Category Archives: Profiles

Paint It Black

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“Everybody needs a helping out, if that ain’t what it’s all about, tell me what.” Amy Grant

Going 9000 miles anywhere is a taxing no picnic undertaking. All roads may lead to the same end, but if you are an Iowa farmgirl since transplanted to Cleveland, Ohio, going to India is not the same as going to Seattle or Boston or someplace in between. It’s going halfway around the world to another continent culture world view.

Despite economic progress, India remains a poor country. Someone is always begging you for a hand-out. Pushing and shoving is a way of life. Personal space isn’t personal, it’s public. There are a billion Indians. Pick pocketing is common. Grab and go is even more common. Getting anything back after the fact is uncommon. Sanitation and hygiene are lacking. Among other things, Delhi Belly is a pain in the butt.

If you are a Western woman, staring and unwanted attention are par for the course anyplace anytime day or night.

When Deanna Black went to India last month, she made the trip look easy. She didn’t stand still for anything. She kept her eye on the prize.

“I’m not surprised,” said Frank Glass.

“The first class I ever took taught by Deanna was by accident, it was the hardest yoga class I ever took, and I had to sit out going to Inner Bliss the rest of the week.”

This from a man who three times a week for three years went to Bikram Yoga classes until he had no more sweat to give.

Deanna Black is a yoga teacher and holistic fitness trainer. Her point of view is far and wide. She studies engages practices aerobics, Prana Flow, Ashtanga, strength training, TRX, kettle ball, Insanity, Zumba, spinning, West African Dance, hoop dance, slacklining, stand up paddle board yoga, and “any other movement and activity that connects you with your body, your mind, your soul, and the nature around you.” She also assays positive psychology, which comes in handy when you are at the front of the room.

“Deanna was subbing that class. No one expected what we got,” said Frank. “She wasn’t bossy or demanding. She was actually encouraging, but she kept at it. She’s nothing if not relentless. I remember wondering if I was going to make it.”

She has studied with Shiva Rea and her Prana Vinyasa teacher training program since 2004. “The classes I create are designed to empower you to do more than you thought possible,” she says. “The benefits are more than meet the eye.”

She is an old-fashioned modern kind of gal, “balancing and aiming for what I want while leaning on the history of what worked and did not work from the past.”

The class was a mix of sheer effort vinyasa, endurance strength work, and baling hay, even though Deanna Black has done undergrad and grad coursework in advanced exercise physiology and psychology at Iowa State University. Making your way in the class, however, wasn’t about classwork and observation reading study reflection.

“It was about peeing on the electric fence for yourself,” said Frank Glass.

She can back off the pedal to the metal if she has to, as when she volunteers for teaching dance fitness to seniors at the Westside Community House.

Born and bred in a small town in Iowa, living in the big city of Cleveland since 1995, Deanna describes herself as a “farm girl whose DNA is filled with farmers, teachers, trailblazers, and travelers, and an adventure yogini, thrive activist and bucket list catalyst.”

It’s a lot to be. It’s a lot like mixed farming.

Mixed farming is a blend of multiple crops and livestock, maximizing light, moisture, and nutrients, complementing land and labor demands across the year. Erosion is minimized, biodiversity is maintained, water is conserved, and habitats preserved. Monocultural farming may better increase production levels, but capitalism isn’t always the bottom line.

She goes back to Iowa often, especially during harvest time. Although she isn’t Old McDonald Had a Farm, she helps out in her own way.

“I can’t even call it a job, it’s so much fun,” she said. “I am taking care of the farm animals, which includes emceeing pig races and goat yoga. I am recess patrolling jumping pillows pedal karts apple slingshots and mazes. I am lifeguarding the corn pool, which includes acro yoga sessions. I am making delicious apple cider donuts and taste testing from our scratch bakery. And I have a team of farmtastic people to help.”

When she went to the subcontinent she went on behalf of the 88Bikes Foundation.

“They continue to be instrumental in my trips to India,” said Deanna. “For all the work they do with girls who are survivors or at risk for human trafficking. It is the timing of me doing this work with them on International Women’s Day, to empower, to educate, to let the world know that the female spirit is not to be suppressed. It is to be respected and honored.”

She arrived in Allahabad in early March. It was the day after the Kumbh Mela wrapped up. It had been going on since January 15th, although it’s been going on for centuries. The Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage. In 2013, the last time it was staged in Allahabad, an estimated 120 million people came to it over a 2-month period.

“Flags were still flying from each country represented,” she said. “Even with many tents and porta potties still up, the area felt abandoned. Still, a feeling of peace washed over me, particularly after I stepped into the Ganga with prayers and gratitude. Afterwards, I visited the birthplace of Indira Gandhi and learned not only how remarkable she was, but how the women of India stood strong all together and made a significant difference. It was an inspiration for leading into International Women’s Day.”

Indira Gandhi was the first and only female Prime Minister of India. Even though a politician, she had once been a child revolutionary, leading the Monkey Brigade at the age of 12 as part of India’s struggle against the British Empire for self-determination. Despite often criticized as a “goongi goodiya” – dumb doll – she was twice prime minister and was named “Woman of the Millennium” by the BBC.

She was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984.

The brainchild of Dan Austin, a writer, filmmaker, and one-time bicycle deliveryman, the non-profit 88Bikes was born in 2007. In return for a sponsorship of $88.00, a bike is delivered to someone somewhere in the developing world. The child gets a photo of the person who donated the bike, and the donor gets a photo of the child who received it.

“We feel strongly that you can connect people across the world like this,” he has said. “I think that’s the root of what 88Bikes is about, this one-to-one connection.”

It’s many thousands of bikes going to Peru, Cambodia, Mongolia, Ghana, India, two wheels at a time.

Deanna is aware of how much awareness it takes to get a bicycle into the hands of a kid with little chance of scoring one for him or herself. That’s why she goes halfway around the world. “It’s joy-based philanthropy,” she said. “What brings us joy? Connection!”

“The happiness they deserve is now within reach,” says Dan Austin.

Before she could get 88Bikes on the road, however, she found herself speaking in front of a large group in Allahabad gathered for the Run4Niine.

“The race is in recognition that thoughts and views on menstruation in India need to change,” said Deanna. “To say that this conversation is taboo is to say a conversation about women is taboo. To say menstruation is dirty is to say a girl or woman is dirty. It is beyond time to change this thinking.”

Even though menstruation is a natural phenomenon, like blinking heartbeats hairiness and breasts filled with milk, it is problematic in many parts of India. “Close to 70% of Indian women risk getting severe infection, at times causing death, due to poverty, ignorance, and shame attached to their menstruation cycle,” said Swapna Majumdar, a New Delhi journalist who writes on gender and development.

When they are menstruating, Indian women are not supposed to touch a holy book, handle kitchen utensils, or look at pickles. Demystifying what is supposedly taboo about periods and creating awareness about hygiene has been an uphill struggle in the country. More than 30% of girls in northern India drop out of school after they start menstruating.

“It is connection with birth and the cycle of life,” said Deanna. “It’s not something to be left unsaid. It’s part of the sacred flow of womanhood.”

The next day was the day to get into the flow of pedal power.

“I’m super excited,” she said. “Tomorrow one hundred girls are getting their own bicycle.” She and her companions, Ruby and Ramon of the Blossomy Project, were outside Kolkotta. About 500 miles east of Allahabad, on the Bay of Bengal, it used to be Calcutta, once an East India trading post, now the capital of West Bengal state, India’s third-largest city with nearly 5 million inhabitants.  It is regarded as the artistic, cultural, and intellectual center of the country.

It’s also the home of Mother House, headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, who is buried there.

The Blossomy Project is a non-profit organization that works to empower survivors of human trafficking through art-based programs. Since riding a bike is as much an art as a skill, they were partnering with 88Bikes.

Deanna had a big envelope full of donor cards.

“Each card is one of who donated to 88Bikes. I am taking a road trip to meet these girls and give them their cards with their bikes.”

It was bright day in the 90s. March is the sunniest month of the year on the northern east coast of India, although it is also one of the wettest. A heavy rain and hailstorm had passed by a few days earlier.

“Watch out boys,” said Deanna, giving a donor card and bike to the first young girl. “This girl has got a bike with things to do and places to go.”

The first girl hopped on her bike and raced away.

“She took off immediately to school to take a Sanskrit exam. With her bike she can get to school much more easily. These girls also use their bikes to patrol the neighborhood and visit communities and bring awareness about how to stay safe.”

Ruby and Ramon and Deanna exchanged high fives.

“Each time I come to Kolkotta, these two have been instrumental in getting me and the bikes connected with girls,” said Deanna. “So happy to have the Blossomy Project. Shout out to Ruby acting as translator and all-out rock star making things happen.”

“I can go anywhere,” said another girl, getting on her bike.

Deanna showed her the back of the donor card that came with the bike.

“You can go anywhere,” it said.

“I love moments like this,” said Deanna.

Sunday night was Funday night in Kolkotta. Everyone went out to a show by Tanmoy Bose, a percussionist and tabla player. A native of the city, he was one of the first Indian musicians to meld folk songs and tribal drumming into a large band setting. His own band, the Taal Tantra Experience, signifies worship through rhythm. The music is nothing if not spilling over with life.

“I’m still amazed with that violin,” said Deanna. “If anyone in Cleveland knows of concerts like this, let me know, I wanna go.”

After the bikes were distributed, it was time to go home. The return flight to the United States from India doesn’t take two three days, but it might as well, when you’re on the way back to your own digs. Once on native ground, she exclaimed, checking out the run-up to the NCAA tournament, “Yeeeaaasss!!! Nothing like coming back to the States during March Madness!”

A few days later she got a Facebook message from Amita Gour, one of the girls who had gotten a bike.

“Thanks for your visit to Allahabad, Deanna,” she wrote.

“So happy to spend time with you and your family,” Deanna wrote back. “Thank you so very much for all the time you spent with me showing me around. And thrilled about your new bike.”

The thrill is in lending a helping hand.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

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Riding the OM Bus

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“It was twenty year ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, they’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile.”  The Beatles

It was twenty years ago that Cyndi Lee opened the OM Yoga Studio. It prospered and grew to 25 teachers offering 65 hatha vinyasa classes weekly. The sunlit wood floor space took up an entire floor of Manhattan real estate near Union Square. It was the union of a faraway and long ago tradition with modernity. The trendsetting crowd had long since been won over to bending.

It was no mean feat. “In New York City people have way more opportunities to take classes than in most other cities,” she said. If you don’t enjoy a challenge, the Big Apple isn’t what you want to try sinking your teeth into. There are more than 8 million people speaking more than 200 languages in the 5 boroughs. It’s hard getting them on the same page.

The page turned fifteen years later when she lost her lease. “The landlord didn’t give us the option to renew,” said Cyndi. “She just didn’t want a yoga studio there anymore.” The only thing harder than winning shrewd New Yorkers over to your yoga studio is staying on the winning side of shrewd New York property owners.

She took it well.

“Yoga has a sly, clever way of short-circuiting the mental patterns that cause anxiety,” says Baxter Bell. Yoga practice is filled with exercises in respect to balance, not just physically, but inwardly, too. It’s all about holding on and letting go.

“Honestly I feel fine,” she said at the time. “I’m just super grateful that the conditions arose for me to build that yoga studio and that the community grew and developed. I feel proud because there has been no badness, only goodness.”

Only there was more around the bend. Her marriage of almost twenty years was coming to an end, too.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it. Or, as Cyndi Lee has said, “Everything we’re doing is planting a seed that will come to fruition at some point.” Never mind about making plans that hit the nail on the head, better to make options.

“The opposite if being active in yoga is not being passive,” she said. “It’s being receptive.”

She met someone who became her boyfriend. She and Brad moved to Ohio. It didn’t get off on the right foot. “I was a hardcore New Yorker,” said Cyndi. “What the hell am I doing?” she thought. New York is a fast-paced around-the-clock lifestyle. It’s the city that never sleeps.

“Ohio was so quiet and the food was terrible.”

They moved to Virginia. Her boyfriend became her husband. The energy and the food got better. She didn’t open another yoga studio. “We do need more yoga, but when people say to me, can you give me advice about starting a yoga studio, my advice is, don’t. Instead of making places where people have to come to us, we need to go out.”

She got her footing back on solid ground. Cyndi is a longtime Buddhist. Buddha was an aimless wanderer when he started out, but once he got his clear thinking together he devoted forty-five years to traveling and teaching the Dharma to anyone who would listen. Cyndi has been traveling and teaching all over the world the past six years, since OM closed, except last year when she wasn’t.

“When the orthopedist says, ‘You have no cartilage left, you’re bone on bone, that’s why it hurts so bad,’ that’s called end-stage arthritis, and you need a hip replacement,” said Cyndi.

Or two hip replacement surgeries, as the case might be, slowing her down that year. At least, until she was back on her own two feet. And back on the mat, back in action.

“I was a professional dancer for almost twenty years,” she said.

Twenty years of two-stepping is a long time. Dancers often sound like a box of Rice Krispies, snap, crackle, and pop. Ankles click and knees go crunch. In the morning, on the way to get a bowl of cereal, their joints click, clack, and squeak on the way to the kitchen.

“I wasn’t an aggressive yogi, I didn’t push it, but the vinyasa style that I practiced is a dynamic, rhythm-based movement system. There is a sense of carving space, of feeling wind and water on your face, of an earthy downward connection and an uplifted sense of goodness.”

Nevertheless, in the flow of time the on-the-go has morphed into slow flow. Cyndi Lee now offers a “practice you can carry with you for decades to come.” It has been reborn as Sustainable Vinyasa Yoga.

By the time OM Yoga closed its doors she had been practicing yoga for more than 40 years. She took her first class in 1971, her first year in college. “I don’t remember having a moment of great inspiration and knowing that I had found my path, but somehow I just kept doing yoga and meditation and I’ve been practicing steadily almost my whole life now.”

Cyndi has an MFA in Dance from the University of California at Irvine. Her graduate thesis was “Women, Spirituality, and Indian Dance.” She won an Art History Fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

She moved to Greenwich Village in 1978, footless tights in hand, to an animated dynamic dance scene. It wasn’t just the Funhouse, Club 57, and Paradise Garage, either, although you can’t beat clubs full of late 70s pointy-toed hipsters and girls in thrift-store stiletto heels at three in the morning. It was Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham and the modern dance scene.

“Yoga started out in dance, both in-depth studies of the integration of body, breath and heart,” she said. “They are opposite, too. As a performing dancer, the goal is to offer a visceral experience. But yoga is a personal practice, always.”

She became a professional dancer. She had been dancing since she was a tot. “I learned the waltz by standing on my dad’s feet,” she said. Hoofing it became her life. She danced up a storm. She became a professional choreographer. She performed with XXY Dance/ Music and Cyndi Lee Dance Company/Big Moves. In 1994 her own dance company staged its last performance. The show was called “Dharma Dances.”

It was influenced by meditation philosophy and the choreography referenced yoga poses. The performance featured Allan Ginsburg singing songs and accompanying himself on harmonium. The word of mouth about the show was good, although Allen Ginsburg’s singing was left unsaid. The less said the better, God rest his soul.

After “Dharma Dances” Cyndi Lee kicked up her heels and became a professional yoga teacher.

OM Yoga was a successful studio in arguably the most opinionated and competitive city in the country because it was authentic, clean and bright, with a diversified schedule, offered special events and teacher trainings, and featured a snazzy retail space. The teachers were hard-core enough to specialize in their craft and soft-core enough to connect one-on-one. The studio became a community and the community became the studio’s dedicated core. Over the years many people unrolling their mats at OM Yoga became the studio’s heralds and evangelists.

“Whenever I am feeling like crap I don’t mind making the long commute to OM because I know I will feel peaceful and happy afterwards,” said a woman from the Upper West Side.

“One of the better, more genuine experiences I’ve had in the city,” said a Manhattan native. “The instructors are knowledgeable and not pushy. If you’re a newcomer to yoga, take the beginner classes, as the intermediate classes are very, ahem, thorough. And they have showers!”

“Keeping this place open and going,” said Cyndi when the studio was open and going. “I get wrapped up in the business of it. But just having a yoga studio, it’s a real Dharma community, it helps a lot of people.”

“The only negative comment I have is that this place is a little too business-like, which, in my opinion is not very Buddha-like,” said a young woman across the river in Brooklyn, where capitalism is occasionally frowned upon.

“Work out your own salvation,” said Buddha. “Do not depend on others.”

But even he had to eat so he could get his message out. If most successful businesses are owned and operated by people who are the first to get to work and the last to leave, then OM Yoga was a successful business because someone did that, and Cyndi Lee was the person who opened the doors in the morning and turned off the lights at night.

As home away from home wrapped up its tenure, the e-mails started rolling in. “I’ve gotten hundreds,” said Cyndi after word about OM Yoga’s sign-off hit the streets. “I’m sitting there crying. The things that people are saying and sharing. I’m just feeling the love.”

When one door closes and your brick and mortar has been mortar and bricked up, it’s time to open a new door.

“We’re excited about our online presence expanding. We’re excited about putting classes and trainings online and developing an app. We’re going to go full speed ahead on that and develop our teacher network.”

At the same time the Cyndi Lee bus was moving ahead full speed, gathering momentum going from here to eternity, it was slowing down to Buddha-time. Between gangbusters and reflection she traveled and taught and put pen to paper.

Her think pieces, write-ups, and how-to articles have appeared in Yoga International, Yoga Journal, and Tricycle. The magazine isn’t about the three-wheel bike kids ride. It’s known as The Buddhist Review, or the independent voice of Buddhism. It’s won the Folio Award for “Best Spiritual Magazine” three times, which since Buddhism is a win or lose struggle, is faith in Buddhism manifested.

She has written several books, including “Yoga Body, Buddha Mind” and ”OM Yoga: A Guide to Daily Practice,” as well as the recent critically acclaimed “May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind.”

It was Buddha who said, “What we think, we become.”

She has been seen frequently on TV as herself, including The Dr. Oz Show, Live with Regis and Kathy Lee, and Good Morning, America. During her days on the dance scene she worked on music videos, choreographing for Rick James, Simple Minds, and Cyndi Lauper. She choreographed the ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ music video.

The video won the 1983 MTV Best Female Video of the Year award. Cyndi’s just want to have fun and celebrate. When the working day is done Cyndi Lee just wants to ride her red bike. She rides with mindful awareness, however, mindful that a bike’s passenger is its engine and that to keep your balance you must keep moving.

Cyndi got started in the practice of Buddhism in 1990. Over time she became the first female yoga teacher in the western world to integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and into her message. When asked what her aspirations were, she said, “To get better at balancing on time and off time and to get better at understanding that they can be the same thing, if I can live like a yogi/Buddha.”

The four points of order she brings to meditation practice might as well apply to smooth sailing on two wheels like it does to mindfulness. “Sit up nice and tall. Feel your seat on the cushion. Feel the space all around you. Slowly begin to deepen your breathing, little by little, breath by breath.” Meditating when out of sorts is recommended, but meditation when out of balance and out of breath is like a fish pedaling a bicycle.

She has recently been ordained as a lay Buddhist chaplain.

“I met a man at a retreat at Upaya and we hit it off. At the end of the weekend he said, ‘Why don’t you sign up for chaplaincy training with me?’ I wasn’t interested, but then I was. I decided to do it. That guy did not take the training and I haven’t seen him again. Somehow he was the catalyst, like an angel.”

One of the ideas embedded in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism is that everyone should take responsibility for their own lives and actions. One of the right ways on the Eightfold Path is living honestly and helping others. One of the basic tenets of the practice is that everything in life is impermanent and always changing.

“One thing I’m good at is being brave and riding the winds of change,” said Cyndi. “To keep on keeping on with a real aliveness to how life changes and how I change.”

Life isn’t lived by mottoes, no matter how trenchant they are. Travel like a pro, not a hobo, is as good a motto as any. Cyndi Lee goes like a pro.

She doesn’t live by mottoes, but one of her favorites is, “Just show up.” When you show up day in and day out, whether at your big city studio or helping a hobo on your chaplain rounds, you’re staying true to yourself, not anybody else’s version of you. “In the end you’re still stuck with yourself,” she said.

“Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is enlightenment,” said Lao Tzu.

In Cyndi’s case, when she shows up, it’s her good better best real self.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

Outer Ring Inner Bliss

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The been around the block practice of yoga, nowadays practiced by tens of millions of Americans, recently found its way to Westlake, an old outer-ring but rebranded suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. In its time, when it was a village by another name, it seceded from Bay Village, a nearby town, parts of it later allied themselves with North Olmsted, another neighbor, and finally appropriated parts of Olmsted Township, yet another neighbor, for itself.

It changed its name and became a city of its own in 1957.

As recently as 50 years ago, after a black pastor’s home was firebombed, the mayor of Westlake responded by complaining that “no one was notified so the community could be prepared to accept a Negro family.” Although Westlake remains overwhelmingly white, median family income has risen to more than $80,000.00, and firebombing has gone out of style.

Westlake is a quiet tidy affluent town of 30 thousand–some people and more high-end cars than you can bat an admiring eye at. Crocker Park, an instant oatmeal mash-up of apartments offices stores and restaurants based on small French town-type living, is the crown jewel of the community. ‘It’s All Happening Here’ and ‘A Life Well Planned’ are the bookend slogans of the lifestyle center.

Inner Bliss Yoga, more than a decade down the road connecting body and mind in Rocky River, one suburb east of Westlake, recently expanded westward to a second location inside the halo of Westlake’s lifestyle. Doubling down to a second location, the new Inner Bliss Yoga 2 (IBY2, as it is called) also doubled up on exercise rooms.

The larger of the two spaces accommodates up to 75 and features a furnace system with the capacity to bring the studio to 95 degrees and 50% humidity for Hot Yoga classes. Although hot yoga doesn’t burn any more calories than a brisk walk, external heat and sweatiness have become the norm in the yogacersize of the times.

Old school yoga built internal heat with pranayama, or breath work. Modern yoga gets the carbon burners going. It makes it easy to believe in the intensity of your practice, if nothing else. It’s been said gold medals aren’t really made of gold, but of determination, hard work, and sweat. On the other hand, George Carlin once said, “Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.”

“It has all the ‘om’ and good feelings. The studio is big and they do amazing stuff with the lighting. I don’t know what it is about this place, but it’s addictive,” said an IBY2 devotee about where bliss happens.

“As you walk into the blissful sanctuary of Inner Bliss, you will feel a warmth hug you,” says Team IBY. Both practice spaces feature state-of-the art cooling and fresh air systems continuously flushing outside air in and stale air out. It is a kind of breath work. The smaller of the spaces accommodates 20 and is kept at a balmy 72 degrees.

The Rocky River IBY yoga studio has long been popular on the south coast of Lake Erie. “This place is legit, totally soaked in yogic vibrations. The best teachers in Cleveland,” said one man. “There is great energy here and the people you practice alongside are dedicated to the practice,” said a woman. “A great experience at Inner Bliss, seems like a great tight-knit group of people,” said a visitor from NYC.

Inner Bliss proffers an eclectic blend of Vinyasa Yoga, Hot Powerful Flow, and Beginner classes, among others. Students at all levels are encouraged to work at their own pace and ability. Some less well-known practices like Kundalini are also offered, as well as workshops featuring famous teachers, such as Max Strom and Janet Stone.

Max Strom travels high and low. He has recently spoken at the Inner Peace Conference, the World Government Summit, and the Lululemon Management Summit, covering the trifecta of the personal, the political, and the plutocratic. “You will feel better after only 10 minutes,” he has said about his events.

He doesn’t mind touting his powers.

Getting your third eye and handstand on for fame and fortune is big business in the yoga world. No one has to pay for the rights to uplifting quotes from the Dalai Lama or Buddha. Everyone has to pay the admission price at the door of the event.

Already featuring specialty classes like Kid’s Yoga, Prenatal Yoga, and Restorative Yoga, the new larger Westlake location plans to offer even more in the same vein of the future in the future. Modern yoga has splintered into a mixed bag of different styles, from go-for-broke Ashtanga Yoga to the loony tunes of Beer Yoga.

The hallmarks of the new Inner Bliss in Westlake are abundant natural light, recycled bamboo floors in both of the studios, three changing rooms, and spacious bathrooms. There is ample parking.

A perennial Top 5 finalist on TV Fox 8’s Hot List, Inner Bliss recently celebrated its crystal anniversary. Many of its talented group of teachers, some of whom have been at Inner Bliss for most of its years, have branched out and teach at the new Westlake location, as does the studio owner.

Tammy Lyons, a Yoga Alliance certified teacher and Bay Village resident, where she lives with her husband and children, came to yoga after many years of endurance sports. The problem with some endurance sports is that they are slow-motion calamities that can only be overcome by endurance.

“I was searching for a sweeter physical expression and a fuller way to live in my body,” she said.

After receiving her 200-hour Yoga Teacher Certification at Silver Lotus Yoga Institute in the fall of 2001, Tammy opened Inner Bliss in a small second-story former office in Lakewood, Ohio. A green gritty groovy inner-ring suburb on the lake, Lakewood is just east of Rocky River, across the bridge spanning the river. Quickly outgrowing the space, riding the wave of yoga’s growth at the turn of the century, the studio moved to larger quarters in the Beachcliff Market Square across the bridge.

In 2005, when Beachcliff Square was redeveloped, Inner Bliss moved to a still-larger leasehold in Rocky River on Lake Road. Since then the studio has grown to offer over 50 regularly scheduled classes a week.

“The intention of Inner Bliss,” said Tammy, “is to encourage a vibrant yoga community on the west side of Cleveland that supports a safe, nurturing environment for the exploration of the self through the practice of yoga.”

Tammy Lyons has, by any measure, realized her intention. IBY’s customer base is large and vibrant, and the practice of yoga pitched is professional, safe, and nurturing. Exploring the self is generally left up to yourself, since much of what goes on is sun salutations-and-more.

“It was 17 years ago that I fell in love with the practice,” she said during an interview with Andrea Vecchio for the video series “Driving Cleveland”. The program is sponsored by Porsche and involves noteworthy folks like Coach Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Josh Tomlin, a star player for the Cleveland Indians, among others, being chauffeured around town in a Porsche Macan and interviewed during the sightseeing tour.

“I was gigantically honored, and Andrea let me drive that car!” said Tammy.

Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “yoj”, which means to unite or yoke. In traditional terms yoga means the union of individual consciousness and the universal consciousness. Yoking an individual by their seatbelt to the leather seat of a Porsche can be a universally spendid experience, be they a tour guide or a yoga businesswoman.

When Tammy first started taking classes, leaving endurance sports behind her, it was at Bhumi’s Yoga Center, one of the only places in Cleveland to offer yoga at the time. Bhumi, otherwise known as Harriet Russell, taught at the Rocky River Presbyterian Church. Yoga was on a low-key track then in the Rock and Roll Capital of the World.

“After a practice-or-two I was in love with breathing and moving,” said Tammy. “I fell in love with how I felt afterwards.”

The practice of yoga is multi-faceted, ranging from the prosaic to the divine. It has something to do with the day-to-day as well as the metaphysical. It includes such branches as Bhakti, the yoga of devotion, and Jnana, the yoga of the mind. Unlike capitalism communism church state and heroes, it eschews worship at the altar of something somebody somewhere else getting it done for you.

Modern yoga has thrown its hat into the commercial ring of exercise and fitness. Hatha, or the yoga of postures, is the basis of most styles practiced in the world today. It is a popular branch of yoga centered on physical poses, breathing techniques, and a modicum of meditation to achieve better health, both physically and mentally.

“Many people come to yoga because their hamstrings are tight, they want to get in shape, they are stressed out, or their body simply hurts,” said Tammy.

The deep stretching, muscle endurance, and physical postures of yoga improve strength and flexibility. A study on low back pain by Alternative Therapies noted that yoga poses help lessen muskuloskeletal pain by “focusing on the control of voluntary nervous system and muscle functions using a series of postures that leads to a state of relaxation.”

Sometimes misconceived as only a spiritual or way of living practice by those not in the know, the practical regimen of yoga exercises, breathing, and mindfulness, which is replacing meditation, can relieve, and in some cases alleviate, muscle and joint pain. Over time the increased flexibility and core strength developed from the practice enhances body awareness, encouraging the body to sit and stand tall.

A 2008 Temple University study found that a control group of women aged 24 to 65 on average added nearly a half-inch to their stature after nine weeks of regular yoga practice. Another of the most studied benefits of yoga is its effect on the heart. It has long been known to lower blood pressure and slow heart rates, benefitting people with high blood pressure and heart disease.

Yoga is a stress buster, but it is also a workout for fighting fat. Studies show that yoga lowers levels of stress hormones and increases insulin sensitivity, which is a signal to burn food as fuel rather than store it as fat.

“There are many physical reasons people come to yoga,” said Tammy. “But, I think they stay out of love for the practice that goes above and beyond the physical. I think they come to open up their tight hamstrings, but they stay because they are opening up their minds.”

The mantra of many yoga teachers is that it exercises not just your body, but also your mind, and ultimately your spirit. It’s a mantra harking back to long ago. Nevertheless, Inner Bliss has worked with Cleveland’s professional sports teams to help keep their bodies in shape to torment the minds and crush the spirits of opposing teams.

“In my third season in the NFL the head coach at the time introduced yoga to the whole team, made it mandatory in the off-season,” said Joe Thomas, a ten-time All-Pro offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns. “He brought in the girls from Inner Bliss, taught yoga to the whole team.”

Pro athletes of all kinds seeking a competitive advantage have gotten on the yoga mat. “It’s therapy for my muscles, and my muscles need that more than anything,” said Joe Johnson, a seven-time NBA All-Star. LeBron James, arguably the most competitive and best basketball player on the planet, credits yoga with improving his performance on the court.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been to the NBA Finals three years in a row. The Cleveland Indians last season set the record for the longest winning streak with no ties in Major League Baseball History. The Cleveland Browns broke a record this year, as well, slogging their way to the worst 47-game stretch in NFL history. Since November 2014 through mid-December 2017 the Browns have notched four wins and 43 losses.

Two out of three on the yoga mat ain’t bad.

According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, to avoid injury and learn the proper way to perform the exercises, yoga practice is best learned in a studio with experienced and credentialed instructors. All of Inner Bliss’s teachers are certified, having graduated from 200-hour or better yoga teacher training classes.

They are generous in fellow feeling as well as knowledge.

“My number one priority is to make each and every person who walks through our door feels comfortable and welcome, just as if they were coming into my home,” said Michelle Hunt, Yoga Manager of Bliss. Home is where the heart is, unless you believe a warm kitchen is what makes a house a home. Home is where the hot cross buns are after class, after you’ve worked up an appetite.

“We believe in breath and movement,” said Tammy. “We breathe deeply to soften where we are hard, get strong where we are weak, and get lit up from the inside out.”

In the meantime, Inner Bliss Yoga has expanded to a third location, the city’s newest brightest suburb, which is downtown Cleveland. Once thought long dead, the downtown district has found new life, enlivened by a theater district, new sports arenas, a new rail line, loads of specialty stores and restaurants, a casino, and loads of Millennials moving into converted warehouses and new condos.

Not far from Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cleveland Cavs play their championship-style basketball, the new IBY3 has a fun urban chic groove to it. A chalkboard at the entrance explains, “Today is a New Day!”

“This is the very best yoga studio in Cleveland,” said a woman from Avon, a far west exburb of the city. “It’s a sacred space filled with smiling faces, soulful music, heart-opening smells, warm hugs, sacred words, life lessons, deep breaths, and new friends.”

Taking a breath, she added, “And, of course, fabulous yoga!”

“We believe in yoga,” said Tammy Lyons.

“Well done is better than well said,” said Benjamin Franklin. “Just do,” said K. Pattabhi Jois, the mastermind behind the flow style of yoga.

Getting it done, getting yoga done, in the modern age isn’t so much a departure from the way yoga was way back when as it is paying attention to the moment at hand. The moment of brand building is here to stay. At least for now. It might stall out, but that’s a different day.

Inner Bliss Yoga impacts the lives of its customers. Down dog done right shows everyone that you care. Down dog done today is what matters. The business savvy Cleveland Magazine-saluted “Most Interesting” Tammy Lyons keeps contemporary yoga on the fast track in Cleveland.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

 

Breathing Room

Bryde MacLean

If you can breathe, then it’s working.” Lemony Snicket

Many actors swear by yoga, from Matthew McConaughey to Naomi Watts to Robert Downey, Jr., because acting is largely a movement art and yoga on the mat is mostly about body awareness. Unless the role is Frankenstein or you’re Vin Diesel, more wooden than a talking tree isn’t usually in the script.

When Russell Brand dedicated himself to Kundalini Yoga he said, “these things are right good for the old spirit.” Gwyneth Paltrow wakes up every morning at 4:30 to practice, according to People Magazine. “It kind of prepares you for everything, honestly,” said Jennifer Aniston.

God knows, Iron Man could use all the yoga he can get.

Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame superstar dancer singers plug in to the practice, too. Madonna has unrolled her mat down the aisle of jumbo jets. The spectacle of the Queen of Pop in down dog pose is worth the plane fare, given that the average ticket price to one of her shows is upwards of $400.00.

Even though yoga is great for mobility stability control, it doesn’t always work out according to plan. When the singer Rod Stewart was trying a beginner’s balancing pose at home, he lost his balance and fell into a fireplace. “Surely, if God had meant us to do yoga,” he said afterwards, ”he’d have put our heads behind our knees.”

Not many yoga teachers swear by acting. They usually swear about you not being your authentic self, pretending to be somebody else. One of the eight limbs of the practice is about self-observation. In some respects all of the practice is designed to be an expression of your true self.

Bryde MacLean, a native of Prince Edward Island, an Atlantic Canada province, is an actor and a Moksha Yoga teacher. Two Canadian teachers founded the practice in 2004, focusing on strength, therapeutic flexibility, and calming the mind. It is in the vein of hot yoga, although not as hot as Bikram Yoga, nor as rigid in its sequencing.

“It’s built with the long-term health of your spine in mind,” said Bryde.

Moksha Yoga, which means freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth, is environmentally active, one of its pillars of purpose being ‘Live Green’, and active in its communities, as well. There are more than 70 studios, most of them in Canada. They offer weekly karma classes with all the profits, currently more than $3 million, going to groups supporting human rights and holistic health.

“I was 21-years-old, working in a bar, hanging with my friends, having a lot of anxiety”, said Bryde. “Ryerson University had turned down my application. My sister recommended yoga. I had never taken a class in my life. Tara was dating Ted Grand, and he recommended it, too.” Ted Grand, her future brother-in-law, was at the time creating what became Moksha Yoga.

Bryde MacLean took her first class in the basement of a church in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. “It was myself and a bunch of women who were much older than me, in a definitely not heated space. We did lots of slow breathing and long stretches. It was a powerful experience. I decided I could get behind that.”

When Ted Grand offered her the opportunity to join his team and go to Thailand for yoga teacher training, she made sure she didn’t miss the team bus. “I wanted to travel and I wanted a skill I could travel with. I jumped right into the hot room. I loved it.”

She taught full-time in Toronto for a year before moving to Montreal, where she also taught, as well as attending Concordia University. “I had a full course load, but I wanted to study what I’m passionate about, so I applied to Ryerson again, and got in.”

Ryerson is a public university in Toronto, its downtown urban campus straddled by the Discovery District and Moss Park, focusing on career-oriented education. Bryde Maclean enrolled in the 4-year Performance Acting program. Long before she wanted to be a yoga teacher she had wanted to be an actor. She was scripting performing directing shows from the time she was six.

“We’d haul out Halloween costumes and my parent’s old clothes and dress up. We’d write fantastical stories and use construction paper to build our sets.” She and her friends play acted in garages, attics, and basements. Her parents encouraged her.

“They inspired me.”

Her parents were Sharlene MacLean and Bill McFadden. Her mother was pregnant with Bryde the summer of 1984 at the same time she was stage-managing ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. As an actor Sharlene MacLean has played the maniacal Lady MacBeth in ‘Macbeth’ and the prattling Minnie Pye in ‘Anne of Green Gables’, working on stage and on film, working around the births of her four children.

Her father worked and performed long and often at the Victoria Playhouse. Victoria is a seacoast village on the south shore of Prince Edward Island. “I spent a lot of time in that theater as a little person,” said Bryde “My dad and I lived in the building down the street that is now the Chocolate Factory.”

Her parents played the aging couple in ‘On Golden Pond’ in 2012 at the Victoria Playhouse. They had both starred in ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ during the theater’s first season in 1982, thirty years earlier. “I had never seen them on stage together, not as an adult,” said Bryde.

By the time she graduated from Ryerson University in 2011 she was teaching other people how to be yoga teachers. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, other than enough about teaching classes myself and being a good listener,” said Bryde. She became Manager of Yoga Teacher Trainings for Moksha International for 3 years.

“I dove into that. There’s a big community vibe. It pushed me to learn how to do things I didn’t consider myself capable of.”

2011 was a big year in more ways that one. She graduated with a BFA, got a full-time job, and got married, too. Jeremie Saunders, her boyfriend fiancée husband-to-be, was in the same class in the same program in the same university as her. One thing led to another. After graduation he trained to become a Moksha Yoga teacher.

“So, there we are, we do all the same things,” said Bryde.

They do all the same things, but with a difference. Yoko Ono once said the most important thing in life was, “Just breathe.” When Bryde wakes up in the morning she breathes free and easy. When her husband wakes up in the morning it’s with the thought, at least I’m still breathing.

Born with cystic fibrosis, Jeremie Saunders is in a lifelong fight with the inherited life-threatening disease. It is a genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs. Infections and inflammation lead to a host of problems. 70 years ago, if you were born with it, you were likely to die within the year.

Even today, while cystic fibrosis has been made livable, there is no cure. No matter exercise regimens treatments antibiotics, median survival is less than 50 years. “I’m living with this terminal illness,” said Jeremie. “I know that my life expectancy is significantly shorter than most people.”

Two years ago he ran an idea for a new podcast by two of his friends. A month later they recorded their first episode of ‘Sickboy’. The podcast is about the day-to- day of living with an illness. Four months later it officially launched and three months after that it was included on iTune’s Best of 2015 list.

Although it is the essence of innovation to fail most of the time, when time is of the essence it’s better to succeed as soon as possible.

“It’s a comedy podcast,” said Bryde. “It’s laughing about the absurdities that happen when you’re sick, all the embarrassing and difficult things people usually don’t talk about.”

“I’ve always been a fan of honesty,” said Jeremie. All good comedy comes from a place of honesty. He doesn’t try to keep the beach ball underwater. “Every time I would talk to someone about being sick, this fog of awkwardness would fall over the conversation. It’s empowering to drop that, let it go, and not feel confined or chained down by your circumstance.”

Living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, teaching Moksha Yoga, co-starring in short films by Tiny Town Media, in early 2015 Bryde spied a last minute casting call for a summer show in Charlottetown. “I was lucky to see that.” She landed the role of the mom in ‘Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad’ in the Studio 1 Theatre at the Confederation Centre. She and the show were a hit. “Sets, characters, director score a hat trick,” wrote The Guardian in its review.

“Bryde MacLean says much with her guarded, often wordless reactions, like a smile tucked into her shoulder.” It was her first professional appearance on stage.

When actors unroll their mats it’s to learn to control movement. It helps them be more aware of where their physical bodies are in space and the dynamics of change in that space. “Yoga helps me get very present with my body and what’s going on with it,” said Jennie Olson Six, who is, like Bryde MacLean, an actor and yoga teacher.

It also helps develop command over one’s breath. But, that kind of command can be a double-edged sword.

“Yoga helps, definitely, as an actor But, I think in some ways, because I did my yoga training before my actor training, it has hindered me.”

Actors practice breath control so that they can manipulate the range, volume, and speed of their speaking. They might breathe in to the count of four, just like in yoga classes, but when they exhale they do it through their teeth with an sssssss sound. When they come back to four they cut the exhale crisply. It’s a way of practicing ending speech on an exact syllable, making it toe the mark.

When it doesn’t, sometimes actors will flap their lips, making a brrrrrrr sound.

“When you breathe in yoga it’s to create a steady, measured breath, focusing on it, calming your nervous system,” said Bryde. “You don’t want that when you’re acting. You want your breath connected to your voice. When you breathe to speak you want your breath to come from a place that’s connected to your impulse. Yoga is about observing your impulses, but not reacting. Acting is reacting.”

In Shakespeare’s day acting was called a performance of deeds. It’s the same today. “Acting is reacting in my book,” said Morgan Freeman. Where actors want to go in their work, even though they’ve walked through it a hundred times, is to express feeling by following an instinct, not by controlling it. Magic on film and stage is created, not by staying in the rehearsal hall, but by being in the moment.

“You need to have a cool head, however, not get caught up in whatever you’re working on, and go off into another dimension and never return,” said Bryde.

“Yoga has been good for me in terms of focus, my ability to concentrate, and be able to handle my anxiety. It keeps my feet on the ground. It rebalances my body, too, which is the only thing I have to work with.”

While at Ryerson University she played King Richard the 2nd in a student production. “He’s a hunchback, crooked. After two hours of him every day I had to balance out that side of me. Maintaining a healthy body is a super important thing for a performer. Otherwise, you end up with injuries.”

She went back to her roots in 2016, appearing in ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island. It was her second professional appearance on stage. It was the same show her mother managed on the same island thirty-two years earlier when she was carrying her daughter-to-be. If anyone was ever born to play one of the leads in the Noel Coward play it was Bryde MacLean.

That same summer her husband starred in the comedy ‘The Melville Boys’ at the Victoria Theatre, the theater she had roamed explored left no stone unturned as a tyke. The Watermark Theatre seats about a hundred people. The Victoria Playhouse seats about fifty more than that.

Spectacle sells, splashy musicals, casts driven by stars. But, small gatherings at indie theaters can have a big impact. Little theaters, summer stock, some in your own backyard, often have big talent. “Bryde MacLean has probably the most difficult role to play – the straight woman – and she carries it like a pro,” wrote theater critic Colm Magner. “She has great fun combusting before our eyes later in the play.”

“I love small, intimate performances,” said Bryde. “I like to be right in there with the audience.” It works for her because she often works in film. “I tend to be a little smaller in my performance size. You can do the subtlest things, so subtle, but so real.”

She kept up her practice all summer at a Moksha studio in Charlottetown, taking bar classes, a mixture of ballet, pilates, and yoga. “I love it, but it kicks my butt.”

There are many reasons people take up yoga, among them stress relief, flexibility, and physical fitness. “They come to yoga to get a cute butt, but you can’t escape all the other benefits of it,” said Bryde. “They stay because they get more mindful, awake, in touch a little bit more.” If they stick with it, the reasons for doing yoga change. The focus shifts from the physical body to the subtle body. Almost 70% of people and 85% of teachers say they have a change of heart over time, changing their focus to self-actualization and spirituality.

“Their buns still get really tight,” she added with a teacher’s keen eye.

After ‘Blythe Spirit’ closed Bryde worked on a 5-week shoot of a horror film called ‘But What Are You Really Afraid Of’. She wasn’t an actor in a trailer waiting to be called for her next scene. She was one of the workers who serviced the trailer. “A craft services job takes care of all the food on the set, the crew that does the dirty work,” she said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Although she continues to teach Moksha Yoga in Halifax, and continues acting, on stage and film, she is writing a screenplay for a feature film, producing a play she hopes to get on the road in 2018, and has launched another new podcast with her husband.

‘Turn Me On’ is a show based on sharing the couple’s sex life with others through interviews, candid conversations, and discussions about sexual orientation. “I don’t need crazy shock value to be interested,” said Bryde. In any case, guests on the podcast are free to talk about their sex lives “whether they’re whacky or not.”

“We are definitely having conversations that feel taboo,” said Jeremie Saunders.

Franklin Veaux, an author and sex educator, believes that what Bryde and Jeremie are doing is doing their audience a good service. “Sexual shame undermines people’s happiness and self-esteem, prevents them from being able to understand what they need and advocate for it and hinders intimacy,” he said.

Although ‘Turn Me On’ is not necessarily about heavy breathing, sex has always been a bestseller. It is often more exciting on stage and screen than it is between the sheets, but it is still emotion in motion, and a big part of nature and human nature. “I couldn’t have imagined we’d have over 12,000 listeners so quickly. It’s very cathartic for me.”

If it is about anything, yoga is about slowing down, slowing down your breath, your body, and your brain. It’s been said once you slow down you will connect with your heart. As many irons that Bryde MacLean has in the fire is enough to take your breath away.

“I wrestle with attachment and detachment,” she said.

Although detachment is a linchpin of yoga, nobody ever sincerely does it without a strong feeling of attachment to doing it. Almost everything we do is invented, so that detachment can be a kind of freedom. But, getting on the mat or breathwork or meditation is about involvement. Pattabhi Jois, who created Ashtanga Yoga a generation ago, on which most of today’s yoga is based, once said it is 99% practice and 1% theory. ,

“Lazy people can’t practice yoga,” he pointed out.

The way to get started is to get going get doing, opening doors, working hard at work worth doing. “I’m casting a net out for a bunch of potential opportunities. What matters is doing what you’re passionate about,” said Bryde MacLean.

Not much is ever accomplished without energy and passion, but to get anywhere you have to act it out.

“When you are inspired by some extraordinary project all your thoughts break their bounds and you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be,” said Pattabhi Jois. “Just do and all is coming.”

Catching your breath will take care of itself.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

Out On a Limb

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I found myself tagging along to yoga in the first place because my neighbor Vera had started taking classes. Vera told me she was stiffening up. She was dropping in to the neighborhood studio because her husband Frank had taken classes for a long time.

“He said he went to yoga because he’s a counterculture kind of guy, even though yoga is a 5,000-year-old culture, and everybody does it nowadays, anyway,” said Vera. “Besides, his lower back hurt.”

Yoga never fixed his back, but Vera said he still gets on his mat every day, although mostly at home now.

I meant to start right after the New Year, but with one thing and another didn’t take my first class until the first week of February. February is the month I was born and the same month and year the Beatles first number one hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit number one.

Vera picked me up and we drove to the yoga studio across the bridge in Rocky River. She didn’t hold my hand walking through the front door, not that I wasn’t nervous.

The owner of the yoga studio was teaching the beginner’s class. We all had to say our names and then tell a story. “Tell your story,” said Lindsey. I had no story. “Oh, my gosh!” I said. What story do I have? I thought. “My name is Liz Drake and Frank Glass is my friend’s husband,” I said, pointing to Vera.

Lindsey started laughing. “He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever met,” she said.

What? I thought. There are lots of funnier people than Frank, but since Lindsey was smiling up a storm I didn’t say anything. She was a good teacher, but I had no idea what was happening. I had no idea we had to go into poses. I had nothing. I didn’t know anything about yoga.

I had never done it, never seen a class, only a few minutes of it on TV. I had some idea about the mats, but no idea about the blocks and straps.

I thought it was going to be easier than what it was. You’re just stretching, right? We had to sit there, had to close our eyes, breathe, and I thought, is this what it’s going to be like? This is going to be easy. But, then you start doing poses. My God! It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.

I didn’t realize it, but I thought everyone was there for the first time, just like me. When we told our story I should have added I had never done yoga before. I forgot to add that. I had no idea what I was doing. Lindsey would say do this, do that. She had names for all the poses. What is that? I thought. What? I looked around, trying to do it, although I felt I was goofing on everything.

Although everyone else looked like they knew what they were doing, I didn’t even know what downward dog was. It was like when my Israeli ex-boyfriend-to-be convinced me to take Hebrew lessons. He said it was a beginner’s class for people who didn’t know Hebrew, but when I got to the class everyone was speaking Hebrew.

All during the yoga class I pretended like I was on the right track. I didn’t want to look like a total beginner. Lindsey would say, now everybody do this, go into this pose, and everybody would do it. I didn’t want to look like a total beginner, but I didn’t know what I was doing.

After some classes with Lindsey I started going Sunday mornings. Gina was the teacher. The room was always filled with incense at eight in the morning and we had to do weird breathing exercises. I thought I was going to pass out. Maybe I should fake it, I thought. I’m going to pretend I’m breathing, but I’m not going to, because I’ll get dizzy, get flashbacks.

“Pull it up from your core,” she said. Where is that core? I wondered. I never understood what that kind of breathing meant. It didn’t feel natural. Gina seemed to think we had to breathe differently to do yoga.

I liked Gina, but one morning I said I felt like I was doing most of the poses left-handed.

“I don’t even know the names of them. I just look around and hope I can copy somebody.”

“Oh, no, not the D word,” said Gina.

“What? What D word?”

“Discouragement.”

Everybody in the class was so sincere, so serious. They dressed like yogi people with their yoga costumes, special clothes, while I wore a t-shirt and sweat pants. At the end of class we sat cross-legged while Gina told us to imagine drifting down a river, putting all our bad thoughts on a leaf, and then letting the leaf float away. What are you talking about? I wanted to ask.

I moved on to a Tuesday beginner’s class with Tracy. It was at night right after a hot flow class. While we waited in the lobby to go in they were coming out completely drenched. Pools of sweat water were everywhere on the wood floor when we walked into the yoga room. You had to dodge around the pools.

Tracy was good at teaching us the actual poses. She took her time, walking around to help us all, although sometimes I would be in a pose waiting and waiting for her to get to me. I learned every pose as perfectly as could be since she was into perfect alignment.

One day there was a big guy who came to Tracy’s class. He was wearing funny plastic pants. Our class was usually mostly women. Sometimes there might be a guy or two, but after one or two times you never saw them again. Before we started, the plastic pants man said, “This is easy.” Once the class began he started sweating to death. He’s never coming back, I thought.

I never saw him again.

I never sweated, although I drank a lot of water.

I liked the crazy twists, for some reason, but standing on one leg was hard. I don’t have good balance because I can only see out of one eye. Whenever we did balancing poses the picture I got was, I’m going to fall down!

By the middle of summer I was ready to move up the yoga ladder. Tracy told me I should try Monica’s’s Basic Hatha Flow class. I bought a thicker mat. It was great for my knees. Some of the poses are hard on your bones, but that’s what you have to cut your teeth on. At least, that’s what Monica said.

She was tough, almost like a man, but I went to both of her weekly evening classes for five months the rest of the year. Most teachers had a soft voice, but Monica’s was never that soft. It became my main class, even though I dragged myself there. The whole drive to the yoga studio, even though it was only a few minutes, I would complain to myself. She’s going to come and push, she’ll walk around looking for me, I thought. She would push you down, sideways, all ways.

One time she pulled me when I was in a standing pose and I fell down. I just started laughing. You don’t want to be the center of attention, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

She made us hold poses incredibly long until my legs would burn and shake. I remember my thighs burning. I couldn’t even control them.

“What’s wrong with that, that’s good,” she said, “It’s good that your legs are shaking.”

I kept going back. She was top-notch.

One day she stood behind me and pulled my shoulders.

“How does that feel?” I started laughing, thinking, are you kidding me? Go to somebody else.

It didn’t feel good. But, it was a good pain. I liked being stretched.

A small man came to class and acted like he knew everything. “I’m doing this really great, aren’t I?” he said. But, he was just jumping around, moving fast. Afterwards he asked Monica about taking a more challenging class. “You have to be careful, basics would be best for the time being,” she said.

He wouldn’t listen, even though it was Monica telling him what for.

He had heard about Ashtanga Yoga and that’s where he went. I remember thinking, OK, buddy, you’re almost twitchy in this class, sweating, crawling out of the place. The next time I heard about him was when a story went around about a newcomer to the Ashtanga Yoga class who fell and cut his head and had to get stitches.

I was laughing.

Monica was the kind of teacher you were kind of scared of. When she told us we were going to be standing on our heads, I thought we had to do it, no question about it. But, I said to myself, Oh, Jesus! I don’t even know where to start. I never stood on my head in my life. She tried to get all of us to do it, but finally said, “If you don’t feel comfortable, you can sit this one out.”

“I’m glad you said that,” I said. Until then I had been ready, even though I was scared. I just give in and do it. I found out later that standing on your head is an advanced pose.

The one advanced pose I liked was wheel, especially when Monica walked over, got her hands under my back, and pulled up. It’s so hard on your back and hands. How much can you lift yourself? I remember thinking keep your hands there, right there, that feels great.

The whole thing about yoga was that I felt great at the end of class. Otherwise, why would anyone go and do it? I felt better, felt taller, all smoothed out. You had to take the pain of doing it to feel good once it was all over. That’s why I went back week after week, even though I knew Monica was going to push, make us stay in poses until it hurt.

It was because I felt darn good afterwards.

I didn’t want to give up on it, but it was so expensive after awhile. I went for a long time, almost a year, but then I thought I could do it at home. Frank Glass was doing it at home. Vera said he practiced yoga almost every day. If he could do it I could do it, for sure.

I started, but then stopped after a few weeks.

You have to be disciplined to do yoga at home. Whenever Monica saw anybody in her class slacking off she would say, “What’s wrong with you, get going.” At home you can say I’m not doing this pose today. The next day you can say I’m tired and won’t do anything today. I finally didn’t do much for more than a month, and when spring came I started working in the yard and going for walks in the park with my fox terriers.

That was the end of yoga for me.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

 

Kill Me Again

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Most people, unlike cats and their legendary nine lives, only die once when they pass away. There’s no going back for a do-over. The art of living well and the art of dying well are often thought to be the same thing. Kim Fowler is not most people. She lives well, but doesn’t die well, although if she were a cat she would be down to six lives and counting.

She is the founder and owner of YAS Yoga and Spinning Fitness Centers, with multiple locations in Costa Mesa, Venice, and Los Angeles, California. The first center opened in 2001 and featured the first fitness program wedding yoga and certified spinning. “Both together are an amazing combination of yin-yang,” she said.

Ms. Fowler’s Yoga for Athletes melds elements of Iyengar and Ashtanga practice to enhance athletic performance and reduce the risk of injuries. YAS classes are typically 30 minutes of indoor cycling followed by 30 minutes of yoga. “It helps you go deeper into and benefit more from each pose,” she said.

She is a successful innovator, teacher, and businesswoman. She is a resourceful yogi, and one tough cookie, too. She has learned to roll with the punches, literally.

In the early 1980s she was competing in a bicycle road race outside Dallas, Texas, when a car smashed into her. She rolled over the front of her bike.

“I bent the handlebar of my bike with my face.”

As late as 2013 there were close to a half million emergency room visits because of bicycle-related injuries and almost 900 bikers died. Texas is one of the deadliest states in America in which to ride a bicycle, ranking only behind Florida.

After recovering she worked with a physical therapist, a woman who happened to be an Inyengar Yoga instructor on the side. “She gave me yoga poses to help me.” A near death experience turned into a far and wide life experience.

“I guess yoga found me,” she said.

Whether it’s exercise or meditation, yoga is about trying to apprehend the inner being, what in the Yoga Sutras is called drastuh. It’s a burning away of what in the end doesn’t matter. Eternity isn’t something that happens after anybody dies. It’s happening all the time to everybody.

Kim Fowler was raised in an impoverished South Jersey neighborhood, the eldest of five children. “I grew up extremely poor. We didn’t have food or heat. My father had a bad car accident when I was young and ended up with 88 stitches in his face. He never pulled out of it. He became an alcoholic, didn’t work, and left us to fend for ourselves.” She had to make her own way.

Sometimes the freedom to be yourself comes from old-fashioned gumption.

After putting herself through school and earning a degree from Boston University she enrolled in law school. In her final year, in the middle of her final semester, she was diagnosed with a rapidly growing tumor the size of a golf ball in her brain.

“I had a bright career in front of me,” she said. Lawyers get a bad rap. Some people even believe most of the trouble with laws is lawyers. “No one wanted an attorney that had a brain tumor.“

Her doctors told her the problem was inoperable. “We could try to get it out,” one of the team of doctors told her. “But, you will lose your speech and sight. You probably won’t make it past thirty.”

Life can be rocketed into a new orbit by a doctor dispensing bad news from a clipboard in a bland voice. “I’m in my last year of law school!” she exclaimed. “This isn’t an option for me.” Once diagnosed, she had to decide whether or not to listen to their medical advice.

“I’m not going to let this happen to me,” she decided. “There’s got to be something else, something different.” She called a friend who helped her check herself out of the hospital. “Nurses and doctors were screaming. If I would have listened to them I would be dead by now.”

Dead again.

She refused, however, to give up the spirit and buy the farm.

“It’s mind over matter,” said Kim. She began training for and taking part in endurance contests. She ran marathons, rode all-day races on her bicycle, and finally progressed to triathlons. “Someone telling me I was going to die caused me to go the whole other route and become a pro triathlete.”

She also made making it on the mat a habit. “Practicing yoga while battling cancer taught me the importance of balancing strength with flexibility. Focusing on my breath helped me stay centered.”

She gradually recovered. “It was hard, but I was full of piss and vinegar at the time.”

Although doctors are often crucial, recovery is more often brought about not by them, but by the person in danger. In many respects we heal ourselves, by means of our thought and breath, and sheer will.

After graduating from South Texas College of Law she stayed in Houston, going to work for a law firm. In 1990 she moved overseas, practicing international business law in Monaco. Five years later, back in the United States, she joined Winning Combination, a health and wellness business, as their Chief Operating Officer.

Then one day she went hiking.

The Mt. Charleston Wilderness Area in Nevada is gnarly, riven by narrow slot canyons, and laced with steep hillsides. The mountain is called Sky Island because of its elevation and isolation. While free climbing she slipped on a patch of ice, lost her balance, and fell more than twenty feet. She landed on an old tree stump.

The stump stayed rooted. She took the brunt of the encounter.

She cracked several ribs, punctured a lung, and severely lacerated a kidney. “I’ve been through worse,” she thought. She was a half-hour away from the closest medical help. She dragged herself off the stump. ”I knew I had to get to the hospital. It was mind over matter and I just did it.”

The kidney on the side that had taken the blow from the fall was leaking urine and blood into surrounding tissue. At the hospital she was told it had to be removed.

“No,” she said.

Kim Fowler was, again, determined to go her own way. It took her a year to recover. The Winning Combination let her go long before year’s end. “I lost my job as COO.” Getting fired can be like a bomb going off. It can also be a way to get on with your life. You only get to make one mistake with bombs. Firing Ms. Fowler was the Winning Combination’s mistake, although for her it turned out to be liberating.

“When I was rehabbing I would go from a yoga class on one side of town to a spin class on the other,” she said. “I was very frustrated. I thought, why doesn’t someone put this together and open up a yoga and spinning studio?”

That someone turned out to be her.

She opened the first of her yoga and spinning studios in Venice, California. The day she opened the doors her new business began to fail. “We had opposite energies coming together.” Spinners were looking for an intense cardiovascular workout and yogis were looking for a workout to calm them down.

What do you do if your business plan isn’t working? “In my case I regrouped and changed, fast.” She created a new kind of yoga to fit the spinners and sold the yoga crowd on the complementary benefits of spinning. “It was the best thing I could have done.” She was designated a Nike Yoga Athlete by the athletic and fitness company two years later.

Winning acceptance in the yoga world, however, was another matter.

“I got blasted by the yoga community when I first did it because it wasn’t ‘real yoga’, rather my own style,” said Kim.

It was a matter of building a better mousetrap.

The concept of zen on wheels made it into Yoga Journal, the world’s largest mass circulation yoga magazine, “Spin and yoga have merged into a killer one-hour class, created by Los Angeles-based yoga instructor Kimberly Fowler. It’s cropping up across the country.” It named the now better mousetrap one of the hottest fitness trends of 2014.

Since then Ms. Fowler has expanded her brand, moving beyond company-owned locations, and franchising her fitness regimen. “Indoor cycling gives you the best cardio training and yoga provides the best stretching, relaxation, and peace of mind to prepare you for the challenges of life,“ said Hugo Auler, new owner of the franchised YAS Fitness Center in Manhattan Beach, California.

Resurrecting her life led to resurrecting her career, and led to finding her business partner, too. Sherri Rosen is her partner in life, as well. “We were set up on a blind date just a few months after I opened YAS,” said Kim. “We are still together.”

“I’ve stayed in an operator’s mode,” said Ms. Rosen, former vice president of a fashion company. “Kimberly is the visionary. It is amazing what she has accomplished.”

Even though Kim Fowler has gone from cutting edge to business-savvy, even though she has transformed her business model to an investor approach, and even though she has gone corporate, she still lives in her sweats.

“I basically live in workout clothes,” she said. “I only wear green, gray, black, and white. Well, with a smattering of skulls.” She is the designer of an apparel line whose tag line is “Two parts functional, one part bad ass.”

Kim Fowler continues to see her doctor once in a while. “I went and he looked at me like I was a freak when he realized I’d been off medication for 20 years, like I shouldn’t have the life I have. The mind is pretty phenomenal when it comes to its power over the body.”

At the end of exercise sequences on the yoga mat something called corpse pose is traditionally practiced. It’s the easiest and hardest pose. It’s easy because all you have to do is lay on your back with your eyes closed for 5 to 15 minutes. It’s hard because who wants to lie on their back like a dead person, doing nothing, for 5 to 15 minutes.

Corpse pose is about letting go. But, it’s not about zoning out or taking a nap. Even though it’s about letting go, it’s a pose meant to foster connection and clarity, or awareness. Many people struggle with it, however, and some classes look like popcorn popping the minute class ends and corpse pose is announced.

Other people have no problem with it. Kim Fowler is one of them. It keeps her in touch with life. “It’s a different awareness of your body,” she said. “I think for stress it’s amazing. Nothing’s better.”

She knows when to lie down and when to get back up. There are no surprises waiting for her in corpse pose. She’s been there before.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

 

Good Vibrations

 

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Before she spent eight years chanting with Frank Barnett, before she took the stage with Brenda McMorrow at Bhakti Fest, and long before she sang back-up harmonies for Jai Uttal, Beth Gatchall sang ‘Dance of the Sleepyheads’ with her grandmother waking up early summer mornings in Chillicothe, Ohio.

“I was always singing with my grandma, singing songs, and learning songs.”

Even kirtan singers start small.

“My grandma was a schoolteacher, she always had a piano in her classroom, and sang songs with the kids,” said Beth. “All the cousins in the family know the sleepyhead song. Whenever we sing the tagline to each other we just crack up.”

Growing up in Chillicothe, a small town on the Scioto River in southern Ohio, home of Bob’s Banjo Barn, Beth Gatchall began taking piano lessons from both her grandmother and a family friend at the age of six.

“I really took to it. I could read music and I practiced as much as I could.”

At ten she decided to branch out and learn how to play drums.

“But, I didn’t think my parents would go for the drums, so I went for the trumpet, instead, although I think it might have been equally boisterous.”

Her parents were between a rock and a hard place.

The sound level of drum kits is usually around 100 decibels, although rim shots can peak at 135. Trumpets typically generate levels in excess of 110 decibels. Chain saws are rated at 100 decibels, meaning that loggers are required to wear hearing protectors.

While in middle school, and throughout high school, she played in bands, sometimes two and three at the same time. When she left Chillicothe to attend Baldwin Wallace College, where she earned a BS in Biology, she took her trumpet with her.

“I was in love with it. I used to play every day.” She didn’t care about getting a ring around her lips.

In her senior year she grew interested in the guitar. “I was just enchanted by the sound of Peter, Paul, and Mary, their guitars and their harmonies.” She took a class, and after graduation studied with a local teacher, Bruce Walker, for seven years.

When she later teamed with Kasimira Vogel in 2009 to form Pale Daisies, an acoustic guitar and rhythm instruments duo, she credited Mr. Walker as one of her influences, along with the Carter Family and Blue Sky Boys.

“But, where I really learned to play was when I went to work at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.”

The museum’s loosely-knit basement band was well into its more than 20-year tradition of playing roots folk music during their lunch hour when Beth Gatchall started watching and listening to them.

“They would tip their guitars away so I could watch their hands, and if I didn’t get the chords they would show them to me, always encouraging me,” she said.

“They were so kind.”

At the same time that Beth Gatchall was learning to fingerpick the guitar she was beginning to dip her toe into yoga. It was while she was teaching aerobics at the YMCA in Lakewood, the first-ring western suburb of Cleveland she had re-located to, that she took a yoga class, which led her to Bhumi’s Yoga and Wellness.

Harriet Bhumi Russell, a former Director of Yoga Teacher Training at the Kripalu Center who has studied with Amrit Desai and BKS Iyengar, opened the first public yoga center in metropolitan Cleveland in 1992.

After several years of taking classes, as well as practicing with Tom Carney, a Lakewood-based Ashtanga Yoga teacher, in 2003 Ms. Gatchall put on her game face.

“I decided I would do teacher training, so I did that,” she said.

Teacher training typically focuses on yoga exercise, the names of postures, principles of anatomy, an introduction to the subtle body, as well as some history and philosophy. Beth Gatchall’s training was more wide-ranging, even involving kirtan.

Kirtan is a sing-along is which the performer, or leader, sings a mantra, and the audience sings it back. Kirtan is chanting, although chanting is not necessarily kirtan. Call-and-response chants can last 30 and 40 minutes. It’s a way to immerse oneself in sound, or in a meditation of vibration.

“It definitely didn’t resonate with me at first. My reaction was, this is bizarre. But, that’s how I met Frank.”

Frank Barnett, a Cleveland native and fellow yoga teacher trainee, was already immersing himself in Bhakti Yoga and kirtan.

“Frank was doing some kirtans with Bhumi at a Presbyterian church. I went there, but I didn’t have the greatest experience. Frank and I started talking about it and he really listened to me. When that kirtan at the church dried up he took it to his house and we started to do a lot of chanting together.”

They hosted a monthly kitchen party kirtan and for several years a Sunday night sit-in-a-circle-on-the-floor kirtan at Inner Bliss, one of Cleveland’s most popular yoga studios, with Frank on harmonium and Beth on guitar.

“Singing together with Frank is what put the practice in my heart,” said Beth. “It was a powerful experience. He shared so much unconditional love with me through that practice. We got to be great friends.”

Frank Barnett committed suicide in 2011.

“There were growing indications that something wasn’t right, but I didn’t see the bigger picture,” said David Barnett, Frank’s brother and a reporter for National Public Radio. “He became increasingly irritable as his search for a job dragged on, after having been laid off three years before.”

Someone dies by his or her own hand in the United States about every 15 minutes. Most Americans believe adults have a moral right to suicide, according to the Pew Research Center. The Bhagavad Gita, a central yoga text, says that the self is eternal and cannot die. You can kill the body, but you can’t kill the self.

“We had been working on the Hanuman Chalisa,” said Beth. “I said the verses through a million tears every night when Frank passed. After a year of playing it continuously in my car I learned it.”

The Hanuman Chalisa is a 40-verse 16th century devotional hymn. Hanuman is a monkey-like being, sometimes described as an incarnation of Shiva, the God known as the Destroyer, and the hymn invokes his strength and wisdom.

“Then I learned Mere Gurudev. It’s a beautiful melody, and haunting. I sang that when we distributed Frank’s ashes.”

Frank Barnett’s ashes were scattered in the Rocky Mountains by a handful of his friends. “This mind of mine, this body of mine, my every atom is dedicated to you,” Beth Gatchall sang heart and soul. For the next three years she kept up Frank Barnett’s work with the Cleveland Kirtan Community.

“I just continued the practice.”

In 2012 she expanded her horizons by going to Bhakti Fest with her friend Craig Wise, known as Narada Wise, a percussionist and singer-songwriter.

Bhakti Fest Midwest, in Madison, Wisconsin, is a four-day festival of lectures, workshops, and practice. The kirtan ranges from the popular, like the Wild Lotus Band, to the local, like Amy and the Tribal Bliss Band.

Bhakti Fest West, a larger gathering, is a six-day festival in the desert of Joshua Tree, California. Both fests are centered on the devotional paths of yoga, meditation, personal growth, and especially kirtan. The soundtrack never stops.

“They’re huge festivals, beautiful, and just jubilant,” said Beth.

“Kirtan is a practice of singing from your heart. When you chant from your heart it’s the same as my heart, like we’re all in this together. It’s a community experience. I got that from Frank, from my friendship with him. It’s all about giving and receiving the chant, back and forth.”

The first year at Bhakti Fest she worked as a volunteer backstage. The next year she was on stage with Brenda McMorrow.

Brenda McMorrow is a well-known Canadian musician with roots in both folk and jazz. She has described her first encounter with kirtan as not knowing what it was about, only knowing that “every cell in my body started vibrating.”

She needed an extra harmony vocalist for her next day’s set at Bhakti Fest.

“Oh, Beth can sing harmony,” said Narada Wise. Sometimes you just have to step up to the plate and volunteer somebody else to do something.

“So, within an hour I was at Brenda’s campsite and she was teaching me the music,” said Beth. “The next day I was on stage singing with her. It was so fun, so fun.”

Kirtans are usually sung in their native language, which is Sanskrit. “It’s a vibrational language. There’s something powerful about the vibrations of the mantras. When you intend them sincerely from your heart space, they’re potent.”

Kirtan is the participatory chanting of simple melodies. The imaginary fourth wall between performer and audience is not just blurred, but it and the other three walls of the stage are imagined away, so that performer and audience are all on the same stage.

“It’s not about having a great voice or knowing anything about Hanuman,” said Beth.

Krishna Das, the best-known kirtan singer of his time, has said knowing the meaning of the lyrics isn’t the first or even the last step. “It’s about doing it and experiencing. Nothing to join, you just sit down and sing.”

Beth Gatchall recently appeared at the Cleveland State University Student Ballroom with Jai Uttal. She is the singer and guitarist in her own Vandanam Kirtan Band, accompanied by Eric Vogt on drums and George Shumway on upright bass. She performs at kirtan chant events throughout northern Ohio from the Zen Temple to Yoga Rocks the Park.

“The feeling of kirtan is a warmth in my heart that spreads through my body,” she said. “It’s a sense of vibration, of joy, in me.

“Something ignites in your body. It’s the yoga of the heart.”

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.