After caring for their cancer-crippled mother over the past few weeks, Ben Rosenberg and Claire Van der Zwan sought respite in the soothing setting of nearby Lithia Park.
Practicing yoga amid the park's flora and fauna helped ease weeks of stress and fatigue that culminated in the Tuesday death of their mother, 86-year-old Lilli Ann Rosenberg of Ashland. The siblings spent Thursday morning steadied by the voice of instructor John Arnold and gently supported through sequences of hatha yoga.
"We decided let's do it because it's gonna make us feel good," says Rosenberg, a 45-year-old Portland resident. "It's so easy to stay in bed."
Arnold encourages attendance by hosting the classes free of charge and accepting donations. Participation hovers around 15 men and women who arrange their mats on the park's lawn, its grass still wet from watering. The only mood music is the constant burbling of Ashland Creek, a light breeze rustling the maple leaves overhead, birds twittering in the trees.
"You want to be like a weather vane — point into the wind," says Arnold, coaching the group to counterbalance their bodies in dancer's pose.
The "easy flow" format, says Arnold, accommodates beginners at a pace that allows time for reflection in each posture. Most participants are women between 25 and 50 who have some experience with yoga, but Arnold eagerly draws novices into the class.
Mary Coombs was strolling through the park a few weeks ago and stopped to watch the class. With the loan of Arnold's yoga mat, the 67-year-old Miami resident tried the last 20 minutes.
"It looked interesting, and these people seemed to be having a good time," says Coombs. "It fit in with part of what I've loved about Ashland."
Planning to stay in town for two months, Coombs bought her own mat so she could attend more yoga classes. In about three weeks, she's gained awareness of her body and worked toward better balance. Bringing virtually no yoga experience to the morning meetings, Coombs says she plans to look for a class back home and reconnect with Arnold in Ashland next spring.
Formerly of Southern California, Arnold has been teaching yoga in Ashland and Medford for just two months following about two years of travel in North and South America for construction clients. Given the industry's slow pace locally, Arnold drew on more than 30 years of teaching yoga to find his place in a new community, admittedly one that has no shortage of instructors.
"John's one of us," says Kim Keller, who attended Thursday's class and teaches "white tantra" yoga at Ashland Yoga Center.
"Each teacher brings their own gift to it."
Arnold discovered yoga as a 19-year-old whose body had been battered in a motorcycle accident and his spirit bruised by his father's death in a plane crash. At Bikram Choudry's Yoga College of India in Beverly Hills, Calif., Arnold rehabilitated his physical form and found his way to the discipline's spiritual path, one that he says has been unfolding for 30 years.
Now 56, Arnold says he usually doesn't extoll his training with Choudry, who trademarked his namesake 26-posture program and remains a somewhat controversial figure in the yoga world. Nearly opening a Bikram franchise in the early 1970s, Arnold says he realized that yoga is "extremely creative" not "dogmatic" and that the more powerful movement within the discipline is to honor the feminine aspect.
Rosenberg says he has been taking yoga classes for years in Portland but never with a male instructor. Although Arnold initially reminded Rosenberg of actor Paul Hogan of "Crocodile Dundee" fame, he says Arnold's gentle approach and minimal monologue belies assumptions about men teaching yoga.
Arnold's teaching style complements other instructors at Medford's Rasa Center for Yoga and Wellness, which recently assigned him the early-morning slot Mondays and Wednesdays, says Rasa owner Mariane Corallo.
"He has a calming spirit and a formidable yet soft presence that makes his classes meditative and unique," says Corallo.
Although the idea of holding yoga and other exercise classes in Lithia Park is not unique, Arnold is the only person to host yoga there in recent months, says Rachel Dials, recreation superintendent for Ashland Parks and Recreation Department. Dials emphasizes that Arnold isn't behind a city program but rather an "informal gathering," much like groups of people periodically practicing tai chi in the park.
"I think it's great," says Dials.
So do Arnold's students, including Keller, who refers to the "energy" of the outdoor environment that colors the class. Keller says she has convened friends and family for yoga in Ashland's Railroad Park but never has known anyone to treat Lithia Park as a yoga "studio" before Arnold came along.
"I can't imagine why we haven't been doing this!"
Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email email@example.com.