Breath of Life
Sandra Dennis is something of a lifesaver.
Not my life, not yet anyway, though I do intend to return to her yoga studio and do some more sessions under her calm and soothing guidance. The life she’s currently working on saving is my mom’s. It’s been a rough road for her lately.
See, my mom is a survivor of the first order and honestly, she’d be OK on her own, but it’s the support and care from others along the way that make all the difference.
My mom’s been to hell and back several times throughout her life. She didn’t have a great childhood—she grew up in a very strict religious household where something as mundane as going to the movies was sinful and forbidden.
Effecting an escape of sorts, my mom eventually met and married my father, and they were together—‘til death did they part—for 27 years. But still, “normalcy” proved elusive. While my older brother and I were typical kids, my little sister was diagnosed with leukemia at just seven months old. The rapid change that sort of news brings to a family puts a poignant, intense kind of stress on a parent. Rachel’s death three years later strained every aspect of my mom’s life and tested her own will to survive.
But there was hardly time to grieve or stop to care for herself. My brother and I were children and needed dinner made, and rides to swim practice, and help with homework. All the normal things. And, of course, my mom obliged. Even after such a life-altering event as losing a child, our childish needs for “normalcy” prevailed. She’s mentioned in the past that it was my brother and I and our routine needs that kept her going through that dark time.
So that was hell-trip number one. Trip number two started just six months after Rachel died when my father suffered his first heart attack. It might well have been a physical manifestation of a broken heart over the death of my sister. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was, but so commenced his slow, 13-year spiral toward the end of his life. Mom was his caregiver through the whole ordeal.
In between tending to my dad, she also held a full time job and had to keep part of herself separate for me and my bother. By the time my dad went on disability, I was in college, and though not at home, I was struggling with my own transitions. My brother had already graduated from college, but he still needed her, too. Somehow, unimaginably, there always seemed to be just enough of her to go around. That’s because she wasn’t keeping anything back for herself. Everything was for her family, and it’s always been that way.
My father’s death was in some ways a relief. His pain was ended and life’s tasks got simpler for my mom but emotionally more complex. She had to negotiate the big question of, “What now?” She finally had some time and energy to do things for herself, but what? She lost a lot of weight. She started going out with friends. She took up ballroom dancing. And even though I know it was hard for her to be alone, she grew as a person.
Two years after my farther passed, she met Bill Mitchell, a CPA and total charmer born and bred in South Jersey. He swept her off her feet with compliments, flowers, and true romance, another one of those so-called “normal” things she’d never really experienced before. They were very suddenly in love and within a year were married.
For the next 10 years, my mom had a decidedly “normal” life. She worked a few years more, teaching English at a local high school, and then retired a little early so she and Bill could travel. They took cruises, and planes, and trains. They went to Alaska, China, Germany, the Caribbean, and lots of other places in between. They frolicked and laughed and loved each other fiercely.
But then this past August, the unthinkable happened and Mom started down that familiar path back to hell for the third time. One weekday morning, Bill headed out for a round of golf with a close friend, waved goodbye to my mom, and never came home. He died on the course instantly of a massive heart attack. He had just been to the doctor the week before and there was nothing noticeably amiss. Aside from the typical admonitions that he should lose a little weight, Bill was hale, and the amazing doctor who had coached my mom through the loss of my sister and my father deemed him healthy.
The shock of such a sudden passing threw us all for a loop. With my sister and my dad, there was plenty of lead-time to get one’s mental affairs in order, so to speak, to resign ourselves to the fact that these vitally important people were going to leave us for good, and sooner than they should. With Bill, there was no warning. It just happened, and thankfully, that means he didn’t suffer. But my mom is suffering now.
Since Bill died, my mom’s life has totally upended. Though well traveled, she’d never lived anywhere outside of southern New Jersey, and at age 68, the same day that Hurricane Sandy ravaged New Jersey, my mom—who’s name also happens to be Sandi— left behind nearly everything she knew and moved to Massachusetts to be closer to me and my brother.
As she settled in here in eastern Massachusetts, where winter seemed to last forever and spring is only now making itself known, my mom expressed an interest in returning to yoga. She had practiced a bit as a younger woman, and had always enjoyed it, but had lost touch with her practice, for obvious reasons.
My husband and I wanted to foster this rekindled interest as a way of helping to support her during a difficult time—there’s been so little else we’ve been able to do—so I cast around online for some local options.
And that’s when I found Sandra.
Originally from northern England, Sandra Dennis owns the Yoga Leaf Studio in Framingham, Massachusetts. A small practice space tucked around the back of a non-descript strip mall in Framingham, one of Boston’s sprawling suburbs, the studio’s vibe is tranquil. Dennis offers various types of yoga, but I was most interested in getting my mom enrolled in Yoga Nidra, as I thought a soothing, relaxing practice would do more for her than high-intensity or high-heat yoga ever could.
Thankfully, Dennis is a kind yogini who was happy to accept my mom into her class and help guide her along this exploration of difficult feelings through gentle movement. I spoke with her before getting my mom a gift certificate for Christmas and was stuck by how genuinely solicitous Dennis was about my mom’s situation. That care wasn’t just to make a sale either; it’s how she runs her studio. “It’s been really wonderful,” my mom says.
I joined my mom for a restorative yoga class at the Yoga Leaf last month and had a chance to experience it for myself. I’ve done a fair bit of heated “power yoga” over the past several years, but by no means am I an expert. Though a vastly different approach to the yoga classes I’ve taken before, I enjoyed the calm, centered space Dennis created for the class, her gentle lilting accent guiding us surely and slowly through the tender movements. I left feeling more relaxed than I have felt in quite a while. I wondered how Dennis does it.
“I started yoga a long time ago,” Dennis says. “I was 16—that’s a long time ago,” she laughs. Now 51, Dennis says, “I think yoga saved me in my teen years and kept me grounded and sane.”
As a young adult, Dennis moved back and forth between Canada and the UK, taking up and dropping yoga along the way as the spirit moved her. She eventually landed in Boston in 1986, lured here by her husband, and she’s been here ever since. She wanted to continue her practice in Boston, but at that time, options in the area were limited.
“I searched high and low for [a yoga studio], and there weren’t many around. I finally found a great teacher and studied with him for about five years and looked for a program where I could get trained.” Dennis studied at the widely-respected Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Western Massachusetts and did all her official training with them.
Dennis began teaching and at first was a nomad, “lugging my blankets from studio to studio where I rented space,” she says. A few years ago, her friend who owns a painting and gift shop in Framingham offered Dennis the back room, a lovely rectangular space hidden in the back of the shop. It was the perfect place for a low-key studio, and thus was born The Yoga Leaf.
Dennis offers a range of classes, as is the Kripalu way. “I follow their style more than anyone. It gives you such a broad range. I offer yoga nidra, prenatal yoga, and then a few other levels. Your mom is in my gentle yoga class.
“It’s very gentle,” Mom interjects.
Dennis also offers a “Yogi Bears” class for children who attend with their parents, and she says the energy during that class is decidedly different than during some of her restorative classes.
Dennis is the only instructor working at the Yoga Leaf right now, though that might well change in the future. In the meanwhile, two or three other instructors rent the space from her when it would otherwise be empty. “I didn’t want to manage a big studio or other teachers. I really just wanted it to be about the yoga. If you don’t like me, that’s fine, there’s lots of other yoga studios in the area.” Times have changed, and there are now many options in Greater Boston for different kinds of practices.
In researching options for my mom, part of what drew me to selecting Sandra was the reviews I found online that raved about how relaxing, restorative, and calming her classes are. “That’s exactly what my mom needs,” I thought.
Last month, using me and this story as an excuse, my mom and Sandra had a nice chat. “My husband died in August,” Mom said slowly, control in each word. “Because Elaine and my son and his family are up here, I sold the house and moved up. It was six weeks after Bill died that I was here. And it’s been a real struggle. And I need…” she paused, taking a deep breath. “I have a lot of stress. This is exactly the kind of thing I need. I look forward to it every week. I go home feeling less stressful. Not completely, but less. At least for a little while.”
Restorative yoga has become a re-set in my mom’s week, a chance to reclaim a tiny piece of inner peace amid the rest of the swirl she’s currently dealing with. Yoga has a particular power to provide this kind of support for people in distress who may be dealing with major change or loss because of the focus on breathing, Dennis says.
“You’re learning different techniques to calm the flowing systems in your body. The breath work is really the key. Not only are you calming and soothing with breath, you’re being mindful.”
To further explain what could be a vague term, Dennis says that mindfulness is a grounding, centering action. “Instead of your mind being the ‘monkey mind,’ chattering and being off doing its thing—that’s what our minds do— you’re giving it a focus and guiding it back. ‘Oh, my body. How does my body feel?’ You’re becoming much more mindful. I think that’s the key of yoga. Sure, it keeps you flexible and can keep you strong, but it definitely calms and soothes your mind with the breathing techniques.
“The breath work is the most important for me and how I teach. I hope that’s what people receive. You might not know that’s what it is, but I think by bringing your mind into the focus of your body, that centers and grounds you again. Even if it’s just a second, your mind isn’t off doing all its crazy chattering.”
My mom, who in the car on the way to class that night told me almost verbatim how Dennis describes ujjayi breathing, says that message has been received. “I actually have used [calming breaths] during the day when I get really stressed. I think, ‘I’ve got to stop, and I have to breathe.’”
Dennis is pleased my mom is using techniques she’s learned in class on the outside, as that’s the real aim. “Sometimes you feel like you’re losing that sense of control,” she says. When that happens it’s time to re-gound and “get back to breath. We practice on the mat, but the goal is to take that practice off the mat so you carry it with you throughout the day. You’re not just holding space for that hour in class, it goes with you. Whether it’s a reminder to stand up tall or pausing to take a breath.” She sighs heavily and says, “I’ve landed.”
When the rest of the world is upside-down and beyond our control, our breath is something we can hang onto and control. “We have to breathe, why not do it mindfully?” Dennis says.
For my mom, finding her practice, both on and off the mat, is helping in many small and powerful ways. She’s lost a lot of weight recently—an added bonus—but that hasn’t necessarily been the goal of getting back to yoga or improving her diet. She’s just regaining the center of herself through this difficult chapter, and she’s moving forward one breath at a time.
“It’s not about weight loss. It’s about de-stressing and coping. That’s what it’s about,” Mom says. “Sandra’s just a lovely woman and right now it’s very helpful to be going. I should probably be going more often.”
I’m glad my mom is going as much as she is, and hopefully she will be able to continue and deepen her practice as she moves through the grief. For that, I’d like to say “thank you” to Sandra and all the other yoga teachers out there who are helping to make a difference in people’s lives. Your work matters.
And although Mother’s Day has already passed, it’s never too late to say, “ Thank you, Mom.” Just for being you—an amazingly strong person who I admire deeply. I love you, Mom, and I’m proud of how well you handle everything this life has and no doubt will continue to throw at you.