On a sunny January morning, Deb Weiss-Gelmi leads a group of yoga students through a series of classic poses at The Yoga Studio
With rows of sticky mats lined up on the shiny wood floor, the class
proceeds as usual until, during the first downward dog, the students are
encouraged to bark. The rousing chorus of animal noises that follows is
the first clue that these yogis are children.Sing Song Yoga
a unique yoga program for kids developed by Weiss-Gelmi three years
ago, is just one way the venerable studio on Cherry Street is evolving
to meet the needs of a new generation of yoga students. In addition to
providing classes for the area's youngest yogis, the studio is embarking
on a five-year transition that will let founder Carolyn Heines transfer
ownership to instructor Kat McKinney.
Heines, 75, is thrilled to
have found someone to continue the mission of the studio after building
the business for the last 32 years.
"I never had an exit plan!"
she laughs. "For years, whenever anyone asked me when I was going to
retire, I'd say, 'In five years,' but I was always pushing it back."
was the only yoga instructor in town for a time and has formed very
strong relationships with her students over the years. She jokes that
she has "no interest in becoming the world's oldest yoga teacher," but
was also reluctant to stop teaching.
Then she met McKinney, 35,
who moved to Grand Rapids from Ann Arbor in 2005 and immediately
gravitated to the studio and its mission. A physical therapy assistant,
she began practicing at the studio as well as exploring teacher training
in the Iyengar tradition.
"I consider myself extremely fortunate
to have Kat. She is dedicated and qualified and passionate about
yoga," says Heines, who is glad to have found a way the studio can
continue providing the classical hatha instruction for which it is
"I'm not teaching any more introductory courses, but for
me to stop teaching these students that I've had for many years is going
to be a difficult thing for me and them -- Kat calls it 'Carolyn
withdrawal' -- but we're so pleased with the transition," says Heines.
forward, McKinney's goals are simple: "Continue what Carolyn has
begun, keep the community thriving, and keep this space available for
the community." She also hopes to use her expertise in physical therapy
to offer classes for people with arthritis or lower-back issues.
women speak fondly of the city their studio serves. "I live a mile
away, I can walk to work, and this is the part of Grand Rapids that
feels the most like home to us," McKinney says. "There is a wonderful,
supportive community here."
Heines concurs. "Grand Rapids is
small enough that you can make things happen here," she says, adding
that after years of church basements and spare rooms, the studio's
current location in the East Hills neighborhood is its best location
yet. "This neighborhood is thriving and filled with positive growth and
Reflecting on the changes she's seen in yoga since she
began teaching in 1979, Heines says simply, "In a nutshell, yoga works."
She's quiet for a moment, and then she adds, "We do yoga to get back to
the place where we know who we are. It may look like people are just
standing on their hands, but so much more than that is happening."
probably explains why The Yoga Studio welcomed Weiss-Gelmi's innovative
method for teaching the youngest students in addition to their classes
Weiss-Gelmi, an early elementary educator and yoga
student, wanted to put her three-year-old daughter into yoga classes but
couldn't find anything available. Frustrated, she was awake late one
night a few years ago when an idea came to her.
"When I teach
reading, I teach with song, so it hit me around midnight one night that I
could write songs for yoga poses," she says.
stayed up that whole night and created the songs, inadvertently tapping
into the much-researched connections between music, movement and brain
"The singing makes it easier to follow and more
brain-friendly. By combining music and crossing the mid-line of the
body, you're connecting more neurons and 'waking up' different parts of
the brain, which supports new learning," she says, having subsequently
read up on the research and filmed a Sing Song Yoga DVD for use in
schools and homes. "Research shows that combining music, movement and
merriment boosts memory and the ability to pay attention. The fact that
it's fun helps a lot as well."
Linda Idsinga, a yoga student at
the studio and an administrator for Hope Network, began bringing her
granddaughter, Olivia Heindrichs, to Sing Song Yoga classes three years
ago and has only positive things to say about it.
with flexibility, confidence, and it's just something she really enjoys
doing," says Idsinga, who notes that Olivia was thrilled to add the
Saturday morning class to her weekend schedule.
minutes spent hissing like a snake in cobra and yelling "Ribbit!" in
frog pose, Heindrichs is most proud that she has helped her little
sister through the class and adds that tree pose is her favorite.
"Miss Deb has taught me to be calm when I'm doing yoga," says Heindrichs, who also uses the Sing Song Yoga DVD at home.
Weiss-Gelmi thinks that the calm and confidence that comes from practicing yoga is a great gift to give the younger generation.
first I hear kids say 'I can't,' but they don't say that after a
while. They know that they will eventually get it. Yoga is one avenue
to teach the life skill that it takes practice to master something
difficult over time, even if it's challenging at first."
studio is hosting a celebration to share their joy in the transition on
Saturday, Jan. 29 from 6:00 - 9:30 p.m. Community members, friends and
students of all ages are invited for refreshments, and it seems a good
bet that there will be music, movement, and merriment as the studio
nurtures the next generation of yoga.Stephanie
Doublestein writes and blogs about food, business, and parenting, among
other things. She lives in East Grand Rapids with her husband and their
two young daughters.
Kat McKinney and Carolyn Heines (2)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved