Yoga has physical, mental benefits
When Erin Skinner Smith was born severely pigeon-toed, orthopaedic surgeons told her parents she would never run and she would most likely always walk with a limp. Believing that was a heavy diagnosis for their young daughter, her parents had metal braces fit for Smith.
“They went from my waist all the way down my leg and connected to my shoes,” Smith recalls.
Along with the braces, Smith’s parents enrolled her in yoga, gymnastics and dancing.
“(My parents) were sort of throwback hippies,” she said. “They were doing things like yoga and Tai Chi. They traveled a lot to East Asia. We went to the local Presbyterian church, but we discussed the precepts of Buddhism at the dinner table growing up.”
Through these classes, the born-and-raised Clark Countian developed a deep passion for yoga.
“I sort of fell in love with it because it was the only time of the week I could take off my braces,” she said. “I even had to sleep in them a lot. I’ve been doing yoga longer than I can actually remember doing yoga.”
Smith channeled that passion and these days she doesn’t need her leg braces. Instead, she spends her days with her legs up a wall meditating quietly, or standing on her head or bent over in an intricate stretch all in her local yoga studio, the OM place.
“I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, so when I was in college, I really started meditation more to deal with stress levels,” she said. “My husband went to physical therapy school at the University of Kentucky so we knew we would come back here and build a house.
“I also knew if I was going to teach yoga, I wanted to do it where I live.”
Smith studied education and library science in college and returned home to be a librarian. Seventeen years ago, she opened her studio attached to their home on Quisenberry Lane, teaching yoga on the side for “fun money.”
“Whatever I made teaching yoga we would use to travel,” she said. “Then, when I got pregnant, I sort of had to make a decision.”
Knowing she couldn’t be a mother, a librarian and a yoga teacher and do them all well, Smith needed to prioritize.
“Of all those things, yoga and being a mom were what I felt a calling for,” she said.
Her husband, David, began funneling her some of his physical therapy patients who needed more attention that insurance wouldn’t cover.
“I was training to become a therapeutically-inclined yoga teacher,” she said. “At the time, there was a shift in insurance where people who once would have had 16 physical therapy visits were only getting eight or 10. I started doing a lot of privates, which is what I mostly do now.”
Smith helps her patients with things like scoliosis or post-operative joint replacement. Once a patient has been released from physical therapy, it’s less expensive to see her for 75 minutes than pay out-of-pocket for 30 minutes with a physical therapist.
“I have always been fascinated with anatomy and the human body,” she said. “I started seeing in my own classes how important yoga could be for longevity and inclusivity.”
Smith said inclusivity is one of the things she particularly loves about yoga and stresses at her own studio, where she also has seven other instructors.
“We want everyone to feel like they can do yoga,” she said. “No one is too old. No one is too fat. Nobody is too stiff. There is literally a place for everyone on the yoga mat.”
Sometimes that means taking private classes to work on an instability or reveal an issue that traditional physical therapy didn’t pick up.
“Physical therapy looks at just how to rehab those muscles,” Smith said. “But not necessarily what postural habits got the person there. They don’t have time to look at someone’s diet or their stress level and all these other things that are such an integral part of wholeness.”
With yoga therapy, Smith said she is able to look beyond just a torn rotator cuff and what exercises can strengthen those muscles and investigate how well the patient is sleeping at night or what sort of foods they can add or remove from their diet to improve their condition.
Beyond the therapeutic aspect, Smith said yoga is a great way to exercise the body while resting the mind.
“The biggest thing is that our bodies need movement but our minds need stillness,” she said. “I’m really passionate about meditation and mindfulness. Longevity-wise, that is what elevates yoga above other forms of exercise — while others are very physical and mental, yoga is also energetic and spiritual.”
Smith said science reveals the happiest, most peaceful and joyful people are those who are mindful. Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.
“Yoga gives us the movement our bodies need and the stillness our minds need in this world,” she said.
Yoga was first practiced by Hindus. In sanskrit, yoga means “union.”
“By union we’re talking about finding a balance,” Smith said. “A balance between doing and being, between your light and your dark, just finding more balance in your life.”
Research indicates yoga was practiced at least 5,000 years ago. Smith said statues uncovered in the Indus Valley show people in the popular lotus yoga position — “sitting like a pretzel.” Carbon dating shows those statues are are about 5,000 years old, but Smith believes yoga probably predates literature.
“We have reason to believe people all over Asia were doing yoga long before that,” she said.
While it has origins in Hinduism, Smith said yoga is not a religion.
“Yoga is something you do with your religion, not instead of or in place of it,” she said. “Yoga is a way to become mindful in the moment, which just means it helps you to connect to that divinity that’s within all of us. It’s actually a fantastic way to talk to God, whatever God means to you.”
Yoga is movement that is connected to the breathe, Smith said.
“When we focus on the breathe, that brings our minds into the current moment,” she said. “And when you are in the moment, practicing mindfulness, then you are dialing up that connection. So it always circles back to mindfulness.”
Smith said there are thousands of variations of yoga classes, but most involve a balance of stretching and strengthening, which she refers to as mobility and stability. At the OM place, Smith offers a range of classes from gentle restorative yoga up to power flow which all focus on strong core support and improving range of motion in the joints.
She said yoga can be especially beneficial for people with arthritis or other joint issues that sometimes prevent them from doing other high-impact forms of exercise.
Besides classes at her studio, Smith has also developed the OM place Channel with local filmmaker Jason Epperson of Eppic Films. The channel is an online compilation of videos and information about yoga, breathing, meditation and mindfulness that can be accessed from home.
“Through yoga, you can improve bone density, build lean muscle mass and burn calories, but you’re also going to stimulate your lymphatic system, your circulatory system and your respiratory system,” Smith said.
Yoga also helps decelerate the nervous system, she said.
“Our society is pretty much in a fight or flight mode all the time,” she said. “Our society of busyness keeps our nervous systems always ramped up which sends our hormones out of whack, which makes it hard to sleep well, which affects our hormones that lead to bad food choices.”
Smith said yoga helps move people from the fight or flight mode and into their “rest and digest” mode.
And since yoga moves the spine in all seven directions, it helps the body feel younger, she said.
“Traditional Chinese medicine believes that it doesn’t matter how many years we’ve walked the planet, we’re really only as young as our spine is flexible,” she said. “The spine houses all the important stuff — the nerves that connect our brain, which would be who we are, to everything else in our body.”
Smith said yoga poses, or asanas, are designed to move the spine in all seven directions to keep it young and limber.
For people who are interested in trying yoga, the most difficult part is typically stepping out of their comfort zone, Smith said.
“We have a gentle restorative class that is appropriate for all levels,” she said. “If you’ve never done a single yoga pose, you can totally come and feel comfortable in this class. It mostly takes the courage of getting out of your own comfort zone and trying something new. But if you make yourself do that, you will leave feeling that yoga is not only something you can do but yoga is something you are good at.”
— the OM place is located at 815 Quisenberry Lane.
— Classes are offered Monday through Saturday. The first class is free. Classes can be purchased as walk-ins for $12, five for $45, 10 for $80 or 20 for $150. Thai bodywork and deep tissue bodywork sessions are also available.
— Access the schedule and purchase classes at theOMplace.com.
— The OM place channel can be accessed for three days free and then $13 monthly at theOMplacechannel.com.
— Erin Smith also co-wrote a book, “Sensible Wellness for Women,” along with fellow Clark County native Andra Sewalls, which can be accessed at SensibleWellnessForWomen.com.