Carter: Newark stretches its limits with yoga, for free
Jauvon Scales was riding his bike in downtown Newark the other evening when he saw something he had never seen before in this tough old town, and it filled him with a sense of peace.
There were 40 people kneeling on mats in Washington Park practicing yoga. They were an island of calm, oblivious to the traffic, the light rail train gliding along Broad Street, horn blaring.
The oddity of it all made Scales get off his bike and join in. He did what practitioners call the chair pose, then a little downward dog, lifting his head slightly to see if he was doing it right.
The 18-year-old Scales didn’t stay long, but merely by stopping he embraced one of the many yoga concepts and principles. It’s called Namaste, and it loosely means: I see the good in you and you see the good in me and we see the good in each other.
There was a time when you could live to be 100 in this town and never see a sight like what young Scales saw.
But those days are gone, apparently.
Yoga is sweeping through Newark. There are classes at the YMWCA and at Lotus Yoga Newark on Washington Street, Welcome "Om" Yoga and Wellness House on Bleeker Street and New Ark Yoga & Wellness on Lincoln Park. If you get there today, you can take a free hip-hop yoga class at 10 a.m. at the Lincoln Park Music Festival.
The people in the park are part of the Newark Yoga Movement, a nonprofit group that has been gaining ground here for the past two years. By their own count, they have taught 9,000 students and 1,000 teachers in Newark.
With his curiosity satisfied, Scales rode off quietly, waving his hand, thanking yoga instructor Debby Kaminsky for letting him be a part of a journey he found intriguing.
"I’ll teach yoga to anybody," said Kaminsky, founder of the Newark Yoga Movement. "I think yoga actually helps to shift you to realize and recognize what is so precious about life. It is not the nice car, not the gorgeous clothes. It’s are you a kind person?"
This sense of balance she espouses moved beyond the schools this year when her group began to offer free yoga on Wednesdays inside the lobby of One Washington Park, an office building across the street from Washington Park. The sessions started with four people in January, and now 50 show up each week. They wound up outside after Kaminsky met Derek Ware, executive director of the Commons, a community development corporation that invited her group to do yoga outdoors when the weather turned warm. So on nice days that’s where you’ll find them reaching skyward, stretching their bodies, blocking out the world.
Everyone was on the same page Wednesday, breathing slowly, listening to Kaminsky’s instruction and encouragement. She told them to do their best, that they do not have to pose like an experienced yoga person on a magazine cover. No one felt a need to be a pro, either. Two words she had them repeat brought home the point.
"We rock," they said.
"You surely do," came her reply.
They closed their eyes and allowed their shoulders to relax, sitting up tall, creating space in their spine. At some point they were off into a series of graceful moves. Some were for strength — warrior one. Some for balance — a wide squat with arms moving circularly. Some to stretch out — child’s pose — and make them feel like they’ve never felt in their lives.
"Awh, man. It’s a totally different mind-set when I’m here," said Laura Forer, a manager at an audiobook company in Newark. "When I leave here, I’m re-energized. I wish I could do it every night."
What many say they have found, especially skeptics, is that yoga gives them clarity they didn’t think possible through physical, mental and spiritual exploration.
Deidra Marshall said she heard all about the yoga buzz and decided to try it. It relaxes you, she was told. It makes you forget about your day. It keeps you in the present moment. Yeah right, she thought.
"I said there’s no way in hell this can do all of this for you," she said.
That was six months and many sun salutations ago for this Newarker. Marshall hasn’t missed a class yet, taking it sometimes with her son, Ali, 9. She likes it so much that she does it every day at home, even when having a meal.
"I’ll go into one of the positions sitting down and just hold my leg until I’m done eating," said Marshall, a certified nurses aide. "I practice yoga anywhere — sitting in the car, sitting on the bus."
Christian Benedetto Jr., director of real estate services for a Newark commercial real estate brokerage firm, may just be one of Kaminksy’s toughest converts. He said Kaminsky, a longtime friend, had been after him to try it, but he couldn’t get with the program. The yoga community, he thought, was just a little too earthy and organic for him.
But things changed for this red-meat-eating, beer-drinking kind of a guy. He wanted to get in shape and decided to give it a shot in May. Sixteen lost pounds later, Benedetto is a believer who is setting up a small yoga studio in his basement in Morris Township. And sometime this fall, he said you’ll see him in the lobby of the office building taking a class with Kaminsky.
"The more you do yoga, the better you want to eat," he said. "The better you eat, the more you want to do yoga."
The disciples in the park stayed for an hour, but time wasn’t a factor to them. They didn’t hear the buses roaring past or see the idle stares of people walking by. They were one in what Kaminsky believes is the "yoga-ization" of Newark, a word she’s coined as this practice finds its way into people’s lives. There’s gotta be something to it when the Shabazz High School football team in Newark recently did a session with her.
Kaminsky said the movement is picking up, and it continues on Sept. 23 at Newark Schools Stadium. Nearly 1,000 people are expected to be doing yoga there during Gobal Mala NJ, an event to promote peace. Until then, look for Kaminsky in the downtown office building or across the street at the park winding down as she did Wednesday.
The class sat up straight after feeling nurtured and content lying on their side like sleeping babies.
They placed their hands together just above their heads, forming what looked like the letter V with their fingers spread apart.
"This is the gesture for victory, which every single one of you had tonight," Kaminsky said.