Mary Pat Paul is a polite woman, soft-spoken and mild mannered. Get her on a yoga mat, however, and she goes from mild to hot in seconds.
In a practice often avoided by those half her age, Paul has become a leader and a voice of authority in hot yoga, no matter how soothing that voice happens to be. Hot yoga has given her the tools to handle whatever life throws at her, and life has thrown a pretty solid curve ball.
“Hot yoga isn’t like other practices, but it was the first yoga that I found, and I feel really connected to it,” Paul says. She practiced hot yoga long before she realized how many different styles of yoga there are. Still, yoga practiced in a heated room is her favorite. “There are reasons I do a vinyasa [flow] or a yin [relaxing] class, but I’ll always come back to hot yoga as my main practice. It’s the practice I feel is most healing.”
A Quiet Place
Those who walk into yoga classes at most studios will find a regular cast of characters. A few fit moms taking one hour of respite from their jobs and families. A gaggle of giggling women snapping pre-class selfies and checking in on social media. A hard-core yogi is already balancing on one leg while stretching the other leg straight up to the ceiling. One man stands on his head while the only other man in the room nervously wonders if it’s too late for him to change his mind about being there.
Those walking into Paul’s hot yoga class notice the silence. The lights are low, the practitioners are still and quiet on their mats, and the room is a humid 105 degrees. Pracitioners come mentally prepared and ready to sweat.
“Most yoga classes are very community-focused,” Paul says. “I love that people can find these families in their class, and feel good about reaching out to other students to talk and connect.”
But Paul’s classes are about reaching inward.
“That’s not how hot yoga works,” Paul says. “You can talk in the hall; you can talk in the parking lot. You don’t talk in class.”
“She’s an amazing teacher,” says Gabrielle Hopp, co-owner of One Tree Yoga. “She’s particularly good with brand-new people. She’s done additional training outside of her [required] 200 hours that focuses on therapeutics and modifications for all different body types, so she has that additional skill set of being able to help anyone who is able to walk in that room.”
Hot yoga is a way to take inventory of the body and finding the places that need work. Like all projects people have put off for too long, the first few times can be uncomfortable.
“It’s not uncommon for someone to try to push themselves too hard their first few classes,” Paul says. “I’ll suggest that they step out of a pose, try to get them to come down to corpse [laying prone on the mat] or to child’s pose [sitting on one’s feet with the chest between the thighs and forehead on the floor], but once you see their feet turning white as they grip the mat, you kind of know they’re not going to listen to you because they’re not listening to themselves yet. And then they fall. They learn. We’re all still learning to listen to ourselves.”
Make Time for Your Health, or Make Time for Your Illness
Paul started yoga in 2001 when traditional medicine was not working for her.
“I had gone to the doctor for this intense back pain I was having,” Paul says. “I had already had thyroid cancer and it was enough of a wake-up call that I knew I couldn’t ever ignore signs of distress from my body. The first thing the doctor did was prescribe Celebrex. I argued that the pain was a symptom, and I wasn’t trying to treat my pain, I was trying to treat the cause of my pain. I was told to give the medicine a chance, and I did.”
Months later, Paul returned to the doctor, who expected her to be grateful at the insistence on medication.
“It was all so much worse. I couldn’t feel my foot. I couldn’t walk without pain. I thought, ‘I guess this is it. Everyone you know ends up with a bad back, a bad hip, a bad knee. This is it; this is my life now’.”
But it wasn’t. Paul and her body had developed a trusting relationship, and she knew that the communication she was getting from her back was more than her body simply giving up on her.
“I asked for a second opinion. The doctor told me that from my X-ray, it was clear that there was nothing truly wrong. That’s when I realized I needed more than a second opinion; I needed a new doctor—they had never taken an X-ray. I left and found a new doctor, who quickly realized I had a herniated disc.”
Paul soon took up yoga as a means to strengthen and fortify herself.
“When I told my friend, Bernie Bresnahan, that I was still in so much pain from the herniated disk, she told me to come to her hot yoga class at One Tree,” Paul says. “She said that the warmth combined with deep twists and gentle stretches would help loosen and release it. For those first few classes, I was doing adaptive poses during the back stretches. Everyone else was coming into them so easily and I was on my elbows just breathing through the pain. Then after that fourth class I walked in and I could feel it, but it wasn’t unbearable anymore. Soon I was doing all of the poses and building strength. I was exactly where I needed to be.”
As she continued attending yoga classes, she gained more relief from her back pain.
“It’s an hour and a half of practice, but the pain relief it provides last three or four days,” Paul says. “Medicine has its place, but medicine couldn’t do that. For me, for my problem, only hot yoga could do that. And it did, every time. We need to see our physical practice and medical practice as a team. We need both.”
Paul saw the changes yoga provided to her mentally and physically, and made it her mission to provide the same support and healing she had found. She completed the 200-hour teacher training in 2011 through One Tree Yoga. The course, certified through Yoga Alliance, includes 100 hours of training practice, and another 100 hours made up of philosophy, anatomy, and other courses. It’s a lot of work to be done in two years, but Paul found it important.
“Yoga had helped me so much,” Paul says. “It gave me my life back. It made my body healthy and strong again. I just wanted to be able to share that with as many people as I could.”
That includes helping people outside of the United States as well as in Omaha.
“She teaches a donation class called Yoga for Uganda,” Hopp says. “She set up this foundation, and she’s been raising money for them for years. She could not be a more warmhearted person.”
Paul calls yoga her “bedrock.” A foundation on which she built her outlook, her strength, and her drive to change lives. And she’s doing it, one breath at a time.
Paul teaches at One Tree Yoga East. Visit onetreeyoga.com for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.