Laura Harrison is the founder of Enlighten Yoga + Community Center in the Clock Tower Complex in Amsterdam. She spoke recently with The Leader-Herald about her background and her goals for the center.
The Leader-Herald: Have you lived in this area all your life, or are you new to Amsterdam?
Laura Harrison: I was born and raised in Amsterdam, but did some travel domestically and internationally, lived in Albany for years and in Miami for a short while. I came back to Amsterdam from Miami very consciously with a drive to open a yoga center. I toyed with being in Ballston Spa, and though that would have been more financially successful, I felt Amsterdam needed someone to believe in her. The bad ideas people hold onto so tightly color the overall view of the city, and I don't believe the commonly held negative views are at all accurate. I believe in the value and beauty of this place and that Amsterdam is slowly developing into its next burgeoning manifestation. It had its boom many years ago, but why isn't a renaissance possible? It is possible, and I feel it is happening.
Laura Harrison is seen June 21 at RiverLink Park in Amsterdam during the summer solstice yoga and music festival she organized there.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer
Leader: When did you establish the Enlighten Yoga + Community Center? Is running the center your main occupation?
Laura: I started the center under the name Natural Method Yoga Studio after the style of yoga I teach, of which I am the founder. I opened my doors on East Main Street by Riverside Pizza Oct. 2, 2006. I was at the Walter Elwood a short time in 2008, and then moved into the Clock Tower Complex a few months later. I changed the name to Enlighten in 2010 because I wanted to welcome a broad spectrum of teachers, not just in my own style. Since I opened in 2006, this has been my only job.
Leader: How did you get involved in yoga and meditation? Could you describe your background and your training in these areas?
Laura: I found yoga after years of not feeling truly at home within myself, not steadily confident and not as connected to other people as I wanted to feel because of my constant unease about myself. I got a job at a gym in Albany for the free membership. I have always had a scientific mind, so I'd talk the trainers' ears off, picking their brains for real information that could lead me to my goals. I obsessed about physical goals, though now I realize the underlying motivation was inner peace and real comfort and happiness. So my need to improve how I felt about myself led me to my passion for wellness and fitness. I became a certified group fitness instructor in 2002, and competed two personal training certifications in 2004.
However, in spite of my aptitude as a teacher and trainer, and in spite of my daily long workouts and dangerously restrictive dietary issues, I couldn't find happiness within myself or peace within my own body. I was exercise-bulimic, in fact, and anorexic. I would restrict my calories way too much. I was miserable. Every day was full of suffering.
One day, I just couldn't stand being so filled with self-hate anymore. And yoga sort of popped into my mind. To me, it was just the next certification, but it quickly changed my life. I studied at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram in Nassau, Bahamas, for a month to obtain my certificate. At the time, I lived in Miami. It was an intense personal experience - emotional, and a very deep transmission of wisdom. Yoga has been part of my lifestyle ever since. Every single day. It's not just the poses, but mainly the mindfulness, as it's called, that is so potent and transformative. It's present-moment awareness, as opposed to fixating on the past or potential in the future, or even getting lost within one's own mind, but connecting your mind and physical senses back together in the actual moment. It sounds so simple, but it's truly profound.
Through the years and my experiences, I have developed my skills and a specialty of helping people with specific medical concerns to find freedom, health and comfort, transcending their previous limitations. I have found that every difficulty I have surmounted in my own life has directly given me the tools to empower others to find healing, from eating disorders, post-traumatic stress and spine/alignment concerns. I have helped people eliminate back pain numerous times because it's all about retraining the posture and mechanics of the body. We have to use the structure of the body the way it's designed to be used, or else we are going to damage it. Most people have no clue what that even means, but practicing yoga teaches you, in a visceral way, through the direct experience.
Leader: What is the Enlighten Yoga + Community Center's mission, and how well do you feel it has been received by the local community?
Laura: My mission, bottom line, is to empower people to believe in themselves, to trust their hearts, to live their truths, and to take full responsibility for their own health and happiness. I aim to give them clear information, experiences, potent tools for this process, and a lot of validation and support.
I feel like the studio has received an overall very positive response from the community, but as time goes on, it has been even warmer. I have heard numerous people say how happily surprised they were that there is a yoga studio closer to home than Saratoga or Albany. Slowly, I am building a beautiful following of self-motivated students, and they treat me with incredible respect, and I give them all I have to give in each class.
Leader: You recently organized and hosted a "kirtan" event on the evening of the summer solstice at RiverLink Park in Amsterdam. Could you explain what a kirtan is, and what was the purpose of the event?
Laura: A kirtan is much like any other concert in the exterior sense, musicians playing, people listening, except for two things - kirtan entails a conscious intention, and it is interactive; it's call-and-response.
The intention a person sets is an individual thing, but generally people set an intention for the experience to become a better, more loving version of themselves. Kirtan is another form of yoga, a singing meditation. It is a spiritual thing, but its intent is to be universal. So at a kirtan, more songs are in Sanskrit than any other language, but depending on the musician, you may find uplifting songs from any tradition, and in any language.
The act of singing is a movement of energy. Any act of breathing, singing, vocalizing makes a difference in our state of feeling and awareness.
People feel relaxed, inspired, uplifted, happier, more free from self-consciousness after attending a kirtan. The singing changes the energy in the air. It's palpable. Set a conscious intention for any action, and do it with all of your heart and focus, and it has an effect.
Leader: Your website says you are interested in expanding the Enlighten center to serve more students and include practitioners in other healing/meditative/fitness fields. Could you give some examples of what new things you'd like to offer?
Laura:?So I feel supported, I just need to keep bringing in more students. My students often bring new people in as well. It's a beautiful thing - that something I offered made a difference in someone else's life to the point that they wanted to share it with another.
I basically need more people to follow through on their genuine intentions, because so many people have told me that they want to take yoga lessons or learn to meditate, and they say it with such genuine inflection, they truly mean it. They crave it at a deeper level; however, it's much easier to resist starting new habits, and people stay stuck in ruts for a long time before actually forming a new, healthier groove. I need people to get out of their ruts and try yoga, because once they feel better, they can't forget the difference it made.
This expansion has been something that has resurfaced several times since 2008, and I believe that now is the time. The scene is ready.
I want to include a counselor that works with Eastern modalities like mindfulness meditation. I've asked a fabulous massage therapist who also does medium and energy work, waxing and spa treatments. I want a talented acupuncturist, possibly one who does Ayurvedic (Indian natural healing) treatments as well.
The site I am currently looking at is in the center of Amsterdam and has room for four practitioners to have their own space, plus a full yoga studio and a small private and semi-private lesson studio, in addition to a cozy little meditation room that would be available to the students when they need to be alone if something intense comes up. We'd be able to hold a full yoga class and a private lesson or meditation class simultaneously. I'm already talking to some of the best instructors in the Capital Region to host as guest teachers, plus we'd have a core of amazing teachers as our regular lineup.
I'd also offer healthy cooking workshops, teaching people real skills with real food. My cooking is no joke - it tastes good as well as nourishes the body. Good food can taste good and be full of nutrition too. After eating healthfully, people lose a taste for nutritionally sparse foods and begin to crave nutritionally dense ones.
Anyone who is interested as a teacher or practitioner is urged to contact me via EnlightenAmsterdam.com
Anyone who is interested as a student or client is urged to look at the above site and begin taking classes right away. We put too many things off in life. We utilize efficiency in the wrong ways at times. We need to start doing things that make us feel healthier and happier immediately, we need to take action. So come, get past the initial discomfort of the unknown, and try it out.
Leader: Are you planning any more upcoming events you'd like people to know about?
Laura: With some beautiful and very big personal things coming up, I have the special events pared down. We are hosting Mary Elizabeth Parvati Sheehan from Texas on Sept. 14 and 15 for a weekend training in assisted yoga, where the participant remains relaxed, and the instructor moves them through a series of poses. The effect is similar to both yoga and massage and it is very nourishing and relaxing. It is extremely good for anxiety or post-traumatic stress. That is a training for teachers or interested individuals. In the fall, we will host some more amazing kirtan artists and guest teachers. I'll keep you posted, or folks are urged to check our site regularly or friend me on Facebook.
On Oct. 5, a beautiful woman named Sharada, who is living in Ithaca now with her family, but is originally from India, will help us celebrate our seventh anniversary as a studio with an Ayurvedic (gluten-free and vegan) cooking demonstration and a kirtan as well.
There will be much more to come in the future.
For more information about Laura Harrison and the Enlighten Yoga + Community Center, see enlightenamsterdam.com