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Offbeat Occupations: Yoga teacher a trainer in graceful aging

January 9, 2012

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Yoga instructor Alice Steuerwald leads her Friday afternoon Yin Yoga class on Dec. 30 at Lawrence Athletic Club, 3201 Mesa Way.

Yoga instructor Alice Steuerwald leads her Friday afternoon Yin Yoga class on Dec. 30 at Lawrence Athletic Club, 3201 Mesa Way.

The sounds of a sitar and a pair of hand drums flow from a stereo in the corner of the room. Ten colored yoga mats are splayed across the center of the floor.

On each mat is a woman, her body contorted into a crescent low lunge: one knee on the ground, both hands pressed to the mat, her heart open.

At the front of the room is Alice Steuerwald, a yoga instructor at Lawrence Athletic Club, 3201 Mesa Way, and Be Moved Studio, 2 E. Seventh St.

Crouching on her mat, Steuerwald wears a green head wrap, a tank top, sweatpants and a pair of dangly earrings. Her hair is short, choppy and peppered with gray. Her posture is perfect, effortlessly erect.

“Gaze up. Steady your breath,” she says. “That’s your gauge: your breath.”

Steuerwald surveys the room. She spots a student, an older woman, struggling with the pose. The woman fights to achieve, then maintain the shape, but her body keeps slipping from position.

“You can modify it on the floor,” says Steuerwald. Suddenly Steuerwald’s body collapses, then tumbles gently to the mat. She twists into the shape of a can opener, demonstrating the same pose from the ease of the floor. She lingers a moment, then springs back to her feet, returning to the stance upright.

“Reach your arms to the sky,” she says, then she plunges her own arms to the ceiling.

Steuerwald has been a yoga instructor in Lawrence for 17 years. Some of her students, like Tanya McNeely, 46, have been with her for just as long.

“She doesn’t think she knows it all,” says McNeely. “She is constantly bringing in teachers and going to get training and just helping people.”

Steuerwald, also a structural body worker, started as a fitness instructor for women.

“I realized women were more emotional, that they needed to find their power and strength, (so that) we can heal ourselves” says Steuerwald. “So I took a martial arts workout and created a strength training class for women.”

Shortly after that, Steuerwald started teaching yoga. At the root, her passion for yoga stems from a desire to help people find a sense of self and well-being.

At 16, she worked as a restorative aide in a nursing home. Witnessing people descend into old age had a profound effect on her.

“I saw what happened to people who … were controlling, attached to things no longer serving them and their fears,” she says. “But the people of faith, the people of peace, they pass peacefully. You really do have to train for old age to grow old gracefully.”

Steuerwald’s yoga philosophy is an amalgamation of modalities from different academic areas — physical therapy, sociology, structural body work and plant medicine. She’s created her own yoga course, which she changes regularly to keep dynamic. She designs her classes so that anyone can join.

“I’m working with people who can’t do traditional classes because of their structural imbalances,” says Steuerwald. “I don’t get caught up in the pose. I am not a pretzel teacher because I don’t know what use any of that does for you.”

People with illnesses and injuries practice alongside athletes in Steuerwald’s yoga classes. She reminds everyone not to get caught up on what to they think the pose should look like. Instead, she advises them to focus on breath. She believes a person can change his life by changing the way he breathes.

“A lot of people don’t want to deal with the breath because your emotions are behind it,” she says. “I want your emotions to come up. If you can get into that quiet place of just your breath, the real stuff starts to bubble up.”

During each session, Steuerwald strolls the room and reminds her students to direct their attention to their breath.

“No thoughts,” she says. “Just breath.”

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