The Next Generation of Yoga

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." 

Heines 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 known.

"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.

Going 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.

Both 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 people."

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."

This probably explains why The Yoga Studio welcomed Weiss-Gelmi's innovative method for teaching the youngest students in addition to their classes for adults.

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. 

Weiss-Gelmi stayed up that whole night and created the songs, inadvertently tapping into the much-researched connections between music, movement and brain development. 

"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.

"It's helped 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.

After forty-five 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.

"At 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."

The 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

Carolyn Heines

Kat McKinney and Carolyn Heines (2)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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