Toni Casey, to the astonishment of her yoga instructor, lifts her body from the bamboo floor and holds a full plank, a push-up-like position that requires core strength and balance. While a plank may be a common sight in the yoga classroom, it’s a milestone for Casey, a grandmother of nine who lives with arthritis.
“I told her she could modify the exercise, but she wanted to do the full plank,” said Kate Mason, owner of Abhyaasa Yoga, a studio in downtown Naperville. “Toni embodies transformation in yoga.”
Casey refuses to let arthritis and stiff muscles — which she calls “old people problems” — keep her away from her favorite activities: walking with friends, spending time with family and cooking Italian food.
Success stories like Casey’s are common throughout Naperville, as local residents experience transformations of mind and body through yoga. While the number of yoga students and studios in Naperville has increased, Mason says, so has the number of “transformations.”
“We all have physical limitations, but yoga provides that freedom to move,” Mason said. “I’ve seen students like Toni with a variety of problems—arthritis, osteoporosis and other issues. Yoga not only has the power to keep these problems at bay but reverse them.”
“We have folks recovering from surgery, lots of knee issues,” said Karen Olson, an instructor at Abhyaasa Yoga who teaches the beginner-level course, Yoga Basics. “We slow down and meet them at their level, working within their limitations. You can learn the poses safely, feel comfortable and progress to other classes.”
Mason and Olson have experienced the transformative effects of yoga first-hand. Mason has a 45-degree curve in her spine, the result of severe scoliosis; while Olson suffers from arthritis of the spine.
“A lot of people say, ‘you have such great posture, are you a dancer?’” said Mason, laughing. “Scoliosis is what brought me to yoga in the first place, and now I rarely have any discomfort. Yoga keeps you really strong and pain free.”
Conrad Gacki owns Hot Yoga Naperville downtown. The “Chief,” as he is called, has experienced his own transformation through yoga. While suffering from severe back pain and knee problems — which led to five surgeries — Gacki took a trip to Hawaii and began practicing yoga.
“I was about 50 pounds heavier at that time,” Gacki said. “I went to a yoga class and, afterwards, lay down on the beach by my hotel. I got up and couldn’t even stand straight. After the next class I couldn’t walk straight. I went up to my instructor and said, ‘I can’t take your class anymore.’ He had me put my arms up over my head and hold a pose, which straightened my back and let me walk normally again.”
“I learned to practice; I learned that, even if you’re sore and tired, you should still do yoga every day, because you will improve. I never changed my diet or anything else; I just practiced yoga regularly. After that, the weight just peeled off.”
While Naperville yoga instructors have witnessed physical transformations in themselves and their students — reduced pain, improved strength and weight loss — it is the mental impact that is most important to Mason.
“You get very strong, but it’s also emotionally healing,” she said. “Mindfulness applies to everyone — students, athletes, anyone with stress.”
Dan Sleezer, who takes classes at Abhyaasa Yoga five days a week, underwent back surgery in December 2012, and began taking classes a few months later in February 2013. He says that he feels the mental benefits of yoga as much as the physical.
“I feel much stronger, generally healthier in mind and body,” Sleezer said. “I enjoy the relaxation that comes with the meditation portion of yoga. I apply it to my daily life — not consciously, but I’m more patient. I accept things the way they are and manage outside forces better.”