Vancouver Yoga Center owner Melonie Nielson, 45, can recall the first time she tried yoga. It was long before the United States experienced a recent onslaught of yoga studios, and with it gimmicky trends like yoga with cats, goats, or even with beer.
“I’m like, ‘Do they go out for beer afterwards?’ Maybe for community building — I could see that. But when they’re literally taking the beer on the mats … I don’t know how this supports wellness in any way,” Nielson said.
According to a November 2018 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9.5 percent of adults in the United States practiced yoga in 2012. By 2017, the number had increased to 14.3 percent, or 35.2 million people.
It was a different picture back in the 1980s.
At 17, the Portland-area native was staying in Nebraska with family to “check out the Midwest lifestyle.”
“I think there were maybe two (yoga) teachers in the entire state at that time,” Nielson said, sitting cross-legged in a chair at the end of an empty hallway outside the studio, which is on the second floor of the Broadway Business Center.
Vancouver Yoga Center
Location: 1101 Broadway, Suite 216, Vancouver.
Number of employees: Four part-time employees, not including owner Melonie Nielson.
Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: Employment of fitness trainers and instructors is expected to grow by 10 percent through 2026. “As businesses, government, and insurance organizations continue to recognize the benefits of health and fitness programs for their employees, incentives to join gyms or other types of health clubs are expected to increase the need for fitness trainers and instructors,” the BLS reports. The annual mean wage for the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro metropolitan area for the job is $21.20 an hour, or $44,100 a year.
“They were more of just community centers. They didn’t have props, they didn’t have yoga mats and all of that,” Nielson said of the country’s early yoga scene.
At the time, she had rotoscoliosis, she said, causing her back pain. Scoliosis occurs when one’s spine is curved. With rotoscoliosis, it’s not only curved, but also rotated, causing pain.
A friend gave Nielson a gift certificate to give yoga a try. Maybe, she thought, it could be “one physical thing” she actually enjoyed, since she doesn’t like going to the gym or playing sports. It worked: she said the back pain never returned.
Fast forward almost 30 years. Nielson sits at the front of a room, leading a group of just over a dozen in a meditative practice before indulging in poses. After all, much of the draw of yoga is the philosophical and meditative piece, combined with fitness. According to national survey data cited by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health — a branch of the federal government dedicated to researching alternative medical practices — 86 percent of people said they practiced yoga to reduce stress; 67 percent said it helped them feel better emotionally.
“Ommmmmmm,” the group at her 1 1/2 -hour Yoga Refinements class vocalized in unison on a recent weekday.
“What is our reaction when we stop at that end point? Is our personality wanting to push through the edges, or do we shy away from the edges? Or can we lean into them and stay a gentle flow?” she asked the class following the first pose. Then students dipped down on all fours, slowly moving their backs and stomachs in circles. “There’s no right or wrong, just exploring.”
Nielson secured the downtown Vancouver space six years ago, she said, after spending between six or seven years in another location that became too expensive to operate.
Prior, she ran her studio out of a now-defunct Hazel Dell business called The Herb Trader, where she frequented because of an interest in herbal medicine. A particularly persistent employee there, she said, pushed her to teach a class. She initially had no interest in yoga and only wanted to be a massage therapist.
“The nudging and the pushing,” she said. “I never would have done it on my own.”
She still operates a massage practice part time and works roughly 50 hours each week between yoga and running the massage practice.
“I wanted to offer something to the people who came in and said ‘I can’t do this pose, it hurts this part of my body or that part of my body’ and I had something to say other than ‘just don’t do the pose.’ That’s just not an acceptable answer. How about looking at them and seeing what their body is doing?” Nielson said.
“When I was in my 20s, I was like ‘Give me another challenging pose. I’m just going to do the next pose after the next pose’ and it became all about poses and mastering a pose,” Nielson said. “Then life happens, and you get injuries — sometimes in yoga class and sometimes in life.”
Nielson’s classes are comprised mainly of students in their 40s and 50s.
“I see them as they come in later (in life), they’re wanting something else or more from their yoga practice,” Nielson said, adding that those in their 20s and 30s tend to seek out yoga more for the workout.
Vancouver resident Dene Grigar, director of Washington State University Vancouver’s creative media and digital culture program, has taken Nielson’s class since 2006.
“The first thing Melonie said is ‘You don’t have much flexibility in your shoulder.’ Yoga has really progressed a lot in the way people use it; it’s not just about breathing and running through a series of poses anymore,” Grigar, 64, said. “Melonie’s practices are about alignment and how the different muscles work together with the bone. It’s about the body as much as the mind.”
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The Vancouver Yoga Center offers an array of classes, not all taught by Nielson. She recently started developing videos so people can follow along at home or give yoga instructor trainees access to her teachings online. And, for better or for worse, you definitely won’t find beer or goats at Vancouver Yoga Center.
“We do not jump on the next yoga bandwagon trend or teach gimmicky yoga, but have consistently taught alignment-based yoga for 20 years,” Nielson said.
However, she does support a different yoga trend: bringing children into the mix.
“I’d love to see more of those trends. Get them young and teach them concentration skills and self-regulating skills. Help them understand their emotions more and how to deal with that in their body, too. These are all skills we as adults need, and if we learn them all when we are younger, how wonderful would that be?” Nielson said.