Resident Spotlight: Finding safety and security in yoga

Resident Spotlight: Finding safety and security in yoga
Masuda Mohamadi (Courtesy photo)

By Kassidy McDonald

Masuda Mohamadi is an accomplished business owner, yoga instructor and now an author. She has helped students for over two decades find balance and stability in their lives through practicing yoga, specifically Kundalini yoga, which involves breathing, chanting and singing accompanied by repetitive poses.

Though Mohamadi has been an Alexandria resident since 2006, she was born in Afghanistan and lived there until she was six years old. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and she fled the country with her family. Her family resided in the city of Kabul, but escaped to the mountains by hiding in the back of a moving van. Once at the outskirts of the city, Mohamadi’s uncles and other villagers guided them on a trek through the mountains that lasted two-and-a-half days. Mohamadi was accompanied by 14 people total on the journey to safety. Her parents, her brother, two sisters and her father’s siblings all completed the journey and arrived safely in Pakistan.

Mohamadi as a child. (Courtesy photo)

The family was in Pakistan for about four months before arriving in the United States. Mohamadi’s father was able to obtain tourist visas so they could go to New York.

“Immigration looked at us and it was obvious we were not tourists, and we were not on vacation. They detained us for a while and then realized we were refugees, there was a war, my father would have been killed and probably all of us would have been killed if we had stayed behind, so they let us stay here,” Mohamadi said. “My father knew one person in D.C. and he called him, he was a colleague and they had worked together in Afghanistan … and this man was just so amazing. He rented two apartments for us, he supported us for many months, he helped get a down payment on our house to rent and he also got an interview for my dad to work at the World Bank.”

The man, Jagdish N Srivastva, was what she called the family’s “angel.” Mohamadi explained how his crucial support enabled the family to rebuild their lives after fleeing Afghanistan. From D.C., the family moved to Arlington, Vienna and Springfield before Mohamadi came to Alexandria in 2006.

“Vienna was a very white neighborhood and white school. So it was a difficult time to fit in or belong. It definitely felt like you’re the foreigner or immigrant family. Fortunately it is so different now and it’s so multicultural … but back then it was much harder to assimilate or integrate,” Mohamadi said about her time adjusting to school in the United States.

Mohamadi went on to earn her undergraduate degree in philosophy from George Mason University. Her first job out of college was at Hemlock Overlook Center for Outdoor Education, which is jointly operated by George Mason University and the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. She also earned her master’s in creative writing from George Mason.

When she was 29 years old, she returned to Afghanistan with her father to teach English to people in ministries and to see the life she left behind in Afghanistan so long ago. She detailed her time in Kabul in an article for The Washington Post, which shaped the woman she is today and the love she has for her culture. Her article also details the struggles of losing her father who died in a plane crash in February 2003 while traveling on government business. From this loss has come struggles with fear and grief, something that Mohamadi has tried to help heal with yoga and understanding the chakras, or energy points in the body.

Mohamadi and her father. (Courtesy photo)

Mohamadi first discovered Kundalini yoga in the mountains of West Virginia. She was leading a program for the Mountain Institute, and there was a speaker, Irene McKinney, who at the time was West Virginia’s poet laureate. She taught a class about poetry and writing for the program.

“She walked in and she was like ‘Oh the energy is all wrong here.’ And back then I was like ‘I don’t know what that means.’ And she started doing these breathing exercises with us and these rhythmic fast movements, and then she had us chanting. It was so weird. But at the end I felt amazing, I just felt so energized and good,” Mohamadi said. “I asked her what it was and she told me Kundalini yoga.”

What Mohamadi enjoys most about the specific prac- tice is the way it affects a person not only physically, but emotionally as well. She trained to become a teacher and began teaching at multiple different locations.

“It gave me a focus and clarity about so many things in my life,” Mohamadi explained.

Mohamadi soon grew tired of bouncing around from studio to studio and began looking for her own space that was both “welcoming and inviting.” She found a 1,400 square foot studio and opened her own practice in 2008. She had no previous business experience, and opening during the recession was a scary thought for a first time business owner.

Community was one of the most important aspects Mohamadi considered when creating her business. She said that in the studio, they had a small round table in the middle of the reception area that had tea and cookies, so after classes people would sit and chat with each other and form relationships.

Mohamadi owns Radiance Yoga in Old Town. (Courtesy photo)

“Community is so important for me. I feel like when people feel safe and welcomed somewhere they really open up. And safety is a big issue in my life, when you go through war and you’re displaced like that, you’re very sensitive to that … change and growth re- ally happens when you can be in a space where you are like ‘Okay I’m safe here and I’m re- ally going to open up,” Mohamadi said.

When Mohamadi moved the studio to a 4,500 square foot space in 2013, she wanted to keep that same aspect of community. She placed an even bigger round table with tea and cookies in the reception area to encourage students to create bonds with one another and to keep the heart of the studio alive.

Mohamadi’s studio was created with the goal of offering a sense of community for people at all levels in their yoga journey. Radiance Yoga offers more than 60 in-person and online classes in Flow, Gentle, Hatha, Kundalini, Restorative, Yin Yoga, Yoga Nidra and Core Strength and Stretch, according to its website.

Mohamadi said there is a class for everyone, whether the goal is to expand on physical or mental abilities or just feel good after a class. There are more than 20 teachers who welcome students of every level, making Radiance Yoga different from many other studios who don’t offer as many gentle, stretching, spiritual or beginner yoga opportunities for new students.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mohamadi said Radiance Yoga faced the challenge of not being able to hold in-person classes in the studio space. They began Zoom classes and pre-recorded classes that were posted online so that their clientele could still access yoga classes when they really needed them most during the pandemic.

“What kept us in business was just a core group of students who are just so devoted, and it was the support of those core students that really got us through it,” Mohamadi said about the people who kept her beloved business alive. “For some people that was a lifeline, just seeing the space and seeing the teacher and having some time to talk before and after [class] made a big difference.”

Radiance Yoga trains teachers to learn more about yoga philosophy and history, and offers workshops to hone specific skills. One workshop in particular that Mohamadi leads is a workshop on the chakras, which allows students to use their chakras as a resource and practical tool. In one workshop she taught about the first chakra, which involves posture and feeling grounded, and how fear can relate to it.

“This is a complicated yoga concept but in your day to day life it relates to your relationship with your body, your home, your need to feel safe and then when fear comes up in your life how do you deal with it … identifying it, connecting with it, listening to it and then here is three or four practical tools to befriend your fear and still be able to move forward in your life,” Mohamadi said.

Besides continuing her flourishing yoga studio, Mohamadi wants to eventually publish a family memoir. She said she pursued her master’s in creative writing specifically for this reason.

“My dream has been to write a book about our family, like the Sound of Music with the Von Trapp family, and it would be like the Mohamadi family. I’ve been trying to write that book for many years and I really thought my first book would be this memoir about a family escaping and building a new life and all the identity issues that come up and issues of love and grief and forgiveness,” Mohamadi said. “But the universe had a different plan because my first book ended up being on the chakras.”

Mohamadi is now a published author. (Courtesy photo)

Her book “Unlock the Power of Your Chakras: An Immersive Experience through Exercises, Yoga Sets & Meditations”, which was released on Aug. 8, equipped her with the necessary skills down the road when she’s ready to write her family memoir – something that has been emotional for her due to her father’s death. It took Mohamadi a couple of years to write her first book, she said, but the process proved to be enjoyable.

“This book was fun to write – it was full of research and excitement – where the memoir is more sad and there is a lot of emotions that come up. I feel like because I did a lot more research on this book, I have a lot more tools and resources to deal with the strong emotions as they come up to be able to write the memoir,” Mohamadi said.

The most rewarding parts of owning her business have been the relationships Mohamadi created along the way. She now considers the people she works with her family. Mohamadi has enjoyed seeing her students create relationships with herself and the other teachers at the studio, as well as form friendships with each other that extend outside of class time.

Last year, Mohamadi led a yoga retreat in Portugal and is looking forward to holding more retreats in Greece and Morocco. Traveling is one of her passions, and she’s looking forward to more opportunities for retreats with Radiance Yoga in the future.

“Something magical happens on these retreats where people are really able to nurture themselves and take the time to connect more deeply with their bodies. Also, you’re in a different land so you’re curious and your mind is open, and you’re learning and connecting about different cultures,” Mohamadi said. “I just think it’s such a gift you’re able to give yourself and I love sharing that with people.”