If you take me back to April 15th, 2013 you would find me at a lululemon cheer station around mile 17 of the Boston Marathon. I could taste and feel the energy; it permeated the air. I was overcome with admiration, inspiration, and sheer pride for all of the athletes who were making their way (some fast, some slow, some with a cause) through those 26.2 miles. I’ll admit, I was a little choked up to see it all—runners putting their heart, soul, and a whole lot of sweat into the pavement. There was such beauty, hope, and devotion in each and every runner that passed by. I couldn’t contain myself from shouting, cheering, and jumping up and down to encourage them…for hours, until my voice was a raspy whisper.
The shock that came just before 3pm that day was a confusing blow. I was afraid, heartbroken, and had a lot of questions. Information trickled in slowly from cars passing by and pulling up news on my phone. The process of getting home safe was shaky. During that time I was living and working at a Japanese Language and Culture Institute in Boston, and had partial responsibility for 100’s of international students from Japan. Some had run the race, some had not made it back to campus, and others were in emotional shambles—tears, stares of disbelief, and confusion enveloped the space. Luckily, after several hours everyone was accounted for. But, I wasn’t allowed time to process in the moment. I had to wipe my tears, calm down, be strong, confident, and supportive for all those around me. It was not something I wanted to do or found easy, but I had no choice. Throughout the week this took it’s toll.
In the early pre-dawn hours of April 19th I woke up to emergency alerts on my phone and immediately ran to the common room to turn on the television and pull up Twitter. I was scared. I was incredulous that so much had happened so quickly. I contacted the appropriate parties at the Institute and began to try to prepare how to communicate to my students what was going on and what we needed to do next. The lockdown began that morning for our students, and a few hours later for the entire city of Boston. Our Resident Services Coordinator decided that since students could not leave we would keep their minds and concerns preoccupied for the day. Too much time had been spent watching the same news updates over and over again, creating more anxiety, tension, and stress. We scheduled “spa” rooms, zumba, games, kickboxing, crafts, and movies. I immediately volunteered to lead a yoga class. Am I a certified yoga instructor? No. Did we have enough yoga mats or a large fitness space? No. But, I knew it was something that would help me find peace and hoped it might do the same for my students.
Spread out in an old chapel, typically used as a large group meeting space, we put out thick foam mats, towels, and blankets. Along with a co-worker who occasionally practiced yoga, I helped lead about 25 students in a basic flow. The slow beginner pace and focus on breath was vital as we guided the Japanese students, most of whom had never experienced yoga, through various postures. For me, yoga during this time was an oasis. It provided an opportunity and space to look inward—a safety net for me to release and process my thoughts and feelings. Remembering this, we used cues that were easy to translate for any students who had confusion. We reminded them to let their body guide them—from meditating in savasana to releasing their emotions, the practice was meant to be about what they needed in that moment. While the intention was a peaceful distraction, it was also to allow for expression that may have felt discouraged in other places. I cherished this time for reflection and for providing structured support to my students. Yoga during and after a crisis can be powerful in it’s guiding, focus on intention, ability to distract from the day, and the unwavering permission it gives for us to feel and release. If I offer any advice, it is to remain present as a leader during times of tragedy. Being authentic and genuine in showing my own emotion allowed for others to feel okay expressing theirs and comfortable sharing concerns.
My first experience of the Boston Marathon is one I will never forget for many reasons. Beyond the horror, I will remember the strength, pride, smiles and dedication of so many athletes. No one can take away that beauty. The way the city of Boston and surrounding areas came together in support showed the sheer tenacity, determination, and community of this place.
I dedicated my first half marathon last year in remembrance and in inspiration of those who did not have the ability to finish. I continue to have a love of running (paired with my yoga practice) and I thank those who work hard all year to show others what is possible.
Ashley Houston is midwest at heart. She traversed 35 countries by the age of 25. Her travel experiences ignited her passion for trying new things. After working as an Academic Advisor in Minneapolis for several years, she moved to Boston to complete her Master's in Intercultural Relations. While out there, she joined the lululemon community and further deepened her committed yoga practice. Staying active and in motion keep her grounded. Ashley is now based in Fort Collins, CO with Yoga Travel Tree and has fallen in love with the mountains and sunshine-y people.