Eight years ago, Ramsay Wall was an unfit smoker, a graduate student working on her PhD in English at the University of Texas. Exercise simply wasn’t in her vocabulary.
Then one day, Wall’s mom died – she was just 53 years old.
“It was a catalyst for all kinds of changes,” says Wall. “Here was my mom, who hadn’t really taken care of herself, and died really young. Of course it made me think.”
Wall had already been contemplating giving up grad school –”It had started to feel unmeaningful to me.” So she quit smoking, quit grad school, and bought a pair of running shoes.
“That was my way of coping with my mom dying, I just started running,” she says. After successfully finishing some races, she got into cycling, which eventually led to competitive cycle races and a whole new social environment for Wall. Soon, she was coaching others in competitive cycling and teaching spin classes at area gyms.
“Any good cyclist, runner or triathalete starts to understand the importance of core strength to what they do, and the need to keep your body in top form,” Wall says. “That’s where Pilates and yoga came in.”
Wall may have been headed toward a career as a professional cyclist. But much as she enjoyed the camaraderie and the rush that came with the bike, she didn’t like the hyper-competitive nature of the sport. “You start to base who you are, your self-worth on your results. Some people thrive on that competitive atmos- phere, but I needed something else.”
She found it in the yoga classes she’d been taking to build her body’s core. Unlike other activities, the practice of yoga is all about the personal journey, reaching a mental state as well as a physical one. In short, there is no goal in yoga.
“Yoga gave me the opportunity to let go of some of those fiery competitive, aggressive aspects of racing,” Wall says. And so she expanded her teaching to yoga.
On a warm Sunday afternoon in March, people begin showing up at the downtown location of Pure Austin, rolled up exercise mats lodged under their arms, eager to wash away the sins of the weekend via the practice of a millennia-old art.
Seven months pregnant at this class in March, Wall might not look like your typical yoga instructor. Then again, some of the novices in the class are hardly in a position to question. She is the picture of gracious instruction and her calming voice suits itself to the tranquil vibe of the class. “I love the idea that yoga is not doing, it’s really undoing,” she says. “You’re undoing all the other stuff that you do to your body. You’re cleaning your mind and your body.”
Wall met her partner Amy in a long distance running group nearly two years ago. A state attorney, Amy also practices yoga regularly and is an avid athlete. They’ve been together nearly two years and decided last year to have a baby together.
“We’re very excited,” says Wall. “And a bit nervous.” Her pregnancy hasn’t stopped her from teaching a full load of classes at yoga studios and gyms all over town; and there’s little doubt she’ll continue right up until labor begins. “ I love what I do.”
So if there is no measurable goal in yoga, what is a person trying to attain? “Ideally, you’re able to quiet the mind enough that you allow something like meditation to occur,” says Wall.
She’s quick to point out that meditation isn’t something one can force on themselves, and certainly a yoga novice has their hands and mind full just trying to learn the positions. But, with time she says, “you get better at letting go of the other stuff in your head and you’re able to withdraw your senses. …What you’re working toward is an unconscious competence – enough mastery of the physical that you can just let yourself go.”
There are many different styles or permutations of yoga. And to hear Wall tell it, there is a style for just about everyone. “Sometimes a fear is based on that person’s idea of yoga, which is actually one, tiny style of yoga. A lot of people carry a perception and then they’re really surprised when they walk in to a class that doesn’t fit it.”
Wall says one of the best parts of teaching is seeing someone new go from awkward uncertainty to mastery of the craft with time. It speaks to the adaptability of the human body, she says. “With yoga, the physical is often a metaphor for the mental. It’s not just about having open hamstrings really, it’s about having an open mind.”