suffers as well. Many have found that tending a garden or spending time in nature also improve one’s mental and physical health, so we encourage all of these things as components of a healthy community culture – It is why the Ecological Culture Initiative is a cultural organization, and not solely an environmental organization.
ECI offers a donation-based community Yoga class at 6pm on Sunday evenings at Good Ground Yoga in Hampton Bays taught by a rotating group of affiliated teachers. Our goal is to supplement and nurture interest in the many other wonderful Yoga offerings in our community with a reflective, restorative practice related to our mission.