Well For Culture: Christine Means Finds Strength With Yoga

Courtesy SarahLove Photography (www.sarahlove.today) Christine Means, Arikara, Navajo, and Yankton Dakota, demonstrates a back bend.

“I teach yoga to elders in the Pueblo communities,” she told me when we first met last summer.

The thought alone put a smile on my face. That is a truly awesome occupation.

Christine Means realized years ago that in order to make big changes in the world of Indigenous wellness, you have to start with yourself, your family, and your community. So that’s exactly what she did.

Just after having her baby girl, she started looking for a way to get back into her active lifestyle. But running and cross training felt too hard on her body. So, she found a Groupon to a yoga studio in Albuquerque, and the rest is history.

“I fell in love with it – centering, finding a balance, the physical challenge, the mental focus – and before you know it I was doing it every day,” she says. “It was a great way to get back into shape after having my baby.”

Three years later, she’s still doing yoga every day: now as a certified instructor. I spoke with Christine to learn about some of the incredible things she’s doing to promote healthy lifestyles in her family and community through yoga. Here’s a little bit of that conversation:

How did you make the jump from yoga as a hobby to yoga as a career?

I was working full-time for the BIE prior to having my daughter, but I left that job to be at home with her. I loved it, but after about a year I was ready to get back into work part time, and teaching was the ideal solution because I could maintain a flexible schedule.

Before I jumped into my teacher training I called around to some of the nearby Indian communities, different colleges and organizations, and pitched the idea of my classes. I wanted to make sure I’d really be able to work – I wasn’t just going to do it for fun. There was immediate interest, so I did my training and started teaching classes right away.

What kind of classes do you teach now?

Right now I’m teaching senior chair yoga at the Zia Pueblo Senior Center; diabetes yoga with Zia Pueblo Diabetes Program; I teach a class at SIPI college; and tomorrow I start teaching kids’ yoga at my daughter’s school.

Just cute! So your daughter likes doing yoga, too?

Yes! Sometimes I look over and she just busts out a downward dog! She does planks and push-ups; we do “mommy and me” yoga together; I take her to toddler yoga. I’m really excited to start teaching the other three year olds in her preschool!

It’s really great that you can be that influence for her. Along with using yoga as a way to maintain a healthy lifestyle for you and your family, what are some other benefits to this practice?

There are so many!

Well first I’ll say that as a woman in your community, in your family, you’re constantly going and giving and taking care of everybody else – but at some point you’ve got to stop and take care of yourself or else eventually you won’t have anything left! Yoga is my time – my one hour a day – where I can do that. I can be a little bit selfish. When I finish my practice it’s like a reset button has been hit: I’m rejuvenated, awake, I’ve got a whole new outlook on life and I’m ready to go. So I would say that yoga allows me to give more. I’m able to be better to myself and others.

Yes! That’s so important. What are some other benefits?

I love that yoga brings together all the components of wellness, and all of the areas in our life where we get overwhelmed. It’s a mental, emotional, physical and spiritual practice.

In Ashtanga yoga – my favorite type – you really see this happening. You start with a moment of gratitude, then physically you’re sweating, meanwhile you focus on your breath, creating space in your mind and body, and in the end there’s a level of meditation. It’s so refreshing. Sometimes we get caught up focusing on the physical elements of wellness – weight loss or thinking “I gotta look good or I gotta be fit” – but with yoga I am reminded that it’s a much bigger picture.

There’s the theory of historical trauma, and that we’re all holding onto some of that. I see yoga as a way for us to process some of that trauma. There are certain movements that open up the body, which allows us to release some of this emotional trauma that’s been stored up. It takes time to get to that place, but eventually that trust builds up and people get really into it.

That balanced concept sounds familiar…

Yes – there are so many parallels with Native ways. The Ashtanga belief system is ancient – thousands of years old. It’s a very traditional, disciplined practice. Just like Navajo beliefs or Dakota beliefs and the sundance ways, Ashtanga is so disciplined and respectful of differences between men and women’s bodies and it recognizes energies in the body relationships we have.

It’s funny because when I first started yoga I used to think it was just something for rich white ladies – it’s true, it can be really pricey, so that’s what you find. I’ve had people come up to me in classes I took – I’d be the only brown girl in class – and they would think I could be this cool spiritual guide for them. I learned I had to be really careful with people.

When it came time to building my teaching philosophy I was trying to figure out how to blend my traditions, and I started researching to see if anybody else has done this. What I found was just a bunch of really ignorant people trying to make profits off of this idea of being Native American. I was all wrong.

So, I decided not to “officially” blend the philosophies or to put that out there because I didn’t want to attract these New Age weirdos. Instead, I’ve realized that when I’m teaching yoga in our communities, I start with the physical, I move onto the mindfulness, and people will eventually realize on their own how it connect to their spiritual practice. It’s something that works for me.

Any other thoughts?

Yoga is not for everybody. It’s hard. Yoga is hard work. Wellness is hard work. But if you take the time to get there, it can really improve your life.

Interested in learning more? Thinking about bringing yoga to your community? Please email christine.begay@gmail.com. For regular updates on the Native yoga lifestyle, follow Christine on instagram: christinethemeans.

Chelsey Luger is Anishinaabe and Lakota from North Dakota. She hopes to be a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for health and wellness. Follow her on Instagram. Ideas for articles? Email her: wellforculture@gmail.com.

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