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Featured Yogi: Sheila

Name: Sheila O’Connor
Years teaching: Almost 1
Years practicing: Almost 6
Favourite yoga style: Vinyasa Flow

What do you remember about your first yoga class that made you want to return?
The sweat, the feeling of my heart racing, the flow of breath through my body, my final Savasana and the feel-good factor as I walked out of the studio!

Favourite asana at the moment:
Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) – my standing leg feels so powerful and strong, yet my body feels so light.

Do you work in another profession as well as teach yoga?
I’m an Occupational Therapist at Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit.

What part does yoga play in your full-time job?
Yoga is infused into every aspect of my life. I utilise my yoga knowledge when working with clients for postural management, pain management, relaxation and to promote that overall sense of well-being. I utilise my Occupational Therapy knowledge when teaching classes to highlight the importance of spinal alignment and creating postures that build strength and flexibility verses risk taking.
BKS Iyengar believed “Yoga teaches you to cure what need not be endured and to endure what cannot be cured”.

When I completed my teacher training, there was no adaptive yoga course/class available to people with a disability in New Zealand. From my personal interest in Yoga Therapy and the healing effects of regular yoga practice, I developed an adaptive Yin Yoga sequence focusing on the spine and respiration that could be completed by people with Spinal Cord Injury (SCI). The Spinal Unit facilitated a pilot project in November 2013, which highlighted the demand for a regular class in the community. The class was established with the support of numerous agencies such as Hot Yoga Auckland, Parafed Auckland and TASC. This class is challenging due to the barriers encountered but it has encouraged people to think outside the box and be open minded to the endless possibilities that people are capable of, with or without a SCI. Yoga cannot cure a disability but it can help people to accept where they are in life and let go of the negative thoughts or feelings they may have in relation to their illness or ability.

I am currently preparing to present my research findings exploring the benefits of using yoga as a therapy tool when working with people with SCI at the Annual Australian New Zealand Spinal Cord Injury Society Annual Scientific Meeting (ANZSCOS), which is being held in Auckland in November and I am about to publish my first research journal article. (It is never-ending!)

What inspired you to teach?
Initially, I completed my teacher training to develop my own personal practice, to advance my career and to explore Yoga Therapy.

Everyone loves a challenge – do one thing a day that scares you – and I started teaching too. For my very first class I was so nervous I wasn’t able to sleep the night before. My heart would skip a beat as I opened the studio door to start those first classes. Now I understand that nervous energy is a good thing, it just means you care about what you are doing.

As a teacher I’ve become more aware of the positive effects yoga has on my life and I am grateful to have the opportunity to share my passion with people. I also thrive on helping people to help themselves. It is amazing how resilient the human body is. I am only a guide as each student is his/her own best teacher.

Biggest learning curve in becoming a teacher?
There is no such thing as a perfect class – we learn from each other. Everybody is different and every day is different, we have to accept what each day brings and learn from that experience.
It is ok to make mistakes and maybe nobody will notice when you get your right and left side mixed up, or maybe someone will and you will share a moment of laughter!

Describe an average day that involves you teaching a class at the studio:
I get up at 5:40am, practice at the studio at 6:30 (most mornings), work at the Spinal Unit (8:00-4:30ish), and walk at lunchtime and teach in the studio in the evening. My Yang lifestyle keeps me on my toes.

When do you find time to eat or sleep?!
I don’t eat big meals, I spend my day picking or grazing. I have a fear of going hungry, so my desk at work is covered in snacks. I have a sweet jar in my room and my friends joke that you are guaranteed I have something edible in my handbag everywhere we go.

Approximately 9:30pm every night I usually crash and burn. I need to be in bed before 10 most nights so I can practice in the mornings. I know I am getting old when I talk about going to bed early!

What makes you leave a class you’ve taught with a smile?
I am a firm believer that yoga is to be enjoyed and never endured, so when I look around the room and most of the students are laughing with you in the most challenging of postures – it makes me smile. When there is total stillness during the final Savasana, I know the students are being nourished.
I perceive people come to yoga to feel renewed and inspired and I want my classes to meet those needs.
Sometimes I switch it up with the music or asanas and I love when students give me feedback as it means the hard work is paying off. I feel it is always important to have time to chat with the students after class as it creates a warm atmosphere and it is another way of building community.

What else do you love doing in life that isn’t connected to yoga?
Being outdoors – I love running and walking (if the weather is nice I could walk for hours listening to music).
Hanging out at the beach.
Listening to music – I honestly think it soothes the soul.
Touching base with my family and friends who live in Ireland – I can spend hours on Skype or Face Time every week just chatting and catching up.
Gaelic Football – I have played for Harps GAA for the last two years, however, this year I am a supporter due to my teaching commitments.

Share something your students and fellow teachers might be surprised to know about you:
I love chocolate and it is even better to share. (Picture is of what I sent my best friend for Christmas.)

How has yoga changed your life?
I practise yoga on a daily basis as it makes me feel good. Yoga has taught me to honour my body, have compassion for myself and others, and to accept the things in life you cannot change. It is so easy to look at someone from the outside and make an assumption about who he or she is without even knowing the person. Sometimes we are our own worst critics, setting unattainable standards. I once read, “Remember, you’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens”, and I did!

I grew up in an Irish culture where people show their feelings by insulting or criticising others, often making fun of others and talking about everyone else’s misfortunes (Gossip Girl, eat your heart out). I felt the need to protect myself and never show my vulnerable side. There were times in my life where people’s opinions or unnecessary comments really upset me, shattered my confidence and left me emotionally fragile. I have a tough exterior and a super soft interior, so I would often over-analyse every comment people had made, trying to understand what it meant. Remember BKS Iyengar’s wise words, “You must purge yourself before finding faults in others, when you see a mistake in somebody else, try to find if you are making the same mistake. This is the way to take judgment and to turn it into improvement.”

I struggled to fit in. It is easier to be the same (cool kid) as everyone than it is to be different. Who doesn’t want to drink all day or night? Who doesn’t want to be hungover all weekend? Who doesn’t want to eat crap food and takeaways? Who doesn’t want to be part of the group? I was battling with what I believed was the socially acceptable version of Sheila. Peer pressure from society results in mass-producing the same clone and people are often forced into moulds that they do not fit. Yoga has allowed me to step outside my comfort zone and break free of the desire to be the SAME! Lao Tzu once said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

The more I practised yoga the more I became aware it is through your body you realise you are a spark of divinity and I needed to let go of the attachment to things and people who were making me sad or not allowing me to be me! I do not want to be around people who have a negative affect on others or who judge others to hide their own insecurities and create their ego. When I have things on my mind, or I am sad, I practice more (sometimes twice a day) as it calms the fluctuations of my mind. Yoga has also become a survival tool.

We all have fears. Maybe of being different, being alone, or not being good enough, but I ask myself if I give as much energy to my dreams as I do to my fears. I decided to stop trying to be accepted and to just do what I felt was right for me and my body. I now enjoy the small things in life. I like spending time with people who make me happy. I have a little ‘down time’ every day where I do what I want to do by myself and I utilize every opportunity to use my personality to create fun classes.

Would you like to be a Featured Yogi? We’d love to know more about you! Or is there someone you’d like to nominate? Get in touch!

©The Yoga Connection 2014

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