Mindful Maker Interview: Rachel K. Garceau

There are many benefits to incorporating wellness instruction into craft education programs. Rachel K. Garceau is an artist and yoga instructor who has taught at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, and Penland School of Craft. In this interview, Rachel provides us with insight about her journey from art to wellness and the importance of providing this type of instruction in craft education.

Missy Graff Ballone: Please tell me about your background. When did your interest in yoga and wellness begin? Was it before or after you started making objects?

Rachel K. Garceau: I have had a life-long interest in art-making, though I did not fall in love with making objects until my first ceramics class as a sophomore in college, which I enrolled in only because it was a requirement as an Art Education major. During a semester abroad, walking through the countryside of France, Italy, and Spain, I came upon several potteries, and, for the first time, witnessed people making their living as makers. When I returned to school, I dropped the education component of my major and focused on art. The following summer, I worked as a props designer at a children’s theatre. The stage manager was also completing her yoga teacher training and was offering free yoga classes to the rest of the staff. Sometimes it was an invigorating morning routine to get the day started; sometimes it was a break in the middle of the day to stretch under the trees; sometimes it was a restorative practice late at night after a long day of work. This was my introduction to yoga.

Does your personal yoga practice tie into your daily studio routine?

Rachel K. Garceau: Yes, in that I never go out into the world (including to the studio) until I have taken time to first arrive in my body. This typically includes a combination of time spent sitting still focusing on the breath, as well as movement through physical postures, followed almost always by some sort of inversion—usually a handstand. Since I work with molds, I am constantly switching between positive and negative, inside and outside, and up and down, so taking time to change the way I experience the world helps prepare me for my work in the studio. It’s also an opportunity to recognize how changing the way that the body relates to gravity can also impact the way the mind relates to perceived reality, and that’s always a neat way to start the day!

I understand that you have taught yoga to artists at both Penland School of Crafts and Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. How did you begin working with these organizations in this way?

Rachel K. Garceau: It all stems from being a student at Penland, where each session, in addition to the studio instructors, they hire a movement instructor who offers hour-long classes (usually yoga-based) twice daily. During the session, this instructor also visits each studio and spends a bit of time talking about ways to care for your body while in the studio. I had been taking yoga classes before going to Penland, so I was very excited to be able to continue during my time there. I took two classes at Penland (a two-month concentration in 2009 and a two-week workshop in 2010) and found the integrated yoga practice contributed in a huge way to my overall experience.

In 2011, I began the two-year Core Fellowship at Penland, wherein nine emerging artists receive room, board, and tuition in exchange for 20-25 hours/weeks of work for the school. During my time as a Core Fellow, yoga became a very important part of my daily life. The constant influx of new students and new information and new ideas could sometimes leave me feeling drained and exhausted. I found that hour of time in the afternoon as a solace—a time when I could not be interrupted and I could stretch and rejuvenate and relax and recharge and think about nothing for a little while. It was an essential component to maintaining a healthy body and a sane mind.

After spending two years so deeply focused on pursuing my education in craft, I decided that I wanted to devote time to my yoga practice. So days after packing up and leaving Penland, I traveled to India where I spent a month at an ashram earning my yoga teacher certification. Shortly after returning to the US, I began my residency at Arrowmont. As a way to connect to the community there, put my new training to practice, and give back to the school, I offered free yoga classes every weekday before dinner during the summer sessions. I totally loved it—I loved sharing the practice with other artists and makers—being able to use metaphors relating what is going on in the studio to what is going on in the body. It’s just such a beautiful way to connect.

I was invited to return to Penland as a movement instructor during a two-week session in the summer of 2014 and I will also be journeying back to Arrowmont to teach yoga in January 2016 during their week-long Winter Pentaculum.

How do these types of classes benefit the artists who participate? What do you enjoy most about teaching them?

Rachel K. Garceau: I always start by reminding makers that the only irreplaceable tool we have is our body, and in order to have a long life of making, we must take care of that tool/this body.

At Penland, there is an open invitation for the movement instructor to visit each studio and work with the students in their “natural habitat.” This is a great way to interact with those students who might not come to a full hour class because they don’t think they have the time, or because they are participating in a work-study program with lots of other obligations, or because they have some fear or stigma around “yoga.” In order to enter into the time gently and do something that is accessible to almost everyone, I begin with stretching the eyes—this is most often a surprise and a delight. It’s just so wonderful, especially for metalsmiths and weavers or anyone else who spends most of the time in studio looking at very tiny things. As we move on to stretching the neck, shoulders, and arms, I love hearing the sighs of relief and relaxation and release of stress—so good!

When I started teaching yoga at craft schools, what I expected was to help people take care of their bodies after working in the studio all day. What I discovered was that I was offering a new avenue for people to explore the edges of what they believed were their limitations, and I have become a witness to the unexpected transformations that can happen outside of the physical body as a result of moving beyond perceived constraints within the physical body. I’ve come to call this the “I can’t touch my toes” factor. Essentially, it’s a way of unlocking what is possible. It starts like this:
“Yoga?!? I can’t do yoga—I’m not flexible—I can’t even touch my toes.”

“Well, you don’t have to be flexible in order to do yoga—it comes with practice. And when was the last time you tried to touch your toes?”
“Not since I was a kid…”
“Oh, well, maybe you could just try and see what happens… I bet you can do it.”
Maybe on the first day, you don’t reach your toes, but at least you’ve identified your starting point. Then on the next day you still can’t reach, but you are still trying. On the third day, you might not touch your toes, but you notice that they don’t quite feel so far away anymore. Then one day, not so far down the road, you touch your toes and suddenly you know—you have experienced in your own physical body—that what you once thought was impossible is absolutely achievable. Now you can apply that knowledge to limitless other things in your life. If you believe you can’t touch your toes and never try, you’ll never touch your toes. If you believe you can’t touch your toes and you try, maybe you can’t touch your toes. But, if you believe you can touch your toes and you try every day, and every day you expand and every day you come closer, one day you will touch your toes. This is a very simple metaphor for nearly any obstacle we face in our lives. If we believe that a barrier exists, we will never move past it. But, if we believe that there is a way around the thing that is blocking our progress, we will ultimately find that way. By beginning with the physical body, we can begin to act out this truth in a very tangible way.

Another experience I have had in guiding people through moving their bodies is noticing where people are in space versus where they think they are. For example, if you have an arm outstretched behind you, but your gaze is forward, that arm might actually be splayed out to the side when you think it is straight back. It takes a certain attention and sometimes a real visual check-in to begin to learn this awareness of how we hold our bodies in space. Again, this is an opportunity to use our own physical bodies to learn about perception versus reality.

There’s also something that happens, which, as a teacher, I can actually see happening sometimes, where the intensity and stimulation of a workshop can become nearly overwhelming, but stepping away from the studio can completely change that. Taking an hour in the morning in preparation for the day and/or an hour in the afternoon to just try to let everything go, and clear the mind, allows for an amazing opportunity for new thoughts and ideas and ways to solve problems to appear, as if by magic. It’s like cleaning out a cluttered closet and suddenly finding what had been there all along, but you couldn’t see it because there was a bunch of other stuff in the way.

In what way would other craft schools benefit from offering wellness classes, such as yoga?

Rachel K. Garceau: These types of programs are a great way to reach people who may have never considered adding any sort of movement ritual into their daily life and/or studio practice. It introduces them to the possibility. While teaching yoga at craft schools, I have met many people who have never done yoga because they found it intimidating, or they couldn’t find a class that was at a convenient time, or they were afraid to go alone, or they thought it would be expensive, or that they would feel nervous or embarrassed. Having a free, safe place to explore the possibilities of this practice, in a room full of people who also love to make objects, can be a great introduction to the practice. It is such a gift to give to the students. They receive not only the skills to make wonderful objects, but the tools to have a long, healthful life doing so.

It’s also important to remember that this practice goes beyond the physical body. As I discussed earlier, really activating the physical body is a great entry point to begin to reach what is possible.

What advice do you have for artists who are experiencing pain or discomfort while working in the studio?

Rachel K. Garceau: Listen to your body! “Pushing through” is not a long-term solution and will likely result in either compounding the problem or shortening your life in the studio.

Consider your working environment and make changes to adapt the space to suit your needs. Simple adjustments to the heights of tables and chairs can make a huge difference.

Take breaks! This is so critical, especially when repetitive movements are a part of your studio practice.

Stretch! Change up your rhythm and your posture—if you are sitting most of the time, stand and walk a little bit; if you stand all day, try squatting to stretch your hips, knees, ankles and feet.

Don’t be a hero! Seek advice from a health-care professional if pain and discomfort are severe and continuous.

Thank You.