December 4, 2018

Employee Spotlight – Amy Widner

Amy you have been a Yoga instructor for a while now, what drew you to Yoga and ultimately your decision to become certified?

I discovered yoga the same way many people do – at home, alone, on a screen. I think my mom got the VHS from Fred’s in a two-for-one deal with a Richard Simmons video, if that helps put a date on it.

So for many years, yoga was a quiet, solo activity for me. I dabbled with gym classes now and then, but something was always missing. Amy doing warrior 3 yoga poseThen, in my late 20s, I was forced to get more serious about my health. The stress of my then-job at a newspaper was wearing me thin and leading to an exhausting game of medical whack-a-mole. I recommitted to my yoga home practice, shaped up in other areas like diet, cardio, sleep and meditation, and sought deeper yoga instruction outside of my home practice.

I landed at the Floating Lotus in Little Rock, where I had the good luck to learn from Michelle Bradley. It was the first time in my life I saw someone leading a class who didn’t fit the stereotypical media portrayal of yoga instructors as thin flexible young white women. That portrayal can make exercise seem like a luxury only available to people who already meet idealized beauty standards, or make it feel like achieving beauty standards is the main goal of exercise. Instead, Michelle was unapologetically curvy, and boy was she strong! She was incredibly kind, welcoming and dedicated to making yoga accessible for all types of people. I saw myself in her in some ways and aspired to be more like her in others. Above all, she got me thinking about how to take exercise out of the framing of good/bad, fat/thin, social expectations about appearance, and exercise as – punishment, almost. Instead, exercise could be more about the joy of having a body – any kind of body. And once I started to think those kinds of thoughts, I felt free to try all kinds of new things.

A year or so into my studio yoga experience, I found myself in a time of transition. I was taking the first steps toward ultimately leaving journalism in search of a more balanced lifestyle, and I was reconsidering a lot of what I thought I “knew” about myself. Could I be coordinated enough to remember my right from my left? Could I have the confidence to talk in front of a group of people? Could I use my own body – of all things! – as the visual aid? It all seemed kind of crazy to me, but I decided to let go of what I thought I “knew” about myself and embark on the 10-month journey of yoga teacher training at the Floating Lotus.

Amy and kids on pinnacle mountainOf course, I discovered all kinds of new things about myself, and by the end of teacher training, there was no question in my mind that I wanted to teach. I graduated in January 2017, and I would say that the learning didn’t stop there. As a teacher, I learn from my yoga practice and from my yoga students every time I step onto the mat (or sit in a chair! I teach chair yoga and chair-assisted yoga in the Institute on Aging four days a week). Teaching yoga keeps me active and calm, allows me to be creative by coming up with classes, and gives me a sense of community.

What’s the number one side effect from your healthy lifestyle that you feel is the most important?

I include healthy eating, mindfulness and sufficient sleep under the “healthy lifestyle” umbrella, but let’s focus on exercise for now. I think the absolute, number one thing is that it improves your relationships with other people. By that I mean a couple of things: 1) exercise helps you stay calm and stress-free (or uplifted, if you have a tendency to get depressed) and it’s easier to be kind to others when you’re in that state; and 2) for me, exercise is best when it’s social, so it has helped me widen and deepen my social network of other people who are out there trying to fight the good fight and make healthy decisions for themselves and their families.

If someone were new to yoga, what advice would you give them? What should they buy/bring?

I’m a no-fuss kind of person, and I believe in keeping yoga as economically accessible as possible. With yoga, you can totally get away with spending very little.

Amy Widener demonstrates chair yogaThe average cheap ($10-$20) yoga mat will do just fine, and a lot of local studios will loan you one for free.

There are plenty of expensive “yoga clothes” out there, but don’t feel like you have to buy them before your first class. Look to some of the clothing you already own. For the legs: think about range of motion. Can you do a deep lunge or a wide-legged split in the leggings, pants or shorts? For the top: go for something form-fitting. We don’t go upside-down a lot in our everyday lives, but you will in a yoga class, so make sure your shirt isn’t going to flop down into your face. Other than that, consider whether you typically get hotter or stay cooler than other people and dress accordingly.

The other thing to consider is where to have your first yoga experience. Starting at home is an option if you’re shy about contorting yourself in front of other people. There are plenty of yoga videos online, including free videos on YouTube and many high-quality subscription services (ex: YogaGlo, Yoga International, Ekhart Yoga). If you’re going to a studio or gym, look for classes labeled for beginners or call and ask for advice about which classes to start with. When it comes to price, we’re lucky at UAMS to have the $15 gym membership. Yoga studios can be expensive, but there are plenty of people who are working to keep yoga economically accessible, like Yoga in the Rock, which provides free yoga classes in local parks.

Finally, attitude is important. No one expects you to do everything on the first day or the 100,000th day. Our bodies are all different, and there are some poses that you’ll never be able to do. Others will come and go, and that’s part of the yoga experience. So don’t show up to your first classes being too hard on yourself. It won’t be fun, and you won’t come back. Instead, please consider yoga as an exploration of your body at that specific point in time. See what feels good and lean into that. See what doesn’t feel good and lean on back out or listen to your teacher for advice on modifying or trying a different pose. Remember to breathe, smile and be kind to yourself.

You and your family have been active together, going on hikes and more. Do you feel like this has drawn you closer Amy with familyas a family and do you feel like they are learning a healthy lifestyle from you?

I’m lucky to have a boyfriend, Cliff, who is very active and is willing to do the hard work of hauling gear around and researching adventures. That means that I have the pleasure of just showing up to hike, mountain bike, road bike or kayak, whatever the weather calls for. He also goes to yoga with me. It’s heaven.

We rope his children into these adventures as often as possible. Like all parents these days, we are competing with screens for their attention, so we do our best to show them the beauty of the real world around them. In Arkansas, that feels pretty easy. We have so many opportunities here to enjoy being active in nature. Often, at least one kid is complaining at the start of the journey, but by the end, the complainer has excitedly explored amazing rock formations or gone zooming down a big hill on his bike with a bigger smile on his face. The pleasure of being outside wins eventually.

I’m lucky that the younger kids (8, 13) have gone to yoga with me (it helps if there is a gimmick like kitten yoga or blacklight yoga with glowing paint, but I’ll take what I can get!), and we all enjoy playing active games like Dance Dance Revolution or Just Dance if the weather isn’t cooperating. They also love the indoor trampoline/adventure parks that have cropped up across Central Arkansas.

44898884_10107449510458183_8525103851668242432_nEveryone has that one excuse that keeps them from trying some sort of new activity, what would you tell someone who says they just don’t have time to be active?

The latest federal guidelines throw out that old notion that you had to raise your heart rate for a minimum threshold of minutes in order for it to be good for you. Any bit of exercise you can squeeze in, in any duration, is beneficial. The message is clear: Just move! I’ll tack on my advice: Try to enjoy it! If you practice combining those two things, chances are you’ll find yourself moving more and more.