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No Place Like Om

Downtown Sanford got a yoga studio in a year when many people — those experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety and even depression — needed yoga most. Yet, it’s the root of all of that stress (COVID-19) that has limited the number of people who can work out in an indoor studio and enjoy the escape and health benefits that yoga offers.

It’s the ultimate Catch-22. Or, rather, Catch-2020.

But like the practice she teaches, Jan Smith — owner of Seva Yoga at 235 Wicker Street in downtown Sanford — has kept a positive mindset throughout the first four months of launching her new business. Her studio will one day run at capacity. Her clients will one day feel comfortable exercising indoors among their peers.

And when the world is ready to move on and shed the negativity of the past nine months, yoga will be there.

“There’s definitely been an atmosphere of anxiety with 2020,” says Smith, a native of Broadway. “Yoga has become something familiar and comfortable for a lot of people during this time. It just helps you feel better physically and mentally. It’s a big stress reliever.

“And that’s something we could all use right now.”

Yoga was never part of the plan for Jan Smith, a Lee County High School graduate who studied biology and science at Wake Forest University and UNC-Chapel Hill. She studied cell biology research in grad school and took courses in anatomy with medical students — that education would eventually serve her well as a yoga instructor, as understanding the body and how it moves (flexion and extension) is crucial in understanding the benefits of yoga.

“I always thought I would teach in some capacity,” she says. “But, of course, I never thought it would be yoga. It turns out, I use anatomy a ton now … it’s really come in handy.”

Smith hadn’t tried yoga until her late 20s — after college and after she and her husband Brian had their first two children 17 months apart. She stayed home with the children while Brian was in his orthodontics residency, and she took her first yoga classes at the old Nautilus in the evenings when she could find the time.

She instantly fell in love with it.

“It was exercise. It was a mental break. It was stress relief. It was all of these things wrapped up into a one-hour class,” she says. “I stuck with it pretty consistently for the next 12 to 13 years.”

It wasn’t until 2017 when a friend of Smith’s convinced her to try a yoga teaching training program with her in Durham. She went into those classes not necessarily with the intention of becoming a teacher, but to simply learn more about the practice itself.

“When I got out, I felt like I’d learned so much,” she says. “I was even more enthusiastic about it, and I wanted to share that enthusiasm with other people. I knew that it made me feel better, and I knew that it could make other people feel better. I’d gained such a new depth of knowledge in that teacher training, and that enthusiasm led me to want to teach others.”

Yoga has been around for over 4,000 years — originating in India and surviving and thriving on three core elements: physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation. It has proven to be more than just a “relaxation therapy” for those who practice it — Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine recently published an article on the “9 Benefits of Yoga” and recommended it for people going through an illness, recovering from surgery or living with chronic pain. Among the benefits: improved strength, pain relief, better heart health and more energy.

Smith’s background in biology and clinical research made her well suited to better understand these health benefits, and her time spent in teacher training sparked the idea that she could do this full time. By 2019, she’d already taught a few classes at the local YMCA, and at year’s end, she had taken the first steps toward opening her own studio.

The first hurdle was location.

Fortunately, Smith and her husband knew Charlie Storm, who was in the process of moving his business, Back to Dirt Bike Shop, from the Tramway area to downtown Sanford (next door to Hugger Mugger Brewing Co.). The entire first floor of the building was enough for Storm’s business — the second floor had been used as storage (and before that, an apartment) by the previous owners.

“We just happened to kind of tag along with Charlie one day when he was looking at the building, and we wandered upstairs, saw this space and thought, ‘Wow … this is a cool space,’” Smith says. “Before that, I’d had friends who were encouraging me to teach more or to open my own studio. After seeing this space, I saw the possibilities. I thought Sanford could really use something like this. A yoga studio could be great for downtown.”

The decision to take the leap and start her own business came in January. Smith knew she had what it took to teach yoga and she now had the space. What she lacked was the experience of running her own business. Her friend Kelli Laudate, executive director of Downtown Sanford Inc., introduced Smith to the Real Investment in Sanford Entrepreneurs program — also known as RISE — which, fortunately, was accepting applications for its inaugural class around this time. The program, which introduced the students to local business owners and provided a crash course in business planning and the ins and outs of starting a company, was hosted by the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, the Chamber of Commerce and DSI, in conjunction with the Central Carolina Community College Small Business Center.

Smith was among a group of 12 in the inaugural class, which was tasked with presenting a business plan as a final project. Her plan for Seva Yoga earned Smith a $5,000 grant from the City of Sanford to help jump start her business.

“Writing the business plan was probably the most beneficial thing I got from RISE,” Smith says. “Just having to sit there, think step-by-step about how I was going to do this. It was a huge help … that and all the marketing advice that I got. I’ve never been a big social media person, but I knew I needed to learn it and market to my target audience.”

Eva Rogers — one of five teachers/instructors on the staff at Seva (along with Smith, Dana Rubick, Kathryn Brownfield and Holly Glasson) — calls downtown Sanford’s yoga studio “long overdue.”

And at a time when anxiety, stress and depression are at peak levels during the global pandemic (especially for parents), Rogers says Sanford needs more health and wellness options like Seva.

“I think Jan took her love of yoga and the love of her hometown and took a chance,” she says. “Yoga is truly for everyone, I feel, and the benefits are real to your body, mind and spirit.”

Smith was well into launching her business when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all non-essential businesses in March. She admits that, at first, she took the ban on all indoor workout facilities as a sign that perhaps starting a business in 2020 was a bad idea.

“I was always hopeful, but there were definitely times when I would wake up at night and think, ‘What am I doing?’” she says. “And especially when I signed the lease. But I kept telling myself we were going to pull this off, and everything was going to be OK.”

Seva Yoga officially began as an outdoor class. Smith taught in people’s backyards or outside of community centers in those first months over the summer. Her first clients were friends and friends of friends. Many were thrilled to get back into yoga after months of staying home and developing bad exercise habits. Many others were just happy to get out of the house and be among friends, even if at a distance.

Smith saw that not only were people in her class benefiting from the physical demands of yoga, they were also grateful for the chance to lower their stress levels and focus on something other than homeschooling and Zoom calls.

“There’s definitely a mental health benefit there,” she says. “This past year has carried with it an atmosphere of anxiety. Those who stopped doing yoga and got back into it this year — it provided something familiar and soothing to them. It’s a big stress reliever, and many people need that right now.”

On Sept. 14 — the day North Carolina transitioned to Safer at Home Phase 2.5, allowing for the reopening of workout facilities and other indoor areas — Seva Yoga officially opened as a studio. Smith’s first class had exactly two people in it. But it was a start. And Smith knew it would take time for people to feel comfortable working out indoors again.

The group that arrived for the Dec. 28 afternoon class numbered five — just below the current capacity of six. Each mat was spread out. Each woman in the class wore a mask. A few talked about eating too much over the holiday break.

Some things never change.

While January would typically be a much busier month for yoga studios and gyms — thanks to New Year’s resolutions and the overall desire to burn off those extra pounds from the holidays — there’s a lot of uncertainty about the short-term future. While the approval of two COVID-19 vaccines are cause for hope, current case numbers in Lee County and North Carolina are at an all-time high. According to Smith, many who joined her for those outdoor workouts are still unsure about joining others indoors.

But the vaccines offer something that 2020 lacked, and that’s hope. And when people are comfortable indoors again, Smith and her studio will be there for them. A desire to serve others is the inspiration for the name Seva, which is Sanskrit for “selfless service” or work performed without any thought of reward or repayment.

In ancient India, seva was believed to help one’s spiritual growth and at the same time, contribute to the improvement of a community.

“I just thought it was a really nice concept,” Smith says. “Let us help you. This is our service that we’re providing — yoga is here to help you feel better and make you a healthier person. That’s ‘Seva,’ and that’s our goal in all of this.”

Published: with permission from The Rant, By Billy Liggett | Photos by Alicia Hite