This week I am very happy to be celebrating the 15th anniversary of Circle Yoga Cooperative (CYC) in Washington DC. The very first day of teaching in the current building was March 17, 2003. Of course, it wasn’t yet the studio we all know and love. That day, I offered one Budding Yogis kids class in the space which we now know as the retail and office space. The walls were decorated with enormous paper flowers and a colorful kids chart of the chakras. I think we had two students.
I am in awe at how this community has grown and prospered over these many years, from the tiniest seed of intention to now—a community of care where I’m often not even recognized when I walk in the door. It’s a wonder to see how when something wants and needs to be born, it will be. In 2003, already the mother of four elementary age children, I heard the call of this studio/community center/healing space and in tiny baby steps, CYC was born.
No Mud No Lotus
What I find most intriguing about the birth of Budding Yogis/Circle Yoga, is that my energy and inspiration came not from happiness and joy, but from tragedy and a longing to help change what felt like a scary situation.
The very first inklings of this space that many of us call our spiritual home arose on September 11, 2001. My husband and I returned from a day trip to Pennsylvania to retrieve our four children from at a friend’s home where they were huddled in front of the television, watching the World Trade Center towers collapse, after having been released early from school. I had already been struggling with depression for over a year at that point, and seeing my children’s faces activated my deepest fear response.
My mom’s twin brother had recently taken his own life, which knocked a lot of the life out of my mom and subsequently our family. The year before that, I gave up all intoxicants as part of my Buddhist training. I found that facing life without any substance escape threw me into a pretty dark mind space.
The Small Voice Inside
So on September 12, as I reflected on all of the suffering, within and without, a small voice of love spoke up from inside me. It reminded me that I always had some ability to help. Even if it was small, I knew making an effort would benefit my mental state and possibly make a wee bit of difference in the world.
So I sent an email to Coleman McCarthy, who at that time was teaching Alternatives to Violence at Wilson High School. I had heard about his work teaching peace, and I thought perhaps I could be a part of his movement. He put me in touch with Marsha Blakeway who was leading peer mediation at Alice Deal Junior High School.
Right away, I met with Marsha and began assisting in her work at Deal. I also approached my son’s third grade teacher and asked if she would like me to come in once a week to teach her class about mindfulness, nonviolent communication and conflict resolution. She liked the idea, and so I began leading this class for her and another 3rd grade class at Lafayette Elementary. I loved teaching the kids and found they were most amenable to mindfulness when it involved their bodies, so I wove in some of what I knew about yoga from my own practice.
Teaching Yoga to Kids
When I learned about a program in teaching yoga to kids, being offered in New York city, I jumped at the chance to have a fun solo New York weekend and learn skills I could add to my tool bag. At the Next Generation Yoga training, I met another woman from DC and we hit it off. Her name is Linda Feldman, you may know her. We exchanged numbers and agreed to stay in touch.
I began teaching kids yoga at my gym (F.I.T. in Bethesda), and then expanded to offer after school classes at Lafayette also. Linda offered yoga classes at her kids’ nursery school. The Lafayette classes filled up immediately and I held them in the music room, which unfortunately had no windows and a carpet that smelled like stinky feet, and we were often interrupted by noisy adults. At the same time, I expanded the in-class conflict resolution and mindfulness classes to include the Lafayette sixth graders. I met with all 60 sixth graders at once in the cafeteria for a weekly guided meditation and mindfulness session.
Eventually I realized I needed my classes to be in a location where I could create a beautiful, safe and welcoming space for the children. I had begun to see how stressed and anxious all my students were, and I really wanted to be a part of a solution in which kids could learn to reduce anxiety by being more present and in touch with their bodies. Yoga had helped me relax, and I wanted to share this relaxation with the kids.
The first potential space I stumbled upon that felt right was the current Circle Yoga space. I called the number on the For Lease sign and the owner told me that it was no longer for lease. I never even saw the inside. So I spent another 9-12 months looking around as I carpooled kids to sports and music lessons. I visited a couple of other spaces, but nothing seemed right. The first space I had contacted, which at the time was 5615 39th Street NW, was a former residential apartment building with a front yard surrounded by a dilapidated chain link fence. But something about it just felt right.
The For Lease sign continued to stay up on the building, so I finally called the owner again and asked him what was up. He said that the building sale had fallen through so the space was now available and did I want to come and see it. I sure did. I was offered the one room that is now the office and retail space. There was no door from Northampton Street, you could only enter from the hallway off of 39th Street. When I leased the space I brought in two file cabinets and an old door to make a desk, got a land line phone (!), hung a few posters and I was off and running.
Up and Running
I called Linda and she was happy to come and help teach, as long as we could get students. We posted signs around the neighborhood for the kids and family classes we were offering in our little room. The kids trickled in at first, and then more quickly as people found us. Daily parents would ask if we could please offer classes for them. I was already doing my adult teacher training with Suzie Hurley at Willow Street Yoga, so we decided to try some adult yoga classes. They were a success!
My husband and I decided to invest in the studio by buying the building and renovating it so we could expand and have the retail space, the office areas and three studio spaces. After that, we could start hiring more adult teachers, and offering classes for all ages. We also now had space for a front desk, which meant that students waiting before and after class could have a friendly face to talk to. This was an integral part of our healing program, and we told the front desk staff that they were our students’ first yoga teachers.
Purpose Out of Despair
Even as we worked long hours and were never sure if we would get enough students, my despair lifted, and I felt as if I had a purpose. I believe that without my depression, without the tragedy of September 11 and the following sniper and anthrax scares in DC, the studio would not have been born. From the mud of that fear, the lotus of our studio was able to grow. Without the mud, there can be no lotus.
I remember hearing my Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, share about his motivation to begin the Plum Village community of practice, which now includes millions of practitioners all around the world. He was in deep despair over the loss of his mother and his exile from Vietnam. He knew he had to do something to heal, and that is when he decided he must take every single step in mindfulness. He recognized that his healing relied on the healing of others, and step by step he invited others to practice with him. His despair led to the healing of so many people.
So the studio continued to grow and grow. I gave up the classes I was teaching at Lafayette, and found an energetic and brilliant woman (Linda Ryden) to take over. She transformed these few classes into what is now the premier elementary school Peace Studies program in the country, The Peace of Mind. And Circle Yoga serves nearly 1000 students each week in classes, workshops and events for anyone and everyone.
What’s your Calling?
As we celebrate the 15th anniversary of Circle Yoga, I would like to ask you to consider your own challenges, your own despair over the situations we face today in our world. What new practice or offerings are calling you? What are you longing to do to help yourself and in doing so help our world?
What shape waits in the seed of you to grow and spread its branches against a future sky? —David Whyte (What to Remember When Waking)
I hope you will post your callings, your dreams, your despairs, your memories and your photos here or on the Circle Yoga Facebook page over the next month to inspire yourself and all of us to go ahead and step into what is calling us out of our darkness.