By Sarah Berry

Yoga is possible for anybody who really wants it.  Yoga is universal…. But don’t approach yoga with a business mind looking for worldly gain.  ~ Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois

Bernadette McGree was a new yoga teacher with eyes wide and heart at the ready when she arrived in Chicago with her young family. She went looking for a mentor and ended up finding, not only a mentor, but a yoga community, whose progressive approach would profoundly impact her practice both on and off the mat.

“I’d only been teaching for a couple of months and I had this sudden realisation that I knew nothing!” she exclaims. “I felt like I needed guidance and the support of someone who had a real depth of experience.”
She began attending classes where the students were actively encouraged to explore other studios and styles. “There was an emphasis on sharing and growing,” she says. “It didn’t matter which style you practiced or came from, it was about coming together and recognising that each teacher had something different to offer.”

It was from this supportive, receptive platform that she met Mac McHugh, founder of Chicago’s immensely popular Niyama Yoga Studio. “I asked Mac if she’d mentor me and she agreed,” Bernadette recalls. “She suggested I keep trying out different teachers, but also come along to her classes whenever I liked for only five dollars.”

Mac offered this discounted rate to any other teachers that wanted to attend her classes. She also offered a discounted weekly class that anyone could attend and a weekly karma yoga class, where she paid the teacher, but all proceeds went to charity.

“Her intention was to unite people so they could grow and, by making it affordable, that opportunity was available to anyone,” Bernadette says. “She had so much fire and joy and just wanted to share that. She wasn’t making money off it – Mac mentored for the love of it.”

After a time, Mac allowed Bernadette to attend classes free-of-charge and even invited her to teach sections of the class. Soaking up Mac’s generous offerings, Bernadette gained knowledge and found her practice and teaching transform: “Being in such a nurturing environment, you could only blossom,” she says. “I was learning to be a good teacher by being a good student; I was a sponge, absorbing all I was given and then sharing that in my own classes.”

This spirit of sharing was not confined. This was its beauty; there was no exclusivity. Many of the yoga studios in Chicago were working collaboratively; hosting and promoting each other’s events and going to one another’s classes. Mac started holding regular two-hour classes that provided a space for local teachers and strongly-practicing students to gather and play.

“It was an opportunity to play with poses and just have fun,” Bernadette explains. “But, it also became an epicentre for teacher and student growth – people

[of all different yoga styles] were coming together to practice and that broke barriers – we saw the similarities in each other, not the differences. It was an absolute gift.”

This union of generous hearts and open minds was water to the yoga community and it flourished. Nourished by the guidance she was receiving and the sense of belonging to an abundant, connected community, Bernadette continued to unfold, stretching out in mind, body and heart. She started studying Anusara yoga (founded by John Friend, Anusara means to ‘flow with grace’), which she eventually became qualified to teach. She was also introduced to ‘laughter yoga’.

“I thought ‘what the heck is that,’ she laughs. “I thought it meant literally getting into a posture and laughing at each other! It actually involves a series of techniques to bring on deep belly laughter, leading to a deeper sense of joy. After a class there is a bond and connection between people who arrived as strangers”

Inspired by its cathartic release, its contagiousness, and the permission it gave to be joyful and to share that bliss in a group, she trained to become a laughter ‘leader’.

Bernadette eventually returned to Australia “kicking and screaming.” She longed for the rich community she had discovered in Chicago. While Sydney’s yoga community did gradually reveal itself to her, she feels we could all learn from Chicago’s unique approach: “There’re so many great teachers here and so much good we can do, but we can do it so much better when we start to work together.”

It is for this reason that she is looking forward to the upcoming Evolve Yoga Festival in Sydney, at which she will be teaching a class and participating in a discussion on how to grow our yoga community. “The festival is the perfect vehicle for all the different people and teachers to come together and yoke.There is also the opportunity for the broader community to taste and try yoga in all it’s many facets, all in one place. It is visionary and it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

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