Teaching yoga in Alaska leads to unique situations. Marsha Munsell discovered this years ago while leading a senior citizen group that met at a dance floor in a private home. “One night we all showed up for yoga and the heat was off,” Munsell recalled. “ I was ready to call the class.”
It was about 20 degrees in the room, and students could see their breath. Undaunted, they told her, “Let’s not stop the class. We can do it with our coats on.”
“And we did,” remembered Munsell. “We did that whole yoga class in full gear.”
It was hardly the first time Munsell practiced yoga under distinctively Alaskan conditions. The cofounder and now full owner of the popular Fairbanks studio Heart Stream Yoga began exploring the ancient Indian meditative exercise form while living in the Bush in the 1970s. “We lived in a very small cabin,” she said. “I didn’t even have a mat. I just threw a rug down.”
Yoga is so popular in Fairbanks now it’s hard to believe it wasn’t long ago when students and teachers were scrambling to find places to meet. And Munsell has played an outsized role in changing this, as both teacher and businesswoman. “I feel kind of proud that we were able to open yoga up a little more in this town,” she said.
Munsell arrived in Alaska in 1975, along with her husband, Jim. “A friend of ours had a line on a cabin in the Bush. So we came up from Wyoming, got our supplies in Fairbanks, and went out to a cabin on the Chisana River, south of Northway.”
For several years, the couple spent winters in the cabin and summers working in Fairbanks. This is when, guided by the classic 1969 book “Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan,” Munsell began her practice. “I didn’t realize it would take all of my time just to live out there,” she said. “Cutting wood, hauling water, making food on a woodstove, and all of that. But I did find time to do my yoga too.”
Through daily practice she honed her skills. “I went through the book, did the 28 days, and then kept going. Using the sequencing and the meditative practices, I basically turned Richard Hittleman’s book into my personal practice.”
Munsell said she was drawn to yoga by the spiritual and meditative aspects. She was already in excellent shape from her active outdoors lifestyle, “But I was also looking for that connection, and I found it with yoga. The connection of being able to not just flop around and do exercises but make them more meaningful. A mental connection or a mind connection to what I was doing. Yoga and the martial arts have both been that for me.”
After moving to Fairbanks full time, Munsell took a job with the Cooperative Extension and turned her focus to karate. But at retreats and her dojo, yoga teachers providing complimentary instruction drew her back in. She began meeting with local groups and learning from the small but dynamic yoga community that blossomed here in the 1990s. “I started doing yoga with Teri Viereck. She was the matron of yoga. She taught yoga at the University in the ‘70s. She was one of my mentors.”
Munsell was asked to lead classes at the dojo she attended and branched out from there. Interest from the community was strong, but finding suitable locations to meet was a constant struggle. So she and a friend decided to pool resources and solve their dilemma.
“Donna Lanni and I were both looking for a place to teach,” Munsell explained, “and there weren’t really that many opportunities here in town. So we started Heart Stream Yoga in September of 2010.”
Heart Stream has thrived in Fairbanks, and many local teachers and studio owners began their journeys under its tutelage. And Munsell, who obtained her teacher’s certification through an intensive course at the renowned California-based White Lotus Yoga Foundation, has devoted herself to bringing the art to whoever wishes to experience it.
Munsell teaches beginner, gentle, and senior yoga through Heart Stream, and has taught for many years through Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, although the pandemic has that on hold. She’s taught in retreats, and helped 4H horseback riders with exercises to help them improve their skills.
Munsell has also taught prisoners. Her close friend Jody Hassel, an advocate for yoga in jails, recruited Munsell to volunteer at Fairbanks Correctional Center. Munsell said that prisoners were well behaved and the weekly class “gave them a different opportunity to be a better person.”
“After about a year, Jody put together a teacher training program,” Munsell added. Research has shown that teaching prisoners yoga can curb recidivism, and now at FCC there are inmates who can teach others.
Like so many things, yoga in Fairbanks schools have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Munsell, who took full ownership of Heart Stream in 2019 after Lanni relocated to Costa Rica, has had to adapt with enhanced cleaning and reduced class sizes. Some instruction has moved online, but Munsell feels this will open new avenues. “A lot of people found that virtual was a better option for them, so I think that virtual yoga is going to keep its space in Fairbanks. I’m going to keep doing virtual yoga for that reason.”
“I’m hoping that when all of this settles down, that more people will be able to take advantage of it,” Munsell added with characteristic optimism. “What I see in people calling me is that they have become more interested in yoga and meditation because this whole COVID thing has been so unsettling to everyone’s lives that they’re looking now to see what else might be beneficial. As far as stress reduction. As far as, ‘What can they do to keep their health both mentally and physically. I think that more people are going to be doing it.”
Heart Stream Yoga can be found online at heartstreamyoga.com.
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Creating Alaska is an ongoing series documenting the lives of artists and creators in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to email@example.com.