Our intrepid outdoor writer comes inside to find a meditative practice that serves the community
Story & Photographs by Virginia Holman
Fifteen years ago, after a spectacularly stressful period in my life, I tried meditation. I sat on a pillow, in the corner of my bedroom, practicing “square breathing” for hours. Inhale to the count of four, hold for the count of four, exhale for the count of four, hold for the count of four, repeat. It helped a bit, but it always felt a bit prescriptive, and I never managed to empty my mind fully; it just hummed along all the while.
Then, 12 years ago, I discovered sea kayaking. Technically challenging, it was deeply engaging. My mind was full, but only of what needed to be done in the present moment in the wind, waves and current. Currents, weather and situations changed rapidly on the water, and to kayak the ocean, I had to adapt quickly, reflexively, with each stroke. After a while, I noticed that on these journeys, I vanished. My thrumming mind could not contain anything other than the present, and when a kayak trip was over, I felt profoundly at ease even if the seas were challenging. Sea kayaking, for me, induced a kind of meditative state, but one where I was actively engaged; it seemed oddly counterintuitive to find peace in an activity so physically and mentally demanding.
Then, three years ago, my mother was dying at the same time my only child was preparing to leave for college. It was a hectic and painful period, and I lost the time and then the desire to kayak much for a long time. Sea kayaking requires a great deal of planning and preparation, and though I wasn’t abandoning it altogether, I needed something more readily accessible.
My neighbor kept suggesting yoga. I politely ignored her recommendation for two years. I thought of yoga as something done by impossibly fit women in expensive leggings before they headed off to a cedar sauna or a deep tissue massage. At least that’s how it always looked in the Lululemon and Athleta catalogs.
Then I read about Blair Bigham, a young yoga teacher in Wilmington who uses her practice as a form of service in the community. She’s even started a bi-weekly yoga class at the Good Shepherd Homeless Shelter in Wilmington. Something clicked in my mind. I had most loved meditative activities that engaged me so deeply that I lost myself completely. Blair’s yoga practice, called Kunga yoga, has a strong community service component. I’d been struggling with my own calls to service — was volunteerism enough, or was a career adjustment in order? I finally gave in and signed up for some yoga classes in town and gave Blair a call.
She’d just returned from a two-week mission trip to Sierra Leone, and even though she was jet-lagged, she invited me to join her at Good Shepherd to learn more about her work. I was surprised by Blair’s youth, she’s a mere 20 years old — but she projects a calm poise of someone who has found her place in the world. Everything about her is loose and comforting, from her wind-tossed honey-blonde hair, to her ocean-blue eyes, radiant, open face, and joyful laugh.
We rang the bell at the entrance and a staff member let us in. Dinner was over, and residents were gathered in the main area to watch the news and plan for the following day.
“Anyone want to do some yoga?” she called out. “Please join us at seven in the dining room.”
The floors were freshly mopped, the chairs turned upside down on the tabletops, and six blue and red baby booster seats were stacked along one wall, a reminder that families trying to get back on their feet are common here.
“I volunteered here for about two years as a server before I asked if I could start a yoga practice here. In Kunga yoga we try to extend our practice to the community. Kunga is a Kinyerwandan word that means ‘to serve and help.’” In addition to serving in needy areas in Wilmington, the Kunga teachers also extend their practice internationally. When the teaching program began in Wilmington, the teachers worked to help orphans of the Rwandan genocide. Now, teachers trained in Wilmington donate 5 percent of their profits to the orphaned girls of Home of Hope in India.
As Blair set up a few mats along a cheerful yellow wall, a couple of residents joined us. One gray-haired woman asked if yoga would help her back. Blair encouraged her to give the class a try and explained that she works with each client’s limitations. The woman looked encouraged and agreed to try the following week. A tall, wiry middle-aged resident named Matt was eager to join in. He rolled out one of Blair’s mats, removed his black tennis shoes, and assumed the lotus position across from Blair. No one looks like they belong in a catalog. Matt is wearing an immaculate red Piggly Wiggly shirt, and Blair is dressed in a knit cap, a red and black lumberjack shirt and loose black pants. She begins the class by guiding us through deep, gentle breaths and gradually deepening stretches. But it’s her voice, warm, soothing, and clear, that carries the class. Her postures are soft, and as the class continues, I notice Matt’s shoulders drop, and his hands, which had been balled tightly, open and relax as the class continues. When Blair wraps up, she says, “The light in me honors the light in you. Namaste.” He thanks her and walks off happily toward the television room.
“Matt!” Blair calls. “Your shoes!”
He comes back over and laughs. “There’s something you can write,” he says to me. “He was so relaxed he forgot his shoes!”
After class, Blair explains that teaching at Good Shepherd is challenging for her but she loves it. The population changes from class to class as residents get back on their feet, and she has to adjust to new clients’ needs during each class. Sometimes residents stay for a few weeks.
“I had a family come to my classes for a couple of months. A mom, dad, and two kids. They all did it together while they were here, and I was so happy to share these relaxation techniques with them during such a stressful time. I tell them they always have access to relaxation if they keep bringing themselves back to the breath.”
Blair knows from experience that yoga can help people during hard times. As a child and teenager, she watched her brother struggle and survive leukemia. Then, when she was 16, her father died suddenly from a heart attack.
“His death was very surprising. I went through a really tough depression. One day my friend was, like, come try yoga. I went, and I automatically felt this relief. And I thought it was crazy. I’d never felt anything like this. I started going every single day. It has encouraged me to reach out to people and encourage them to reach out, build confidence and strength.”
Though she was admitted to UNCW, she felt her path was teaching yoga, and she decided to forgo college to become a certified yoga teacher and is engaged in an intensive Kunga yoga teacher training program. “I want to continue to teach and deepen my practice. I’ve been looking for a space to teach veterans, and I especially want to work with children, especially those with cancer or who have an ill relative, because it’s such a stressful time.”
In this way, Blair seems to be coming full circle. She began yoga to soothe her pain; now she is teaching others the skills she’s learned. I began taking classes at Salty Dog Yoga in Carolina Beach. She’s certainly shown me during her classes that yoga isn’t the self-indulgent practice I thought it was, or a way to escape pain. Instead, it’s a practice that can connect people, an offering of love, compassion and respect.
Author Virginia Holman, a regular Salt contributor, teaches in the creative writing department at UNC Wilmington.