Yoga for All Bodies: A Q&A with Benita Mayo
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Yoga for All Bodies: A Q&A with Benita Mayo
Since Benita Mayo joined the Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC) as a yoga instructor almost two years ago, she has been inspiring students with her gentle and welcoming approach to teaching the practice. Mayo says her own experience practicing yoga as a larger-bodied, Black female informs the accessible, inclusive, and empowering environment she creates for her students. Currently, she teaches Holding Space: Yoga for All Bodies 5–6pm on Mondays over Zoom. This class incorporates light strengthening, stretching, breathing, and mindfulness meditation.
Q. What does being a yoga instructor mean to you?
Ironically, I didn’t go into yoga teacher training with the intention to teach. I really did it to deepen my own practice. Initially I was very hesitant to start the program because nobody at the studio looked quite like me. Everybody was thin, most everybody was white. But, after the encouragement of one of my teachers, I decided to follow through, and I soon felt the desire and obligation to let other people know that yoga is for everybody and all bodies can do yoga.
Being a yoga instructor is a hefty but worthy responsibility. One of my teachers actually put it this way: To be a good yoga teacher, you want to point to the Moon and have the students see the Moon. You don’t want to point to the Moon and have the students see the finger. The role of the yoga teacher is to meet students where they are, whether that’s physically or emotionally. Whatever they bring with them that day, meet them where they are. A lot of people think that yoga is about the physical postures, but that’s an Americanized version of yoga. The roots of yoga are in India and South Asia where it’s a way of life, a way of seeing the world. As a teacher, my responsibility is to share that with my students. Then, it’s up to them what they choose to do with it.
Q. What kind of yoga do you teach?
I teach yin yoga and gentle hatha classes, which are more sustainable practices. My teacher, Cyndi Lee, founder of Om Yoga, describes sustainable yoga as characterized by working with all the ingredients of one's life, as you are and as you change. For example, my yoga practice today looks and feels different from my practice 10 years ago. My passion is yin yoga, which is more internal, passive, cooling, and downward compared to a more yang style, which is more external, dynamic, warming, and upward. Yin yoga is a slower practice where shapes are passively held 3-5 minutes, working on the deep, dense connective tissues and joints in the body. The primary areas of focus are the fasciae, tendons, and ligaments. This connective tissue is often and easily overlooked because the initial focus is often building strength. We can't forget about what holds the muscle to the bone!
Yin yoga is also an excellent complement to a contemplative practice because it prepares your body for meditation. It’s all about going within. It’s about befriending yourself. You can’t be too judgy or hard on yourself. Because the practice is slow and deliberate, students are able to learn a lot about themselves. The focus isn't on an aerobic workout, but on increasing spaciousness, which allows one to notice what's happening at a more subtle level—one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations.
Q. What do you incorporate in your yoga classes?
It’s been an evolution, but currently I start with centering, grounding, and meditation. From there, I will lead students into breathwork, which helps to further open the container for practice. Sometimes a theme appears from the postures. Other times, the theme evolves as the class evolves. For instance, I might have an intention to focus on gratitude, but, after greeting the students and hearing what's on their hearts and minds, I might get a sense that compassion should be the focus. Although it’s important to have a plan, it’s equally important to be flexible and adaptable. Lastly, I usually end with an inspirational reading, poem, or a dedication to close the container and seal the practice.
Q. What do you wish for people to take away from your classes?
I think it’s important to create an atmosphere that provides space to pause. The world is spinning so fast, and we never take the time to just pause and experience what’s happening right now. I take that on as a yoga teacher. I try to create a safe space, allowing my students to find refuge or respite in class. I create a safe container. If they receive one little nugget from a poem, story, or explanation of mindfulness, it’s a successful class. Unfortunately, students often give me the credit for feeling better when actually they deserve it because they allowed themselves to be quiet enough to connect with whatever was rumbling inside of them when they came to class. I just created the container so they could have their experience.
Q. How might practicing yoga help UVA students?
I think it’s all about the autonomic nervous system, two main parts of which are the parasympathetic system, which is commonly associated with rest-and-digest mode, and the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with fight-or-flight mode. What yoga does is tap into the parasympathetic system, stimulating a calming response. Unfortunately, as a society, we’re constantly in a fight-or-flight mode. Our bodies are just so anxious and filled with tension, whether that’s through listening to the news or through our daily lives. So much is happening. I honestly wish I had started yoga when I was a student because tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system and being able to find that calming effect is essential. It’s about resiliency. If you’re always in fight-or-flight mode, you’ll have all these stress hormones constantly running through your body. Our bodies weren’t meant to be on high alert all the time. We’ve become numb to that fight-or-flight mode as a society, but yoga and meditation are tools that students can use to help stimulate their parasympathetic nervous systems and reduce their stress levels.
Q. Why did you want to work with CSC?
What CSC offers is so beneficial to having a balanced life while you’re a student. I think the contemplative classes CSC offers definitely contribute to the whole being. I know when I was a student, I was so focused on academics—GPA, that interview, that job. I would have loved to have had an outlet like this because you honestly get tunnel vision! You have pressure from your parents, your peers, and so many other pressures that are leaning you to one side. What CSC offers is a chance to rebalance in a way that’s not too tight and not too loose. It’s a chance to step away from that high level of stress and explore the other parts of your mind and body—to be a whole person.