Job Spotlight: April Laxton, yoga teacher and owner of Art of Yoga

It doesn’t garner quite the same attention as running, bicycling and cross-training. But April Laxton says yoga can have just as big of an impact on peoples’ health and lives as any of those physical activities.

The Columbus native has been doing yoga for 14 years and teaching classes at Art of Yoga in Columbus for three years. She took a major step at the beginning of this year, acquiring the Second Avenue yoga studio from Tanya Edwards-Jones, and is now using the skills she honed as a property manager at Greystone Properties to run the business.

“Tanya’s still very much involved with the studio,” Laxton said. “She teaches most of our workshops. She is our senior lead teacher. She is going to stay here and continue teaching. She wanted a little bit less on her schedule and on her plate, and I was ready for a little bit more.”

Such a transition into ownership could be stressful for many people. But during a recent visit to Laxton’s studio, you couldn’t tell it. A class had just been completed and she was a picture of serenity, taking a seat on a cushion to discuss her job of yoga teacher and the benefits of the activity.

There are various types of yoga, she noted, including gentle yoga, vinyasa yoga, hot yoga, rigor and restore, and yoga sculpt. The studio, which has six teachers, also is looking to make a difference in the community, offering free Monday classes for cancer survivors, classes for pregnant women, and a 6 p.m. Friday class to help introduce people to the benefits of stretching, breathing properly, and becoming “mindful” of one’s body while blocking out daily distractions.“We really want to reach out to our community and serve our community,” Laxton, 44, said.

Let’s start with less stress — is that yoga at its essence?

Absolutely. I think that’s the first thing that comes to people’s mind, that yoga will help them relax and clear their mind and stress.

Why make the transition from the professional world of property manager to this?

I was just studying yoga, and coming to classes here and doing yoga on my own at home and going to workshops and retreats. Then, several years ago, it came time for my oldest son to start middle school and my youngest daughter to start pre-k.

I loved my job at Greystone. But with my children, I needed a more flexible schedule to be available for them. So, originally, I told Greystone I needed to take a few years off; I’ll be back when my kids get squared away in school. And I was going to teach yoga just for fun.

But I found it was something I was passionate about, and clearly it’s grown to be more than I ever thought, and now I love it. I feel like this is what I should have been doing my whole life.

Is this less stressful than managing an apartment complex or other property?

You know, people ask me if I ever get stressed out, or if I have stress. I’ll say this, I don’t care who you are, what your profession is, how many kids you have or don’t have, you’re always going to have stress. The difference is knowing how to identify it and how to deal with it.

Because we’re all human beings?

We’re all human beings; so it could be a sick partner or a sick parent. That can be very stressful and that has nothing to do with your occupation. That has to do with being a human being.

How long has Art of Yoga been around?

About 12 years, I think.

It’s a business veteran?

It really is. Tanya opened Art of Yoga when there was no other yoga in Columbus. It wasn’t at this location. She’s had a couple of different locations. But I believe she moved here four to five years ago.

That’s with downtown taking off. Are you seeing things get busier, being here in the Historic District?

Oh, yes. We do have clients who live downtown in the historic area and walk here. We’re also really accessible to Phenix City. Fort Benning is an easy commute to here. A lot of people that work downtown will leave work and come right here, no matter where they live in town.

It feels and looks pretty relaxing with the trees and pretty architecture in the area?

It’s beautiful. I think the building itself and the trees make a real calming, soothing environment.

Everyone thinks of being healthy through physical exercise and diet. Do you think yoga doesn’t quite get the respect it deserves?

I do think a lot of people associate yoga with gentle stretching. And while it is certainly that, the health benefits from yoga are innumerable. It’s been shown to help lower blood pressure and increase bone density — so it can maybe help prevent or reverse the signs of osteoporosis.

It is weight bearing, but it’s not high impact, so it’s not going to harm your joints. It’s helpful for folks who have scoliosis, sciatica. I can just kind of go on and on.

Mindfulness and yoga, and breathing, is something that has been studied and shown to stimulate the parasympathetic (nervous) system. And I certainly have folks who tell me they lost weight. We have some very rigorous yoga classes. Hot yoga would be one of those.

Hot yoga definitely sounds rigorous.

It is. You’re going to sweat. (There’s an overhead heat source pushing temps to 100 degrees) You’re going to have some sore muscles the next day, a kind of good sore where you know you’ve worked out. But you’re also going to increase your cardiovascular rate. You’re going to sweat and detox.

Our vinyasa yoga is a fast-paced, and fast-paced type of yoga. So while people associate it with stretching and flexibility and relaxation, it can be rigorous.

But we certainly have the gentle yoga, restorative yoga. We do yoga breathing and meditation in our classes. We like to say, while not every yoga class is for everyone, there is a yoga class for everyone.

I take it yoga can be part of an overall fitness routine?

Some people come in and know they just want a gentle yoga class because they’re a runner or they do Crossfit. So the gentle yoga and restorative yoga helps to, one, keep them stretched and loose, but it also undoes some of what the constant pounding and contracting of the muscles does to the body. And then we have some people for whom yoga is their primary way for staying active.

Is there a certification for becoming a yoga teacher or instructor?

I took a 200-hour training class that’s certified through the Yoga Alliance. They offer certification classes all over the world. They offer some in Atlanta and in Auburn. It just depends on if you want to do something every couple of weekends or if you want to do like I did. I went away for a month and came back certified.

That was a total disconnect, going to Baja, California, Mexico for three weeks and living right on the beach?

It was wonderful. I wish I could do that every year. It was really eye opening. I lived without TV, Internet access, newspapers, cellphone service, etc. Up until that point, I did not realize just how bombarded we are with stimuli. In our society, we live with constant stimulation and little time to actually decompress and process our thoughts and feelings. That experience led me to a much deeper understanding of how important mindfulness and meditation is in our lives.

What was a key element of your own yoga training?

In the 200-hour training, the first thing is alignment, understanding anatomy and how yoga alignment keeps you safe. We are very much an alignment-based studio, meaning that’s my priority. If you come in and this is your first class, I want to make sure that we’re giving you correct steps so that you have correct alignment and don’t get injured.

Posture is a big deal?

Exactly, the position of your hands, your knees, your feet. If it’s done incorrectly over time, you can injure yourself.

Do you have to be a people person to be a teacher?

Yoga oftentimes requires what we call hands-on adjustments. You certainly want to have a good rapport, so when you need to help and assist your client, they feel comfortable with you placing your hands on them. It takes a tremendous amount of trust and respect, and a yoga instructor has to earn that and really be able to convey their sincerity, their warmth, their genuine concern.

Can you become a yoga instructor or teacher at any age?

Sure, absolutely. For years I joked that I would become a teacher after I retired, and in my mind I thought that meant like 70. I just didn’t know that it would happen this soon. In New York, there’s a yoga teacher who is like 96 and she started teaching in her 60s, and she still teaches. She’s very active and can do one-arm balances and all kinds of great things.

Is it more important as you age to take up something like yoga to keep you active and balanced?

I wish I had been introduced to yoga as a child because I think it would have helped me in school. It would have helped me in friendships and relationships. I think we all have that chatter in our head, constant worries or concerns. What’s tomorrow going to be like? Should I have done this? Should I have done that? There’s that voice in your head that never seems to shut up.

Is that even moreso today with social media and distractions around every corner?

Oh, yes. How often do you see people having lunch together, but they’re constantly checking their phones. I think if you’re going to go out to lunch with your best friend, then be with your best friend. If you’re going to sit down and have dinner with your family, then no cell phones allowed at the dinner table. Sit down and have dinner with your family. Just focus on that.

Sometimes it’s not even cell phones. I watch people and they’ll walk into this (studio) room and their mind is just going a mile a minute. I can see it. You can tell they’re in deep thought.

And the first thing we try to do in yoga is have people center in. So it does get a little bit quiet. We tell you to just listen to your breath, close your eyes, and as I say, see if you can get off that eight-lane busy freeway to a two-lane country road and just slow your thoughts down.

And a key is that what you learn and practice in class, you can take home or to work or on vacation?

Right. If you’re driving down the street, just take a few breaths. It can bring you back to present and help calm you down, and just make you feel better.

Is breathing one thing lots of people need to work on?

We take very short, shallow breaths, and you want to take lengthy — not just deep inhales — but you want to slow the inhalation and exhalation down. It really is calming to your whole parasympathetic system. It will slow your heart rate, and help lower your blood pressure.

Is it inevitable that you will become more flexible with yoga?

All it takes is consistency and you will see flexibility increase. It’s better if you can do it twice a week. But even once a week you’ll see some benefits.

But it’s not just for flexibility. You will increase your muscle (she strikes a prone push-up pose to demonstrate). I had no upper-body strength. I couldn’t do a push-up. We do a lot of what we call jump backs, and we’ll do that over and over through class.

Have you had any soldiers or tough Rangers come to class?

Yeah. We have a lot of the soldiers come out. They’re coming for the flexibility, but I think also for the stress relief. We also have couples that come together. The husband can get more flexible and the wife can get stronger.

Yoga also is done by athletes?

A lot of the professional athletes are taking yoga to try to prevent injuries. There’s a great book called, “Real Men Do Yoga,” but it’s actually great for anybody to read. Eddie George, the NFL football player is on the cover, and he talks about if you’re a football player and you’re getting tackled — someone’s coming at you with all of their weight — if you don’t have any flexibility or bend, something’s going to break eventually. So he realized that staying flexible would help keep him from getting injured.

I think sometimes when we’re focusing on building the muscle, we lose the range of motion, and that’s not really good, either. So you want to have a balanced body that’s strong and flexible.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

I have the best job in the world ... I really love what I do ... But sometimes people will call on the phone and they want to know exactly what they’re going to experience. You just have to come and experience yoga for yourself.And sometimes a person will walk in and they’re coming to a very active class, when what they need is something gentle, or maybe the opposite. It’s sometimes hard to communicate to people why they should come back and try a different style of yoga, just be open to trying yoga.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of teaching yoga?

There’s so many things. But the one thing consistently is that in most every class, someone says thank you. They say: I feel better now than when I came. That was what I needed. I feel so much better now.

Do you think you’ll stick with yoga until you just can’t yoga anymore?

I hope so, because there’s nothing more inspiring than a 96-year-old woman who’s in great shape and loves waking up and doing what she does every day. That’s who I want to be when I’m 96.