For Nancy Preston, a community activist and Iyengar teacher, hatha means more than suns and moons, especially when confronting nightlife in her Inwood neighborhood of 15 years.
Preston’s quiet building stands in view of the Cloisters. But when she turns onto Dyckman Street, she encounters 11 alcohol venues within 500 feet of each other on the “Dyckman Strip,” a source of noise complaints, lost sleep, and occasional violence.
Preston is a founding member of Moving Forward Unidos, an advocacy group dedicated to harmonious relations in Inwood and Washington Heights. Preston met up with YogaCity NYC’s Ann Votaw in a park overlooking Dyckman.
Ann Votaw: As a yoga teacher, how do you define “hatha”?
Nancy Preston: Another definition of hatha is obstinacy and pertinacity (Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary). Hatha can also mean unrelenting, yet within the premise of ahimsa. We have those warrior poses for a reason. We have to be steady, we have to stick with the yamas and the niyamas, and we can never stop.
AV: What are the problems you see on Dyckman Street and in surrounding areas?
NP: Restaurants and sidewalk cafes can be assets to the community and enhance quality of living. The problems are when loud music—and loud bass—are played in this open air environment. Most of the businesses are storefronts in six-story apartment buildings, and individuals and families live above the restaurants. There are specific regulations prescribed by the NYC Noise Code to protect residents, and they need to be observed.
AV: How can yogis practice when confronted with over-stimulating environments?
NP: It always goes back to the practice. Exhale. Let it go. Let go of agendas and the wandering mind. Let go of what you want, what you think someone should do. Open up to the stillness within, making way for clarity. This is daily practice. The yamas and niyamas will guide you.
AV: With Moving Forward Unidos and other community forums, you often gauge opinions on Facebook. Do you notice any attitudes that yogis should avoid?
NP:In cyber engagement, I find it more effective to say as little as possible—like a sutra, a concise and minimal thread—and let the others respond, and hopefully truth will be revealed. The use of words and tone of voice are a big part of teacher training and continuing study. We lose all of that online.
AV: As an Iyengar teacher, how does activism effect your teaching and personal practice?
NP:The Iyengar method rests in the eight limbs of yoga. There is a strong emphasis on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras are like a road map that guides one through the eight limbs. These teachings help you to keep grounded and clear minded in the face of what the world throws your way. Activism requires time. I have learned to set clear limits and be honest. This simplifies. I learn from this.
Learning to navigate when circumstances change, accommodating various personalities without dissension, and keeping focused are valuable tools in activism and as a yoga teacher. Obviously, when more time is demanded, it is taken from somewhere else. The practice and continued study come first. That is the intention. Living yogic principles is also part of the practice. Falling into a daily practice can be a respite, to delve inside and be in the body. It can replenish you.
AV: Explain how meditation gives you energy?
NP: In meditation—even if it's only a few minutes a day—it is like coming home, but inside. First, I recognize myself, my motives, my emotions, my agenda without judgement. Questions come up, but I can rest in them and be okay without the answers. When motives are pure and clear, then the effort drops, for one can see it is all out of love. It may sound corny, but that is it—love.
AV: Does meditation always work to help you respond rather than react?
NP: No. It is not easy, but oppression and suppression does not work because it will build up and eventually explode. I do sometimes react and fall back into old habits. That is OK. It happens. Again, it's about love for yourself and acceptance and moving forward.
AV: What do you add to your personal practice to keep you sharp when you communicate with local politicians, the 34th Precinct, and neighbors?
NP: Interpersonal relationship challenges exist in the yoga world, too. The concise nature of the Yoga Sutras and the Iyengar method of teaching make use of minimal, but very specific, verbiage. This is a most effective way to communicate with anyone. Whether an ally or perceived opponent, all must be treated with respect, so we can move away from duality and polarization, toward connectedness.
I find that chanting takes me some place very deep and quiet and calm. I have been fortunate to study traditional Vedic chanting directly at the feet of masters. Sound and vibration is so powerful. It is ironic that sound and vibration are a main part of the problem in our community. Sound and vibration can be healing and transformative and create openings in the body, mind, and soul.