Yoga Allows Me to Love Myself More. And, As A Result, I Can Love and Accept Others More - 10 Questions with Maria O'Donnell

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Maria, like many, was introduced to yoga through a friend. This introduction occurred in high school and she continued her practice throughout college.  Later she moved to Southeast Asia, where she lived for five years.  There,  she practiced many different styles of yoga.  Maria found that through movement of body and mindful breathing she was more introspective and reflective, and for her this was incredibly healing.  Eventually she settled on Baptiste Yoga as her preferred style of practice because of the rhythm and flow of class.

Maria completed her 200-hour Teacher Certification Program in October 2010. She remains dedicated to her yoga practice, self-growth, and development, both as a teacher and as a healthy balanced individual with a desire to give back to her community.

Maria holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work and, in addition to teaching yoga, works in early childhood education and social services.  She joined the Yoga 4 Change team in 2016 and teaches at a local addiction treatment center as well as monthly community classes at Intuition Ale Works.  Maria is interested in how trauma impacts individuals and how trauma can be healed through yoga.  Maria is passionate about connecting people of all socioeconomic brackets to the world of yoga because of its ability to offer healing through self-empowerment.

Maria has a strong interest in the arts, traveling, and is also certified in children's yoga.

What served as your introduction to yoga and why did you choose to pursue a career as a teacher? 

 I was introduced to yoga when I was 16 years old. My best friend's father was a yoga teacher on the West Coast.  I was intrigued by yoga because of the open minded people who were attracted to the practice.

Later, I was in a car accident and relied on yoga as part of my healing process. As I moved into my college years and beyond, I realized I attained additional healing benefits the more I practiced yoga and my anxiety was reduced.

I was certified as a yoga teacher 8 years ago. This was a challenging time in my life, and the practice, learning, and community became very important to me. As I  moved further in my career and social services, I began to utilize yoga as a tool to promote healing in others.

I have had many experiences in my life, some beautiful and others traumatic. Yoga has given me the tools to stay present in the moment and to rinse out the past when it starts to rise up and have an effect on my interactions with the world.

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What attracted you to working with Y4C and how long have you been involved with the organization?

I have been teaching with Yoga 4 Change for about two-and-a-half years.

I am a social worker and dedicate my time and passion to empowering vulnerable communities. Yoga 4 Change has a mission that is aligned with my belief system. The more I have become involved, the more I am inspired by Yoga 4 Change. I have a deep respect for their investment in trauma-informed yoga, as well as the trauma-informed practices overall.

I truly believe the individuals impacted by Yoga 4 Change are provided with the opportunity to heal,  are able to shift their thinking into something more powerful, and can positively impact their communities. I believe Yoga 4 Change can do just as the name says, change people's lives.

What were some expectations or assumptions that you had prior to joining the Y4C team and how do those expectations and assumptions compare to your actual experience?

Over the past few decades through work, I have served many of the same populations  as Yoga 4 Change.  Because of that, I had an initial assumption that I understood these populations. Because most of my yoga teaching experience has been in studios and with voluntary participants, I had the expectation that I would be teaching a class similar to what I would teach in a studio setting. I thought I may have to modify a few postures, but overall I would be teaching similarly.

I mostly teach at Gateway and the women are mandated to be there.  Some of them are resistant, some of them are simply tired, some are excited to learn yoga, and others are experiencing the world around them without any substances in their body for the first time in a while, which creates feelings of anger and anxiety, as well as physical discomfort. What I found was the classes I had taught in the past we're not the types of classes the Yoga 4 Change population needed.

Classes flow better if I come in with a plan.  However, I allow the students to guide the practice. Sometimes the class flows as planned and other times it becomes something totally different and unexpected. Sometimes we do restorative practices and other times we work on more vigorous postures. The classes are guided by the students' needs and it requires sensitivity and awareness to recognize what their needs are.

I also had to let go of my expectation that students would love the practice as much as I did.  For many, yoga was something new and possibly scary. Some used chatter and jokes to deflect their feelings and I had to adjust my perspective on this because at first I thought this was a sign of disrespect or lack of interest. But, I soon learned that this was the students telling me they needed space and compassion, as well as that they needed to be in control of their own bodies and experiences and not be told what to feel by others.

What do you see as the greatest impact yoga has had on your life? 

Yoga is medicinal for me and my healing practice is a continual process. 

Yoga has allowed me to see people for who they are, to listen in a way that is not filtered by my own expectations and judgment, and to have the knowledge to know when I am slipping into a place where I am dominated by fears or past experiences.

Yoga allows me to love myself more and to be more accepting of myself. And, as a result, I can love and accept others more. Even more so, I  have learned to give others the space to do the same.

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What have you learned about yourself as a result of practicing yoga and working as a teacher?

Serving others as a yoga teacher is therapeutic for me. It allows me to clear away the clutter of my mind and be there for other people. Yoga allows me to tune into listening on and intuitive level, as well as to listen in a way that I can hear what people need versus what I think they need.

I have learned through this practice to have more forgiveness on myself, and therefore others. I am a work-in-progress. I am perfectly imperfect. Again, these lessons also allow me to hold space for others to have their own experience.

What is the greatest sense of accomplishment you've receive since you joined the organization?

My greatest accomplishment has been being a part of a team of people who believe in such a powerful mission. I feel proud to be working on a solution for helping vulnerable populations in a way that matters. Talk therapy and medications, while they do serve a purpose, are not the solution for every individual.  For real sustainable change, I believe that as a society we need to consider the social emotional aspects of humans, as this may be where healing takes place. Yoga taps into these aspects.

How do you describe your style of teaching? 

I would say that I teach with compassion, but I also like to challenge people physically and mentally. I teach in a way that helps people become aware of their physical bodies with the hope that this will help individuals to become more grounded and present to themselves and their needs.  I put a lot of my heart into my teaching because I believe people need to feel taken care of.

What advice would you give to an individual who is interested in trying yoga for the first time? Additionally, what advice would you give a well-practiced individual to take their practice to the next level?

I would encourage individuals to try a class with the mindset of learning something new. Just as with any dance class or art class, you have to learn the foundation first, and it may be sloppy at first. I would also encourage people to know they don't have to do every posture.  They can take child's pose and breathe. Breath alone can be healing.

I would encourage an experienced practitioner to explore something simple like a recommitment to breath, or possibly doing a practice with their toes flexed up just to feel the difference. At times, for more experienced practitioners, we may fall into a rhythm of the practice while losing the awareness we had in the very beginning. I would also encourage a more experienced practitioner to consider where their next step in growth is.  Perhaps it is sharing yoga with the community or becoming a teacher.

What would you say to encourage someone to attend the community class you lead at Intuition Ale Works?

I would tell them to come!

It is such a fun class and one of my favorites to teach. The sun is shining and doing outdoor yoga is such a treat. The Intuition class attracts such a diverse group of individuals, and those individuals are in support of the community. It is a blessing to spend an hour with individuals who care about making where they live a more connected place. Lastly, Intuition is a fabulous venue with a great vibe to hang out in afterwards while enjoying food and drink.

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What’s your favorite pose and why?

My favorite pose is crescent lunge prayer twist. I love feeling the grounded sensation as my feet press into the earth with the strength of my legs hugging in. I love how rooted I feel, followed by the sensation of opening up my chest and arms, as well as having the opportunity to twist out my tight lower back and emotional clutter. I always feel energetically and physically lighter after this posture!

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Patrick Fisher