Free Yoga In The Parks Of NYC!
Posted by Shephali Patel on Oct 6, 2009
[Over this past summer, Shephali has been volunteering her time teaching yoga in the parks of NYC through the City Parks service. Here's Shephali's thoughtful write-up of the experience of freely offering yoga.]
The word yoga means “union” or “connection”. It’s an exercise that strives to rediscover our connections to our body, mind, spirit, and the world around us. This summer I really felt like I rediscovered a new dimension of connection to New York, it’s outdoor spaces, and my love of yoga and meditation through teaching yoga to Northern Manhattan residents in Fort Tryon and Inwood Hill Parks. Twice a week, I would spend my evenings working out, laughing, sitting in silence, and getting to know my neighbors in some of the most beautiful settings I have ever seen. In the hour and a half we spent each evening, I always felt as if we had grown a little, together.
I was born and raised in Washington Heights and have watched the neighborhoods of northern Manhattan go through radical changes as I grew up. But the shining gem of this area of New York City, it’s natural beauty and abundant greenery, has always been a constant. And I don’t know that I have always appreciated this beauty and abundance fully, but I feel that volunteering in the local parks has given me the chance to soak it all in. Coming into Vrksasana, or Tree Pose, next to actual trees against the backdrop of a sun setting down into the river, in a magical hush created within a bustling city - is simply otherworldly. It feels as if time is standing still (just as you are) and like you have never felt the wind quiet this way before or seen the colors taking over the sky so slowly. And afterwards the same thought always appears, “Why do I not come here more often? It’s amazing”. The connection to nature feeds the spirit, emotions, and mind in a powerful way. I think this is the sentiment that keeps everyone coming back, no matter how much of a torturous workout I give them week after week. :)
Our communities are richly diverse, and it’s readily apparent in the rotating group of 30-40 students that show up to each class. These classes attract everyone from experienced yogis to people who haven’t exercised in years, young children to senior citizens, locals, visiting tourists, babies, skateboarding teenagers, dogs and other unidentifiable mammals that wander into class – you name it and they’ve shown up. And no matter what the differences are, everyone comes with an attitude of good will and dedication, and that is what I bow down to in appreciation every time we end class. It’s inspiring and energizing to be able to share space with people when they are bringing forth their best. And it’s comforting to know that this spirit is alive and well in the people that make up our community. As a teacher, I couldn’t ask for a more stimulating and challenging student body or teaching environment. There is no such thing as a standard, plain-vanilla class here – you have to compete with background noise, spectators, uneven terrain, erratic weather, insects, and animals while teaching to students with different needs, skill levels, motivations, and language abilities. Every aspect of my person is engaged. Running through the grass while giving instruction and demonstrating poses between ranks of students gives my body and vocal cords a real workout. The diverse, multilingual class and dynamic, unpredictable environment call for a lot of improvisation and quick thinking that keeps my mind constantly active. And watching students so eager to participate during class, seeing them grow week after week, and feeling them enjoying their time in a beautiful, natural open setting enlivens my soul. It’s been an experience that has greatly benefited my teaching and practice in many ways.
At the end of class, when I bring my students into Savasana (or final relaxation) I watch them as they lay on the grass, eyes closed and breathing gently. On one of those evenings, one of my unidentifiable mammal students (I believe it was a very large musk rat) waddled slowly over to the front our class space into to a small clearing circled by bushes. He kept his head down the whole way, his nose grazing the grass. Then slowly he stops and gently lifts his head up and gazes statuesque, at a cluster of fireflies above him. And there he stands, just like that. Transfixed, gazing in awe and wonderment. The cluster of fireflies seem to see this and begin to move closer to him, until they are hovering just in front of his nose. And the muskrat and fireflies remain like this together for minutes on end, in perfect contentment. The sun had finished setting and everything was bathed in an enchanted twilight. It was out of a children’s storybook. I turned to look at my students quietly resting within inches of this unreal scene. It was a moment of breathtaking connections. In that moment I felt most deeply how much of a pleasure and a privilege it is to be able to share time with my neighbors in this way and give a gift back to the community that has given me so much over the years. A community that continues to gift me to this day, on this very evening – as I sat on the grass knowing that I would never have had this moment had I not been here this night.