It’s a little past 5 p.m. and a steady flow of people stream into Sutra Studio with mats in hand. Some are in the prime of youth, others, much older. Then there are the in-betweens, male and female. All are welcome.
They find a spot on the hardwood floor and lay their mats down. Then it’s time to get to the business of relaxing.
Calm your mind. Drop your gaze. Breathe deeply and evenly. You feel the warmth of the room. Standing on one leg, you bend your knee and wrap your right leg around your left. You stretch your arms up above your head, place your palms together, and wonder — can standing on one leg really improve your life?
“Absolutely,” says Jennifer Howell, founder and owner of Sutra. “Yoga helps you block out competing thoughts — your to-do-lists, that big work presentation or college paper that’s due — and allows you to focus on your breathing. That helps achieve an internal steadiness between fear of the unknown and faith that we can face that fear. ”
Then Howell smiles and admits that if you showed her a glimpse of her future in 2006, she would have laughed hysterically at the sight of her in pink dreadlocks and owning a yoga studio.
Back then, Howell worked in the entertainment industry. Clad in all black and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, she was a corporate events director, organizing everything from concert tours and music festivals to high-end weddings and big-scale private parties.
“It was a 24-7 job that was great in my 20s but I started to feel burnt out,” she says.
Howell took a year off to figure out where to go next. She also quit smoking. That’s when she discovered yoga.
“Quitting smoking turned me into a monster for a while. I tried everything to keep the monster at bay, including yoga.”
But in order for her to really embrace the practice, she had to shed her own insecurities about stretching and working out in front of a group of strangers. A great teacher helped.
“In a beginner’s class, everybody is in the same boat,” Howell was told. “Remember that and try not to take yourself too seriously — something we tend to do for most of the day. Being on your mat is about letting yourself go, slowing down your breathing, and, laughing too. There is a lot of silliness in the picture of a bunch of people in spandex writhing around on the floor together. Everyone is there to get better physically, emotionally or spiritually and at some point, you come across all three.”
She eventually took a teaching course to further her own abilities and the a-ha moment hit. By the end of classes, life’s stresses melted away and people had a sense of lightness about them. Howell noticed a similarity to the best parts of her job in entertainment.
“I always loved helping people find their happiness, whether it was a great music festival or a couple’s wedding day, that sense of a single moment in time that people are sharing together is really powerful,” she explains. “ The truest dharma (or basic principles of existence), I think are subjects that transcend all different kinds of religions — like being happier, finding more love, finding less jealousy, being less angry and being more patient. Yoga plugs us into all of that by bringing us closer to our own sense of self.”
Sound a little like new age hooey? Think again. Yoga, like any strength training for the body and mind, can also humble you.
Two years ago, Howell was in a major car accident. Sidelined by injury, she needed to heal and found herself taking her yoga training back to the beginning.
“I could no longer move my body in the same way and I gained a ton of weight,” she says. “Practicing in this different body, I was really judging myself and wondering what people would think of me being a bigger yoga teacher and not a size zero.”
This is where the art of laughter comes in, and letting go of the things that don’t really matter. Laughing with others relieves anxiety. These are tools that people can use off the mat.
“Yoga can be brought into the workplace, into the bar, into your relationships, basically anywhere you need it,” Howell says. “We get into these complicated postures or physically challenging postures and we breathe in them. We can use that same kind of determination and patience when we’re faced with a real crisis in our lives. You go out into the world and your significant other or your boss says something irritating to you. Instead of snapping back, you can remember to breath and smile and say ‘I’m going to recognize that they’re a person that is complicated too.’ You’re navigating challenges in a more graceful way because you’ve been working on it in your little laboratory on your mat.”
Yoga, Howell adds, isn’t for the flexible. People who are super flexible have the hardest time, she says, because they’ve been depending on their flexibility instead of strength and “yoga is about balance, not how long your hamstrings are.”
Her rules for class: Be patient. Don’t push too hard. It’s not a competition. Only go as far as your body allows. Have fun. Have an open mind.
“The first time you try anything can be awkward, but the ratio of awkward to awesome shifts the more you practice,” Howell says.
She remembers the first time she was actually able to balance on her hands.
“I just couldn’t believe my body was strong enough or even able to do that,” she says. “ It made no sense to me but at the same time it was super freeing. We spend so much time setting boundaries for ourselves and putting things in ‘the never column’ — I’ll never be president, I’ll never run a marathon, I’ll never be rich, I’ll never do a handstand. It’s amazing when you realize how capable you are of doing the things you think you can’t when you just try.”
By the time the class at Sutra is nearly over, there is a lot of smiling going around the room. More life lessons acquired from the mat.
No worries. No stress. Only breathing.
Sutra Studio is located at Mill No. 5, 250 Jackson St., 4th flr., Lowell. Learn more at sutrastudio.com