the centering practice of yoga

photography by Sarah Brewington

Many thousands of years ago, in a still-disputed time and place, people began to practice a spiritual, mental, and physical discipline that affected every aspect of their lives. The practice, now called yoga, has persisted through millennia and spread across the world. Yoga, in its various forms and iterations, is now practiced by millions of people worldwide. Its devotees include people of nearly every race, religion, and background imaginable, and many of them have chosen to make Lakeland their home.
In the West, the word “yoga” is most commonly used to refer to mastering various poses, or asanas. This physical practice emphasizes stretching, alignment, flexibility, and control, and takes place in classes all over the United States. The benefits of the physical practice — increased flexibility, muscle strength, and more — are wellproven. But practicing the asanas is only a small part of yoga.
Local yoga instructor Michelle Pugh admits that most people are drawn to yoga initially because of the health benefits. “You come for the physical aspect, but you get so much more,” she says. Pugh, who has been teaching yoga since 2004, is fine with her students getting started with yoga for its physical benefits.
So is yoga teacher Frankie Hart, who owns and operates downtown yoga studio Satya Life. Hart says that students reap more than just physical benefits from their practice. “It’s a very internal, as well as external, practice,” she says. “Most Westerners come to it first through the external practice, through the asanas.”
Using the asanas to ease muscle tension, increase muscle strength, and boost one’s familiarity with their body can have a subtle but profound effect on one’s mental health. Hart believes that the mind and body are closely related, and that alleviating stress and tension in the body can alleviate stress and tension in the mind. “Physical pain and mental stress are often linked,” she says. “Being able to move through and disengage from pain can be mentally relieving, and decreasing stress can help some physical maladies.” Even if a particular physical ailment is not eased by practicing the asanas, the peace of mind that results from yoga practice can still help. “Maybe a condition that is uncomfortable exists, but you can still find that inner peace,” she says.
Kelly Andrews, the assistant dean of wellness at Florida Southern, agrees. Aside from teaching her own yoga classes on campus, Andrews is responsible for the overall physical and mental well-being of the students on her campus, and yoga plays a large role in that undertaking. She says the physical practice helps her students forget the stressors that come with college and focus on the present. “We’re so busy that we’re not present at all in our bodies. We’re in a thousand different places, we’re having 30 thoughts at the same time, and some of those are conscious and some of them are subconscious, so there’s lack of connection with presence,” she says. “There’s a release of stress because we’re not focused on yesterday or tomorrow — we’re focused on now.” Though she practices several different styles of yoga, Andrews is a vocal proponent of restorative yoga. That style tends to be slower-paced and more focused on relaxation than some of the more vigorous styles. Regardless of their preferred yoga style, Andrews encourages her students to combine practicing the asanas with meditation to fully focus on minimizing stress. “The asana classes are great, but it’s really the restorative practice and the meditation practice that are really the most helpful when it comes to stress management,” she says.
Andrews, Pugh, and Hart agree that calming the body is a predecessor to calming the mind, and that calming the mind naturally leads to practitioners connecting more deeply with
their spirituality. “You start to feel better, then you start to feel quieter mentally,” notes Pugh. “Because you’re more quiet mentally, you feel more connected spiritually. It starts to make a big loop.” In an ideal practice, the mind is free enough from physical and mental distractions that it is able to ponder more eternal matters.
Hart agrees, and reassures skeptics that, while it emphasizes spirituality, yoga itself is not a religion. Instead, she says, it is a helpful tool for people who want to connect more deeply to their own religion, whether they’re Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, or even atheist. “Yoga is a spiritual practice,” she says. “It’s a physical practice. It’s a mental practice. It develops the concentration of your mind. But what it does is heighten whatever your spiritual practices are. Within the population of people doing yoga, not just within the United States but all over the world, you will find many, many religions represented.” She admits, though, that many people are skeptical of yoga’s more spiritual aspects, and expresses the hope that people will not let it deter them from exploring their interest in the discipline.
So what’s the natural next step for yogis who are well established (or even just getting started) in their practice? A natural progression is to establish and build communities of other like-minded people, and it seems to happen unintentionally. Hart notes that the sense of community among practitioners is nearly effortless. “I would say that there’s a sense of a yoga community in Lakeland — very much! What’s wonderful is that it goes so
far beyond Lakeland. People will come to the yoga studio because they’re visiting their parents or their grandparents, and they find the yoga center. And, instantly, you find a community of people.”
That sense of community is palpable at Satya Life and recently has been on display at Florida Southern, where nearly 500 students recently participated in one huge yoga class.
Pugh has also found a deep sense of community in her own yoga class, and she focuses much of her time and energy building yet another community. In addition to posting pictures of “random acts of yoga” she and her students have taken all over the
world, she teaches a biweekly yoga class for Noah’s Ark, a local facility for developmentally disabled adults. She notes that her Noah’s Ark students love their yoga practice and are enthusiastic about their classes, even to the point that they’ve done classes in parks and on field trips. They also recently participated in a class at one of downtown Lakeland’s First Friday events, where they practiced “fairy yoga,” complete with gauzy wings. Pugh, who originally trained to teach yoga to veterans, can hardly contain her enthusiasm about her Noah’s Ark classes. “It’s radiant sunshine, constantly,” she says. “I love my job!”
The combination of physical well-being, mental clarity, and community is at least partially responsible for a huge surge in yoga’s popularity over the last few decades. Its popularity is attracting more and more practitioners, and Andrews, Hart, and Pugh have some advice for people who are curious about starting their own yoga practice. “Come as you are!” says Hart. “Don’t wait to be strong enough to do yoga. Don’t wait to be thin enough to do yoga. Don’t wait to be flexible enough to do yoga. Just come. Yoga meets you where you are, whether you’re dealing with an injury, or whether you’re pregnant, or whether you’re eight years old or 80 years old. There’s no wrong time to start.” Pugh agrees, and encourages people not to give up if they don’t enjoy the first class they try. “Whether you’re practicing ashtanga, which is very upbeat, strenuous, very physical, or whether you’re doing kriya yoga, which is seated meditation, both will eventually get you to that same place,” she says. That place — the one of physical wellness, mental contentedness, and spiritual peace — is the end goal of all yoga practices, regardless of style.
Each woman, when asked what she would say to first-time yoga students, agreed that new students should take the plunge. Hart hopes that increased interest in the practice will result in more compassion among the world’s residents, both in Lakeland and beyond. “My yoga practice is when I come home,” she says. “And when I come home to myself, I meet all that is. The more I can come home to who I am and know who I am, the more I can know who you are. The more I can be compassionate with who I am, the more compassion I will have with you. And so on, and so on.”