Columbia Yoga Center reaches 30
At the beginning of a yoga class, the teacher may ask students to “set an intention” for their practice — a goal they hope to achieve, whether it is a deeper stretch or a calm mind.
It’s been hard to set intentions the last few years, as the pandemic has wreaked havoc on day-to-day routines, let alone trying to make future plans.
But as the Yoga Center of Columbia celebrates its 30th year in business in 2022, they hope the community sets an intention to include more of the restorative powers of yoga in their lives.
With its tagline “all abilities, all bodies, all ages,” the yoga center’s goal is to offer classes geared toward people in any phase of life — from pregnancy to childhood to older adulthood.
Its classes include Gentle Chair Yoga for those with osteoporosis; Yoga for a Healthy Back; Yoga for Healthy Bones and Joints; Accessible Yoga for Amputees; and even a men-only class.
We want to “connect [people] to the beautiful practices of yoga and meditation to help them be in their bodies in a healthy way,” said Kathy Donnelly, 68, who has been the owner and director of the Columbia Yoga Center since 2005.
Under Donnelly’s leadership, the center, situated in an office park facing Route 108 since it opened in 1992, grew from two studios to four. Nearly 1,000 students attend its classes each week.
Along with the number of studios, the types of classes offered at the Center during Donnelly’s tenure have grown as well. Today, Pilates, meditation, Chinese exercises called Qigong, and mind-body practices are part of the regular schedule, along with the usual slate of yoga classes at all levels.
Home away from home
Although beginners are warmly welcomed at the Yoga Center, many of its students have been taking yoga classes at the center for years, even decades.
“It’s that ‘third place,’” Donnelly explained — not work or home, but a unique other place to gather with like-minded friends.
According to Donnelly, the majority of the center’s clients and teachers are in their 50s and beyond.
Linda Deff, a longtime client of the Yoga Center, has found it to be her third place. At 81, she has been a yoga student for 50 years. Instead of being isolated during her later years, she has found connection with others at the center.
“The community created in all of these programs has put me in contact with people with different interests, religions, ages and opinions that closed the gap of separateness,” Deff said.
Furthermore, the Yoga Center doesn’t only strengthen bodies, but also can transform people spiritually through meditation classes.
Deff said she has particularly benefited from the center’s meditation classes, many of which were offered free during the pandemic. “In our world of instant chaos, fear and changing realities, meditation takes me to peace and joy,” she said.
Similarly, Pauline Walstein, a client in her 70s, said she has “learned so much at the studio, particularly through meditation. I have become a much more spiritual person.
“I am learning to live consciously and with compassion for myself and for others. I have learned that I have the power to spread joy and loving-kindness to others.”
Reacting to COVID-19
The compassion of both instructors and students was on full display as the center faced COVID-19. They very quickly had to move all 115 classes to a virtual setting. According to Donnelly, “It was an awesome effort, and people were really grateful.”
Instead of hurting the business, Donnelly reports, “people were actually doing more classes because they were home.”
The pandemic has created a desire for online classes that Donnelly sees continuing indefinitely. Through the online classes, clients who have moved away remain connected to their yoga classes and community. She has also seen mothers and daughters who live in different cities arrange to take classes at the same time.
“I enjoy taking classes online because it is so easy to do,” Walstein said. “I go up to my [home] yoga studio rain or shine, hot or cold, and everything is readily available. No trudging to the studio with lots of equipment. I find the experience to be empowering.”
A giving community
The Yoga Center of Columbia’s mission, according to its website, is to “help our community thrive through loving-kindness to oneself and one another.” The concept of loving-kindness, known as “metta,” is a type of meditation practiced in Buddhism and Hinduism.
“The studio embodies and models metta, or loving-kindness, in the world,” Walstein said.
In tangible ways, the center practices loving-kindness, routinely raising money for various local and international organizations. For instance, they raised $10,000 for the Howard County Food Bank during the pandemic through weekly donation-only classes and Giving on Thanksgiving workshops.
The Center also engages in relief efforts when needs arise in the world, such as a Help India Breathe fundraiser held to purchase oxygen concentrators during the COVID-19 crisis.
The center is also “committed to promoting racial equality, justice, peace and love,” according to its website. One way they carry out this mission is through donation-based workshops, in which the studio and teacher give class proceeds directly to charity. These sessions are held monthly to benefit East Baltimore’s VOLAR (Village of Love and Resistance) collective.
The mission of community service is woven into all they do, including their well-regarded training program for aspiring yoga instructors.
As part of the teacher training program, each trainee must complete a project, and some choose to offer free classes to the community. Both their Yoga for Autism classes and Community Yoga grew out of these projects.
This summer Donnelly will lead a unique class that combines two of her loves: yoga and kayaking. She will offer a yoga class in the nature center at Piney Run Park in Carroll County. After class, participants will kayak around the lake in a tour led by naturalists.
Donnelly is proud of how the center enriches her clients’ lives, but it has also enriched her own life. While she remains committed to the center, she is also giving others opportunities to lead.
Instead of teaching eight or nine classes a week, she is down to just four. And she’s also stepped back from coordinating the teacher training program.
“I’m really grateful for the life [that] being the owner of the Yoga Center has given me,” she said.
For a list of all classes at workshops, visit columbiayoga.com/.