Yoga improved my life — now I’d like to make yours better, too

Marisa Messina did a yoga teacher training in Mexico over the holidays.
(Via Marisa Messina)

Marisa Messina started practicing yoga as a preteen and now, at 29, has become a certified RYT 200 teacher. She continues to marvel at the mental and physical benefits of yoga and wonders why this healing practice is not available more widely, particularly to those who could benefit most. She aims to change that in Santa Cruz.

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When I got to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, in December to begin a 200-hour, immersive yoga teacher training, I immediately noticed the homogeneity of our group. Although my 14 peers hailed from all over the world — Australia, Canada, England, France, Germany, Mexico, Poland and both sides of the U.S. — we were almost all 20-something, athletically built Caucasian females.

Chatting over an exceedingly healthy vegetarian dinner the first night, I learned that more than half of us worked in corporate roles at big companies, which perhaps explained the prevalence of Lululemon attire and B Mats.

Over the next two weeks, I relished the yoga practices, feeling increasingly at one with my body and my breath as I became stronger physically and mentally. My brain learned to quiet itself during the ever-longer meditation sessions. My arms showed more definition. My posture improved, and with it, my confidence.

I still can’t curl my toes around my calf for garudasana (eagle pose), but I was closer. It was fun, empowering, to watch myself improve.

I began to wonder about the many people who would benefit from access to yoga. I know I, for one, wish I had practiced it regularly earlier.

I thought back to my first job out of college, working at a tech company for a manager who awoke at 4 a.m. daily to start work because “production is currency” (so he told me). The stress I inherited from his manic approach manifested itself as excess pounds around my midline as my poor sympathetic nervous system went into overdrive.

If I’d known then that yoga strengthens the parasympathetic system and thus supports stress reduction, maybe I wouldn’t have spent almost six years stress-eating my way through work and then overexercising in a failing effort to stay slim.

As it was, I found my way into yoga because of this mess: I was running so intensely that I stress-fractured my pelvis and the sports medicine doc told me yoga was the only “exercise” I was allowed to do. I laughed in his face at the idea that “stretches with Sanskrit names ”— my interpretation of yoga at the time — could possibly pass as an alternative to miles of cardio, but I signed up for a class all the same.

I was incredulous to find that, although it didn’t make my heart pound, yoga produced the same mental effect as running: My swirling mind stilled, calmed. An hour on my mat could transform even my most gnarly moods, grounding and centering me.

I can think of many types of people who could use a bit of natural stress reduction in their lives … in fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone who couldn’t.

But right now, yoga is a bougie activity in the U.S.

At the studio closest to my Santa Cruz home base, a single class costs $18 and a monthly pass is $150. With the hefty demands on our wallets to simply stay housed, clothed and fed, it’s no wonder trips to the yoga studio are not a staple for most households.

Even with a student discount and all the Groupon deals I can find, yoga class costs add up quickly.

Still, I’m committed to regular yoga practice. I’m looking for ways to make it affordable.

Women do yoga overlooking the ocean
The author laments that most of the people in her yoga training were white, affluent women. She wants to increase access to yoga for all.
(Via Marisa Messina)

I see time on my mat as nourishment for my mental and spiritual side, just as important as food (in moderation!) and exercise are for my physical body. With daily yoga, I am more balanced, less affected by the ups and downs of everyday life, more content with my existence. It feels so good.

Given the joy and peace yoga has brought me, I am eager to share the practice with others.

What would it take to make yoga available to everyone in Santa Cruz County, everyone in California, or — thinking big — everyone in the U.S.?

On an airplane, I struck up a conversation about it with Laura, a social worker who supports high school students battling anxiety and behavioral issues at schools across the Bronx in New York. She reminded me even if yoga were mandated at schools (such as through gym class), the quality of the experience would be heavily dependent on who taught it, and how.

Michelle, the yoga teacher at my intensive training, had underscored that same point, sharing stories of how ostracized and inadequate poor, inexperienced yoga teachers made her feel.

Success at yoga is not if you can “do” certain asanas (postures). That is not what defines yoga.

In fact, the asanas are only one component in the eight-part system of yoga (which is Sanskrit for “union”). As I see it, some of the other seven are actually where there is the most to be gained.

These include a set of restraints (yamas) and a set of observances (niyamas) — which together feel a lot like a nondenominational set of principles for living — as well as a focus on the breath (pranayama), an ability to control reactiveness (called pratyahara and directly translated as “sense withdrawal”), a deep concentration (dharana) and a meditation practice (dhyana). Finally, there is samadhi, cultivating an understanding of our connectedness to one another.

These are what might be of the most value to every member of the American population.

Marisa Messina thinks everyone should have access to yoga.
(Via Marisa Messina )

Rallying around a common set of simple principles like “do no harm” (ahimsa) and “avoid excess” (aparigraha) seems like a beautiful starting place for our divided nation.

We are certainly wanting for concentration and focus as our addiction to screens is literally giving us attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. And if we could come back to our breath — our anchor to the present moment, more easily and readily — how much angst about past events and future uncertainties would we avoid?

I’m not sure how to introduce “non-physical yoga” into a world that’s full of action and movement, one so tied to material success. I’m having a hard time imagining “requiring” yoga training, like we require other subjects or sports. It seems contrary to the intrinsic rewards of practicing yoga.

While I ponder what a yoga-for-all world would look like, I’m determined to help open the doors to yoga for anyone who is interested.

I’ve decided to start teaching free classes at pop-up locations around Santa Cruz County. It’s a grassroots effort — I don’t scale well — but exciting all the same to be contributing doses of calm to a community that certainly needs more of it.

I hope my classes will draw new faces, perhaps people who don’t own a yoga mat (I have extras) and folks who haven’t yet become comfortable in English, let alone Sanskrit (I’ll demo each pose).

No matter who you are, you’re invited. I’m still figuring out how to get my message out, but I truly believe yoga has something to offer everyone.

Amid all the rain and devastation we are facing as a community, here’s to more calm, for all.

Marisa Messina is an avid outdoorswoman who loves bringing people and nature closer together. Currently earning her Master of Business Administration at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (where she’s focusing on sustainable business), Marisa spends her non-class hours working as a fellow for an early-stage venture capital fund, guiding tours with Kayak Connection, exploring new hiking trails and listening to the ocean. Her previous piece for Lookout, “My Stanford education was best in class, yet left big life skills gaps,” appeared in December.

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