COVID changed everything.
Turiya of Alaska experienced an abrupt shift as March 2020 rolled onto the timeline. Literally, it took one afternoon to bring all programming to a place of frozen powerlessness.
I remember that day vividly.
The phone ringing, numbers and names appearing on my small, glowing iPhone screen: Anchorage Corrections, Spring Creek Corrections, North Star Hospital, McLaughlin, Chanlyut House, others, all of them. The voicemails filled my inbox. Finally, I listened to one message at a time, all the same just slightly different. The doors were closing with no idea when we might be able to see our students again. Deep within my mind, all I heard were the sounds of magnetic reinforced locks and sliding bars slamming abruptly closed behind me. Next, the sound of my phone crashing into the nearby wall as it flew from my hands in frustration and rage. Most of all the uncontrollable sounds of tears and sorrow.
Then, lots of quiet and then. Nothing.
As the world slipped deep into social media, ordered to-go meals from Grub Hub and drank cases of White Claw I began to feel the ever present anxiety of survival. Understand, there is no benefit package or secured compensation for a service yogi. The institutions Turiya helped also compensated us. It’s important to be honest about this. This closure was a double loss: purpose and income. It was tempting to begin to sell mindfulness tools for a high profit margin, take advantage of those in stress with promises of yoga magic as did so many of my wellness colleagues, but if you know me, you know that’s just not my way. Sure, I hustled and scrambled but never for raw profit. Most of all I was seeking the sense of service. Soon enough opportunities revealed themselves as they often do when we are open. These doors remain outside the periphery, out there in the land of possibility, waiting for us to be available, ready, and most of all present. I had nothing but presence in those early days.
Enter, screen right, a Wellness Coordinator from the Native Village of Port Heiden. She had attended classes and studied meditation with me in the year leading up to the pandemic. Right before the shut down, she took a position at the village only to have COVID occur shortly after her settling in. After a while, she reached out to me and asked if we would we be interested in offering virtual classes, maybe even physically coming out to offer yoga in some way?
It felt right and the sort of work we imagined Turiya of Alaska existing for in these new times. The planning started. Metallic voices on cell phones, dropped calls, meeting village leaders in the strange and new domain of Zoom. Finally, the fateful day arrived when I stepped onto the screen in the newly converted spare room turned virtual studio. I could go through all the awkward moments, the sound barriers, weird sounds erupting from microphones, learning about cameras and how to create space within the virtual context. How about the time when the screen emptied as folks suddenly scrambled off? The salmon were running at the North River the Wellness Coordinator’s friendly face later explained.
Our relationship grew over time. We experienced so many moments of growth together! Nevertheless, where the heart is, where right intention reigns, that’s where success truly happens. Faces became names, names became people, and from this the humanizing seeds of relationship emerge.
Eventually, virtual classes turned into an invitation. “Come out and practice in person with us.” Soon enough this idea became reality. I packed several bags full of yoga gear, warm clothes and climbed into a series of small planes that would take me to Port Heiden. It was a whirlwind: lost bags, making do, meeting folks in person, learning more names and settling into a different rhythm. I admit that roles changed, I became the student and they became the teachers, these individuals, real flesh and blood not just abstract beings on the other end of a Zoom call. I was reminded of the lesson that every person whom we have ever served has taught us. I learned again that yoga isn’t a package taken to folks out there. It’s not something delivered or sold but rather an experience to learn and connect. It is kindness, being present and most of all understanding what is needed by those we serve rather than what we think they might need or what we learned in a sequence.
Fast forward to the now–two trips and fifty classes later–I am preparing for my third journey to once again visit our friends in Port Heiden, looking forward to seeing their warm faces, eating meals together, learning and just being.
May we all be free!