Community and yoga: Perfect together
● By J. Chambless
Hilary Fox is teaching a weekly community yoga class in Lyceum Hall in New Garden Park. (Photo by Natalie Smith)
Yoga’s popularity for exercise and relaxation has been burgeoning nationwide over the past few decades. Yet despite the coast-to-coast enthusiasm for the Eastern discipline, which includes certain body poses, meditation and breathing techniques, it still might be intimidating for some who want to try positions like “downward dog.”
But instructor Hilary Fox welcomes everyone to her yoga classes. “Yoga classes are about community,” she said, “a coming together to share.”
Fox, who also has her own studio in Avondale called The Growing Room, has been teaching classes since February in the Lyceum Hall in New Garden Park. The group meets on Tuesdays from 6 to 7 p.m., and she stressed it was for all experience levels.
The classes came about serendipitously. Fox approached New Garden officials about offering some yoga instruction during a township recreational event, and was in turn told that to promote community, they had wanted to have a yoga instructor based at the historic building. The teacher would be paid by the fees for attending the class.
The offer came at a time when Fox’s family obligations were making it difficult to continue with a previous teaching job.
“It's like the universe just said: It's OK. Try something new,” she said.
Holding the classes in Lyceum Hall is “perfect,” Fox said, although excessive summer heat had a few classes meeting in the air-conditioned township building. Fox said students for these classes provide her with a special motivation.
“The one thing that inspires me about these community classes ... I used to teach at the Y, where [students] are members, which is great. And it's great teaching at a formal yoga studio. But there are many people who would never join the Y or might never think about stepping into a yoga studio. A community class like this is pretty low-key and very, very accessible.
“You’re practicing pretty much with your neighbors. The people come in and they all kind of know each other, or they know someone who knows you, or they know the house where you live.”
Fox said often the first words out of students’ mouths are: “But I'm not flexible.” Her response? “We all have to start somewhere. And flexibility is not just in the body, it's so much about the mind. Most often, it's about your breath and how you breathe. If you feel that you get stuck in your body somewhere, pull away, come to the breath and where your mind's going.”
She spoke about modern living and how mindfulness – conscious awareness and acceptance -- helps followers deal with the stresses life can bring.
“That's what yoga's all about. It's bringing all these aspects together,” she said. “Because in this time, this era, we’re so caught up with our minds being busy, our bodies are moving, we're in a car moving. Somebody's pushing us or moving us. We get anxious. We suffer from stress, oftentimes addictions, and there's a lot of fear in the world, fear and anxiety. So much of that can be relieved by a mindful practice.”
Fox explained the immediate effects of yoga for practitioners.
“If you're on the mat and you're doing some funky pose, you're not worried about the dishes. You're not worried about paying that bill or that the car needs to be fixed. You're here and present in the moment. You feel what's going on in your body. Your mind and breath are going together. And we're just looking to clean out all that stuff that bogs us down.”
Yoga as a form of exercise can be just the right thing for someone who’s unused to movement, Fox said.
“Almost always it's because they're inspired by a friend or family member who did it, who talks about it. Or a doctor has said to them -- that comes up a lot -- 'You should do yoga.'
“Because if you're not used to going to the gym or a walk in the park ... if you tend to lean toward a more sedentary type of life, yoga can be a very good introduction if you approach it mindfully, and in the right environment, with the right type of yoga, with the right teacher.”
Fox’s own introduction to yoga came by way of her younger sister, who practiced yoga in high school. But since it was her sister’s “thing,” Fox stayed away from it. Years later, after taking and loving a Pilates class at the Kennett Area YMCA, the class instructor encouraged Fox to stay for the following class, which was yoga. (Yoga and the well-known exercise system are often taught in conjunction with one another, addressing the needs of both the mind and body.)
So one day, Fox stayed for the class.
“Like all beginners, I was like, ‘What are we doing?’ Because I could take a cue from a Pilates class, but in yoga she was using different terminology, different language,” Fox said. “I'm with other people and I feel really awkward. But that night, I slept like a baby. And I remember thinking, ‘I’m doing that again.'”
Her interest expanded. She eventually took teacher-training classes, with the goal of learning more about yoga. “It pretty much teaches you how to live your life, and that really fascinated me,” she saiid. “The first class I had to teach was in yoga teacher-training. You're going to be teaching the whole class, but it was also open to the community.
“It’s a group of six or eight. They are there to learn and give you feedback. We learned to receive suggestions on what we could do to take it to another level. They [the other students] also tell you the things you did really well.”
An unexpected student-teaching assignment had no issues. “Toward the end of your teacher training, you had to get 10 hours of community service. I taught at a karate studio I used to go to and I thought, ‘I could do this.'”
Fox laughed at the doubts she had about herself. “Sometimes you're your own worst enemy. You set yourself up for failure,” she said. “You might tear yourself apart for something silly that others don't even notice. We hold ourselves to really high standards. It's easy to trip and fall.”
Fox also noted with laughter that the process of preparing to teach was somewhat hard on her two sons, Alexander and Nicholas Versagli, now both students at Penn State. “When I was in teacher training, I used to have to pay them to get my practice in. I offered them $10 an hour [to instruct them in yoga]. They used to last about a half-hour and then they were done with it.”
Although Fox said her dharma – life’s purpose – is guiding others on their life’s path, her “real job” is working for as a spawn maker for Phillips Mushroom Farms, developing seeds for their mushrooms.
“I’m a mycologist [an expert in fungi] by training,” she said, explaining a family move to the U.K. from Philadelphia when she was 13 eventually led to her attending college in England and Scotland, where she earned a degree in agricultural botany and her Ph.D. in fungal genetics from the University of Nottingham.
“I actually first fell in love with molds and fungi,” she said. “I always thought they were really cool and I actually had a professor who super-inspired me. Then I fell in love with mushrooms.”
It was the coincidence of the Southern Chester County industry that eventually led her back to the U.S. in 1991.
“I very clearly remember thinking, ‘How do you get a job working with molds?' And then it seemed to me: Mushrooms. There's an industry there. And of course, it turns out the mushroom capital of the world is in Kennett Square.”
Her day job also was an inspiration for the other side of her life. “That’s kind of where the theme of The Growing Room came from,” she said, noting the name of her studio, where she offers personal training and Pilates as well as yoga.
Fox said while yoga is an effective exercise, it should be remembered there is more involved.
“The yoga practice encompasses so much. It's not only making your body do funny twists and bends and contortions,” she said. “It's so much about the breathing, what we eat, what we don't eat, abusing our bodies with alcohol, drugs or smoking.
“We pretty much dissected it down to where we had some really cool poses. We somehow left out the meditation. Perhaps it's our disconnect to spirituality. It’s very challenging to talk about, but I don’t shy away from it.”
Ultimately, Fox said, everybody’s practice is very personal.
"Everyone who walks in that door and lays their mat out, they all have a reason for being here. You get to know your clients. You get to know when they walk in with a smile or are avoiding eyes or are not talking. They all come here for a reason. Recognizing what's knocked you out of balance, what's made you out of whack -- that's what yoga's there to tell you. How you can help yourself."
Natalie Smith may be contacted at Natalie@DoubleSMedia.com.