BETHEL — Sara Johnson enrolled in her first yoga class while in college, and it was love at first pose.
“The connection it gave me with my mind-body-breath was unlike anything I had ever experienced before,” she said.
She quickly recognized many of the benefits, both physical and emotional, that could be gained through regular practice of yoga and meditation.
After studying to become a yoga instructor in Pokhara, Nepal last fall, Johnson, of Bethel, now shares her love of yoga with students who range in age from toddlers to seniors.
She is offering introductory yoga classes through Telstar Adult and Community Education and at the Methodist Church Annex, as well as Saturday morning classes for 2- to 5-year-olds (with their caregivers) at Crescent Park School.
In addition to increasing strength, flexibility and balance, Johnson said, yoga poses work to calm and stimulate the brain simultaneously, while supplying both the body and brain with fresh oxygen to relax and clear the mind.
She said yoga and meditation also help to synchronize the wave patterns between the left and right sides of the brain, allowing them to communicate more efficiently and function with more clarity and focus. This, in turn, improves decision-making, attention and creativity.
The complementary practices can also help to balance and regulate emotions.
“When we know how to calm the mind, and recognize our emotions, as we do in yoga, we know how to respond to situations where our emotions may have otherwise caused a reaction,” she said.
That regulating effect on emotions can have particular benefits for children.
Johnson, who majored in elementary and special education, taught second grade at Woodstock Elementary School before her decision to travel to Nepal and to pursue yoga as a lifestyle, rather than as just a hobby.
During that time, she became certified as a children’s yoga instructor, bringing the practice of yoga into her classroom.
“Yoga for children is beneficial for so many reasons,” she said.
“Besides improving strength and flexibility, yoga provides children with a healthy way to balance emotions, brings them into the present and gives them opportunities to practice patience and reflection,” she said.
“Yoga reduces impulsivity and anxiety, improves listening skills and mind/body awareness and connection. It also improves their confidence, self-esteem and social and emotional learning,” she said.
Johnson teaches yoga classes to students at Crescent Park and Woodstock Elementary schools, the Bethel Early Learning Center as well as at the Boxberry School in Harrison.
She plans to take at least four more trainings specific to teaching yoga to children and expects to earn her 500-hour yoga teaching certification eventually.
Although her own first experience with yoga turned her into a devoted practitioner, it didn’t always come naturally to her, and she admits that “at first I was very hard on myself.”
“I have never been ‘naturally’ flexible, and I wanted so badly to be good at it and to make my body bend in all these intricate directions,” she said.
“When I first started, it was very discouraging.”
But with the help of more classes, which she supplemented with books, videos and practice on her own, she came to realize that her initial focus on what she couldn’t yet accomplish ran counter to the purpose and philosophy of yoga.
“If through yoga, you are able to accept where you are presently, then through practice, you slowly open yourself up to the opportunity of changing in not only body but mind as well,” Johnson said.
Having learned from her own experience, she encourages her students to tailor their yoga practice to their own abilities. When necessary, she provides modifications that make most of the traditional yoga poses accessible to nearly anyone, no matter their flexibility or fitness level.
In Nepal, Johnson was trained in both Ashtanga and Hatha yoga styles. She has adopted the Hatha form for most of her practice, although, she said, “I like to veer off of the tracks and incorporate a lot of my own sequences as well.”
She integrates meditation and breath work into a gentle class that provides a relaxing experience while still building muscle tone and flexibility.
“Ashtanga is a very fast-paced, regimented style of yoga that is done in set sequences, (while) Hatha is about utilizing opposing forces and energies in the body to find balance,” she said.
Johnson grew up in Connecticut and attended Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., graduating in 2013.
While in college, she worked for two summers as a leader on sea kayaking and white-water kayaking trips for adolescents.
With a taste for adventure and service, during her junior year, she was accepted to the Peace Corps. She was set to go after graduation, but a series of unexpected events derailed her plans.
“They kept postponing my departure date, so I had to find seasonal work in between,” she said.
She worked first as an outdoor educator in New Hampshire. When her departure was again delayed, she moved to Bethel to take a job for the winter as a children’s ski coach at Sunday River.
Six weeks before her scheduled departure, she tore a ligament in her knee. The surgery and lengthy recovery put an end to her Peace Corps aspirations, but as it turned out, her stay in Bethel opened the door to new and unexpected adventures.
While working at Sunday River, she met “a wonderful man” who made staying in the area an easy decision for her.
During her recovery, she worked as a preschool teacher and as an enrichment teacher for Mahoosuc Kids Association.
In the fall of 2014, she became the second-grade teacher at Woodstock Elementary School, a position she held for three years while working summers for L.L.Bean as a kayak and paddle board instructor.
Her decision to spend two and a half months studying and traveling in Nepal was the culmination of a long-term fascination with Eastern religions and culture.
“Nepal is one of those places I’ve always wanted to go,” she said.
“For some reason or other, I was just drawn to it. The mountains, the culture, the people, the food, all seemed surreal and otherworldly, almost like Shangri La,” she said.
She spent the first month in Pokhara, a modern city of nearly half a million people. It’s considered the tourism capital of Nepal and where she completed her 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Course.
“It was an amazing experience, which made me feel like every decision in my life had led me to be in that place at that time with my instructors and peers,” she said.
After completing the training, she hired a female guide and made a 10-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas, staying overnight in teahouses along the trail.
“Every day I woke up and said, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,’ and the next day, I’d say the same thing,” she said.
Following the trek, she spent two weeks working on a farm in a tiny mountainside village near Gorkha, where she stayed in a bamboo and straw hut “with giant spiders and a hole in the ground for a toilet,” she said. “It was an experience, to say the least!”
During the next part of her stay in Nepal, she met up with a friend and traveled to Chitwan National Park for a jungle excursion, then to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, to visit monasteries and other sites.
Johnson traveled on her own to Kathmandu and spent nearly a week at Pullahari Buddhist Monastery on the outskirts of the city.
There, she attended Tibetan and Buddhist philosophy classes, as well as a ceremony and chanting session for young monks in training.
“During my time (in Nepal) I experienced the highest points and also some of the most terror-filled times of my life,” Johnson said.
Before leaving on her journey, she said, she second-guessed her decision to leave a stable job to take a leap of faith and travel alone, with the intention of trying something completely new upon her return.
“I learned more than can be put into words, but an attempt would have something to do with me learning to worry less and be less fearful,” she said. “There are so many things in life that we don’t have control over, but there are a few that we do, including our reactions to circumstances.”
“So far, looking back on my trip, and upon returning, it has all worked out, actually much better than I imagined,” she said.
“I am now pursuing what makes me happy,” Johnson said. “Being fearful did not change any outcome here, or in Nepal, and it never will. Being fearful just causes you to worry or be afraid twice.”
Classes in Bethel
A three-week session of introductory yoga classes through Adult Education is underway, and Johnson is offering a single-session meditation class on April 25. Contact the Adult Education office at 207-824-2136, ext. 1340, or visit sad44.coursestorm.com to register.
Adult classes are held Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. at the Methodist Church Annex. These classes are offered on a drop-in basis, with no need to pre-register, and the fee is donation-based.
A full schedule of yoga classes is available at bendingbirchmaine.com, or by email at [email protected]
Sara Johnson practices yoga in Nepal. (Submitted photo)