PENINSULA PROFILE: She offers gentle exercise to unite her students’ minds, bodies

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

SEQUIM — Darting up and down staircases, from kitchen to bar to table after table, gave Cheryl Bell plenty of exercise.

“I had the best gams,” she quipped, recalling her years in the restaurant business.

She gave three and a half decades to that industry, as a waitress and a trainer from Jacksonville, Fla., to the Olympic Peninsula. Bell worked at the Thirsty Camel in Florida, her home state; at three LongHorn Steakhouses and then at the former Xanadu Grill in Sequim and Dupuis Restaurant just outside Port Angeles.

“I lived the night life,” she added.

She also smoked, a habit that left her with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Look at Bell now, and it’s clear she still lives it up. But hers is a new life, borne on something as simple and complex as breathing.

Ten years ago, Bell embarked on a new career: She became a personal trainer certified by the American Council on Exercise, and went to work at the Sequim Aquatic Recreation Center, aka SARC. She worked with people of various ages on building strength and stretchiness, and got to know other instructors who taught things like tai chi, the Chinese form of moving meditation.

But two years in to working at SARC, Bell developed a shoulder injury from over-use. She heard about a yoga class taught at the Dungeness River Audubon Center in Railroad Bridge Park, just outside Sequim.

It was a Monday-night thing, led by veteran yoga teacher Barbara Boekelheide.

“I had done yoga as a teenager,” Bell recalled. She thought she’d try it again.

“I went to heal my shoulder,” she said. “And so much more happened.”

At that class in summer 2006, Bell got a taste of prana, the energy carried on the breath. Yoga students learn about it while practicing a series of poses with names like tree, dancer, warrior I, II and III, triangle and forward fold. As she attended more classes, Bell began to experience the deliciousness of yoga, with its relaxation and release into the present moment.

And the more she learned about yoga, the more Bell wanted to learn. She enrolled in YogaFit’s 200-hour teacher training program, given at sessions in the Seattle-Tacoma area, in November 2006.

Then “life happened,” as Bell puts it.

She contended with a variety of unexpected events, including her husband Johnny’s heart attack and ensuing health troubles. The couple, married 29 years, has lately spent a lot of time with doctors in Seattle. Bell wasn’t on the fast track to completion of the YogaFit program, but she stayed with it, attending sessions when she could.

By 2007, Bell was filling in for other Sequim yoga instructors including Boekelheide, who went to India to study yoga for a month in 2008. Meantime, the proliferation of yoga classes across the United States was well underway.

The YMCA, senior centers and places such as the Gardiner Community Center offered various kinds of yoga, presenting it as a way to become lean, strong and stretchy.

Bell wants to give people something beyond the physical. Yoga isn’t just about the poses, she has learned; it’s about that sweet sensation of calm that can come with deep, slow breathing. Practicing poses, moving with the breath in and out, can helps the yoga student keep his or her balance in the studio ­and through the situations that arise in daily life.

“Yoga is really working,” Bell said, “at keeping you in the present moment,” rather than mulling over the past or worrying about the future.

A few years ago, Bell began dreaming of a studio: a place to practice without people playing basketball in an adjacent gym, a place with natural light pouring in the windows, a room free of mirrors. While Bell appreciated her first Sequim yoga room at the River Center, it does have some distracting objects: the taxidermy birds and mammals on display.

Bell talked with other yoga teachers about the possibility of opening a brand-new studio where a variety of instructors could give classes and retreats. She found a former cabinet shop on Carlsborg Road and took the leap, remodeling it and naming it Lapis Sky Yoga.

Bell and Boekelheide had been mulling over names for a couple of days, and Bell’s favorite stone, lapis lazuli, came up. Crystal healing practitioners consider it a releaser of stress, aside from being a striking blue.

One fall night right after she’d rented her space, Bell stood outside, admiring the deep, blue sky after sunset. “I thought: That’s it: Lapis Sky,” she remembers.

Bell was set to open her studio Jan. 17, 2012, and had put up fliers and sent emails to her many contacts around Sequim. Then the sky opened up, releasing a snowstorm.

The first day was not a busy one at Lapis Sky Yoga. Bell still has pictures of the empty, white-blanketed parking lot.

Bell has since built her studio from the ground up. She invited other teachers in: Pat Mortati, a yoga instructor since 1990, was the first independent contractor to add her classes to the Lapis Sky schedule. Boekelheide came in too, offering one gentle yoga class per week. Teresa Schmid, a tai chi teacher at SARC, offered a special qi gong session in January 2013. And Katherine Wieseman teaches Feldenkrais, a healing-through-movement class.

“It’s amazing,” said Boekelheide, “that Cheryl was willing to take a risk and start the yoga studio from scratch during tough economic times.”

She also hailed Bell’s knowledge of anatomy and body mechanics, gained from years as a personal trainer and YogaFit student. These allow the people in her classes to enjoy both the physical and mental benefits of yoga, Boekelheide added.

Bell’s friend and mentor then marveled at her resilience. Boekelheide has known Bell through much transition and uncertainty.

At Lapis Sky, Bell teaches five classes per week — which is just right, she says — and wants to offer more by inviting other instructors. She’d like the studio to be a community space for independent contractors to teach classes, as well as a place for events such as the dance she’s hosting Friday.

Everyone, yoga student or not, is invited to Lapis Sky’s Chakra Dance, a benefit the American Heart Association (see sidebar).

For this party, she’ll exchange her mellow yoga music for classic rock and soul from the 1960s and ’70s, from “Satisfaction” to “We Are Family.”

Also at the studio, “I want to start having workshops and series, such as six to eight sessions on core work,” Bell added, referring to yoga classes focused on abdominal strength and balance, which protects the back.

As a teacher, Bell hopes to learn more about yoga therapy and overcoming past trauma with yoga. She’s already begun to study the modality, and to look into an 800-hour, three- to seven-year training program.

Now in her late 50s, Bell said she’ll be “retirement age” when she finishes this training — not that it matters. She likes Jane Pauley’s philosophy about being a woman of a certain age: “It’s a second chapter,” Pauley and Bell agree.

Since completing her 200-hour YogaFit program, Bell has continued to attend workshops in the Puget Sound metropolitan area. She also devours books by prominent yogis such as Max Strom: his A Life Worth Breathing is one of her favorite inspirational reads. Soon after listening online to a talk Strom gave, she heard he was teaching a class on Capitol Hill in Seattle. She immediately got on the phone to sign up.

“At the start of the workshop, he said, ‘You’re going to breathe more deeply than you ever have in your life,’” she recalled.

“He didn’t disappoint.”

She hopes to give her students that kind of energizing experience. At the same time, Bell is still learning, too. There are moments during her class when she tenses up and holds her breath during a challenging pose. And Bell doesn’t do all of those pretzel moves shown on the cover of yoga magazines. She wishes those poses, many of which are beyond her, weren’t the emphasis of such media.

Bell recalled one teacher training session she went to when the instructor, a younger woman, demonstrated a quick switch from one leg to the other in a seated pose.

“Aren’t you going to try it?” the instructor asked Bell.

“Not in front of everyone,” was Bell’s thought. “I’ll try it when I get home.”

In a class, “there are two things I always try to impart,” Bell said.

“It’s their practice, not my practice,” so no student has to do everything the teacher is doing.

“And there’s no perfect yoga pose,” she added. “What there is is your best expression of the pose.”

Bell’s students teach her, again and again, how to improve her practice by letting her know when a particular cue clicked for them.

As much attention as she pays to safe alignment of the body, Bell is looking up the path toward peace of mind. She’ll offer short passages from Strom’s work and other books at the end of class, and then invite students to stay for an optional 15-minute meditation.

A passage from Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love recently gave Bell another bit of inspiration:

“The harbor of my mind is an open bay, the only access to the island of my Self . . . This island has been through some wars, it is true, but it is now committed to peace, under a new leader (me) who has instituted new policies to protect the place. And now — let the word go our across the seven seas — there are much, much stricter laws on the books about who may enter this harbor. You may not come here anymore with your hard and abusive thoughts . . . with your warships of thoughts — all these will be turned away.

“Likewise, any thoughts that ware filled with angry or starving exiles, with malcontents and pamphleteers, mutineers and violent assassins, desperate prostitutes, pimps and seditious stowaways — you may not come here anymore, either . . . Even missionaries will be screened carefully, for sincerity.

“This is a peaceful harbor, the entryway to a fine and proud island that is only now beginning to cultivate tranquility.”



Chakra dance slated Friday

LAPIS SKY YOGA will host a Chakra Dance, an event open to anyone interested in dancing to music of the 1960s and ’70s — the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Sister Sledge and Blood, Sweat and Tears to name a few — from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday.

Admission will be by donation, with proceeds to benefit the American Heart Association.

Lapis Sky Yoga owner Cheryl Bell invites dancers to wear something red, since it’s the Heart Association’s Wear Red for Women Day.

Bell will turn the lights down and hand out glow-in-the-dark wristlets, “so nobody has to feel self-conscious,” she said. “All we’ll see is moving light, as everybody dances.”

A yoga instructor and certified personal trainer, Bell will also hand out fliers with facts about the heart: How many times it beats per day, how many miles of arteries and veins it supplies, for example. She’ll also share information about the chakras, seven energy centers of the bod, especially the heart chakra.

“It’s just a fun time,” said Bell, “to get together and realize we have energy centers in the body . . . and to say, ‘Oh, my goodness, what exquisite beings we are.”

— Diane Urbani de la Paz

Yoga classes for everyone

LAPIS SKY YOGA, 803 Carlsborg Road, offers yoga classes for all levels and Feldenkrais classes each week. To find out about class times and instructors, see owner Cheryl Bell’s website, www.CherylBell-yoga.com, or phone Bell at 360-461-1709.

Peninsula Daily News

Last modified: February 01. 2014 6:17PM
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