Stepping into a Highland Square home, weathered brick and comfy front porch, shoes and sandals line a small entry way.
“We take off our shoes in here because it’s a sacred space,” says Nancy Holland. A former living room and dining room are cast with dark walls and even darker woodwork, making the Blue Hen Yoga studio a calming, almost womblike environment.
An afternoon breeze through the windows gently flutters the curtains at the studio, which Holland founded a few years ago and named after one of her favorite hiking trails in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Students taking Holland’s 75-minute Yoga Basics class pad barefoot across the cool wooden floors.
Akron born, Holland is a former dancer who also writes and is coming up on 30 years as a trial lawyer. Her passion for yoga and success in the legal world bring her pause.
“It’s my ongoing hope that what will appear to me is the perfectly logical combination of my extensive experience as a trial lawyer and my deep love of yoga,” she says. “There’s a philosophy behind the science and teaching of yoga that suggests we should not look at it as our money maker.”
Until about four years ago, when Holland says she “put my nose to the grindstone and started doing yoga on a regular basis,” she taught yoga at retreats and in other communities where she lived.
She’s certified and registered at the E-RYT (Experienced Registered Yoga Alliance Teacher) level with an international accreditation agency called the Yoga Alliance to teach individuals and groups.
The “E” in the designation means Holland has “taught several thousand hours of yoga classes,” she acknowledges.
She says she maintains her certification and registration because “what it communicates to people is that this yoga is informed with knowledge of anatomy, ancient origins and philosophies of yoga.”
Simply put, “It’s safe. It’s fun. It’s good for you,” she adds.
Holland’s teaching certification was acquired with a woman who’s been teaching since 1982, Arielle Thomas Newman (www.morethanyoga.com) in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where Holland serves occasionally as a guest teacher at Yoga by the Sea.
“Not a bad gig,” she offers.
We have a lot coming at us, and anything we can do to get to the quiet is a really good thing, so I would encourage anyone wherever they are in their lives and whatever they have experienced to look at yoga as an opportunity to get to know themselves a little better.
Call to yoga
Holland says she was a “real serious dancer” while growing up, and yoga was part of that training, “though it wasn’t necessarily called that.”
But her first awareness that yoga was actually “a thing,” she says, played out on TV.
“I suspect this would have been a rainy day or a ‘you’re grounded’ kind of Saturday that had me watching PBS in the family room,” Holland recalls. “The show was called ‘Lilias, Yoga and You.”
Lilias M. Folan is a Cincinnati-based yoga practitioner who hosted her own TV show throughout the 1970s, according to www.liliasyoga.com.
Additionally, Holland says she was “thrown into yoga in a deep way in college,” where her undergraduate studies were in drama, which entailed “a lot of movement, voice work and cross-disciplinary stuff.” She also began to meditate in law school.
Holland’s yoga style is Hatha (HA tha), “very classical, traditional … and though I say it that way, the reality is there are many different kinds of yoga, so there’s no real way of testing which one is old school or not. The idea is to open a whole lot of doors to this science and life practice, and whichever door suits you, come on in,” she adds.
Yoga encompasses a broad range of things, including physical postures (asanas), yoga of the hands (mudras), yogic breathing (pranayama), meditation, and “the constant endeavor to examine yourself and who you are” (svadhaya), which is done through meditative practices and study of ancient texts, Holland says.
This afternoon’s Yoga Basics class, interestingly, has three men and three women, plus Holland. Arms and legs splay across the colorful yoga mats, and at one point the pranayama, done entirely through the nose, is so powerful it sounds as if thoroughbreds have just left the gate at ThistleDown.
“Let your big toes kiss,” instructs Holland during a pose.
Like the studio, Holland’s voice is soothing. It possesses a throaty, husky quality, as if she knows a secret about you but promises not to tell.
She dispels some misconceptions about yoga, that one must first lose weight or doesn’t feel limber enough to engage. “I like to teach yoga through fundamentals and give you yoga that meets you where you are,” says Holland.
“You don’t have to be flexible; yoga will help you get there. It’s not one-size fits all, and almost every pose is capable of modification.” Holland’s helped the severely physically disabled, marathoners and other students, working in tandem with their doctors, to control asthma and chronic allergy symptoms, enabling some to get off statins and blood pressure meds.
“It’s magic stuff, and I take zero credit for that,” she says. “That’s the science of yoga.”
A loud, jarring garbage truck makes its way down N. Highland Avenue, where moments later a young woman is swearing loudly into her cell phone. But Holland doesn’t break stride and keeps the class fluid.
“The idea here is that we use movement to get to that place inside of us — that is silent — and it’s in every one of us,” Holland says later on. “We can sort of tune down the background noise that occupies the space between our ears … what we [strive to] experience is to really be in the moment.”
Michael Furpahs, a Blue Hen regular, knows firsthand about yoga’s benefits. The 61-year-old historic restoration carpenter who has worked the trades for many years, says, “I beat the hell out of myself most of my life and have lots of wounds that don’t show.”
Furpahs collects motorcycles and says a few are “kick-start only,” but he was so crippled at one point that he designed a tool made from PVC pipe and steel hooks to start the bikes with his hands.
A friend of Furpahs was taking Blue Hen classes and suggested Furpahs do the same, and eventually he found his way to Holland’s studio.
“There was a time I couldn’t come down the stairs in the morning, and I’ve done massive amounts of acupuncture,” Furpah remembers. “After about two and a half months of coming here, I can get on that bike and kick-start it. I had a great chiropractor, who I’ve not had to go to, but I still take supplements. It’s been a massive change and a work in progress, you just have to stay with it.”
A mixed bag
Blue Hen classes are offered every day but Tuesday and Friday, cost $12 and discount packages are offered. Holland also conducts private and semi-private classes by appointment in the home or workplace and at special events.
Her yoga students run the gamut demographically, which suits Holland.
“‘One of the things that makes me happiest is that my yoga seems to generate the greatest cultural diversity of any that I have ever seen anywhere,” she says. “It’s a big mix of age, race, economic background and half are male and the other half is female.”
A self-confessed lover of Akron who’s lived in Asheville, N.C., St. Louis and Washington, D.C., Holland says she came back to Akron to “specifically raise my children.
“I feel this is a community that serves as an incubator for a lot of very wonderful creative endeavors.” Holland’s oldest daughter is a Cleveland-based attorney, and her middle child is a social worker who’s on her way to Kosovo to head the foreign exchange programs for the Cleveland Council on World Affairs. Her youngest is awaiting his orders for officer candidate school with the U.S. Navy.
“We have a lot coming at us, and anything we can do to get to the quiet is a really good thing, so I would encourage anyone wherever they are in their lives and whatever they have experienced to look at yoga as an opportunity to get to know themselves a little better.”