CEO and co-founder of The Underbelly yoga, Mary Carr, talks about growing up in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, her nanny’s vegetable garden, and sliced tomatoes plated on the table still warm from the heat of the sun. She describes how her mother’s family was raised with vegetable gardens at home, grown out of necessity, and sees the resurgence of gardening in her life now as a reclaiming of the past, “finding such peace and home in the dirt and in nature.”“The past few years I’ve gotten into having a garden, but really in the last year during the pandemic, just having that place to go that was so other was so vital. I’ve always loved and had fond memories of the garden, but I think sort of stepping into the power of it being my own has been a more recent development.”
The reclaiming of childlike freedom and wonder is more than a gentle yoga practice or an afternoon in the garden, but a way of being in the world that is unapologetically authentic, taking up space and celebrating our bigness no matter where we are or what we look like.
A lot of what we’re taught is that wellness is outside of ourselves, and what I’m learning is that I have wellness practices in nooks and crannies of my life that I’ve just never named before. We’re stripped of that empowerment because it doesn’t cost money to look within and it’s not part of a capitalist community to source information and wisdom from inside oneself.
After graduating college, Mary traveled to Europe where she taught English and lived in Prague. After returning home, she found the restaurant community was the most similar to that lifestyle she loved. “It was full of artists and expansive thinkers and people that didn’t fit into the sort of normal expectations, and it felt like home.”
“Food is such a glorious medium that kind of takes you out of yourself and gives you something to talk about if the things that going on personally are too much, or not something you want to share. So that was really the impetus for working in restaurants.”
Mary worked alongside a talented chef and managed the front of house, which is where she ended up meeting Jessamyn Stanley, whom she brought on as the host of a Spanish tapas restaurant in Durham, NC. After four years of working with Mary, Jessamyn left to pursue her own passions but not before asking if she could have her job back if it didn’t work out.
So, she went off and published her first book and started touring and teaching yoga internationally. We lost touch because of life circumstances and after I had had my second child, I quit working in restaurants to stay at home with the baby. That’s when I got a text from her completely out of the blue that said, ‘I have an idea that I want to talk to you about.’ Every hair on my body stood up and I knew this is what I would do next.
Mary sees the transition from hospitality to The Underbelly as a beautiful gift. “I realized I was ready to have those more personal, spiritual, holistic conversations about life, and I didn’t need food to be the connection. I was now comfortable offering myself and my journey as the connection.”
The project free-flowed with concrete decisions and fluid intuition. “We knew we wanted Jessamyn to have exclusive creative control of her content and that we wanted to change the conversation in the fitness and wellness world from what we had seen and experienced.”
Developing a firm foundation for the change that needed to happen in the social sphere surrounding body image and fitness expectation, the two women put their heads together and got to work.
“I asked Jessamyn one day during a brainstorm session in her office, ‘Tell me your dreams —what is the dream of this if it were a physical location?’ And she painted me this beautiful picture of a bustling city with noise and lights and chaos. Then you stumble upon this basement space that has a neon light flickering outside; you enter and descend.”
You're down in the basement and you step into this all-encompassing safety, and there's someone there holding space that's been waiting for you. They invite you to step into the underbelly— into the murk and the fear. The surface below the reality of everyday life is business, and this space allows you to open up authentically and to truly hear what’s been calling you.
The image painted by Jessamyn and conveyed by Mary encapsulates the unabashed glory of embodying your truth, and how that feels while held in a circle of other women doing the same.
“And so we came upon the name The Underbelly and we loved it for the tenderness of what bellies represent, and how that’s such a space of shame, fear or vulnerability for so many. What we’re really wanting to honor is the notion that this is the human journey towards wellness; it's stepping into that fear and that vulnerability and listening for what is needed to nurture it.”
When restaurants closed in 2020, Mary shifted her attention entirely to this undertaking. Now three-and-a-half years into production, she is confident in putting all of her energy into The Underbelly, trusting the process with all of its unknowns and its ups and downs. “My children are both about to be in school full time as well, so it will be the first time in seven years that I get to wear one hat at a time.”
As a six-foot-tall woman, Mary naturally gravitated towards playing sports in school and she loved it. She found community there and discovered that her body became a functional space to access the community she enjoyed, which has turned out to be a reoccurring theme throughout her life.
“My school was a conservative, religious space, and there wasn’t a lot of empowering language around the female form, or a woman’s capacity to have power or autonomy. Looking back, I’ve noticed that the yoga of my life has really taken on a journey of listening to and empowering my body’s innate wisdom that I ignored for decades.”
When she found yoga, the hook for Mary wasn’t the idea of movement without competition, but rather movement for the sake of movement. Although still she found the teachers to be critical in ways that kept her from being true to what her body was asking for.
“Yoga became something I would pick up and leave off. I’m realizing that I don’t practice one form of wellness every day. I found that I have about six different tools through which I’ll rotate, allowing my body to have as much say as my mind and my heart. I listen, nurture and care for my body, done in the same way as I read, journal, and walk through the woods.”
The notion of tuning into the innate emotional intelligence of the body can help us indicate discomfort in areas of our lives that require nurturing and adjustment rather than silencing and band-aid remedies.
Listening to my bodily cues is a form of life yoga. I really honor those sensations and information informing the deep work that my body has put in through a lifetime of experiencing stimulus. It offers insight that I’d never mentally or intellectually get to, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is real, because I feel.
Mary shares her life yoga and meditations with the other amazing women in her life, and the other members of The Underbelly team who learn from and teach one another, as though they are the reverberating ripples across a still pond.
Having the ability to fully express the gamut of human expression is paramount, whether that’s “getting on your mat and being brought to your knees and weeping through a class, or being so euphoric that you need to go outside and do cartwheels first. To be able to start talking about this, and my own journey, and find resonance, it’s hard to say who inspires who at that point.”