En Español. The cleansing scent of Palo Santo permeates the hallway outside the multipurpose room, G-163, in the fitness center on Tuesday and Wednesday nights as yoga instructor Ashley Burns prepares the space for class. The lights are dim. Soft music plays in the background. Ashley's yoga mat and the props needed for class––two blankets, two yoga blocks, and a bolster––sit at the front of the room.
Ashley opens the door and welcomes students as they cross the hardwood floor to retrieve plum-colored yoga mats, bright blue yoga blocks, multi-colored bolsters, and gray wool blankets from the tall metal shelves along the white block wall. Ashley carefully unpacks the crystal singing bowls from their protective case and instructs students in her soothing voice: "Take what you need." Students spread across the room and unroll their mats. Some lie on their backs with a blanket under their head; others sit, becoming attuned to their breath. When the room settles, Ashley invites students to make their way into "easy pose"––Sukhasana in Sanskrit––a simple cross-legged sitting position, and the practice of mindfulness and wellness begins.
A Time of Transition
Ashley's own yoga journey began in 2011. "Yoga found me in a time of transition," she said. Her partner and best friend was taken to jail and Ashley found she had a lot of time on her hands. Her roommate, a regular thrift store shopper, brought home a yoga DVD titled "Energy Flow," and Ashley followed along with the routine every morning. She noticed her body becoming stronger and found a yoga community at the Humble Monkey studio on 32nd & Greenway in North Phoenix. Ashley didn't have a car at the time, so she rollerbladed to class. But it wasn't just Ashley's body changing with her yoga practice, so was her mind. She became more curious, more purposeful. Her instructor wrote down the Yoga sutras and something clicked.
"I was 21 at the time," Ashley recalled. "I had tried college twice and failed both times." She eventually found her way to The Southwest Institute of Healing Arts (SWIHA), where she began her yoga teacher training in 2012 and completed her 500-hour teacher training certification. With her friend Dana Arbel, Ashley started DiRT Yoga, offering yoga classes in Grovers Park, near where they both lived. "Dana did the teaching," Ashley said. "I did customer service." Dana's parents bought mats. Friends brought blankets. Classes were every Saturday and donation based. "It was big," Ashley said, "and met the demand for community yoga." That experience landed Ashley a new teacher feature at Dark Star Yoga in Scottsdale. With positive reviews from her students, she was offered a job. Ashley realized she had a knack for nurturing people. This is what I'm good at, she recalled thinking then.
She went on to train with Jenn Chiarelli in a one-month, 200-hour Anahata Soul intensive in Costa Rica, which was her first time leaving the country. Upon her return, Ashley and her DiRT Yoga partner changed their offerings to focus on arts and wellness, creating a Yoga & Jazz series offered at Civic Space Park with sponsorship by Phoenix Inc. But, the pandemic changed Ashley's trajectory yet again. DiRT Yoga had to cancel its second season of Jazz & Yoga, and Ashley was laid off from her serving job. She collected unemployment, got a dog, and went back to school. "I was majoring in Math with the idea of being a math teacher, because I felt it was a legitimate career path." But she realized she was trying to fit herself into other people's molds. Committed to learning from black and brown women, she took a Yoga Nidra certification training with Tracee Stanley and Chanti Tacorante-Perez. Participants attended from across the globe. "That training inspired how I teach. I now prioritize rest," she said.
Phoenix College Yoga
With over a 1000 hours of yoga, meditation, and wellness training, Ashley started teaching yoga at Phoenix College in Fall 2019, when the previous instructor–her business partner at Dirt Yoga, Dana Arbel–went on maternity leave. Ashley filled in and has continued to teach through the pandemic, first online, now in person. Her one-credit yoga class is offered on Wednesday nights from 5:30 - 7:10 p.m. Laura and Joe Safa have been coming to Ashley's class for four semesters. Laura is a faculty member in the Physical Therapist Assistant program at Gateway Community College. "[Ashley's] teaching style is very relaxed. She creates an environment that feels welcoming," said Laura. Joe added, "She makes it where everyone can do it." Class often includes community building too, with time set aside for students to share a moment of gratitude or a challenge they experienced during the week.
Ashley also teaches yoga for the Fitness Center on Tuesdays from 5:30 - 6:20 p.m., available to all fitness center members. Tricia Parker, an ESL teacher at Thunderbird High School and PC alum, said of Ashley's class: "I've had a lot of yoga teachers over the last 20 years, and I've never met someone who gave such precise, useful and consistent instruction. I learn something new in every class––not a new pose, but a way into or out of pose that provides a different point of focus. Ashley combines a truly meditative practice that is physically challenging in a way I've not encountered before. The day's chatter recedes, and there we are––fully in the present."
For all her skill teaching adults, Ashley's passion is nurturing youth. Her dream is to provide yoga teacher training for young people. Currently, she teaches yoga to elementary students at Khalsa Montessori and coordinates wilderness training for middle school black and brown girls through Atabey Outdoors, a nonprofit organization founded in 2020, the only Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) led organization providing outdoor adventures to BIPOC youth in the area. Their mentors and administrative team are all Women of Color (WOC).
Ashley is committed to serving her community, especially her Black community, as well as "people who lack access to wellness and those who are curious and invested in their well-being," she said. During the pandemic lockdown, Ashley enrolled in a community doula training presented by MoDaBa and received her doula certification in September 2021. "I've been an auntie since I was 12," she said, "so this feels like natural work for me. Doula is greek for 'woman servant' but we prefer 'village mother,' because we don't consider ourselves servants, but wisdom keepers in the community."
Wisdom and well-being are the foundation of Ashley’s yoga class. She invites students to slow down, move with intention, and connect with the self. PC student and fitness center member Woong Yu appreciates Ashley's emphasis on belly, or diaphragmatic, breathing, "People who do meditation, do belly breathing. It seems very slow, but it's very deep.” Ashley offers reminders throughout class to move with the breath.
The end of class brings Shavasana. Students lie on their backs, having transitioned from movement into rest, while Ashley plays the crystal bowls. The low hum of the chords resonate throughout the room. The calm is palpable. The sound of the singing bowls quiets, and Ashley says: "Remember you have a body." Then, "Notice your body breathing." Students find their way back into "easy pose" and bring their hands into a prayer position in front of their hearts. Ashley says, "The light in me acknowledges the light in you," and bows toward her students. Students respond in kind, and offer this nurturer, teacher, and village mother a collective "Namaste."
If you want to find both strength and ease in your body, consider registering for Ashley's one-credit yoga class on Wednesday nights from 5:30 - 7:10 p.m. (#16007 for Spring 2023) or sign up for the Fitness Center to join her class on Tuesday nights from 5:30 - 6:20 p.m.