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Middlebury yoga teacher shares her journey to teaching

MIDDLEBURY — Joanna Colwell began practicing yoga in her early 20s, after meeting her future instructor by random chance: The two strangers met during an earthquake in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Chance may have spurred her initial exposure to yoga, but it was also fate. “I was instantly hooked,” Colwell said.
Colwell was one of the first yoga teachers in Addison County to teach in the traditional Iyengar style, which focuses on precise body alignment and uses props to support postures, and has been teaching yoga in Middlebury since 2000. The California native has been teaching and practicing for more than two decades and is the founder of the Otter Creek Yoga studio in the Marble Works Business District in Middlebury.
 Colwell believes in teaching yoga as an inclusive practice that can assist anyone — young or old, male or female, flexible or inflexible — in personal growth, physical fitness, and expanding overall awareness into one’s body and mind. She considers it her mission to make yoga accessible to everyone.
“You’ll hear people say, ‘Oh, I can’t do yoga, I’m stiff,’” Colwell said. “There’s a quote I love about this: ‘Not doing yoga because you’re not flexible is like not taking a bath because you’re dirty.’”
For the first column that focuses on local personalities, Colwell shares stories of her personal discovery of yoga, and the many benefits she sees the practice bring to the students.
 
Q: Let’s start at the beginning. What was your first experience with yoga?
A: I heard about it as a teenager. I was never athletic, never played sports, kind of clumsy and uncoordinated — not a very physical person! I was very intrigued by something that was physical, but was not a competition at all. I didn’t know anything about yoga, but I knew it wasn’t a sport, it wasn’t something where you were competing with other people, and it had to do with your body and your mind. I knew it came from India.
I had this friend who was older than me, and who was just wonderful. She taught me all of these things, like how to bake bread and lot of natural cooking things. She was a wonderful “earth mother” woman who was like a mentor to me.
I think we were on a hiking trip, and then visiting friends, up in Washington state. We were on our friend’s deck, and I was saying how I was interested in yoga, and wanted to learn more about what it was. And she said, “Oh, I’ll teach you how to do a sun salutation!”
And I remember it was this beautiful day. I think I was like 20 years old, learning how to do a sun salutation and I was like — “Oh, my God. I love this!” It was the first moment I experienced anything to do with yoga, and I loved it.
 
Q: When did you begin practicing?
A: I think it was a year later. … I was living in Santa Cruz, Calif. My friend and I were in this place where you could go and have a hot tub and a sauna, and we were waiting our turn. And there was an earthquake! There are earthquakes there all the time. We were like, grabbing (ahold of things). The woman who worked there was grabbing the big water cooler to keep it from tipping over.
And we were all kind of bonded after. You know, you go through an earthquake with somebody! … We were talking with the woman who worked there, and we asked if she worked there every day, and she said, “No, I’m only here one day a week, I teach yoga.” And I said, “I’m looking for a yoga teacher!”
So I went to her class, and it was Iyengar yoga. I remember it was very bewildering the first time I went, because she, in a very traditional manner, just said the postures in Sanskrit! It sounded like complete gibberish to me and I had no idea what she was saying. I just would look around and try to copy what other people were doing. And I was hooked. I started going twice a week, and after awhile started to learn the names of the poses in Sanskrit, and I started to learn a little more about what I was doing… (and) learning some yoga philosophy was really amazing for me. Your 20s are a time in your life when you’re really searching. “Who am I? What’s important to me?” So it was this important, valuable framework as I went on and deepened my exploration of yoga.
 
Q: When did you decide to become a teacher?
A: It was about five years later that I had the opportunity to start learning about teaching. I remember actually thinking after a year or so of working with this wonderful teacher in Santa Cruz, “I wonder if I could be a teacher.” She was so smart and funny, she always made us laugh. She worked us really hard, but in an encouraging way. … So I think that planted the seed, because I just admired her so much. And I thought, what a great job! You get to work with people.
I think that’s what I love about it. You get to work with people in this very elemental way. We all have a body. We all have some kind of difficulty in our body, and in our mind. It’s so universal. I know what it’s like to have an injury, I know what it’s like to have a sore back, to be anxious, or to be sad, or to be angry or to be grieving, all of these things that are just part of the human condition. I feel like yoga is — not a remedy, but this way that we work with what’s there.
 
Q: As a teacher, do you often see students find that yoga is different from their initial conception of it?
A: You don’t really know what it’s like until you try it! There is a lot of misconception out there. There are a lot of images out there that tend to be of thin, pretty young women in kind of pretzel-y shapes. I think visually, that’s a conception of yoga that people see.
As much as possible, I try to be an ambassador for people to understand that yoga is really for all kinds of bodies, even if you’re heavy, or if you’re stiff, or if you’ve been out of commission for a while because you had surgery. I think there is a misconception that yoga is purely physical… We do want to understand the body, we want to understand where there is resistance in the body, we want to create more space in the body, but ultimately even if we were paralyzed and couldn’t get out of bed, we could still be practicing yoga. As long as we are drawing breath, then we have this opportunity to work with our body-mind.
 
Q: How does a person from Northern California find her way to Vermont?
A: Marriage! My now-husband was in San Francisco going to art school, and we met, actually, on a city bus. … I was living north of the city at the time, but I was in the city because that’s where my parents lived; I was just visiting them. When I was visiting my parents, I would try to connect with him. I sort of moved closer and closer until we were living in the same town!
He had always intended to move back to Vermont at some point, so when we got married we came back. He had been in this community for quite a long time before he went out there (to California). For me it was all new, but it was really nice because he knew so many people and I felt so welcomed.
And for the yoga, the response has been really amazing. I taught in the basement of St. Stephen’s Church for two years. Then I moved above ground into the Unitarian Church where it used to be over in Cross Street and I was there for two years, and then the space in the Marble Works opened up. So it was really great because by the time the Marble Works space opened up I had been teaching yoga in Middlebury for five years and there was enough of a base of support.
 
Q: Had you been a yoga teacher for some time at that point?
A: Yes, I had been a full-time yoga teacher in California for a few years before we moved here.
 
Q: Did you find that the community here was already excited about yoga, or was it a struggle to get people to the studio?
A: I think it was really easy for me, because while there was yoga here, and there are other yoga teachers around, there wasn’t anybody anywhere in this area that practices the kind of yoga that I teach. It’s not for everybody, but I think it’s appealing enough that people really can respond to it. … Iyengar yoga is really a thinking person’s yoga. It’s for people who are very intellectually curious, willing to explore their body and their mind in a new way. It is such a deep practice. It’s such a depth. … I feel like I’m just scratching the surface, after practicing myself for 25 years I feel as though I’m just at the start of my journey. There is such a richness to it. And I think people respond to the rigor of it. It’s not sloppy. There is a lot of attention to details.
I love looking around and seeing the cashier from the co-op, veterinarians, we’re all just in there together. There’s a lot of specialization going on right now in the yoga world…You see that more in the large cities. In a small town we can’t really support that, we all just need to be in the same space practicing.
I really like that we’re all in there together in our different phases of life. I feel like the older students are modeling something very important to the younger students, which is: This is something, this is meant to be a lifetime practice. And it’s really important that you practice in a way that is sustainable. If you’re constantly pushing yourself, and you’re tearing muscles, you’re going to burn out and you’re not going to want to do it when you’re 70.
 
Q: Otter Creek Yoga has quite the devoted following. Can you talk about the community aspect of practicing yoga in a town like Middlebury?
A: When I first started teaching … I was thinking of it more as the benefit for each individual person, which of course is still there. … And, since I opened the studio especially, I’ve really gotten the sense that there is this collective thing that happens too, where we’re all in there practicing together. And you can do more things actually when you’re in there with a group. There is an energy, for lack of a better word, (a sense) that we are all in there together, and I love that.
When we moved into the new space in Marble Works, we had this area to have tea at the end of class and I loved that. Our old space in the Marble Works there was just a coatroom, no little foyer or anything. The tea has just turned out to be lovely, I love watching people after class have their tea and talk to each other.
I sort of consider it my mission to say, this is the “people’s yoga” — it’s really for everyone. I love it when people have the courage (to begin). One of my favorite things about running the studio is seeing those people who really do want to make some kind of a change. Maybe life has become somewhat unmanageable or there is just the sense that there could be more freedom and space in the body-mind. That’s what we’re there for, to see that people find that freedom and space, and the courage to come try a class.
In our resistance to change, sometimes we also say, “Oh I can’t afford it.” We are totally committed to offering yoga to anyone who wants to come. We have a work exchange program in the studio, or we work out sliding scales and scholarship. I feel that’s just one way we can give something back to this community that’s been so supportive of the studio.

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