Eileen Delehanty Pearkes encounters the heart of human experience during a week-long teacher training & records how a woman and a community heal.

photo by rik logtenberg,

excerpted from the print magazine…

Day 1
I find a place on the floor in a tidy, white-walled yoga studio, with stained-glass windows creating rosy light and a ceiling covered by bamboo mats arching overhead. It is just before 8 a.m. on the first day of a six-day teacher training workshop. My mat and those of the fourteen other participants are arranged like flower petals around the room. The workshop will be led by Jennifer Steed and Mary-Jo Fetterly, the founders of Trinity Yoga.

On Sunday, January 25, 2004, Mary-Jo Fetterly was skiing at Whitewater Mountain in the South Selkirk Range near Nelson, BC. Encouraged by acquaintances to go to “the backside” of the mountain, where untracked powder and steep slopes beckoned, Mary-Jo decided to follow them onto a path, but she caught an edge on its gently undulating surface and flipped through the air. She landed on her head, sustaining severe damage to the C-5, C-6 and C-7 vertebrae.

A few weeks before her accident, I had spent a Saturday morning with Mary-Jo in this same studio, learning about Manipura Chakra, “City of the Shining Jewel.” The third chakra, Mary-Jo taught us, is “the key to the esteemed self,” the gateway between the physical and spiritual worlds. I recall her words and the image of her exquisitely strong, flexible body, demonstrating the scissors pose. Balanced on her two hands, she extended one leg out behind her and brought the other leg forward over its corresponding shoulder. After watching her easily enter the pose and hold it for several breaths, we attempted to do the same. Despite her careful instructions about how to enter and hold the pose, none of us could match her strength and we quickly collapsed into laughter and a tangle of yoga mats.

As we wait quietly for Mary-Jo to arrive, I think about the dramatic changes in her body. She now has no sensation in her abdomen or middle spine, the region associated with the Manipura Chakra. Medical doctors predict that she will never do the scissors pose again, or even walk, for that matter. She is confined to a wheelchair. She needs support from pillows or straps on her wheelchair even to sit erect. She is as atypical a yoga teacher now as she was once typical, with her mastery of poses, her vibrant teaching style and her enthusiasm for the integration of body, mind and spirit.

Right after the Manipura Chakra workshop in early January, Mary-Jo urged me to take a teacher training course with her. I had studied Ashtanga Yoga with her for four years, had a steady home practice and moved with a certain amount of confidence and poise, even if I had not mastered some of the more challenging poses in the primary series of the Ashtanga system. Why did her suggestion surprise me? Why did I feel hesitant? Perhaps an understanding that I needed a great deal of formal training to be a responsible yoga teacher, and that I didn’t have room in my life for what that would require. Perhaps a view of myself as not being capable. I’m offering a teacher training in Nelson in the spring, Mary-Jo had said, contradicting my internal doubts. You should take it. You are ready.

Then, a few weeks after our conversation, the accident happened. A teacher training workshop with her seemed less than a remote possibility. Don’t you study with Mary-Jo Fetterly? a friend asked me the day after the accident. She’s fallen, and she’s been air-ambulanced to Vancouver General’s spinal cord unit. I can recall pressing the phone harder into my ear, as if to hear something different, rather than the shocking truth. Mary-Jo? How could she, of all people, fall? It’s not possible, I said.

But it was. The woman who had served as a powerful mental, physical and spiritual model for me and many others had fallen. She was very near death. News of the tragedy flew around our tight-knit community. Then, in the immediate and longer aftermath of an event no one could have predicted, the meaning of yoga began to expand.

Day 2
The next morning, seated in her wheelchair, Mary-Jo speaks to us of the accident. Her grace rises through her words. Her eyes are clear and shining, her chest open to the world, her voice soft but strong. She looks healthy and she speaks with clarity, despite all that she has been through in the past several months: major spinal surgery, a respirator, hours and hours of challenging therapy and rehabilitation.

“Consciousness,” she says, “holds a space that transcends physical reality.”

“I have learned a new appreciation of the physical form, of the human ability to feel,” she adds. Her partially paralyzed hands lift off the wheels of the chair in a stiff but expressive swirl. “My yoga practice, from the moment I fell until now, has been a source of strength and a guide. It kept me alive as I lay in the snow feeling the paralysis take hold and realized I must rely on breathing from the diaphragm in order to live. It enabled me to move out of the spinal cord unit in half the usual time,” she says. Then she pauses and looks around the room. Using her arms to brace herself, she leans slightly forward in her chair. “I have come to realize that we are doing so little with our freedom and our capacity.”

Later, as she leads us through a series of asanas, I am surrounded as if wrapped in a comforting blanket by her words. In a culture that relentlessly pursues the physical aspects of yoga, sometimes with the goal to create the “perfect body,” that body can so easily become a trap, rather than a springboard to freedom.

I realize as I move through numerous sun salutations, then triangle, side angle and half-moon, that I cannot really sense Mary-Jo’s physical presence in the room. She is there, in her wheelchair. I am here, and others surround me, but I must make an effort to hold on to this perception. Her intuitive grasp of the body and its alignment remains identical in her teaching. I realize, though, that the absence of her form demonstrating poses or striding through the mats to energize the room has had an effect. From the limitation of her wheelchair, she seems to be capable of leading us to a limitless place, beyond the room, beyond the mats and the limbs we control.

During a lunch break, I puzzle over the wonderful feeling the asana series has left me with. I have felt something inexplicable, something like the Divine. I ask other workshop participants about it. One describes Mary-Jo’s teaching as having become “completely whole.” Her comment makes intuitive sense to me, but also suggests an irony that I puzzle over further. How could Mary-Jo’s teaching be whole, if she herself is no longer WHOLE. If she is, in the words of our culture, “disabled”?

Later that night, I ease my stiff body into a bath of Epsom salts, thinking again about wholeness and yoga. The news of Mary-Jo’s accident initially shattered the yoga community in and around Nelson. Tragedy does this. Yet, once the truth had been absorbed and the shards of grief and loss were scattered chaotically about, an opportunity arose to draw together. The willingness to pick up the pieces and create a new whole exposed our community to a sort of yoga few had experienced, a yoga that was fresh, though ancient, a yoga alive with possibility.

Eileen Delehanty Pearkes practises Ashtanga yoga in Nelson, BC. She has published numerous articles and essays linking spirituality with the natural world. The Geography of Memory, a history of indigenous culture and landscape in the Columbia Mountains of British Columbia, is available through

For more information on Mary-Jo and Trinity Yoga’s teachings, consult or

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