Sometimes we don’t realize we are hurting ourselves, or we don’t like to admit it. And we definitely don’t like change. It’s easier to decompress at the end of a work-day by letting off steam surfing YouTube. Taking care of oneself requires energy, and it seems that we are always running low. Family, children, and significant others necessitate our time and attention, and we simply cannot give our bodies’ needs a moment’s notice. And the evidence is all around us. We are breaking down and getting sick from lack of exercise, unhealthy food sources, and unnatural ways of communicating with each other primarily through technology instead of one-on-one. We need to get back to basics, to slow down, to take a moment to breathe and accept that we cannot continue this way of racing through life so fast our feet can’t touch the pavement.
I met with Maureen Hughes, Yoga Instructor, down on Cherokee in a spacious loft with soft light and plenty of space she has personalized into a warm, comfortable area. While she demonstrated classic (and flashy) yoga poses, she opened up about why she decided to explore the mental and physical challenges of this ancient practice.
And she has quite a history. As a Yoga Alliance Certified Instructor at the 200-hour level, Maureen has been practicing yoga for over fourteen years and has taught yoga in the St. Louis area for over four years. Much of her training has taken place in India and the Iyengar Medical Yoga system, as well as with world-class instructors Eric Schiffman, Shiva Rea, Rod Stryker, Ana Forrest and others. Maureen mainly teaches Vinyasa Yoga, a high-energy Yoga based in breath and movement to enhance an individual’s strength, balance, and flexibility. Yoga is designed to put pressure on the glandular body systems, centering the body and focusing it as an instrument, and underlines three elements: breath control, exercise, and meditation.
On her mat as she was warming up, Maureen explained that there are 64,000 yoga poses. In the corner, Clair de Lune’s peaceful, billowing piano arpeggios set the scene as the hot city’s streets underneath us hummed with commotion and disorder.
Q: How did you begin practicing Yoga?
MH: I started doing yoga when I was in college. And there was a woman who was working as a yoga instruction doing the class work.
MH: She convinced me to go. And six hours after the class, I couldn’t move. And I couldn’t walk for three days. It was so intense. And so shocking to my system to be asked to stretch in the way that I did. I swore I would never do yoga again. And I ended up doing it on a dare. Plus it was a free class. She convinced me to go. And I was like, “I’m never doing yoga again!” And she said, “You don’t have to do everything they tell you to!”
I ended up not feeling that same difficult soreness. I was back in class that following Sunday. It was two times a week, and then it was three times a week, and you develop your own practice. And a year and a half with that, she asked me to teach one of her classes at Forest Park Community College, and that’s how I started teaching.
Q: So do you feel like it struck a chord with you, how before, you wanted to do everything, you wanted to be everything to everybody, and were you relieved to know that you don’t have to do that; that yoga is all about you, that there is no competitiveness and standards you have to meet?
MH: I wish it was so easy! You find that, as perfectionist personalities, there is no pose unless it is the pose, and undoing that belief was probably one of the most difficult things I ever endured. Because of understanding that I am perfection no matter where or how I am existing at any point in time.
I get highly emotional if someone’s passed away, there was some fear that if I expressed emotion, that I was somehow not as good of a person. And I felt guilty having emotions.
Now, I still struggle. No one’s perfect. We all have our thing that we need to keep working on. But over time, you realize it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to express yourself. And I find that yoga is the expression of the body.
Q: Do you feel more people are gravitating towards yoga nowadays? Do you think it’s similar to how alternative medicines, like acupuncture and Chinese herbalists, are finally becoming acceptable and just as significant as traditional Western Medicine?
MH: Absolutely, Yoga is gaining in popularity, probably even more so than alternative medicine. This amazing eight limbed philosophy/way of life can help prevent aging and disease. Along with the poses (Asanas), there is a philosophy that leans towards virtue, not so different than the Ten Commandments of Christianity. Like Chinese Medicine, yoga is a five thousand year-old practice that made its way to the West less than a hundred years ago from India. In that time, so much has happened.
According to a Yoga Journal Poll taken in 2012, ‘8.7 percent of U.S. adults, or 20.4 million people, practice yoga. Of current non-practitioners, 44.4 percent of Americans call themselves Aspirational Yogis—people who are interested in trying yoga.’ Yoga is a bit different than Chinese medicine, as it is a system that allows for repairing and maintaining proper function of the body in a non-invasive fashion (i.e. no needles, no herbs). It is also under the control of the practitioner, which allows one to practice as one sees fit. It helps with motivation as well as stress release. It is just a matter of getting on the mat. From there, the energy flows.
Q: In our stressful, competitive culture, people are turning to yoga as a positive example and release from their demanding schedules. What kind of physical and mental transformation can one expect by practicing yoga?
MH: There are several things that can happen when one practices yoga (Asana) on a regular basis. First, we start turning our attention inwardly with the asanas and focus on our body and how it works. This, in turn, can lead us on a path of self-knowing and self-care, like getting in touch with our feelings, and making better food choices to feed the amazing machine that is our body. While we may remain competitive with ourselves, and with others, we can get past the fear of letting go of our Ego to realize that we are all in this together. Competition is far from the spirit of yoga, and nobody really cares what clothes we wear in class or what we look like doing the poses. We all are just on "the mat,” in our own space, doing something healthful together in a room (or practicing by ourselves). Practicing yoga may also lead us to make better decisions regarding the planet, like riding a bicycle, or driving a hybrid, instead of driving the gas-guzzling SUV. We can start caring less about attachments to people and possessions. We become more calm. We feel love differently. We define our own life rather than letting others do that for us—it flows instead of being a fight with others that needs to be conquered. The list goes on and on.
“This is one of the flashy poses,” Maureen smiles.
Q: It seems that people have forgotten how to relax, or they turn to an unhealthy method, like watching TV. Our over-stimulated culture doesn’t allow us to relax, or makes us feel guilty when we do, or if we do, we can’t turn our brains off long enough for it to be beneficial to the mind and body. Do you think yoga helps people relearn this basic and essential gift?
MH: Absolutely. Yoga, literally, “is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind.” The practice of yoga, including the asanas, helps reduce what has been termed the "monkey mind" (think of a monkey screaming in a cage). The mind becomes settled as the body is forced to become focused on the task at hand during the practice of asana. Eventually, with advanced practice, this leads to deeper levels of yoga, including the control of the breath (Pranayama), sensory transcendence (Pratyahara), intense concentration (Dharana), meditation and contemplation (Dhyana), and the final stage of ecstasy (Samadhi), which is the experience of bliss and being at one with the Universe. When so many of us feel so alone in this life, the practice of yoga can help us live life with greater awareness and conscientiousness.
Q: What would you tell someone who is interested in yoga, but they’re not exactly sure, or they feel they’re not cut out for it, or they don’t have the time for it?
MH: Well, time is another matter entirely. Because there are people who will set aside hours and hours to watch shows like Game of Thrones, or whatever it might be, but they don’t have time to spend fifteen minutes on themselves. These are people who will hopefully reevaluate the way they spend their time to see if they can find that hour in their day, or even once a week to begin with.
Just because it’s hard, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it anymore. With anything, you should keep doing it, because that’s the only way you’re going to get better. And yoga isn’t about it getting easier. It’s about finding the wave and riding the wave.
“This was always my favourite pose as a kid. I was a cheerleader in high school…and I was always the girl doing the splits, but I was the short, little one on top of the pyramid.”
This was the reason I got into yoga the second time around, getting over that fear. I was teaching a class, I was a second-degree brown belt…I ended up injuring myself just before I started teaching classes.
Q: Why do you think yoga is so important for people to begin to relax and accept themselves and allow themselves to indulge in this time?
MH: So, I think people are realizing how we’ve allowed our priorities to become so out of whack, and we’ve wrecked this planet because of our greed and competition and capitalism, and striving to create junk and convincing people they need to buy it, that because we’re so far removed from our spirit of helping one another and really working together as a society and living together and creating a sustainable system, we’ve moved to the far side, and that people watch TV to numb their brain.
Yoga is different, because ultimately, the silence of the mind, the quietness of the mind where you can reach higher levels of the concentration ultimately the goal of meditation and being one with the universe, it requires the disciplining of the mind.
The brain is connected to every single space in our body. It’s just that we don’t pay attention to it on a regular basis, and the general sense of baby awareness has been lost on most of our culture…but when it comes down to it, just taking a little bit of time to breathe and step back into the body is priceless.
Maureen Hughes holds a Ph.D. from Washington University in Biomedical Sciences. After years in that field, she decided to make a life change and to manifest her deepest hearts desire to help others attain health and wellness through the practice of yoga and other disciplines.
If you would like to learn more about Maureen, and Yoga’s principles, or if you’re interested in a class, please contact her through her MeetUp group and website:
Photographs by Autumn Rinaldi