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Natural Awakenings South Jersey

How Yoga Changes Lives

Aug 31, 2012 12:11AM ● By By Linda Sechrist

Erik Marrero

“Come to the edge, he said. They said: We are afraid. Come to the edge, he said. They came. He pushed them and they flew.” ~ Guillaume Apollinaire

Rarely does anyone attend his or her first yoga class with the intention of becoming a teacher. The inner journey, from student to teacher, begins in the present at the edge of a comfortable or painful story. Eventually, the student’s commitment to a daily practice awakens an inner yearning to know more about the ancient yoga teachings, which are considered the science of the soul.

It is not the teacher, who pushes and the student to take flight. Rather the soul, seeking expansion and growth, directs the process from within. Not expecting postures to create anything more than a strong, svelte, and flexible body, individuals, such as these 11 local certified yoga instructors, often begin exploring yoga for its physical benefits and for better health only to discover subtle life changes that are a result of a deep commitment to a daily yoga practice.

Rhonda Clarke, Yoga for Living

In 2001, Rhoda Clarke became a student of Svaroopa yoga, which uses precise angles, soft blankets as props, and personalized adjustments so that the body opens gently to release deep-seated layers of spinal tension.

Clarke enrolled in yoga class after her staffing supervisor suggested it might with the stress of working 60 – 70 hour weeks. “I was a nurse, spent my shift on my feet, and had a lot of back tension, which I’d experienced as a teenager,” says Clarke who, after the first class, felt some relief from the tension and the stress as well as a sense of ease that she’d previously never experienced.

“Yoga and meditation changed my life and helped me sense my connection to spirit, Earth and humanity. It also taught me to trust and flow with life,” says Clarke.

Veronica Jensen, Yoga Path Studio

Veronica Jensen also became a yoga student in 2001. Seven years into her personal practice, she was ready for Vinyasa yoga teacher training. “I explored other styles but Vinyasa, in which movement is synchronized to the breath, spoke to me,” says Jensen who, thanks to yoga, avoided knee surgery.

“Running and playing tennis every day for many years ruined my knee and caused a lot of pain in my lower back because I compensated with my opposite leg. When I was indecisive about surgery, my doctor told me to find something to ease the discomfort. After a year of yoga practice, I was pain-free and didn’t need surgery,” says Jensen, who gives yoga credit for restoring a sense of physical and emotional balance to her life, as well as providing her a family she longed for.” My family was 5,000 miles away and my yoga community became my second family,” explains Jensen.

Denise Ashcraft, Yoga Inspired Studio

Denise Ashcraft has been practicing kripalu yoga for so long that she can’t recall exactly when she began. “I became a committed student in 2005 for a variety of reasons,” advises Ashcraft who, due to an injury, had lower back problems. Says Ashcraft, “I would have a bad back if it weren’t for yoga, which was therapeutic for my spine.”

At first, Ashcraft did yoga for exercise. “Exercise became less important than yoga as a means of caring for my body and creating a place inside where I could go to refresh my mind and give my thoughts a break,” she advises.

Taking yoga off the mat is important to Ashcraft, who explains that once she learned how to be a witness and breathe through challenging yoga poses she could do the same thing in challenging life situations. “Because of yoga, I observe my thoughts more and get less caught up in them,” she notes. 

Darlene DePasquale, Yoga Center of Haddonfield
Darlene DePasquale
Darlene DePasquale

In the 1980s, Darlene DePasquale studied yoga and self-inquiry meditation (jana yoga) while living for two years at the Kripalu Center. “I did spiritual lifestyle training in Lennox and then moved to the Sumneytown, Pennsylvania location, where I met Dr. Bhagwan Awatramani, my meditation teacher of 15 years,” says Pasquale.

DePasquale looks back on a long career in helping others not only as a yoga teacher but also as massage therapist and meditation teacher. “Yoga and meditation help me to be present with my clients,” advises DePasquale.

Lisa Caunitis, Co-Owner, Pink Lotus Yoga

“I attended my first yoga class in 1997 and teacher training in 2010 because I was interested in deepening my own practice,” says Lisa, who notes that the fulfillment she found in her yoga practice was something profound that she hadn’t experienced in anything else she ever tried.

“Yoga helped me notice so many things that I’d missed because I was too busy going from one thing to another. It also helps me to look at life in a more relaxed way, which has a positive affect on my body,” she says.

Nancy Finkle, Stay-Fit & Active with Nancy’s Exercise Classes

In 2006, Nancy Finkle, a fitness instructor for more than 20 years, became a student of yin yoga at Yogawood in Collingswood. “The death of my sister, who had a brain aneurism and was in a coma for three months, was traumatic for me. I had a difficult time with anxiety and insomnia while trying to deal with her death and move forward with my life. "Yoga did for me what I heard it would. It brought acceptance of things as they are and peace within,” recalls Finkle, who attended yoga teacher training in 2011. That’s when I learned how to listen without judgment and be present for others,” she explains. 

Micki Italiano, Founder of the AHMAH Method

“My children would say that yoga has made me more patient. I would agree and add that it has also made me a better listener and mother,” says Italiano, who is thankful for yoga’s gifts—tools to move gracefully through life with a willingness to embrace all that that it brings, the elimination of back pain due to sciatic problems, and expanding the capacity to love.  

“My mother-in-law introduced me yoga to in 1973 via Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan. However, the significance of my practice and the full impact of the book didn’t come together until 1982. My month-long yoga teacher training, in 1986 at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, was the beginning of a new life for me,” says Italiano, who developed The Art of Holistic Movement Awareness and Health (AHMAH Method) in 2009.

Lisa O’Brien, Bliss Body Studio

A teacher of physical fitness for 15 years, Lisa O’Brien recalls that her first yoga class was in a cold and noisy room. Despite her level of discomfort with her surroundings, she sensed something she hadn’t felt from any other form of exercise she tried. “It was an instant attraction,” says O’Brien, whose yoga studio has transformed into a wellness center, where she also practices and teaches Reiki. 

Yoga practice has made O’Brien much more aware of her body, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. “I feel more centered and grounded so I’m not as reactive to people and situations as I once was,” enthuses O’Brien.

Erik Marrero

Erik Marrero was looking for relief from the side effects of cancer therapies, used to treat kidney and prostate cancer. In 2007, he experienced gentle yoga, which was part of his 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. After the first 15-minute yoga session he sensed peace within, physically felt better, and was curious to know more. From the most gentle of yoga styles—yin—to one of the more challenging—ashtanga—Marrero went from practicing from three days to six days a week before enrolling in Yogawood’s Teacher-Training.

Marrero also suffered from osteoporosis of the lumbar spine. A year into his practice, his lumbar-spine density increased 4.2%. It increased another 4.2% in the second year. After practicing ashtanga yoga from 2009 to 2010, he had a 13.9% increase in bone density. In the fourth year, there was another 9.9% increase and today he no longer has osteoporosis.

In 2010, a nuclear bone scan showed that most of the bone mets from the prostate cancer had disappeared—only two spots remained. “I keep the side effects of hormone therapy—depression and weight gain—at bay with meditation yoga. “My doctors are amazed at my recovery, even though my cancer is not cured,” says Marrero, who teaches at Yogawood as well as at other local studios.

Alaine Portner, Yoga Center of Medford

Alaine Portner
Alaine Portner
Alaine Portner, owner of the Yoga Center of Medford, was already practicing several of the disciplines associated with yoga by the time she became a student 20 years ago. A fitness teacher, who was interested in spirituality and philosophy, Portner fell in love with yoga when she discovered that she could teach philosophy and exercise at the same time.

“Yoga gave me the peace of mind that I’d been looking for and within three years of my first class, I’d opened a studio,” says Portner.

Julie Fischer, Co-Founder, Live in Joy Yoga and Wellness
Julie Fischer and Janet Watkins
Julie Fischer and Janet Watkins

Julie Fischer began taking yoga classes shortly before the aerobics craze of the late 1980s ended. Although she was initially attracted to yoga for the physical postures, Fischer found that it subtly blossomed into more. In 2010, she began her 500-hours of yoga teacher training and recently graduated. “During teacher training, the things I’d studied all my life—shamanism, different religions, metaphysics, healing modalities, psychology—came together in the ancient Vedic philosophy of yoga.

Yoga gave Fischer the inner spiritual home she’d been seeking and helped her exponentially in her healing work. “More importantly, I feel a sense of contentment and am grateful for regular opportunities to stay in conscious community,” advises Fischer.

Janet Watkins, Co-Founder, Live in Joy Yoga and Wellness

After months of observing Janet Watkins relentlessly expending her energy for three hours a day in spinning exercise classes, on the elliptical machine, and lifting weights, a physical fitness instructor suggested that she try a yoga classes. “She saw how out of balance I was,” says Watkins, who used physical exercise as a way to deal with her son’s death in a work accident.

This was the first step that led Watkins from resisting everything and fighting life to showing up, being a part of life, letting go and trusting. “Yoga drew me inward and continues to teach me to trust myself, the people surrounding me, my breath, and my heart. It was a gradual process from waking up to oh, no, what am I going to have to battle today, to this is a great day, what’s going to happen next,” explains Watkins, who adds that although she isn’t there 100% of the time, she has the tools—breath work and mantras—that help when she gets caught up in her head.

Watkins, who completed her 500-hour Teacher Training,  teaches hatha and vinyasa as well as restorative yoga and continues her studies in Ayurveda at Yoga On Main with her teachers Shiva Das and Ed Zadlow. 

Yoga for Living, 1926 Greentree Rd., Cherry Hill, 856-404-7287.

Yoga Path Studio, 7 E. Main St., Moorestown, 856-669-9642.

Yoga Inspired Studio, 51 S. Broadway, Pitman, 856-469-7497,

Yoga Center of Haddonfield, 20 N. Hadon Ave., Haddonfield, 856-428-9955,

Pink Lotus Yoga, 20 N. Main St., Woodstown, 856-803-0739. 1242 Kings Hwy, Swedesboro, 856-975-0789.

Stay-Fit & Active with Nancy’s Exercise Classes, 224 Dowdy Drive, Gibbstown,  609-519-1898.

AHMAH Method, 126 Five rown Royal, 16 W. Main St., Marlton, 609-304-1265.

Bliss Body Yoga, 616 Collings Ave., Collingswood. 856-261-0554.

Yogawood, 688 Haddon Ave., Collingswood; 531 Main St., Riverton. 856-858-YOGA.

Yoga Center of Medford, 128 Rt. 70 at Hartford Rd., Medford, 609-654-9400.

Live in Joy Yoga & Wellness, 118 W. Merchant St., Audubon, 856-546-1006.

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