Words cannot express the delight that is felt when one is in the presence of Jane. Her grace and joyfulness surrounds you. It is for that and so many other reasons, myself and her fellow students have so much admiration for the adventurous Jane. It is with great pleasure I introduce you to the thoughtful and playful Jane Phelan.
Tell us a bit about yourself – When I was younger, I used to say “I’m from another planet,” to allow for an open-minded response to my non-conformist behavior, rather than just offer the facts: That I was born in NY, and when I was 3, my family moved to West Hartford, CT, where I grew up. In 1969, at 23 years old, I took the plunge and married my high school heartthrob, and we are still together after 52 years.
Two weeks after the wedding, we left the US for 9 amazing unplanned years. We found odd jobs and lived in Dublin, Ireland; worked as volunteers on Kibbutz Daliya, in Israel. In London, England, Garrett taught American Literature and I temped, and we both taught in the Peace Corps in San Salvador, El Salvador. Lastly, we taught at the American School in Guatemala City, Guatemala. In 1978, Guido the Amazon parrot came with us from Guatemala when we came back to the US, where we settled in the Washington, DC area and lived in Arlington, VA for 33 years.
What is a little known or surprising fact about you or your work? My first lifelong passion was dance, modern and ballet. I apprenticed with my first teacher, and then began teaching. in 1968, I was the first to receive a certificate in Modern Dance, from then Hartford Conservatory of Music, which eventually became part of the University of Hartford.
My second career — self-taught, earning (a pittance) while I learned — was devoted to theatre and dance costume design in the DC area for 20+ years, a 24/7 immersion.
What led you to Iyengar yoga? How did you find IYCWM? It might sound surprising, that after going to one class, my reaction to yoga was — Nnnnoooo, no no no, not for me! I couldn’t understand the appeal of restricting freedom of movement. I had devoted many years to studying and teaching modern dance and improvisation, and yoga seemed counterintuitive to self-expression.
So why did I go back to yoga classes more than 10 years after that initial experience? Probably because in 1998, I had begun to practice mindfulness meditation in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, and yoga seemed in sync with slowing down to go deep. The Eightfold Path and the Eight Limbs of Yoga have so much in common, and I guess I was ready for the journey inward.
I had an Iyengar teacher when I lived in Arlington who had trained with John Schumacher at Unity Woods. Her clarity and detailed instruction really resonated with me, helping me to focus on being fully present. She used to say, “First look, then do,” when I would anticipate the pose and not pay close attention to what she was teaching.
I began studying with Iyengar teacher Madeleine Hexter when I moved to CT in 2015, and she brought me to IYCWM and Susan Elena’s classes.
How long have you been practicing yoga? Since around 2000.
What keeps you on the mat? So many reasons — the instinct for self-nurturing, understanding how to be present, how the body/mind connection is key to aliveness. Building strength is a healthful fringe benefit. Cultivating wisdom, very slowly…
What keeps you off the mat? Lots of distractions, including shopping for fresh in-season produce for vegetarian meals, taking art classes, spending time (virtually) with family and friends. And then there is fatigue. Lack of self-discipline. Aches and pains.
What poses do you love? Forward bends, seated and standing. Supported restorative postures. I have
found, in Susan Elena’s classes, that within each stage of doing a pose, I love the sense of being immersed in the energy of the action. Finding ease within the effort. Sutra II.46: Sthira sukham asanam. So I can be content without achieving the final shape — fortunately, because my body isn’t going to find its way into many of them.
What poses do you find challenging? Everything is a struggle, to find my way to grounding and aligning and lengthening and breathing, and smiling. And surrendering.
What do you like to do when you are not doing yoga? Gardening, growing herbs for cooking, being at the seashore; playing with the parrot, whose attention-seeking behavior is a constant. Preparing a variety of cuisines, including vegan options, and creating new combinations of ingredients and flavors I also love to draw and journal.
How has practicing yoga impacted your life? Because my yoga practice is interwoven with my meditation practice, the impact is embedded in ways I probably don’t even realize. Physcially, yoga helps to bring awareness to how I stand and walk, and ways of stretching throughout each day.
How does yoga show up in your everyday life? Everywhere. The sutras are a path to reflecting on issues and obstacles, joy and pain, ego and humbleness.
How has the pandemic changed your daily life? Does your yoga practice help you in any way? I had been volunteering, working with young children at a local family shelter; also at the Cybulski prison; and offering guided meditation and mindful movements at a mental health residential facility. All of these efforts came to a full stop when Covid set in. Once classes evolved onto Zoom, I no longer had to commute an hour to Florence, so I signed up for the Yoga Vrksa immersion and 4 other classes each week.
What has it been like to become part of a virtual yoga community where you do not know some of the other students? Because Susan Elena addresses each one of us during asana practice, and also students unmute at the beginning and end of classes to ask questions and share, I think that the virtual set-up contributed to having a sense of who else was “in the room,” perhaps more so than in the studio when I didn’t know anyone’s name.
How does this yoga community contribute to your practice? It touches me in the sense that most everyone is willing to be honest and open, and so I feel validated in my effort to practice with humility.
How has the switch to online classes during the pandemic affected your sense of community? How does it help stay connected? How does it fall short? Switching to online classes offered the chance to stay connected to students I had seen in classes in the studio, and to be introduced to new students who live at a distance. Particularly with the Vrksa community, with the classes four mornings each week, the connection has been strengthened because of the continuity and immersion. I haven’t felt deprived of hands-on studio classes, because Susan Elena miraculously seems to pick up on every off-kilter cell in my body (and distractedness).
What do you think about the future of hybrid yoga classes – some people in person some online? I hope it will be a hugely successful way of combining on-site and distance learning.
Any advice for those seeking to connect to a virtual yoga community? Jump in!