WATERBURY – I arrived at Chase Park in Waterbury about 10 minutes after the yoga class started Saturday and gently laid my mat on the grassy field behind the attendees, nervous about disrupting the flow or drawing attention to myself.
From there, I could observe the other attendees move through their poses. As one who usually spends days inside reading, I felt unqualified to mimic poses like the “downward-facing dog” or the “tree.”
Our instructor, Katlyn Hagley, guided us through the downward-facing dog. We planted our hands and feet on the ground and lifted our hips toward the sky, forming an inverted V shape with our bodies. With my hands and feet firmly planted on my mat, arms extended, and legs stretched as much as possible, I felt my limbs strain. Suddenly, my legs started to shake with an unexpected tremor, a fear of falling or losing balance.
But glancing around, I noticed participants of all ages and abilities, each going at their own pace. Some were swiftly getting into position, while I noticed an older adult had yoga blocks to shorten the distance between her and the ground. Some small children were modifying the downward-facing dog, slightly bending their knees. Whenever I felt unsure about how my pose looked, Hagley reminded us that the most important part was not how we looked but where we felt body tension.
“Embrace the shake,” Hagley told the class.
I then started focusing on my breathing. I allowed my thoughts to notice the gentle breeze and the sounds of birds chirping.
Hagley has taught the class for five years and is a special education teacher at Waterbury Public Schools. As an instructor in a park setting, she said the class dynamic changes constantly. She has had to adapt to teaching through various types of weather, noise levels and the observed experiences of her students.
“I’m very fortunate that I’m an educational teacher outside of teaching yoga. So I’m very comfortable making modifications on the fly,” Hagley told me. “I kind of have to feel the energy of the people there and work with whatever is going on environmentally. I gauge what I teach based off of what I’m seeing and the feedback that I’m getting visually.”
Hagley said she enjoys hearing from students who have reaped yoga’s mental and physical health benefits.
“There are so many regular students who have been attending the Chase Park classes who say when they don’t occur during the winter months, they really miss the community,” she said. “They miss the connection with each other and the connection with the outdoors.”
One of these regular students is Gzima Doko, a Waterbury resident who said she has never missed a class and that the practice has even helped her quit smoking. She has invited her coworkers to attend with her regularly.
“I practiced yoga 20 years ago back in my country in Macedonia,” Doko said. “When I saw on social media about Yoga In Our City, I was so happy. It’s free, and the teachers are great. I love all of them.”
As I packed up my mat at the end of class, I felt a change in my confidence; that yoga is not just a matter of physical fitness but also about nurturing mental and emotional well-being, embracing imperfections, and focusing on the present moment.
Yoga In Our City is a nonprofit organization that hosts free yoga classes in public parks across six different cities in Connecticut. It started in Hartford in 2012 as a project of Civic Mind, a self-described “full-service social impact agency.” Since 2015, Yoga In Our City has partnered with ConnectiCare, which has provided the funding to expand to more cities, including Waterbury, Willimantic, New Haven, Bridgeport and New London.
Since then, more than 15,000 members have taken part in their local and accessible yoga instruction, according to the group’s website.
You can find out more about the classes, which will be held in Hartford, Waterbury, Willimantic, Bridgeport, New London and New Haven until Oct. 9, at their website.
Gomez, a journalism student at the University of Connecticut, is a summer intern at CT Examiner