How nursing informs Murielle Corwin’s yoga teaching (and vice versa).
On a cold morning in Brunswick about 20 students—of all different ages and abilities—are standing in what is informally called “rag-doll pose” (or Uttanasana in Sanskrit), folding from the waist, arms crossed, head bent toward the honey-colored wood floor of the year-old Sundara Yoga Studio. “Notice if you are putting more weight on the outside edges of your feet,” says Murielle Corwin, the instructor and owner of the studio. “If so, press the inner arches into the mat so that the weight is evenly balanced between the inner and outer soles of the feet.” Her “r’s” roll with a soft Quebeçois accent.
Later, she sits on a bolster in the studio, sipping tea and eating grapes, explaining how and why her life path has brought her to this moment, in this place. A former professional modern dancer who studied with famed choreographer Martha Graham, Corwin has extensive yoga credentials, from trainings in India to thousands of hours of study to be certified in Hatha yoga (twice). Corwin is also a registered nurse who has been at Maine’s Mid Coast Hospital for more than a decade. In this sense she’s at the crossroads of the highly pragmatic world of Western medicine and the holistic, more preventative-oriented world of Eastern medicine, where the practice of yoga can play a critical role. And the two inform each other.
“Yoga has instilled in me a sense of compassion for myself and for others, and it has shown me the importance of movement in healing,” Corwin says. “I integrate these concepts into my nursing and vice versa. I try to understand the state each person is in—whether I am seeing them at the hospital or in the studio—and bring them back into what they are experiencing somatically (in their body). I try to reconnect the spirit of the person to their physical experience, since so many of us insulate ourselves by disconnecting, particularly when we are ill.”
The word “yoga” in Sanskrit literally means “union” and in its ideal, it teaches how to yoke together the mind, body and spirit to create equilibrium—or harmony. As Murielle describes her past, a picture emerges of a life balancing contrasting energies, both in the fields of yoga and Western medicine and beyond, to find that equilibrium.
Corwin was born in Quebec to a traditional French Quebeçois family, the fifth of what would be nine children, eight girls, the last a boy. “It was a very busy household,” she says, diplomatically leaving the challenges of growing up in the middle of such a large brood to the imagination, but the experience may have contributed to her effortless ability to manage a classroom that’s regularly packed with students. “She is calm within chaos,” says her daughter Mae Corwin, her co-founder at Sundara and the studio’s director. “Maybe that comes from being part of a big family. It was being part of a community, always, and from an early age she had to be part of helping the family get along.”
Corwin studied dance in Toronto in the early 1980s, and joined the Toronto Dance Theater. Traveling with the troupe was not quite what she had envisioned. “Most people think of the glory of dancing on the stage,” she says. “But we were carrying the theater on our backs, building it during the day, dancing on it at night, and packing it up and getting on the bus to do it all over again the next day in a different town.” In 1982 she left the troupe and moved to New York City to study with Graham, then went on to dance for a number of professional dance companies started by major choreographers including Pearl Lang, Faye Driscoll and Donald Byrd.
In 1984, Corwin married Matthew Corwin, a cabinetmaker, and then had Mae and a second daughter, Emma. The family moved to New York’s Long Island in 1988 and she opened a studio attached to their home, teaching tumbling and dance. “We grew up with movement in our life from a very early age,” Mae Corwin says. “When my mother was choreographing dance, she would sit me on the studio floor with a big cookie and the dancers would move around me.”
Corwin also brought a yoga teacher in for classes. Rehearsal spaces and dance studios at that time often did double-duty as yoga studios. ‘So I was aware of yoga back then,” she says. “But in those days, like most dancers, I saw the body as a tool to shape to fit the choreographer’s vision. I was pretty hard on my body, pushing it beyond what it was comfortable with or capable of. There was a lot of abuse—a lot of coffee and cigarettes.” And with overuse and not taking care of herself, Corwin suffered the bane of all dancers: successive injuries.
She initially tried Tai chi as a means of grounding and healing herself. Then in 1996, a friend took her to the Iyengar Institute on 22nd street in Manhattan. The Iyengar school of yoga originated in India in 1936 and its founder, the guru B.K.S. Iyengar, is hailed as one of yoga’s most important teachers. There’s a component to Iyengar that is similar to physical therapy; with practitioners understanding and correcting their weaknesses. It’s no surprise then that it was attractive to dancers. “It is like the ballet school of yoga in that it is very precise,” Corwin says. “And they place an emphasis on the feet being parallel in many positions which feels really good and healing.”
Yoga felt like second nature to Corwin after dance. “I’m obviously drawn to proprioception—feeding input into myself through body movement—so my interest in yoga was a natural extension from my dancing. I got really interested in healing ‘me,’ not just using my body to please a choreographer.”
At the same time, she was raising children—both of whom were becoming gymnast—running her studio and commuting into the city to dance while growing increasingly tired of the instability and the craziness. She longed for more regular hours and a dependable schedule, and so, in her disciplined style, she let go of her dance career and began graduate school. She had planned to be a physical therapist but found her real interest lay in nursing. She pursued her degree slowly and methodically and graduated in 2003, landing a job in the cardiology wing at Stony Brook University Hospital. Her yoga practice grew sporadic.
“You know how life goes,” she says. “I had a busy job, little kids, and one thing or another takes your attention, so my yoga practice moved in and out of my life. For me, if I spend too much time away from it, my body lets me know. I realize I’m out of balance, and that part of me is lacking connection—mindfulness to the body—and I am brought back by necessity more than anything.” Aware she was getting out of whack, she began going on a weekend retreat once a month with a bunch of fellow yogis. She realized how much the rigors of nursing full-time were beginning to weigh on her. “I had been self-employed for much of my life up until I started working in a big hospital, and the move from art and movement to a more institutional environment was very hard.” Corwin grew depressed and started questioning what this kind of work was really about and how healthy it was for her to never have any free time.
“I knew I needed change, something different, and my unhappiness and stress was impacting my family,” she says. Moreover, New York after 9/11 felt different. “It began to feel very hostile and different from the place I had moved to. I wanted a simpler life for myself and my family.”
Corwin’s husband had a longtime connection to Maine, and the family vacationed here often, so it felt like a natural transition to make the move to Maine in 2006. They settled in Wiscasset and Corwin got a job at Mid Coast, which was and remains to her “a great place to work. Very personal and friendly.” She’s worked for many years in the intensive care unit, which is small enough (11–12 patients) to allow Corwin to nurse on an intimate patient-to-nurse ratio, sometimes even one-on-one. “She has some amazing intuition,” says her longtime colleague at Mid Coast, Maggie Gardiner. “When she interacts with patients she’s very calm; she goes to the core of the issue, and has soothing energy. She pays a lot of attention to what is going on in their psyche as well as body.”
When Sundara opened last year, Gardiner, was quick to start taking classes there (other colleagues from the hospital do as well). “Murielle is a great instructor,” Gardiner says. “I’ve practiced at a lot of different places, but I’m connected to Murielle and I really like her and the feel of her studio.”
In a way the studio is a natural extension, or reinvention, of that space the Corwin family had on Long Island. A creative hub, where the family could be together (Emma Corwin handles social media and marketing for Sundara) in movement. “It feels so familiar,” Mae Corwin says. Except now the small children visiting the studio are her own, Marlo, 4, and Rowan, who turns 2 this month. And their grandmother in middle age brings a different wisdom to her teaching than she did back in those early days. “She is very well-versed in how to care for humans,” Mae Corwin says. Through thick and thin, and sometimes, terrible loss. “I often wonder how she does it,” she adds. “Goes to work all day, has a patient pass away, comes home and makes a spaghetti dinner.”
One way is moving steadily forward, through learning and growing her community. Corwin is a Certified Movement Analyst with the Laban Institute, a Shiatsu and Thai Yoga Practitioner and a Fully Integrated Yoga Tune Up Teacher. She’s also studied with Jennifer Reis to teach Divine Sleep Yoga Nidra, a form of guided meditation. Sundara regularly welcomes guest teachers and in April will host a workshop on trauma-informed yoga, followed in May by a session with an expert in self-care through Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient, holistic approach to health that originated in India. But as Gardiner notes, there is also that grounding element of Corwin’s Western medical training. “She is very body-based and concrete,” Gardiner says. “As a nurse she really understands the muscles in the body; it helps in how she teaches yoga.”
Not everyone who takes classes at Sundara knows about that medical background, but the ones that do tend to relate to Corwin differently because of her work as a nurse. “They will talk frankly with me about their concerns,” Murielle Corwin says. “And I think they are willing to open to the exploration because of my training.” She looks around the lovely room that her husband renovated and soon to be filled with another a large group of bodies (and minds) seeking balance. “When I opened this studio, I wanted to create a beautiful space and build a community of people interested in growing together,” Corwin says. “I think the secret to a sense of well-being is feeling empowered—to change, to heal, to transition—and that takes trust. I’m grateful so many people trust me.”
“You know, there’s no limit to what people can do…” She pauses and smiles. And like the true student of yoga and life she is, adds, “…we can always make adjustments.” Then, as if it’s been called to punctuate the brilliance of finding just the right balance between contrasting energies, the sun emerges from a dark cloud, shining amber streaks of light across the floor.
Genevieve (G.A) Morgan is an author and editor living in Portland. She is a frequent contributor to various publications, with a special interest in health and wellness that began in high school after taking her first yoga class in the gym. She’s been a regular practitioner ever since. Find her at ga-morgan.com.