Blessed to Be Me

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


Name: Almitra Hakeem (spiritual name, Shantibindu)

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Yoga Instructor

I’m writing on this beautiful summer weekend as I spend time with my personal Sadhana (practice) which includes nurturing all of the forms of my being: spiritual, mental, physical, emotional and energetic. All of my tools are valuable instruments: sound, breath, awareness, movement and stillness. With regular classes and yogic studies I have learned and remember that the wisdom of Satyananda Yoga® teachings is exactly what is needed in my life, learning and teaching circles. I’m feeling very blessed to be me right now.

The place to which God sent me, after a loud inner cry for help, was Atma Center. I’m grateful to have a long-term relationship with teachers who hold space for me to grow, and I’m living in a space of awareness that growth doesn’t happen overnight but rather little by little, over time.

“No one else can do your growing up work for you,”  Swami Atmarupa would say, all these years giving me a gentle nudge forward. I wouldn’t be living in the space of grace without my teachers at Atma center, teachers who have introduced me to and taught me how to use our awesome God-given inner tools: awareness, breath, life force, meditation, subtle movements, sound, and many more.

Over the last fourteen years, my yoga practice has moved me from being 75% insane, 70% in pain, 80% physically blind, and an emotional basket case, to being a more calm, less stressed person with normal vision. And from my teachers I have experienced unyielding patience; they have never given up on me, they have invested in and had faith in me, and they have always seen in me that which I thought could not awaken. This has brought me great healing. I continue to learn, to grow and to improve every day. I see this. My heart is full of gratitude. Om.

Shantibindu has worked in the movement arts for years, with extensive experience in dance and Tai Chi. She first encountered yoga in a book store in her early twenties and remembers it as something “that looked weird and made me feel really good.” Shantibindu led programs in dance and movement for children in local libraries, and this experience makes her particularly effective at teaching yoga to kids and teens. When asked why she teaches yoga, Shantibindu responds that she has “an unyielding desire to assist myself and others in attaining greater awareness of living a harmonious life. Satyananda Yoga® practices move each practitioner closer to that awareness.”

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A Yoga Transformation Journey: 30 Years and Beyond

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


Name: Mary Baird (spiritual name, Mantram)

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Yoga Instructor, Atma Center Yoga At Work Coordinator.

Photo by Flickr User whalt.

It all began in my 40’s  once a week yoga. I found yoga sometime in 1979-80. Back then, I hung onto that weekly class as my “oasis,” a welcome relief from job stress. My work was physically and mentally challenging – carrying ladders, climbing poles, running wire, repairing phone lines, and dealing with skepticism and isolation as the only woman on my crew for nearly two decades. Not exactly experiencing total transformation at this point, I would say that yoga “saved” my life! The transformation process, a process that still feels “never done,” began then as I learned to use the basic tools of yoga (asana and pranayama) to develop my capacity for self-healing.

Off the mat – yoga at work. In those “early yoga days,” it got easier to maintain my “cool” in the face of  constant verbal challenges and put-downs like “You’re taking that job away from a man who really needs it!” Or, “Who’s coming to help you with that ladder?” Using relaxation and breathing techniques to support my mental health, I’d find myself spontaneously stretching and re-positioning my body to counteract the often taxing physical demands of the job. I can remember the relief of stretching into “downward dog,” gripping the bottom rung of my ladder and breathing deeply for a few moments after too much time up the ladder, leaning out over the cable to test and connect lines in the terminal – maybe holding a side stretch in the opposite direction to balance the stress on my spine.

Developing awareness – inward bound. Though I used my yoga as “first aid” for survival, I had no daily or formal “home practice” during the first 20 years of my journey.  I did, however, develop a keen awareness that I had never before experienced — an awareness of the “state of my mental and physical self.” (It took many more years for me to become aware of my awareness – to realize how AWARENESS itself is yoga’s most fundamental gift!) In my early adult years I was very busy and externally focused on the demands and problems of the world and the people around me. A key aspect of my evolving transformation was a slow but steady shift from external to internal, beginning to experience the more subtle, deeper benefits of yoga. Knowing and healing myself became a priority. Still an activist on behalf of women and workers, I began to incorporate a broader perspective. After all, how could I change the world if I couldn’t maintain my own health and inner strength?

Moving from an early retirement at the phone company in my mid-50’s, I continued my weekly yoga – a great support as I embarked on graduate studies and other career pursuits. One thing I noticed as I approached 60 was an increased awareness of chronic aches and pains, especially low back ache and joint stiffness. I knew I needed “more yoga,” to work with my aging physical body but also to explore more deeply the philosophical and spiritual aspects of this awesome “life science.”

In the 80s and 90s I had taken classes with two excellent teachers near my west side home and kept getting their message, “There’s more here for you!”  I just didn’t know how to go about finding it. I still had not connected with the idea of a daily home practice or the personal motivation to begin.

Beyond bending and stretching Enter Satyananda Yoga® & the Atma Center on the “other side of town.” I was working with Hard Hatted Women, a nonprofit I helped start, developing school-based programs to expose children to nontraditional careers. This brought me into contact with many wonderful people. An amazing, dedicated teacher who has since become a close friend told me about this great yoga center she had discovered and suggested that I try it and that it would be worth the drive. And it was! What a great 60th birthday present, discovering a whole system of yoga, Satyananda Yoga®, deeply rooted in tradition, right in my back yard!

Daily practice and the resulting benefits. My first taste of the fruits of daily yoga took place not at “home,” but at the Atma Center where my eagerness for the “more” saw me attending classes nearly every day! The rest is history: This wonderful decade (2001 – present) has helped to solidify my deeper personal experience with a style of yoga that continues to be well-suited to my needs as an aging practitioner and spiritual seeker. The practices of meditation and mantra chanting have helped me to anchor and still my busy mind and explore my mental habits. “Freedom from the bondage of the mind” is the meaning of my spiritual name, Mantram, given to me a few years ago by Swami Niranjananda. Yoga Nidra has become a new and deeper form of relaxation to counter the stresses of life and aging and Pawanmuktasana practices have began to work on my “sluggishness” and joint pain.

Photo by Daniel Levin.

Somehow during those first few years under the tutelage of Swami Atmarupa and the other wonderful teachers, my chronic low back pain disappeared! Using my new-found intuitive wisdom, I added regular strength training sessions to my routine, combined with daily yoga to reverse diagnosed osteoporosis in my lower spine. I’ve experienced and survived accidents (one falling on ice and another “crashing” onto my tailbone in roller blades) without fractures and with only temporary aches and pains, letting me know that stronger muscles are indeed protecting my bones. Developing body awareness and a confidence in my ability to strengthen and heal myself has been an important transformative aspect of my yoga journey.

About a year into the wonderful physical and mental benefits of daily classes, I found Yogic Studies, enrolling in the first “Yoga Patha I” course offered in the U.S. Doors opened to an understanding of the roots and multi-layered components of this amazing “life science.” Finally, I received the guidance and structure I needed to begin my own home-based daily yoga practice that continues to sustain me today.

Teaching yoga – my most transformative experience. Before long, I enrolled in the first official Satyananda Style Teacher Training course, also based at The Atma Center. I thought it might be a way to “give back” some of the benefits I had received. It took me several years to complete the whole series of Yogic Studies and Teacher Training courses, but the effort taught me a great deal: (1) It’s never too late to take on a new challenge. Believe me, it has been a challenge  – not unlike enrolling in a PhD program as a senior; (2) Learning begets more seeking begets more learning; (3) The experience of teaching is the greatest teacher of all. Meeting the diverse needs and interests of my students has been a living impetus to continue on my yoga path and to continue my yoga education for as long as I am able. My motivation is enhanced by their penetrating questions, their stories of struggle and success, and the insights they acquire and share as they embark upon their own yoga journeys.

Photo by Flickr User ojoqtv.

Add to this transformational decade, the opportunity to travel to Swami Satyananda’s ashram in India where I met him and experienced his divine energy face to face. It was there that I developed a deep appreciation for the Bhakti aspect of Satyananda Yoga®. Seeing his astounding example of giving and serving others at the core of a fulfilling spiritual path, I rejoiced in an opportunity that opened for me here in Cleveland to give where the need is great. Along with two Atma Center colleagues, I volunteer to teach yoga at a center for women recovering from addiction. We use their feedback to refine our approach, finding new ways to tailor the practices of Satyananda Yoga® to the urgency of their need for tension release, balance, peace of mind, and a self-nurturing attitude. Teaching and learning in this and other classroom settings has become one of the most satisfying, shared processes.

I am eternally grateful to Swami Atmarupa, the Atma Center, and Satyananda Yoga® for offering a community-based program that has nurtured my growth into my “later years.” In the end, it is the ongoing process of deepening awareness that comes with continued practice, which constitutes the spiritual support for navigating each day with the clarity and insight that I need at this stage in my life. And the transformation continues…

Mary Baird has been practicing yoga for over 30 years and credits yoga with saving her life, during her 17 years of working as a phone line repair and installation technician, by helping her to manage the physical and emotional stresses of her job. A yoga teacher for nearly a decade, in addition to her passion for instructing yoga, Mary has had a variety of other teaching roles: Peace Corps English teacher, elementary Career Education Specialist, tutor in adult literacy, class designer and teacher at a local women’s prison among others. Mary is now an avid volunteer: she instructs for the nonprofit Yoga Academy of North America, teaches yoga to women in addiction recovery at Orca House, prepares and serves holiday meals at Orca House and annually participates in the Stand Down for the Homeless through Interact. In her free time, Mary enjoys creative writing, biking, gardening, and visiting her adult children and their children.

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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.

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The Journey from Loss To Renewal

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


Name: Nan Zieleniec

Location: Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Occupation: Human Resources Executive

Since 2008, I have experienced personal loss to include both of my parents and my husband. My parents lived long and full lives, but sadly my husband’s life was cut short at the age of 52, following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer. During this time, my priority was raising my two beautiful children, now 24 and 21. While I always considered myself a good wife and mother, I had over the years allowed my profession to greatly define who I was as a person. When I wasn’t working, I was often thinking about work. Thankfully, I also placed a high value on being strong physically and I maintained a consistent strength training routine coupled with power walking/jogging. I have also seen a naturopath for almost 10 years, focusing on building a strong immune system. Through all the ups and downs of these years, I thought I was living a happy and balanced life.

Photo by Ashlee Stewak.

In late 2011, my boss came to me to let me know that the company had decided to make an organizational change and they requested that I transition out of my role over the following two months. But for two brief maternity leaves, since achieving my graduate degree, I had never been unemployed. This news rocked my sense of self and I began to feel unbalanced. While I always considered myself a strong individual, my confidence was shaken. After some intense internal dialogue, I determined that this change was going to be a healthy one for me and that I needed to look at it not as a loss, but as a gift. I worked through the transition with as much grace as possible, while also focusing on what the next chapter in my life was going to look like. One thing I knew for certain was that I needed to engage in something life-changing to mark the end of an intense professional gig and it needed to be physically and emotionally demanding to stimulate renewal.

At the beginning of 2012, following some intensive internet research, I decided that I would travel to Laguna Beach, California for a six-day yoga, hiking and cleanse retreat. I had never engaged in a yoga practice and while the ashram indicated that I didn’t need prior yoga experience, I felt I would be most comfortable with a little background and practice. Where to go?

For years, I had driven by the Atma Center as I frequently patronize the businesses in the area. I visited their website and stopped in to explore. As soon as I walked in, I knew this was the place for me to learn in a non-competitive environment, something that was important to me at the time. I left there with a one-month unlimited pass. I shared with the staff my goal to become familiar enough with the yoga practice to be comfortable on the retreat. They assured me that one month would give me a good grounding and they recommended that I read Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati. In addressing the relevance of yoga today, Swami Satyananda remarks that “Physical and mental cleansing and strengthening is one of yoga’s most important achievements.” This resonated with me.

I approached this month of introductory yoga practice with zeal, attending class 3-4 times per week. I began tracking all of the various poses I was learning. Studying with a variety of instructors, I listened intently to their explanations of the physiological connections between mind and body. I began standing taller with my heart high and with my shoulders down my back. Unsolicited, my massotherapist remarked that I was standing taller and more aligned. I was feeling ready for the retreat.

I left my job of seven years the last week in January and attended this retreat the first week in February. The retreat was one of the most intense experiences I have ever had and was transformative for me indeed. The physical challenges of the hiking and yoga coupled with the mental challenges of the cleanse took me to a place I had not yet visited in my lifetime. The cleanse evoked a great deal of emotion for me and I then began to understand what Swami Satyananda meant when he said “The body and mind are not separate entities, although there is a tendency to think and act like they are. The gross form of the mind is the body and the subtle form of the body is the mind. The practice of asana integrates and harmonizes the two.”

I left the retreat in a very harmonious state. I returned home at midnight one night and despite the time difference, by 9:00 the next morning, I was in the yoga studio at the Atma Center. I felt a craving for the yoga practice that is hard to describe.

I now do yoga 3-4 times a week. I do high-intensity strength training at least once a week and I power walk/jog twice a week. Both my strength training and my aerobic activities have been intensified by my yoga practice. The core strength I have gained from yoga has allowed me to engage in my strength training in a way that was not possible before and the results are palpable. In addition to the physical training, I have changed my nutrition to include a move toward a more plant-based diet.

I believe all of these changes have contributed to a mental acuity that I was missing. My heart is open. I feel balanced, renewed, rejuvenated and happy. My kids tell me I am aging backwards. I was given a gift and I now know that out of loss can come renewal.

Nan Zieleniec is a human resources executive living and working in Cleveland, Ohio. Professionally, Nan focuses on helping companies create and sustain workplaces that allow the human capital of the firm to optimize their productivity and contribute to the success of the organization. Nan is currently in transition and seeking her next leadership opportunity within an organization that promotes work-life balance and recognizes how the company benefits from an energized workforce. In addition to yoga and other exercise, Nan enjoys live music, gardening, cooking and the warmth of family and friends. Nan has been active in the non-profit and civic community as she believes that giving back and helping to repair the world are obligations each of us has as we occupy our place on this Earth. Nan’s two children are a constant source of pride, inspiration and joy. Nan can be found on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/nanzieleniec.

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