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by Brendan Higgins, contributing writer
Photo, top: West Bay YMCA Run Club
There is a certain vibe I get from a significant number of people I encounter these days. The feeling is the world changed – and not for the better. So many feel we live in troubled times with impending doom on the horizon. I say most people because after spending time with yoga teacher, Amber Hanks, I know she is one person who does not subscribe to these ideas.
She is a long way from her childhood hometown of Winder, Georgia. 994 miles to be precise. It’s a small town outside Athens about an hour away from Atlanta. I asked Amber what brought her to Rhode Island. She smiled and said, “I was destined to come here.” Amber feels she may not have always been aware of it, but there was always this foreshadowing of her being in New England. From as early as a childhood school fieldtrip to Boston she can reflect, now, and see it with clarity. For the past decade she has made her home in North Kingstown with her husband, Joel, their 3 children, Madison, Savannah, and Brady, and 2 cats, Ziggy and Phoenix.
While attending the University of Georgia, Amber had her hands full being married with 2 young daughters to take care of. She was looking for an outlet to relieve stress. She had limited free time on her hands but did have a window of time for herself after classes while her girls were in day care.
She ran track and played soccer in her youth, so Amber decided to take up running. She started out on a treadmill at the gym. She set a goal for herself to run 3 miles. She achieved her goal of 3-miles and was a bit surprised she could run that far. Nonetheless, she was also quite pleased. At first running was not enjoyable for Amber. In her own words, “It was definitely hard work.” Over time and after logging some miles she started to enjoy her road work. She transitioned to running outdoors and increased her distance. She entered some local 5K (3 miles) road races and was winning the overall female division. She tries to downplay these accomplishments by saying the races and the field of female competitors were on the smaller side. In reality she was starting to excel. Having a good showing in the local races in Georgia reinforced her growing passion for running and the cherry on top was it had become fun. Over the next several years Amber and running developed an on-again off-again relationship but her serious running was yet to come.
When she first moved to the Northeast in 2010, Amber was going back and forth between Rhode Island and Georgia. This was when running went to another level for her. She enjoyed running alone but also in groups of friends. She was a member of the West Bay YMCA run club. The women in this group were extremely important to Amber. They developed a camaraderie with each other. They would run and share about what was going on in their lives. They formed a bond. They ran for hours on end. When she was in Georgia, she began running with her friend, Ashley Walsh. The duo shared a passion for adventurous running and would run the trails at Fort Yargo State Park in Winder. This was when Amber began to set her sights on a half marathon.
She entered her first half marathon (13 miles) on her home turf inside Fort Yargo in a race called “Xterre Thrills in the Hills.” She completed the race without stopping and felt strong crossing the finish line. After running in several half marathons including one in Newport, Amber entered her first full marathon in the city of Warner Robbins, Georgia. Along with Ashley they completed the race. Afterwards, Amber felt a feeling of euphoria that lingered the entire day like being on a cloud. She was experiencing the joy of a runner’s high. This led to more marathons. Amber was hooked. I grew up watching my father run year after year in a Newport marathon and witnessed with my own eyes the gut checks involved in this type of running. At times it can be brutal to watch as a few runner’s bodies gave out and they collapsed to the ground trying to complete the course. That of course is only one dynamic to marathon running. Most of the time it ranks up there as the most inspiring performances of human endurance and willpower you could ever witness.
Completing a marathon is a phenomenal achievement, in its own right, but there is another level of running known as Ultra Marathons, and Amber was about to take her running to that whole other level. Here is a brief description. An Ultra Marathon is going further that the traditional 26 miles 385 yards. In some cases, they go on for days. Races in excess of hundreds of miles (yes you read that correctly) can involve missing a night or several night’s sleep. Amber went from the days of trying to work her way up to 3 miles on a treadmill to the astounding accomplishment of running 81 miles.
Amber reflected on when the seed for movement, being outside experiencing nature, exercise and the ability to just keep going was planted. She concluded it started in her childhood. Back in Georgia as a young girl her family spent a great deal of time outdoors. Her family participated in BRAG (Bike Ride Across Georgia). It’s an annual event where families and individuals come together and ride across the state. Each day they would ride a section consisting of 50-100 miles. It was a week-long endeavor, finishing in Savannah. Amber admitted she complained frequently earning her the nickname “Ambarella”from a neighbor also on the ride.
When Amber began living full time in Rhode Island she was fortunate to check off all the American Dream boxes in life. She was happily married. She had 3 amazing children. She had a loving group of friends.
She lived a healthy lifestyle with a good diet. She felt connected to her community. She was teaching group exercise classes at the YMCA in North Kingstown. Sounds pretty good right? Yes, it would sound good to anyone except for one thing. Amber was experiencing this deep underlying sadness that she couldn’t understand. She would look around and see a near perfect life but couldn’t get a handle on why she was feeling so sad inside. The way she dealt with this internal dilemma was to run away from it. No pun intended. She found running to be an effective way of suppressing these deep feelings of sadness. She knew she was experiencing depression, and running was temporarily treating it. She could run and push her body and keep whatever “it” was at bay. She could literally run for hours. Along with her friend, Janine Parkins, they ran the Rhode Island 6-hour Ultra Marathon. Another time they ran most of the North South Trail stretching the entire length of the state of Rhode Island. A staggering 48 miles from north to south and 37 miles from east to west. Yes, running was offering relief, but the sadness would eventually catch up to Amber, leaving her perplexed.
This is where Amber Hanks story takes a pretty amazing turn. In 2014 she made the decision to try a yoga class. She began attending a Yin Yoga Class led by yoga teacher Jen Thomas at All That Matters in Wakefield. In this style of yoga, it is not uncommon to stay in a pose for long periods of time. Amber recalls holding poses for up to 7 minutes. She couldn’t remember consciously being still that long for any reason prior to stepping foot in Jen’s class. At least not being alert and present to it. Jen would read poetry from one of Amber’s favorite poets, Mary Oliver, during class. She loved when Jen would sprinkle these words into the practice.
While Amber was dipping her toes in different types of yoga, including Vinyasa, her extreme running began to naturally fall away as this new yoga experience was starting to grow. She became aware of a new yoga studio opening its doors just minutes from her home called Rhode Island Power Yoga, or RIPY. At first glance Amber felt this was likely going to be more of the same push her body to the limit type of class she had already experienced in life. At this juncture she was trying to slow down and learn to use her internal braking system. She wanted to explore going inward more. Amber was basing her judgement on the name of the new studio. She believed she had been there, done that. When it comes to endurance and pushing the human body to its absolute limits, she unquestionably had. So, she opted not to give the new studio a try. With RIPY being so close to home she would drive by all the time. It’s located inside the Stop & Shop Plaza on Ten Rod Road right next to Starbucks. In time she found herself walking in and taking class. After class Amber concluded this was the perfect marriage between endurance, physical challenge, sweating and the mental challenge combined with consciously being receptive to going inward more and slowing down. After one class, Amber knew she would be returning. She had found her new yoga home.
Amber’s journey to her yoga mat is a long and winding road. Literally. While she was discovering what was going on inside the walls of RIPY, she was helping others on their quest for physical fitness, leading group exercise classes at the YMCA. She taught Interval Training and Tabata classes. She practiced yoga frequently. Her husband, Joel, brought up the idea of Amber becoming a yoga teacher. He felt she would make a great teacher and offered a loving nudge suggesting Amber take the next teacher training offered by the owners of RIPY, Renee Deslauriers and Philip Urso, called Live Love Teach. Teacher training is offered from coast to coast. Turns out this particular teacher training is world renowned and just happens to be located right here in Rhode Island. At first Amber wasn’t sure if she really wanted to do it, but in 2015 Amber signed up for the training, embarking on the next phase of her journey as a yoga teacher.
The first teacher training Amber participated in was held at the beautiful Eden Manor in Wakefield. A 26 room Victorian Mansion built in 1840 located on a private country setting. A perfect space for a week long yoga experience. A small group of 14 people gathered for what Amber described as a transformative experience. She revealed a lot of her long-standing personal beliefs changed. It was as if they began to drain out of her making room for a new way of thinking and living. It fundamentally changed the way she viewed the world. Up until this point Amber believed the world around her was creating her emotional state of being. In fact, she put a great deal of stock in that belief. Teacher training took her way down deep inside of herself. During her time at Eden Manor with Renee and Philip, Amber was introduced to a book called A Course in Miracles. This book was used in the teacher training and opened her eyes to a whole new way of thinking. It was that powerful for her and many others. The facilitators explained to the group the only way to become comfortable teaching is to get out there and teach, and Amber did just that. She offered a class at the Y. She offered a class at the Plum Beach Club, and she brought yoga home to her family.
It was only a matter of time before Amber started teaching at RIPY. The more time she spent teaching changed her personal practice from something she was doing a couple of times a week to a whole new lifestyle. Today she is a regular in the rotation of teachers at RIPY.
For anyone who is new to a power yoga class or is curious about the benefits of this practice, Amber shared that the poses help increase strength and flexibility. Taught correctly someone new to this practice will be reminded not to turn to endurance or the gym mentality. Especially when it can start to get overwhelming, and you feel like it might be too much to handle. You will also be guided how to not slip into boredom yet still be challenged, engaged, present and focused. Amber also touched on Breath. I asked her about the benefits of breathing in yoga class and she offered a powerful answer. “It’s a way to regulate one’s nervous system.” This one statement is reason enough to try a class at RIPY. Amber has studied this topic at length and is aware how foreign it could be to someone who is unfamiliar with yoga or breath work, so she explained it like this: Breathing can help energize and calm, simultaneously. Focusing on an inhale can help you feel more energized while focusing on an exhale can make you feel calm. Simply put, paying attention to breathing can change the way you feel. To summarize, Amber would recommend a class at RIPY to find a path to inner peace. We all find ourselves in tough life situations and over time this yoga practice teaches us how to access the tools to remain calm and bring attention back to the present moment while noticing what is happening around us as well as what is going on inside of us. The practice can also bring awareness to our emotions, thoughts and sensations in our body while being able to have a choice in how one decides to react to them.
During my discussion with Amber, she also talked about meditation. Her personal interpretation is the ability to stay alert be present and witness whatever is happening inside at that moment while observing from a neutral place. After a moment of reflection, Amber added not only to be neutral to whatever it is but to also have compassion for it. She feels it can be brought into any aspect of life. Whether it be cooking, cleaning, exercise or at work.
I asked Amber how often someone new should practice yoga. She said it was different for everyone. It has a lot to do with what a person is able to commit to and show up for. She feels repetition is key to establishing a yoga practice. The poses, the breath, and the meditation. It isn’t something you go do for an hour a week and then put it away until the next week. Yoga practice can’t be separate. It needs to become a living, breathing part of your life. She offered this for an answer, “That is something everyone needs to figure out for themselves. It’s a personal journey and it’s not my decision to make for another person.”
From time-to-time Amber will host workshops on a variety of topics. Last year she held one on dream interpretation. She offers specialized yoga classes. She offers private yoga sessions. She told me she learns through teaching. It could be something she is interested in, or it could be a subject matter someone presents to her. She leaves the door wide open for specialized yoga classes and workshops. Some of the topics are far from mainstream like Self Genital Mapping, Breast Massage and Naked Yoga. Part of her motivation is to remove shame. Amber will soon be participating in the professional certification program for the study of Somatic Sex Education. In addition to everything else she is doing, Amber teaches at Inspiring Minds in Providence empowering students for success in school and life by supporting them with tutoring and mentoring. She is introducing young students to mindfulness as well as social and emotional wellness. She works with kids ranging from 6th graders up to High School students. She is currently working with students at Hugh B. Bain Middle School in Cranston. Her insight is quite remarkable. She puts these ideas for a workshop out to the world, so she doesn’t keep the idea hidden in a box in a certain corner of her life. My experience being around Amber is she is as drama-free as a human can be. She is a true spiritual warrior. She is a truth seeker. She accomplished extreme physical challenges and knew there was more for her to learn. She never turns off her curiosity. She certainly knows how to set fear aside and keep moving forward.
After listening to Amber Hanks’ story, I asked her if the sadness she spoke of earlier that ultimately led her to yoga went away. Her answer was as honest as it gets. With a smile she said, “Sadness will still stop in and pay me a visit from time to time, as I am human. Today the difference is I know she is a valuable messenger and when I sit with her and allow her voice to be heard and felt, she moves through just like she is meant to. Tears may be released, and my body may soften. I’ve come to learn sadness, like other emotions, simply wants some love and attention. Yoga is not a practice to make anything go away, rather to expand my capacity to be with all my thoughts and feelings.”
Amber Hanks welcomes questions from anyone interested in learning more about yoga classes, small groups, private sessions, and women’s workshops or regarding any of the variety of topics discussed in the article. You can contact her directly at: email@example.com.
Brendan Higgins, writer and author, RIPTA bus driver, former professional wrestler (Knuckles Nelson), and North Kingstown resident.
We welcome Brendan as a contributing writer to RINewsToday.
To read a story about Brendan, from our sports department, go to: https://rinewstoday.com/knuckles-nelson-waking-up-from-the-wrestling-ring-to-the-yoga-mat-john-cardullo/
Higgins is the author of “Waking Up: From the Wrestling Ring to the Yoga Mat”