Featured Yoga Teacher: Martha Whitney, 25th Anniversary
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Martha Whitney’s yoga teaching. This morning I had the privilege of spending some time with her on the phone talking about how her practice and her teaching have evolved. We both sat at our windows enjoying the fall. Our conversation was bookended by morning glories and blue jays. Of the flowers, Martha joked, “They’ve gone wild. Some days I try to count them – that’s a little bit compulsive.”
She started practicing yoga more than 30 years ago in an attempt to find balance in her life. “My sister and her daughter had just died and I was a mess. Anxiety was my response,” she explains. A friend recommended yoga.
I’d heard the word yoga but didn’t know anyone who was practicing. There were no studios. Well, maybe there were studios in the cities, but I lived in Johnson, Vermont. There was a one-time class in a community room in Morrisville, on the second floor. It was a big, open room. Blake Gould, who just died a year ago, led the class. He was a macrobiotic teacher and acupuncturist. We sat in a big circle and did breathing exercises and movement. He called it yoga. I felt like I’d landed back in my body and on the ground. I remember saying to myself, “Oh. I’m OK.”
When I went back to my cabin, I tried it out. I had a little tree house there and whenever I felt anxiety I’d go out onto the porch of the tree house to breathe and practice the few poses I remembered.
Later, Mellie Bach in Burlington taught a yoga class in a big room with a bright pink rug — this is where I started teaching my classes five years later. I’d go to a weekly class there. It would sustain me. There weren’t any yoga studios; I didn’t know of any distinct styles. It was all just Hatha. There was no Vinyasa, we’d simply hold poses and breathe.
I started to go to Kripalu and do weeklong practices. There was no yoga community here, though the Church Street Center had some classes in the Edmunds School gym. I took Iyengar classes with Penny Holden, the wonderful grandmother of yoga in Burlington. And I remember going to a meditation class at the Unitarian Universalist led by the minister, a Zen Buddhist. I’d just drop into things like that; there was no real organization.
In 1991, I took a yoga teacher training at Kripalu to go deeper into my practice. I was not intending to teach, but it was then that I came home and started practicing on my own every day. I had chronic fatigue during that time and was still recovering during the training. I needed a routine that was more in balance than I was. A daily yoga practice was it.
I was living alone and set up a little altar in a little tiny alcove of my condo. It was how I took care of myself; it was my ritual. I met Susan Borg, a mind/body teacher, a Resonant Kinesiologist. I started working on the fatigue with her and learned that my emotional body is connected to my physical body.
I learned that I wanted to teach yoga from the inside. It was a journey of healing for me—healing and integrating the inner person who was shy and introverted with the outer person who worked in the extroverted world of City Hall. Yoga supported me to be more in the world authentically, as myself. My practice was breathing and asana; I’d hold poses and wait for my body to guide me. There was a little bit of flow, but there weren’t even sun salutations. Flow came much later.
I read about meditation but did not sit for years. I liked the idea, but could never really do it. Now I meditate. It is as if all those years I was preparing just to be able to sit with myself.
Now I begin my day with movement. Almost every time I come to the mat I come into child’s pose and check in. And then do what my body needs. It’s Yin poses most of the time – holding poses for a couple minutes to focus on relaxing the muscles so that the postures really move into the joints – with breath practices to bring on the relaxation response and open up the layers of connective tissue.
Then I move into more activity, perhaps sun salutations and standing, grounding poses. Sometimes it’s a ten-minute asana practice, sometimes forty-five. Then I meditate. I begin with Pranayam, or I just work with the state of mind, using the breath as support. I often read a sentence or paragraph of Buddhist teachings. Now I’m lucky enough to have a room that’s just mine for practice.
My teaching is my practice, too. It’s what supports me personally all these years. I get a great sense of community from teaching. I’ve learned to show up as me. I thought I was supposed to be a certain thing as a yoga teacher. But now, I’m just me. It encourages others to show up as themselves. What a gift it is to be out in a public place and be completely myself. “I get to be me” this is what people want.
I have deep gratitude for the caring community in my yoga classes. There is a welcoming of new people and gathering of the old. A lot of people are older in my classes now. We are holding the next phases of our lives, together. But there is really a whole range of ages: 20’s up to 80’s. One young man came in the other day – I’d been at his birth.
I asked Martha to comment on yoga and mindfulness moving into the mainstream.
I’m delighted! Learning to inhabit ourselves and to be kind to each other—as humans, we need this right now. It’s what this planet needs. People are craving community. Some still have the support of faith communities, but others are finding this connection in their yoga community. What could be better than that?
Humans are often in their sympathetic arousal, stressed and busy. I’m committed to offering something to balance this out. It’s not always comfortable to go slow, and yet right now there is more restorative yoga than I’ve ever seen. Every studio now has restorative yoga! The practices are shifting to what we need. Mindfulness and meditation are everywhere! What could better to help us know what we’re thinking and feeling and grow a kinder world?
As we wrapped up the conversation, the blue jays descended on my birdfeeder. Four of them quietly cooed at one another under the canopy of the apple tree. They are my regulars. I feel about them the way Martha must feel about her students. I am witness to their showing up and being themselves. It’s a great feeling.
Join Martha for drop in yoga classes every Tuesday morning at 8:15 and Thursdays 6:45 & 9 am. Stay for her free guided meditation on Thursdays from 8:15 – 8 :45. Martha leads monthly Restorative Yoga Workshops and Six week series on meditation, yoga for self care and pranayama. Join Martha for a Yoga and Meditation retreat each fall.