From Spirits to Spirituality

This week’s Yoga Diaries are being presented in honor of the 15th Anniversary of
The Atma Center of Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Prior to August, 1997, the location at 2319 Lee Road in Cleveland Heights was a state liquor store. That’s right – the kind of corner shop where beer, wine and harder alcohol are sold to those sometimes going to celebrate, but more often going to soothe their souls, numb their pain, or otherwise “self-medicate.” For one reason or another, the store closed and the space stood vacant until Beverly Singh took it on a few months later.

Beverly was a nurse anesthetist, already with 25 years experience in the field, when she decided to take a month-long leave of absence from the hospital following one of those really bad days at work – emergency C-sections, docs not responding to pages, on her feet for long stretches of hours, no bathroom breaks. At the end of the night, when some younger doctor misreported a series of events, blaming Beverly for something he failed to do, she’d had it.

She went home and meditated. She had learned meditation techniques several years earlier while struggling with physical symptoms that baffled doctors. They suspected she might have lupus, since she felt pain throughout the body and experienced chronic fatigue. Luckily, however, a close friend and yoga teacher came to visit her, teaching simple physical, breathing and meditation practices. Within a few weeks, Beverly regained most of her health and continued her study of yoga, growing healthier and stronger as she did. She then began to offer classes in these timeless techniques out of her house.

It didn’t take much meditating for her to realize that she’d much rather open a health and wellness center rather than continue working in the emotionally toxic environment of the hospital. She took a leave of absence, and before the month was over, she had signed a lease on the former liquor store. She had a vision to serve the community of Cleveland Heights with various natural health methods. On August15, 1997, she opened the Atma Center, named after the Sanskrit term for True Self.

When the center first opened, it consisted of a large retail area that carried an extensive stock of vitamins, supplements, homeopathic and alternative wellness products. Various practitioners, such as massage therapists, an acupuncturist, and a chiropractor rented private rooms to see patients and clients. A small studio in the back housed yoga classes. Beverly, known to her students by her Sanskrit name, Atmarupa, taught about five classes per week, while other teachers rented space and taught other styles of yoga or other holistic practices such as Thai-Chi and Qigong.

Within two years it was apparent that Atmarupa’s Satyananda Yoga® classes were so popular that she condensed the retail area to create a second yoga studio. She also trained a couple of teachers in this style of yoga to help cater to the growing number of students. By 2004, the center was holding between 30 and 40 Satyananda Yoga® classes per week. However, the roof was beginning to leak and the landlord was not taking proper action. An entrepreneur at heart, Atmarupa bought the property and proceeded with a general renovation.

The community celebrated a grand re-opening in January 2005, at which point nearly all traces of the former State Store were gone. In its place now is a small retail area with yoga books, yoga supplies and other items to support students’ practice. There are two yoga studios that can hold up to a total of 55 practitioners on mats, or over a hundred attendees for concerts and lectures. A library offers hundreds of resources on yoga, spirituality, and various methods of natural health maintenance. At the back, a modest office area houses a handful of employees along with two affiliated nonprofit organizations founded by Swami Atmarupa: the Yoga Academy of North America, which is one of four accredited Satyananda Yoga® academies worldwide, and the North American Gurukul, which spreads awareness of this style of yoga through retreats and teaching tours.

To this day, over 300 students walk through the doors of the Atma Center every week. The business on Lee Road continues to offer the soul-soothing that the community seeks. However, rather than numb their pain with liquor, people now come to learn how to relieve their bodies of chronic discomfort in holistic, natural ways. Many come with plenty to address: arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, stroke, heart disease and auto-immune diseases are not uncommon among the students attracted to this style of gentle, health-focused yoga. This is where the true transformation takes place at this address, within the minds and bodies of the local residents. And if any of them happen to leave the location with a six-pack, it is only thanks to the abdominal strengthening postures extensively taught in the foundation classes.

Atma Center was the first Satyananda Yoga® school in North America. Thanks to its programming over the last 15 years, there are now Satyananda Yoga® teachers across the USA and in over a dozen countries worldwide. Currently, the center offers over 30 weekly classes in physical yoga practice, breath work, meditation, relaxation, chanting and more. It has served thousands of students ranging from infants in Mommy-and-me classes to 80-year-old seniors and prides itself on offering safe, accessible yoga to EVERY body, regardless of age, body size/shape, state of health or physical ability. Please connect with the Atma Center on Facebook here. This story was written by Omkar / Olga Chwascinska and Donna Caputo.

All photos courtesy of the Atma Center.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.

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Name: Candice Garrett
Location: Monterey, California, USA
Occupation: Yoga Teacher & Director of Nine Moons Prenatal Yoga

Photo attributed to Flickr user Liamfm.

At 19 years old, I found myself pregnant, alone and in a hostile environment.

My mother had abandoned me during my last year of high school, and I was homeless, living out of cars and at friends’ houses. My behavior was reckless. A formerly model student and athlete, I barely made it to class and almost didn’t graduate. I think my teachers took pity on me and pushed me through, one of them even gifting me a yearbook anonymously. During high school I took refuge in an evangelical church. Their over-the-top enthusiasm to welcome me in made me feel less broken. I overlooked some of the codependent ways they exhibited in their faith because it felt like I had a family that actually wanted to be around me, faults and all. I remember thinking they were all so open with their faults and sins and problems. It made me feel at home.

For that reason, though I had been accepted to numerous colleges that would be cheaper, closer to familial resources, or more in line with my prospects of becoming a surgeon, I chose an elite, private Christian college. And away I went. Those first days were so odd for me, having come from such a tough last year of high school and being dropped into the lap of luxury, surrounded by children who were so sheltered, so bright, so sure of their places, their safety, their faith. They couldn’t fathom the experiences I’d been through, and frankly, they didn’t want to know. I closed up, made a show of being something, someone I wasn’t. This wasn’t the church I had found, these weren’t broken people, and I was out of place. That first year I lost three of my grandparents, people who had been pivotal in my life and in my identity. Having no one to turn to, feeling isolated, I lost it a bit.

I reached out for help, for support from my new-found community, but was told that my grandparents, who weren’t confirmed Christians, were probably in hell. I found refuge instead in the man I had started dating just before I left for college, the boy back home that came to see me. He was my lifeline. But somehow I couldn’t hold it together. I lost sight of everything I wanted and who I was, a sheltered girl who was thrown into real life in such a short time. I cheated on my boyfriend and I broke his heart. I felt helpless to stop myself, to reign in my self destruction, even as I watched it happening. Shortly after that, I found out I was pregnant and being that my boyfriend wanted nothing to do with me, we had an abortion. He held my hand the entire time, we cried together through the pain and the clinical terror of it all, and he left me, bleeding and woozy in my dorm room. And that, was that.

Photo attributed to Flickr user elycefeliz.

That summer, I fell into a crowd from college that, though able to talk the talk, played a very different game behind closed doors. In short, I found the same bad behavior from which I had come seeking healing. I drank a lot, partied too much. One night I had too much to drink and awoke to a man I barely knew. I convinced myself it was my fault, for having so much to drink, for going to bed naked. I ended up dating him, I think in an effort to smooth over the rough edges, to make it okay, for both of us, that he had taken advantage of me when I was unconscious. I think my sense of self-worth was so broken, so guilt-ridden over the abortion that I convinced myself I deserved every rotten thing that came my way. And so it was.

It was an uneasy relationship. We didn’t like each other, not really. He was mean and played hateful games at my expense. He beat me once. I stayed even then. But I looked forward to ending our summer affair by returning to school, as it was an easy way to break up, to let distance separate us, rather than stand up for myself.

Shortly after I returned to school, he came for a visit. That visit, though uncomfortable and short, ended up with me being pregnant. Again. I know now that that conception occurred on the exact same date as the baby I had aborted. The mind is tricky that way. It didn’t occur to me for years, and when it did, I found both comfort and unending despair.

He didn’t come back, that boyfriend, not even after he knew about the baby. I couldn’t go through with another abortion, wouldn’t. It was my choice and I took it. I hid my pregnancy for shame from my community. In a strict Christian college, one just didn’t have premarital sex (though, in truth, it was happening all the time, one just didn’t get pregnant). I isolated myself, finished my semester and then I went home to tell my family, my father, my sisters what I had done with my life. Their promising young surgeon was nothing more than a knocked up failure. My dear, sweet twin sister said as much. Though she would take it back now, a thousand times if she could.

I went home and nursed my wounds, birthed my baby and became a very confused mother. I had no friends, no faith, no community. I was bitter and scared, and truth be told, tough as nails. Motherhood made me find myself in the chaos. I didn’t know where I was going, or what to do, or what I would become, but I knew I had a little boy that was more precious than anything on earth, for whom I would sacrifice anything. I knew that if I never gave him anything else, I would give him pure, unadulterated love.  He would have that at least.

I slowly pulled myself together. I married a man that had been a good friend to me since I was 17, a man who had watched and nurtured and held me up through all of my misdeeds. He became a father to my son, and eventually  a father to two more of our own sons. Meanwhile, as my husband finished school, I sank into a depression, realizing the professional life I had given up, realizing that the Christian faith no longer had meaning for me. I became a very reluctant, morbid atheist. If this faith wasn’t for me, there couldn’t be anything else, right?

When my husband was in paramedic school, I started practicing yoga at our local YMCA. I have a congenital defect with my feet, and they were getting worse. I had heard yoga might help, so I went. I marched into a dark room, sat down and looked around, realizing that I was the junior of everyone else in that class by at least 30 years. When a woman walked in with thick orthotic shoes and a pronounced osteoporotic hump, when I realized this was the teacher, I wanted to bolt. What had I gotten myself into? I was clearly out of place.

But then she threw herself into shoulder stand and I was hooked. In the entire year I studied with her, I never heard a Sanskrit word, or anything about philosophy. I never did a headstand or an arm balance. But I felt good  and my feet got better. To this day, I will tell you that the short time I spent in that very gentle, secular class was the best yoga I have ever done.

Two of Candice’s sons.

I signed up for a teacher training when we moved into a remote area for my husband’s work. It was the first time I ever heard that yoga had a philosophy, a tradition behind it. It was so much to absorb and I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand the Yoga Sutras or the ideas behind them. So I didn’t study them. For me, the therapeutics was enough.

And so I practiced. I sought out teachers and studied more intently with my own mentor. I found new ones as well. And a funny thing happened. I went through a crisis of self inquiry. Though I wasn’t studying the philosophies, their lessons were happening, organically. At some point I realized that the simple act of asana, of being around good teachers, had made me seriously face my demons: the past, and the present ones. I cried, I raged, I was confused. But it eventually smoothed out to be an overwhelming sense of rightness and peace. I started studying the philosophies and really understanding them, with the help of my teacher, it grew. I grew.

Here was a way of living that made sense to me and aligned with my scientific nature. It asked me to be a better person, to study, to refine myself. And so I did. It was like coming home, for the first time.

My husband will tell you that yoga made me a better person, a more honest, kind,  confident person. In truth, he will tell you that it brought me back to who I was before all the chaos, to who I truly was, only a little bit better. And it is true.

Now I work with other pregnant women and train prenatal teachers and what we offer is more than asana, but group support; a chance to live it, breathe it, grieve it all, this whole journey of motherhood, regardless of marital status, or religion or sexual orientation. And in that way my journey has made so much sense. I lived this thing, so that I could have the wisdom to hold another woman up. It’s so simple, isn’t it? I don’t grieve for my story anymore. I don’t find shame in it. It is mine, and I own it, crunchy bits and all, so that I might be a better friend, a better mother, a better mentor to other women who know exactly what I’m talking about.

Candice Garrett is the director of Nine Moons Prenatal Yoga, a program that offers certification in pre/postnatal yoga, doula services and childbirth education. She is also the author of Prenatal Yoga, Finding Movement in Fullness and a mother to three sons. She lives in Monterey, CA.You can find her yoga program on Facebook here.

Edited by Jeannie Page.

Do you have a story of healing or transformation through yoga? The Yoga Diaries wants to hear it. Click here to submit your story.