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Plant Park Yogi Finds Path in India

Published: October 23, 2009
Under a canopy of palm trees and a bed of grass, it’s not unusual to find a group of UT students fold into the yoga pose downward-facing dog.

Yoga in Plant Park, the on-campus, 8-acre park between Plant Hall and the Hillsborough River, isn’t new to the university, but its instructor is a newly certified yogi.

Senior Maria Virginia Valdez, nicknamed Marivi, spent this past summer in India, earning both college credit and yoga instructor certification. Her path has led her to teach in Plant Park, Mondays and Thursdays from 5:15 to 6:15 p.m. to a group of about 20 students, faculty and staff.

“I lived in Vaughn Center my first two years of UT, but not really because I pretty much lived in Plant Park,” Valdez said. “I did my homework there, ate there, met my friends there, laid out on my hammock there, climbed trees there, played music and Hacky Sack with my friends there.”

When she heard the yoga class might be cancelled because it was in need of an instructor, she stepped up to the plate.

“There’s no way we can’t have Yoga in Plant Park,” she said. “It’s pure serenity, being one with nature, breathing in fresh air under the shade of a big tree. It’s a completely different atmosphere than the gym, where I also teach.”

Valdez wasn’t always this into yoga. She started out at UT as a marine biology major, but changed shortly after to international and cultural studies. In her search to fulfill a study-abroad requirement, and with the help of, among others, professor Susan Taylor Lennon, chairwoman of the Department of Speech, Theatre and Dance, she was able to make the India experience happen.

The eight-week trip included two weeks of exploring India and six weeks spent in the mountains of Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, at the Ayurveda Retreat, where she completed an Intensive Yoga Teacher Training.

“Before I went to India I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” said Valdez. “I had a few ideas, but mostly I just had faith that it’d all fall into place, and it still is every day.”

Valdez was first introduced to yoga as a teenager, but it wasn’t until she began practicing yoga at the YMCA in Sarasota a couple summers ago that she began to see the full benefits of it. When she began to do yoga at home with different DVDs, her practice became more regular. While at UT, she started mentoring an athlete who wanted improve his flexibility. Valdez, of Mexican descent, also taught him Spanish at his request and sometimes merged the two together.

“I was really amazed by how quickly he improved over a few months, opening up physically, emotionally and spiritually,” Valdez said. “Seeing how big of a difference I made was really what gave me the desire to be a yoga teacher; that and how much I enjoyed doing it.”

Valdez said being in India and focusing on her practice made her realize how out of balance she was in her body and in her mind. Living up in those mountains, in a completely healthy and disciplined lifestyle under the guidance of her guru, she began to notice major differences within her body, mind and spirit. Even her memory retention was increasing with her practice of mediation, yoga and healthy eating.

“It was an incredible, eye-opening experience,” Valdez said. “My study abroad experience helped me learn more about myself, about people and about the world than I could ever learn from reading in a book.”

One of Valdez’ goals is to fuse yoga and dance into her own style, “exploring movement, rhythm, and breath together, while working to heal the human body.” She is making that happen with a new class at McNiff Fitness Center called YogaTrance Dance, every Friday from 4 to 5 p.m.

In the future Valdez wants to travel, teaching yoga and dance to people of all backgrounds and ages, but she wants to specialize in teaching yoga to kids.

“I just think I can make the biggest difference in someone’s life if I can teach them while they are still young and open-minded,” she said. “Then they will have the physical ability and positive mentality for the rest of their lives, and who knows who else they might influence along the way.” 

Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer
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