Mona Akbari with students doing yoga in a studio and an image of a chandelier and a wall hanging in The Light Show exhibition

Explore Your Inner Light with Yoga in The Light Show

This month’s Unplugged program features yoga in the galleries. (Bring a yoga mat or borrow one from the museum.) With The Light Show as inspiration, Denver yoga teacher Mona Akbari (who teaches at The River Yoga) will lead us through an all-levels experience of movement, physical postures, and breathing. Mona is no stranger to the art museum; she has led weekly yoga sessions for museum staff for the past year, and we couldn’t be more thrilled that she is sharing her practice with our visitors.

As we look ahead to Friday’s program, I asked Mona a few questions to learn more about who she is, how yoga came into her life, and her thoughts on bringing her practice to the museum.

Molly Medakovich: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from?

Mona Akbari: In 1977, I was born in northern Iran. I was raised during the most tremulous time in the recent history of Iran. Shortly after my birth, the country went through a regime change, and to make things worse Iran entered an eight-year-long war with Iraq. My childhood—while it has the universal characteristics of childhood everywhere such as play, inquisitiveness, and exploration—took place under a shadow of fear, death, and destruction, and with very minimal family resources.

MM: How long have you been in Denver, and how did you make your way here?

MA: This is a very complex and extended question. I will make it very short and condensed for the sake of time, space, and patience.

After escaping from Iran at the age of 14 and fleeing to Pakistan where I spent a year awaiting U.S. refugee status, I arrived in Boulder in 1993. My family belonged to the Baha’I Faith, a religious minority, which gave rise to enormous challenges and a chain of unfortunate events in my early life. This began when I lost my father when I was three years old. Because of the extreme Islamic views of the newly established government, members of Baha’i Faith were being openly persecuted. My father was arrested and martyred for his beliefs in 1979. After that, our house, business, and lands were confiscated. Almost overnight I became both homeless and fatherless in a land where men hold all the power. Rejected by most family members due to fear of the wrath of the government, we were left in a new city on our own. Through some sort of divine magic, my mom raised five children and provided for us even without resources or an education.

The traditional artist might use a pen or brush to create art, while we yogis and yoginis use our breath, mind, and body to create art.

– Mona Akbari

MM: While visitors may be meeting you for the first time at Unplugged, you are a familiar face to museum staff. Tell us a little bit about how you’ve been sharing your yoga practice with us, behind the scenes, and what that’s been like.

MA: I have been teaching yoga to the DAM staff every Thursday at noon since 2018. The class is short—just 45 minutes. I love that I see many familiar faces every Thursday. I can imagine that it’s not that easy for the staff to commit to a workout in the middle of the day, week after week. They have to leave their workday to come to the main building, change clothes and gather their yoga mats. Week after week I witness them doing all this with a sense of joy, love, and lightness. As a teacher, nothing is more pleasing than seeing my students receive benefit from their hard work. I can always see at the end of class that everyone seems more centered and realigned both physically and emotionally. This is the biggest joy that I offer as a teacher.

MM: How were you introduced to yoga?

MA: My introduction to yoga happened in pieces instead of one straight continuum. I had to overcome a major hurdle in my life that was engraved in me from growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution and the same concept persisted through my first marriage. I had to revise the notion of women’s bodies, movement, and dance. I had to understand and create my own truth, and this took many years of active work.

Because vinyasa yoga in a combination of athleticism and dance, in order to practice yoga fully, I had to identify and eradicate some beliefs that I was exposed to and influenced by while growing up in Iran. When I was growing up, girls were not allowed to exercise. Athleticism was entirely the province of men. Girls were not allowed to run, ride bicycles, or swim. On the other hand, there was a strong sense that dance performed by women had only one purpose—the entertainment and gratification of men. During my childhood in Iran, dance was perceived as having a seductive purpose, and it was believed that “proper” women would never engage in such actions. Although these beliefs were not held in my personal household, the overall ideology of the country was wrapped up in them.

My first introduction to yoga was in community college, where I took one semester of vinyasa. I didn’t know anything about the topic. I was clueless as to both the philosophy and practice of this ancient tradition. Although I deeply enjoyed it, I was busy raising a child, attending school, and working, so I didn’t have time to pursue yoga after the semester was over. I also was working to overcome the idea of exercise mostly belonging to the world of men. Over the next few years I found myself biking, hiking, skiing, jumping rope, working out at the gym (at first, a women-only gym). Eventually I reconnected with yoga through a Bikram studio, and that led to my becoming an instructor in 2016.

In addition to my studies here in the U.S., I have also intensively studied the inner yogas and meditation with many masters all over Asia, where yoga was originally developed. I have spent time in China, Tibet, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Iran, and Burma studying with great teachers in order to deepen my understanding of meditation and the inner yogas. Interestingly, I have been fortunate to share some of my own understanding by teaching classes along the way.

MM: What is your favorite thing about teaching yoga?

MA: To me life is yoga and yoga is life; there is no separation. It is a constant movement of energy and transformation while on the mat or away from the class. In its ultimate form, yoga is the union of the individual with the “outside” world. The interface is the breath. Yoga has many facets. It can be fun and energizing. It can be slow and restorative, and yoga can be healing and informative. I think of yoga as performing magic—it can produce what you want from it. My favorite thing about teaching yoga is introducing this power and magic to others. I know from personal experience that yoga can be very healing in a both gross (body) and subtle ways (emotional/mental). As humans, we all have some sort of inner pain—the wounds that we carry with us.

MM: What are you most excited about in regards to bringing your practice to the Denver Art Museum?

MA: I believe that living is an art. For me, yoga is a practical lifestyle, which can transform anyone who is willing into an artist. Since the function of a museum is to hold, store, and display art, it is a perfect place to teach and practice yoga, which is itself an embodiment of the art of living. The traditional artist might use a pen or brush to create art, while we yogis and yoginis use our breath, mind, and body to create art. How wonderful is that!

Images: Yoga photo courtesy Mona Akbari. Gallery view of The Light Show. Fred Wilson, The Way the Moon’s in Love with the Dark, 2017. Murano glass, clear brown glass, steel, light bulbs. Purchased with funds from Vicki and Kent Logan; Suzanne Farver and Clint Van Zee; Sharon and Lanny Martin; Craig Ponzio; Ellen and Morris Susman; Devon Dikeou and Fernando Troya; Baryn, Daniel and Jonathan Futa; Andrea and William Hankinson; Amy Harmon; Arlene and Barry Hirschfeld; Lu and Chris Law; Amanda J. Precourt; Judy and Ken Robins; Annalee and Wagner Schorr; Judith Zee Steinberg and Paul Hoenmans; Tina Walls; and Margaret and Glen Wood, 2017.207. © Fred Wilson. Marie Watt (Seneca), Butterfly, 2015. Seneca reclaimed wool blankets, satin binding, thread, cotton twill tape and tin jingles H: 94in; W: 126in Funds from Loren G. Lipson, M.D., Vicki & Kent Logan, with additional funds from Brian Tschumper, Nancy Benson, Jan & Mike Tansey, and JoAnn & Bob Balzer

Molly Medakovich is a teaching specialist for adult programs in the learning and engagement department at the Denver Art Museum. Molly has been at the DAM since 2012, and her favorite painting in the collection is Gustave Doré’s The Family of Street Acrobats: the Injured Child.