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  • Tara Crutchfield

Jhoanna Mukai

When Jhoanna Mukai moved from her home in the Philippines to San Diego, California, at 12 years old, she described it as a culture shock. Once she settled in and the shock subsided, Mukai discovered she loved going to new places and trying new things. That same curiosity and contentment with present circumstances have carried on for the middle school science teacher and yoga instructor.

From San Diego, the family moved to San Francisco, and Mukai eventually moved to Sin City to attend the University of Nevada Las Vegas. After college, sapped by the club scene, she decided it was time for another change. So, to Puerto Rico she went, where she first tried yoga.

A runner slowed down by recurring shin splints, Mukai was looking for an alternative workout. It started as an exercise, and the poses were fun, but it soon transcended that. “I started with Ashtanga Yoga, and that was kicking my butt – that was the first class I took,” she said. “I just kept coming back. I felt really good after, to the point where I’d leave class, and I’d be crying. It got emotional and spiritual, so I explored it more.”

Yoga wasn’t the only thing Mukai was introduced to in Puerto Rico. There she met her now ex-husband, an Auburndale native. “I’m grateful for him because he brought me here,” she said. The pair moved to Tampa, Auburndale, and now Mukai lives in Winter Haven. She’s happily engaged and has one dog and 13 spayed/neutered outside cats. “I consider myself a cat rescue now,” she joked.

When she moved to the area, Mukai started classes with Inside Out Yoga instructor Jody Reece. “I decided to do YTT (Yoga Teacher Training) just so I could share it. I feel like I’m a sharer.”  The yogic philosophies and principles resonated with Mukai. “Beyond the physical [aspect] of yoga, there’s a lot that I wanted to share with others. Yes, it’s good for balance and strengthening, but also more of that acceptance – that peace of mind.” Her instruction is imbued with that same repose. “That’s what I tell people when they come to class,” she said. “You don’t have to be perfect. Just show up.”

Vinyasa and Yin are Mukai’s preferred styles of yoga. “Vinyasa, it’s like the flow, like the power yoga – it challenges you. It’s more of a workout for a lot of people, and I think people resonate with that,” she explained. Yin adversely is a slow-paced practice focused on sustained holds. Describing Yin as mentally challenging, Mukai said, “The practice is to be in the present moment. When that mind wanders, let’s bring it back here.”

Seeking mindfulness herself and helping her students navigate the same, Mukai said, “It sounds simple, but I think that’s more difficult than the poses themselves. The mind is a muscle, it’s stubborn, but I think training the mind is more challenging than doing a standing balancing pose.” 

Teaching middle school and yoga are entwined for Mukai. “Even in teaching kids, there’s something called differentiated instructions where you have to cater to what the kids need. It’s the same thing with yoga – just the understanding that we’re different and approaching it where it would work for the person or the student.”  

Beyond the meat and potatoes – mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell to middle schoolers and mindfulness at the yoga studio – Mukai hopes to impart independence and curiosity to all her students. “Be you. Do what you can. Don’t try to be anyone else. [...] Be curious about yourself and the world around you.” Even when things don’t work out initially, “There are so many different ways to get on top of the mountain. Find your path.”

Much of Mukai’s wisdom was shared with her by her mother. She learned most from her mother to be happy. “I think for me living in that kind of world – a third world country, there’s poverty everywhere, but [still] feeling happy and loved at the same time,” she said. Watching her mother move fearlessly from the Philippines to California, Mukai said, “It inspired me to explore, to be strong, and take risks. Even if it doesn’t work out, it’s okay to come back to where you were before.”

Another thing Mukai admires about her mom is her self-assuredness, describing her as the kind of person to “sing with the band at Grove Roots (like, on the microphone)” and the first to dance at a party or take food home at the end. Attending a recent gathering where they didn’t know anyone, “She was having a great time talking to people and encouraging them to eat the Filipino food she cooked,” said Mukai. “She was loud and unapologetic. It was not the first time I was embarrassed by her confidence. I’ve had to elbow her a few times, but everyone always seems to welcome her energy. [...] I need a little more of that courage.”

She encourages other women to take her mother’s lead in that regard. “[Don’t] be afraid to take a risk, to try something new or scary. Even if the plan doesn’t work out, accept that it wasn’t meant to be. Know when to keep trying or when to let it go. I got that from my mom. I just thought that’s an important lesson for everyone.” It’s as simple as doing what makes you happy. “That’s the path to take.”

Asked if she’d found her path, Mukai replied, “It’s constantly evolving. So, yes. I’m trying to listen and reflect about what would make me happy now.”

Photograph by Amy Sexson


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