Around mid-summer last year, I wrote about the energizing way a group of friends and I started most weeks: Monday morning yoga class with our teacher Ellie Randazzo at her Woodland Yoga studio and after-class breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café.
"No matter how I feel when I wake up on a Monday morning," I wrote, "I'm always uplifted and ready to take on the world (or at least my small part of it) after that session of physical, spiritual and social activity."
My yoga-mates were all just as appreciative. "Her classes helped change my body from pain to gain," says Sue Schneider, who knew our teacher through Ellie's work with animal communication and essential oils before joining Ellie's yoga class.
"Ellie's yoga was holistic like no other yoga I've experienced," adds class member Marsha Reeves, who's going on four years with the group. "She connected with our minds, bodies and spirits with loving kindness and helped us grow and learn in all those dimensions."
Our Monday routine was such an essential part of our lives, we couldn't imagine it ever changing.
Then it did.
Just a few weeks after I wrote that blog post, Ellie's unexpected death left us all numb. Yet we knew the only way to honor Ellie's memory was to find a way to go on. She had always taught us that growth is all about adapting to the changes life inevitably brings. So we continued meeting and practicing yoga together on Monday mornings, with any class members who had enough space in their homes for ten or fifteen yoga mats taking turns hosting us.
"It was an important time of sharing and healing, as we practiced in each other's homes, each contributing to the practice," says Brenda Huckins Bonter, a longtime member of the group. "I believe we became even stronger and more committed to our practice."
That arrangement worked fine, but when Ellie's husband Mike offered to let us practice in Ellie's studio, we knew that was where belonged.
Those first sessions back at Woodland Yoga were tearful, yet joyful. Even as Ellie's absence tore at our hearts, her presence was palpable—in her photo on the altar table at the front of the room, as well as in the memories of her words and guidance that flooded back whenever we entered the space.
"It felt so good to be—and practice—in Ellie's space, with her gardens in viewing distance," says Valerie Deur, who's been practicing with the group since it began, around 15 years ago. "Being there helped me heal."
After a few months, another change came—one so wished-for we pinched ourselves to be sure we could believe it. Ellie's sister-in-law, Behnje Masson of From the Heart Yoga & Tai Chi Center in Grand Rapids, agreed to drive up twice a month to teach us at Woodland Yoga—a round trip of about 80 miles.
We couldn't have asked for a more perfect fit. Behnje's training and teaching style are much the same as Ellie's, and most of us already knew Behnje—through Ellie, through taking classes at From the Heart, or from the healing class she had led for us after Ellie's death. Though we'd enjoyed our self-directed weekly sessions, having a teacher to guide us again inspired new dedication to yoga practice and principles.
Behnje agrees the fit is good. "I am grateful and honored to be welcomed into such a heartfelt and dedicated community," she says.
After a couple of months of classes with Behnje, another change. Mike needed to convert the studio space into living quarters for a relative who was moving to the area. Sad as we were to leave that place, we could practically see Ellie smiling as a solution seamlessly appeared. Ellie's sister Kathy Powell Reider, who lives just down the road, was converting her basement into a studio for her yoga nidra and meditation classes. We were welcome to use that space for our classes with Behnje and our practice sessions on alternate weeks.
More glad news: Behnje would resume the men's yoga class that Ellie had taught for a small group that includes Ray and the husbands of several other class members.
Just before the move, a group of us pitched in to paint the studio and an adjacent meditation room a serene shade of blue.
"Helping to prepare that space was an opportunity that helped us get ready for yet another change," reflects Sue. And working together on the rooms "helped us to bond even more," adds Brenda.
Announcing the new studio in an email, Kathy wrote, "Though Ellie has passed, this place continues Ellie's work as well as mine." The photo she included with the announcement showed a shimmery presence that inspired the studio's name. "Both the land and the studio are special and have a close connection with all of nature," Kathy wrote. "The fairy folk were here before me . . . Hence, the beautiful space within my home where I will teach and host a variety of uplifting opportunities has been named Fae Wood Studio."
To begin our first yoga class at Fae Wood, Behnje, Kathy, and Behnje's husband Rick Powell (brother of Kathy and Ellie) performed a puja (dedication ceremony), chanting before a figure of Ganesh, one of Ellie's favorite Hindu archetypes. Earlier, Rick had wafted incense through the room and around the perimeter of the house.
At the front of the room, on a low table brought from Ellie's studio, sat a candle, crystals, flowers, a photo of Ellie and a statue of Lakshmi, an archetype who represents abundance.
Before we began practicing, Behnje talked about bodha—awareness—not as a state of superior enlightenment to be attained, but as an everyday practice, becoming more aware of ourselves and the world around us.
What a fitting sentiment as we move from these months of transition into a new phase in our practice and our lives as a deeply connected community.
Some of the Monday morning yoginis. Front row: Nan Pokerwinski, Sally Kane, Brenda Huckins Bonter, Kendra McKimmy, Behnje Masson. Back row: Karen Kuck, Kathy Misak, Eileen Kent, Valerie Deur, Linda Cudworth, Kathy Powell Reider. Not pictured here: Marsha Reeves, Sue Schneider, Nancy Waits, Ruth Hetherington, Sandy Vandenberg, Tanis Rhodea and former class members Diane Sack, Peggy Straathof.
"I like to think that the universe aligns us, but I'm not always a believer," says Kathy Misak, who has been practicing yoga with the group for more than a decade. "In this case however, I pause and think, this looks good . . . Perhaps we are a swarming group of honey bees moving together. I do feel that energy, including Ellie's, is helping us move forward. First Mike letting us continue to use the studio and now Kathy providing us with a brand new space to practice at a crucial time. And then, voila, Behnje, teacher extraordinaire, agrees to teach us in our own north woods. We take a deep breath and move forward in our practice, ever grateful."
Eileen Kent, who is in her fifth year with the group, echoes the thought. "So grateful to be sharing this yoga journey with these lovely women! We are now in our new sacred space at Kathy’s that already feels so much like home. . . And that energy that touches our lives every day continues to carry us forward with Behnje’s guidance and instruction. Is there a 'Thank You' big enough for Ellie, Behnje and Kathy?"
For more information on classes, workshops and special events at From the Heart Yoga & Tai Chi Center, please visit http://www.fromtheheartyoga.com/
Fae Wood Studio's debut public event, the Creative Imagination Workshop will offer a combination of meditation, creative imaging and intuitive exercises. The workshop is Saturday, June 24, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost of $125 includes a light, gluten-free, vegetarian lunch. Register by June 19th, as space is limited.
Kathy Powell Reider also offers intuitive readings and individual sessions in animal communication.
More information at IntuitiveSVS.com, or call 616-635-6029.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.