Jan Crerie's fitness and yoga studio on Mill Street is a little non-descript on the outside. It blends in with the paint store and landscaping office down the street. Walking inside, though, you get the feeling you've returned to a place that you knew long ago. It's comforting, yet hip, a combination of New York loft and day spa.
"Yoga is not a religion," says Jan, owner of Body Grace. "It does, however, complement anyone's belief system."
Why the need for distinction?
In the U.S., 20 people practice yoga. It seems like the masses have finally caught on that yoga induces relaxation in our breakneck speed world, gives us a stronger core, more flexibility and the psychological rewards are clear. Yoga can break stress eating cycles and build discipline to face stressful situations in a healthier light.
There's confusion today, though, about how yoga is regulated or governed. As William Broad, the author of The Science of Yoga, puts it, "It's a free-for-all. Over the ages, the freedom has resulted in a din of conflicting claims."
Jan takes issue with Broad's statement. "The Yoga Alliance," Jan notes, "is the national education and support organization for yoga in the U.S. They are the ones who register teachers and yoga schools. It is true that being registered is not mandatory, so there are some schools and teachers who choose not to do so. Some states have started to regulate yoga schools; Virginia has so far chosen not to do so."
Not surprisingly, it seems like people have many different views about what yoga is. When some people visit Jan's studio they say, 'Wow, I feel great.' In their amazement they exclaim, 'I feel like I've been to a gym and a spa.' Other people try yoga for the first time because a friend has brought them or a doctor told them to go try yoga (which is promising in and of itself because it means that medical professionals realize that yoga practices are sometimes a better alternative to taking pills to feel better). And it's these clients, Jan acknowledges, who can get a bit overwhelmed. They've been told a number of things about what to expect but sometimes breathing can seem like its own practice during a yoga session and there are all these strange and exotic words. Jan says you have to give it time. After around the fifth class things start to click. Folks have by then usually worked through the awkwardness.
The journey to yoga was a long road for Jan and one she would have never predicted. The heart of Jan's yoga practice is in direct response to her own life’s evolution. It all started with a hole in her life.
After creating a happy home life with a loving husband, two beautiful girls and an established career in fitness, at age 30 she fell into a depression. Jan says she believes her mental health troubles were caused by difficult emotional experiences of her childhood she hadn't fully processed. Her husband encouraged her to try a church to help work through it. She joined a church in Vienna and began to feel less lost.
She became devoted to prayer, found a relationship with Christ and thrived in the church community. After a while she introduced a fitness class to the church, which became very popular with parishioners.
She says she never felt a connection to yoga in those early years of teaching fitness. It was the late 1990s. Yoga was out there, but it didn't appear to offer what Jan wanted in a fitness regimen which was to make her feel like she was walking away from a work out.
In 1999, Jan attended the Reebok University Conference near Tysons Corner. At one of the workshops a physical therapist named Deborah Ellison was demonstrating the moves of Flexible Strength training, a program that some would consider similar to yoga. From their website: "Its East-West synergy yields strong, fluid movements that require a focus of the mind and the body that is as challenging as it is invigorating."
Jan soon started peppering her classes with the flex strength program and before long she had the makings of a one-hour class. Jan's training for yoga, since that initial introduction in 1998, has been extensive. Visit her website for the impressive background on Jan’s yoga training.
Jan's philosophy on the practice of yoga includes focusing on the individual standing in front of her while ensuring that he/she is working in the context of what he/she is physically ready for. She mentions the people in this area are very competitive and very militant about their work outs and so, too, yoga practices have morphed to mirror those desires in fitness. But it also means there are more injuries. People are being pushed past the point of what they’re ready for. Head stands, for instance, can lead to injuries and problems with the neck and so these postures aren’t for everyone.
Jan's yoga practice has progressed to a place where the spiritual aspect has become as important as the physical. The reason why: "It doesn’t mean anything to me if I can’t take it off the mat. Strengthening our foundation, letting go of what we can't control, giving compassion to others and ourselves — these are the intentions that we focus on in class that we then try to take with us into our daily lives. They are a demonstration of how we are all fundamentally connected."
Inside the inner sanctum of Body Grace the tree art displayed is more than just pretty decoration. To Jan, the tree stands for the Tree of Life, or the universal tree, an icon for cultures the world over. The tree which represents the Body Grace logo is a message that everyone is welcome. But look more closely. It's the continuous symbol of yoga's wisdom, from mat to meaningfulness: the tiny leaf falling from the tree reminds us that cycles change and we ultimately must let go of old burdens.
Jan has the reserved demeanor and poise of a ballerina, or at least of someone who has committed her life to the intense focus and passionate contemplation of an art where only the most serious-minded ever roams. Soon to be a grandmother, she has the stamina and physique of a twenty something. And she knows how to be formidable when she wants to.
Jan politely interrupts two women talking in the lobby before class. They are having a heated discussion about an upcoming election. "No more political talk. This is neutral territory."
Body Grace is located at 215 Mill Street, NE Vienna