When I asked if I could interview her for this piece, there was a long pause. She says that she feels uncomfortable talking about herself to a large public. But she felt that this was something she could do for me. I told her that we would trust the Universe and her purpose (in giving me the idea and the permission Monica grants me) to be revealed in time.
It all began with the love of Movement. Monica says: “All my life I have been physically active. My folks played tennis and brought us to the courts to chase the ball around while they played tennis. My folks also eventually owned a water ski boat and I became an average slalom skier and a stellar ski boat driver.”
In high school, she became a cheerleader (the only other choice was field hockey), but in college she made time to surf, scuba-dive, run on the beach, play coed baseball and tennis, and joined a Polynesian dance troupe and courses in African and jazz dance. All this while pursuing graduate work in Special Education and she eventually worked at an alternative high school in Portland, Oregon, where she developed integrative curriculum using music and dance to help her students succeed.
Monica’s love of dance, running, and all things physical continued after she married and started raising children. A dance teacher at a cardio dance class she took twice a week for several years finally asked her if she would like to learn to teach. She says, “I was surprised and flattered and said yes.” In about a year I was teaching at the same fitness studio of my mentor. After earning my Group Fitness and Personal Training Certificates, I was invited to be a fitness director at a prominent health club in Santa Rosa.”
From this stint, she moved on to become a Hip Hop Director of the Santa Rosa Dance Center and she founded DC TRIBE, a competitive hip hop dance troupe that is renowned throughout the country to this day.
A dance buddy introduced her to Pilates at the only Pilates Studio in Northern California, and again the owner took her under her wing and certified her before certifications were being given to therapeutic Pilates. When her mentor’s studio closed, a client asked her to open another studio, but she felt she didn’t have the capital to do so. But it was a poem by Marianne Williamson (photo attached) that inspired her, and within six months she opened Tone. That was 19 years ago.
As Pilates was being internationally recognized as an important movement modality, Monica was asked to be part of the Pilates Method Alliance, an international organization. Monica is the 50th person in the world to be certified by the Alliance, eventually becoming a Gold Member after she developed a third-party exam and passed it.
As for yoga, Monica spent many years dabbling in all kinds of yoga classes. She says the simplicity and profound effects of Yoga Asana enamor her. She invested in yoga conferences and certifications. But the turning point came soon.: “I thought I understood yoga until I decided to take a Yoga Therapy Program at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles. It was a two-year program that combined western medicine with Yoga concepts. During my studies, I met a teacher that challenged us. He said that if we did not know Patanjali’s Sutra, then we did not know yoga. The 40 seasoned yoga teachers were angered and defensive of our knowledge accumulated by yoga influenced by the business of yoga, not its philosophy. That meant that we were all duped. That meant that we were impostors. Two years later, that teacher, Robert Birnberg, became my personal yoga teacher. I have been studying with him now for a decade. I am now dedicated and established in the yoga lineage of Krishnamacharya/Desikachar for the rest of my life. I study Patanjali’s Sutra with my teacher 2-6 hours per month. This is a yoga lineage of inclusiveness and kindness. ‘If you can breathe, you can practice yoga.’ ‘This yoga goes back 5,000 years with the goal of ‘reducing suffering.’ ‘You can measure the success of your yoga practice by the quality of your relationships.’ These quotes are Desikachar‘s, my teacher’s teacher.”
This seriousness to follow a lineage to be true to the philosophy of yoga via Patanjali’s Sutra, is reflected in the way Monica runs Tone. Yoga permeates all aspects of her life – lifestyle, family friends, humanity, the earth, the environment, the business. This is mindfulness, she says. “I must practice daily so I can sense clearly. We sense our ‘God,’ higher source, consciousness, light, Purusa, spirit, essence…through the lens of the mind. Our mind has the potential to be clearer with each breath. This gift is free. It is inclusive.”
This inclusiveness is the juice and glue of community. Monica says that everywhere she worked, the community and relationships are what kept her going. Economics, race, language were not barriers; the common link is dance -- the language of inclusiveness.
Naturally, I, as an immigrant-settler, was curious to know how her Filipina ancestry figures into her life and the way she focuses on community, inclusiveness, and mindfulness. Like many third-generation Filipina Americans, Monica’s cultural connection to a homeland is via their grandparents’ history of arrival in the U.S. Monica tells her story:
My Mom is the eldest of 7 children born in the United States. Both of her parents were born in the Philippines—they spoke Ilocano. My grandfather and his best friend came to Washington state to work the apple orchards and make the big money. He and his friend worked up and down the Pacific coast and followed work. Eventually, my grandfather made it to Los Angeles and became a chef. He made enough money to buy a 50-acre farm in Los Banos, California. His best friend then brought his youngest sister over from the Philippines to marry my grandfather—arranged marriage. They had 7 children to work the farm of cotton and vegetables and livestock and chickens...(Original farm to table culture!). My dad always teases my mom that when he met her, she only wore army boots.
Actually, my mom drove farm vehicles at age 12 and took care of all the kids—being the eldest. She finished high school in Los Banos and was accepted and attended one year at Cal (UC Berkeley). The following summer she got pregnant with me. She quit school and took on two jobs and married my dad. I was born the following April in Oakland. My folks bought a small house in west Oakland near the railroad track—my first home I remember. I didn’t know it then but it was and is a rough neighborhood. What does a first-grade latch key kid know about crack houses, warehouses, friendly faces of all colors? Lots of memories of the farm in Los Banos—outhouses, fighting chickens hidden in the walls of the garages, chasing chickens out of the cold-water shower house, the smell of Raid insect repellent, propped glassless windows, baths in galvanized tubs in the kitchen...I can still remember the smells and the amazing images and sounds of ‘thee farm.’
My U.S.- born dad, was the middle child of a Filipino/Chinese physician and Filipino/Spanish/French woman both from Manila. I didn’t know my grandmother as she died, we believe, of TB when my dad was 13. When she died, my grandfather left his three children in the U.S. (the LA area around Silverlake) while he went back to the Philippines for an unknown reason. (We later found out on my grandfather’s death bed, that he had another ‘wife’ and ‘family’ in the Philippines!). Pretty foggy but my dad spent time in Catholic orphanages during my grandfather’s periodic disappearances. When my grandfather was in the U.S., he was a physician for the Braceros [temporary farm workers from Mexico] and an accomplished chess player (he played Bobby Fisher at times).
What might I say about being a Filipina American? Thinking back, I just wanted to be judged on my accomplishments and who I was. I was ethnically ambiguous in the two public high schools I attended. I did not identify as a Filipina nor a minority. In fact, I actually fired my high school counselor after she entered me in a PG&E scholarship program where I ended up being a finalist for $5,000. Unbeknownst to me, she entered me as a “minority.” My final interview, I was placed in a room with three black young women. The question asked of us was ‘What hardships did you experience being a minority?’ I was appalled and walked out of the group interview. After I traveled back, I stormed into my high school counselor’s office. “Don’t ever enter me in any scholarship program based on my color or ethnicity! In fact, I don’t want you to represent me ever again!’ I was a straight A student with many leadership experiences in high school. I ended up going to the University of California, the furthest from my home, San Diego.
Life is like crossing a river. Opportunities and our dreams are dependent on rocks in the water that are stable, encouraging, that we can push off and move forward. Those rocks and inspiration exist in my family. Bob, my incredible husband (an American team gymnast in high school and college) physician/surgeon, encourages and supports me in my endeavors with pragmatic thoughts and acceptance of my eccentricities. My three amazing children brought me places that I would have never traveled. My son is gifted athlete and winemaker—a lovely balance of art and movement—and a stellar, exuberant dad. My second, an international professional dancer with the gift of teaching, threw me into the dance world (including Hip Hop) and still to this day encourages my movement and yogic experience. My third, an accomplished, compassionate educator and principal, exposed me to the world of dance and music (she is an accomplished percussionist)—she continues to inspire me with her methodical, ethical, and thorough thinking processes. AND an incredible best friend and business partner with skills and laughter embodying the values of being kind, honest and fair. My rocks—my stability—my inspiration—my partners....we do great things together—in relationship—in community. I am grateful.
Listening to Monica’s story, I am reminded of the history of Filipinos in America that I’ve only read about in Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart; in the oral histories collected by the Filipino American National Historical Society; in the stories told to me by the descendants of the Manongs and Manangs. Monica’s life journey connects to mine as I am just beginning to really feel grounded in Sonoma County. In seeing the path that was paved for her by her grandparents three generations ago, I see the resilience, the strength, the sense of community, of kapwa inclusiveness that I claim as my own cultural asset and capital.
When I asked Monica if she is willing to connect with other Filipina Americans who may be interested in following her footsteps as a healer/fitness teacher, she says, “Absolutely!”
Leny Mendoza Strobel is soon-to-retire Professor of American Multicultural Studies at Sonoma State U. She plans to hang out at Tone Studio to study the Sutras with Monica and do yoga and pilates.