Yoga teacher Donna McNeil imbues her classes with joy, grace, and (occasionally) politics.
I stand on one leg with the other extended in front of me. My standing knee is bent, and my balance is wobbly—I rock a little from side to side on my left foot, my bare toes gripping the surface of my yoga mat. From the front of the room, a voice softly intones, “Lift your right hand and reach over toward your neighbor. Rest your hand on their shoulder.” I feel a hand gently touch my left shoulder as I look over to the woman next to me. Her hair is in a ponytail and her face is concentrating, but our eyes meet for a moment, and I smile before putting my palm on the bare skin of her back.
“We’re doing this pose to highlight something important,” says yoga instructor Donna McNeil as the room transforms into lines of people standing, hands to shoulders, a chain of tenuous, yet tender, support. “Isn’t it easier to balance when you connect with others?” We’re nearing the end of McNeil’s Friday evening yoga class at Niraj Yoga, a modern studio located in the upper Arts District on Congress Street. The class, which is just an hour long, is called Happy Hour Yoga (a nod to both the 5 p.m. timeslot and the $5 price tag). The session is emblematic of the Niraj Yoga philosophy. Each session is defined by a theme, which changes weekly according to the instructor’s mood. This week, our theme is “bridges,” and as we bend and fold into a series of backbends and heart-opening poses, background music offers soft promises of comfort and kindness.
“I listened to a cover of the old Simon and Garfunkel song, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’” McNeil explained to me. “It felt so symbolic of this moment, and it reminded me of the importance of building pathways to each other, helping other people as they go through life.” Inspiration, McNeil says, “comes differently each week.” Sometimes she is inspired by music; other times she feels compelled to design her class in response to current events. For instance, a late-January class was inspired by the Women’s March on Washington, and featured grounding poses as a tribute to Mother Earth and the “great feminine tradition.” Another featured a soundtrack of Native American music and closed with a communal water-drinking ritual—McNeil’s homage to the protesters at Standing Rock.
These political statements are McNeil’s, but the themed yoga class is a hallmark of Niraj, which was founded in 2015 by teachers Kathleen Savoy and Melissa Lopez Landers. “We have a style called Illumina Yoga, where we teach everyone to honor their own voice,” explains Savoy. “We teach everyone that yoga is more important than just the physical poses. It starts from a theme or concept that comes directly from the present moment of your life. You take that theme, and you embody it, putting it into the physical realm of the yoga postures.”
Instead of teaching specific sequences to be repeated week in, week out, the Illumina instructors provide their teachers with the tools to create their own ever-changing flow. Like a farm-to-table menu that shifts with the seasons, these yoga classes reflect the lives of Niraj practitioners. “Donna came to our process with her own background in the arts and creation,” Savoy says. “She is a strong, powerful, embodied woman who brings her own life experience to the mat and to Niraj.”
According to McNeil, she did not discover yoga until “late in life.” She began practicing the ancient art in 1997, following a string of painful events in her personal and professional life. At the time, she remembers thinking, “If I made my body strong, it could cradle my psyche and keep me from falling apart.” The middle-aged arts professional began attending classes daily, sometimes even twice a day. “I just fell in love with it,” she says. “It entered into the physical, spiritual, and intellectual sides of my life. It hit all the high points that I needed.” She’s been a steady practitioner ever since.
McNeil, now in her sixth decade of life, is retired from a long career that included nine years at the Maine Arts Commission, three of those years spent as the executive director. She has also served as a curator for the Bob Crewe Gallery at Maine College of Art (MECA) and authored multiple books. (Among her achievements, she considers an exhibit of Thomas Moser’s fine furniture at MECA a particular triumph, as well as the accompanying book, Moser: Legacy in Wood, which she co-authored with Moser). In 2014, McNeil became a certified yoga instructor under the Illumina banner. The training process was transformational, she says. “I felt as though I had gone into a nunnery; it was a spiritual gathering,” she recalls. “It just happened to be all women in the session I attended. We could all surrender to our psychic and spiritual investigations.”
McNeil now teaches twice a week, and judging from the turnout tonight, her classes are very popular. I suspect this has something to do with McNeil herself—she has an air of regal composure, a serenity that arcs through her movement and suffuses her words. During class, she walks barefoot and lightly between rows of bending yogis, issuing quiet words of advice. While her ideals and ideas are present in the room, broadcast subtly through the music choice and her occasional interjections, McNeil lets her students move according to their own physical and emotional needs.
This is the crux of McNeil’s yoga practice: the yoking of mind, body, spirit, and intellect. It is a gestalt exercise, one that touches every aspect of her life. “I bring things from the practice off the mat and into my life,” she explains. “Yoga comes with me out into the world. You carry it with you.”