Going to the Mat

At a tough time in her life, a North Bethesda mom found her calling as a yoga teacher

Photo by Liz Lynch

Yoga instructor Debi Schenk can teach up to 12 students in the basement studio of her North Bethesda home, where there’s always an extra guest sitting nearby waiting for class to end. That’s when Schenk’s dog, Juno, snuggles up to a student who’s lying face up in a resting pose called savasana. The Maltese-poodle mix often sneaks in a lick or two before moving on to the next person. “He knows when I settle everybody down it’s his time to go and say hi,” says Schenk, 50.

Six years ago, Schenk was laid off from her job as vice president of product development at a company that sells nutritional supplements and other products. At the time she was newly divorced and both of her parents had recently died. “It’s hard adjusting when you’re divorced and your kids are only here half the time. You’re trying to figure out your life,” she says. “I was in this deep, dark hole, and it was either like, OK, you’re going to fall more and get completely depressed, or you’re going to climb yourself out of it.”

After job hunting for a few months, summer came and her two kids—daughter, Blayne, then 13, and son, Spencer, 11—left for sleepaway camp. A friend suggested that Schenk, who’d been practicing yoga since she was 28, take a course to become a yoga teacher. During the five-week session at a studio in D.C., Schenk found the support of the other students to be a bright spot. “It was like being submerged in a safety net, honestly, when your life just sucked,” she says.

Schenk decided to become a full-time yoga instructor, and soon had a packed schedule with time carved out to be home for her kids. Now she practices yoga herself three or four times a week and teaches roughly 110 vinyasa flow classes a month. She describes it as a style of yoga that can be more of a workout than other types of yoga because you’re constantly moving through poses. In addition to private and corporate clients, she works at three studios—extendYoga in North Bethesda, Yoga Bliss in Gaithersburg and Village Yoga in Potomac. 

She also has taught at Anytime Fitness, a gym in Kensington, for four years. There, a woman in her 60s, who had severe back problems before she started taking yoga, is now pain-free and doing headstands in class. The students she teaches at Anytime Fitness have become a little family, Schenk says. They clap for each other when someone masters a difficult skill, and laugh together when someone falls over while doing the one-legged tree pose.

“We’ve all grown together,” Schenk says. “I grew as a teacher, and they grew as students. They’re like, ‘You saved us.’ And I’m like, well, you saved me, too.” 

“Growing up, I dabbled in everything but was never good at anything. I ran track and I swam. I always sort of felt defeated, like I was never good enough. I started doing yoga and was good at it, and felt strong. I was like, this is my thing—I finally found my thing. I did it when I was pregnant with the kids up until the day they were born. I just have never ever stopped.”

“I have a lot of sympathy for people that have super tight shoulders because I was over a desk for 25 years and my posture was getting really bad and I had to recorrect everything. There are poses that are very difficult for me still. When I see students struggling with that kind of stuff, I will say, ‘That’s a hard pose for me, too.’ I don’t want people to think yoga teachers can do everything.”

“Vinyasa has become the most popular yoga style around here because people are so busy and they don’t want to go to yoga and walk out without sweating. We’re all so tightly wound; you want to do vinyasa flow because you’re going to get sweaty, your heart’s going to start beating a little more than in a slow yoga class, and you’ll feel like you got a workout when you leave. You’re flowing from pose to pose with your breath, pretty much moving for the hour.”

“One of my clients is in her 80s. She’s a little too unstable to get up and down my stairs, so I go to her. She was one of my first clients. All we do is chair yoga. I just stretch her out, make her feel better, make her lower back feel better. For older people, yoga can really improve the quality of the remainder of their life.” 

“When people come and they’ve never been on a mat before, they’re so intimidated, and I’ll say, ‘Look, you’ve got to give yoga a couple months. You’re twisting yourself into all kinds of shapes, and taking your limbs long, and doing things you’ve never done before.’ I don’t care if you’ve done Pilates and Spinning. Nothing is like yoga.

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