Yoga instructor Susan Barber's journey comes full circle
Aug. 09, 2018
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — When Steve Watkins learned that his former yoga instructor, Susan Barber, was returning to Fredericksburg, he was thrilled.
"I can't say enough how knowledgeable she is — she studied with the some of the leading lights in the yoga world, and still does," Watkins said. "She sees herself as an eternal student, continuing to learn, no matter how experienced she is."
The emeritus University of Mary Washington English professor and prolific author is also a yoga instructor, who took over teaching Barber's classes when she moved from the area about 20 years ago. He is a co-founder of Dragonfly Yoga Studio and the Yoga Foundation of Fredericksburg.
Now that Barber is back, Watkins anticipates her classes will be overflowing.
"Which is wonderful," he said. "We all support each other and respect one another — we're not a competition in the true business sense. We each have a different approach. We learn from each other, but each of us is unique and we connect with our students in unique ways."
After starting to practice yoga in Richmond in the 1990s and teaching yoga at Fredericksburg's Rappahannock YMCA, Barber moved to Singapore, where her husband, employed by Danish shipping company Maersk, was relocated.
Subsequently the Barbers and their son and daughter moved to Bahrain, then Germany, and later New York City — and finally, now, back to Virginia. In each of those locations Barber practiced and taught yoga, managing along the way to make an extended visit to India, the birthplace of yoga.
"Yoga prepares me for the challenges of life," Barber said. "It shouldn't be an escape, but rather a method you use to help you stay calm in uncomfortable situations and cope with problems that seem overwhelming."
Barber grew up in Virginia Beach and graduated with a degree in American studies and art history from the University of Mary Washington. After her upbringing in a traditional Southern, sheltered home, Barber felt she didn't really know herself or what she wanted from life.
After traveling and trying a lot of different things, yoga spoke to her, and she became devoted to it.
Barber first learned ashtanga yoga studying under Beryl Bender Birch, who wrote "Power Yoga" and "Beyond Power Yoga" and is considered the matriarch of vinyasa yoga.
"She inspired me — whenever I had the opportunity I would go and study with her," Barber said. "Yoga unifies the spiritual and the physical. It's all about the union of the self and your union with God, whatever God means to you, and slowing down the chatter in our heads."
Barber said the practice made her feel connected. "The breathing, the meditation, the movement, everything going on both physically and inside my soul comes together," she said.
After practicing for about a year, Barber's teacher suggested she begin to teach, while also earning her yoga accreditation through the Yoga Alliance.
"That surprised me, I felt like I didn't know anything," Barber said. "But my instructor said you learn from teaching. She said, 'Teach what you know.'"
Barber and her family lived near the U.S. Army garrison in Weisbaden, Germany, from 2008 to 2015. Many of the military spouses attended Barber's yoga classes. About that time Barber noticed some soldiers returning from Afghanistan would also sometimes attend, sent by officers at the base's Warrior Transition Unit.
"I didn't know anything about the military, but my former instructor, Beryl, was starting to work with veterans and wrote a book on yoga for them," Barber said.
Using that book and some other resources, Barber developed a class just for the soldiers, who were suffering from physical injuries, PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and various other conditions. The goal was to help them either return to duty or pave the way for their transition out of the Army to civilian life.
"It was an amazing experience, working with them," Barber said. "I started getting feedback. They would say, 'This is the first time I don't feel the PTSD, I don't hear the voices in my head.' It was very humbling and a tremendous honor."
Working with Steve Watkins and the many other yoga instructors in the Fredericksburg region, Barber is excited to join in with their initiatives in bringing yoga to the larger community.
"We started out teaching multiple classes at the juvenile detention center and the Gladys Oberle School, as well as free classes for teachers in the community, and expanded to Head Start classes for 3 to 4-year-olds in Fredericksburg," Watkins said.
The nonprofit Yoga Foundation was started to help support their efforts.
"Yoga has a reputation of appealing to a certain demographic, and a lot of people can't afford it," Watkins said. "We wanted to reach a population that wouldn't even have yoga on their radar but could dramatically benefit from it."
Barber will teach classes for the Yoga Foundation, as well as offer traditional instruction through Dragonfly Yoga Studio.
For prospective yoga students, Barber suggests they come and try it.
"Just show up and give it a try," she said. "Find a teacher who resonates with you. I guarantee you'll find a warm and welcoming community, ready to embrace your individual qualities and help you grow."
Information from: The Free Lance-Star, http://www.fredericksburg.com/