As we enter a new year, I thought I’d take time to speak with someone who deals in both spiritual and mental health: the founder of Studio 34 Yoga, Angela Nelson. I caught up with Nelson as she was driving to Colorado to start a new chapter.
PGN: I read that you were into athletics when you were young.
AN: I was always physically active as a kid, but never any organized sports. I grew up in the country, so we were always running around. When I was in high school, I used my bike for transportation, which was a little unusual for the area. And then when I went to college, I became a runner and ran almost obsessively. I’d go to the gym and I played a lot of racquetball. Looking back, I was running away from healing work that I hadn’t been able to do. I’d run for several miles, then play racquetball and then go to the gym. The intensity allowed me to find a way into my body, I guess. When I started practicing yoga, that slowly started to unwind and the intensity began to fade, which for me was very helpful. It brought everything to a healthier balance. Now I’d almost call myself a lazy yogi. I love to practice, but I go very slowly now. I’ve mellowed out a lot.
PGN: What caused that intensity?
AN: Trauma, from my youth. For a long time, I was just finding ways to cope with it, which is fine. Coping is great, and luckily I picked pretty healthy coping mechanisms, but healing requires space and skill and being OK with getting a little messy. In the past few years through yoga, I’ve been able to do that.
PGN: Where did you grow up?
AN: I grew up in a small town in central PA. There were six of us, a big family out in the country. A place where you could just wander through the field and woods for hours, walk across multiple people’s properties and that was OK. There was a lot of freedom that kids today just don’t have.
PGN: What were some of the best times?
AN: I have a lot of good wintertime memories — sledding especially. We had these big tractor-tire inner tubes that could hold about 10 people and we’d slide down the hill. And we made homemade ice cream. We’d go to a little stream nearby and break the ice off and carry it back to the house where we had a hand-cranked machine and we’d take turns making ice cream. When we got older and no one wanted to stand there, turning the crank for hours, my dad rigged up an old lawn-mower engine that would crank the wooden handle and make the ice cream on its own!
PGN: What did he and your mom do?
AN: He was an equipment operator: He ran backhoes, etc. for the Army Corps of Engineers at a local lake and my mother was a mail carrier.
PGN: When did you first leave home?
AN: College. I went to Penn State but it wasn’t a good fit for me. It was too big. There’s a very aggressive energy there too. It’s a big party school and I ultimately failed out because I stopped going to classes. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and then I found my way into a one-year nursing program and became an LPN. The first day I realized, Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. It was such a relief. I eventually ended up going back to Penn to get my masters.
PGN: You came full circle.
AN: Yeah, I bypassed a few years from ’94 to ’98 in New York working with people with HIV/AIDS. It had a huge impact: it’s where I found my people and where I realized that I wanted to become a nurse practitioner. It was a hard time to be doing AIDS care, but it was beautiful because the people I worked with really wanted to be doing it. The dedication was incredible. It was a time of intimacy and vulnerability. I worked at the Rivington House on the Lower East Side, and because of the nature of the disease, it stripped you. People were willing to see and be seen. It could be heartbreaking, but it was a very special place.
PGN: I’m sure. Were you out at the time?
AN: I actually didn’t come out until I was 36. I think when I was in New York, I realized that I had an attraction for women but I hadn’t opened up to it yet. I was in a relationship with a man for 10 years and it was not easy to walk away from something that was like a marriage. We owned a house together, a dog … so it was tough but we’re still friends. I’d always felt comfortable in the queer community. I had permission to be myself — the parts I could see and the ones that I couldn’t yet see.
PGN: How did you end up in Philly?
AN: I moved here for a boyfriend and we broke up a month after I got here. I almost moved back to New York, but I just felt like I was supposed to stay here. That’s when I met my partner of 10 years. He was a really important part of my life and continues to be. He’s married now with an amazing son.
PGN: That’s great.
AN: Yeah, Philly is such a special place. People are real here. I love it. After moving here, I went to finish my degree and got my RN, bachelors and ultimately, my masters. Through it all, I continued working with HIV/AIDS patients. The last position was with Philadelphia FIGHT.
PGN: What’s the craziest thing that happened during your time working in the ICU?
AN: She wasn’t my patient, but there was a woman who was pronounced dead. Quite some time passed and the death certificate had been signed when suddenly, her heart started pumping again. The Catholic Church tried to investigate it to have it declared a miracle. I wasn’t directly involved, but I was there that day. There are many fascinating stories but it’s mostly the relationships that you form with the families that stay with you. Often you have more interactions with them than the patients who may be unconscious or sedated.
PGN: How did you get involved in the yoga studio?
AN: My partner at the time, James, and I had a friend, Steven, whom we met at the dog park. Steve was the one who wanted to open a yoga studio. James was a sculptor and I was a nurse and we had both fantasized about opening up a space that could be a place for people to come and get an understanding of basic health. They could get screenings and art classes and knowledge about physical and mental health — a place where people could find a sense of peace. There was a lot of performance stuff happening in West Philly in people’s homes — salon-style — but we wanted something larger. We talked about it with Steve for about a year and then planned and envisioned and ultimately found the space. It’s 5,000 square feet, which allowed us to create the yoga studio and a lounge with a stage, library, meditation room, four wellness rooms that health practitioners can rent out, etc. The vision was inspired by the needs of the community. It’s always been a joint effort. When we were building it out, we did most of the work ourselves and had volunteer days. We taught free yoga classes at Steven’s house in exchange for help. We offered the structure of the place and made space for other people’s voices and ideas. The community became invested. That input made the place bigger and better than we could have imagined. People will bring in their plants or favorite artwork. I’ll come in and there’ll be a new chair in the lounge and I won’t know where it came from. It’s beautiful. People think of it as their own place and they take care of it and each other. You can’t plan that: you can only make space for it to happen.
PGN: I found you when I read about your queer and trans yoga program. How did that get started?
AN: We had Jacobi Ballard from New York do a queer and trans workshop class and it was very well-received. So I asked Qui and Shay, two people who came to the studio and completed a teacher training to start a regular program here: they did and it was amazing.
PGN: Why is it so needed?
AN: What I’ve realized is that if you want to have diversity in your space, you have to ... it has to be intentional. So if you want people of color to feel comfortable in your studio, you better have people of color teaching at your studio. If you want people who are queer or gender-nonconforming to feel comfortable in your space, then you need to let them know that there is space that is specifically for them. It is important for people to be in community in a way that is safe and validates. And from that, diversity happens in all the classes.
PGN: The biggest fight I ever had with my former business partner was when we were shooting a commercial for Dining Out for Life. He didn’t cast a single queer person or person of color for any of the couples dining. He said that he didn’t see color and just worked with the actors that showed up to audition. He thought I was being biased and that he was the least racist because he didn’t care what color the actors were. [Laughing] His wife had to come to the studio to mediate before we disbanded the company. P.S.: We ended up using a mixed and gay couple.
AN: Oh, wow. Yeah, you better see color. It’s important. People of color see white people all around them so we need to be sure we see them too and make space when there’s none. I don’t know what a person of color goes through from that aspect, or a trans person, but I know we can do a better job of making room and being intentional about it.
PGN: You’ve done so many things at the studio, from art showings to performances to fundraisers. Is there a favorite?
AN: Fun-A-Day, which is coming up soon has always been special. It’s run by the Artclash Collective. For one month, you have to make some kind of art every day in January — take a picture, sing a song, write a story — and then in February, we display all the artwork. That’s actually how we found the space. James went to the Fun-A-Day event when it was still a boarded-up warehouse with no heat and said, “I think I found a space for us!” We acquired the building and were building it out all year. We ran out of money. We’d mortgaged our homes. We got shut down by L&I. It was a low time for us and then Artclash came and asked if they could still use the space for the event. We got permission from L&I and it was amazing. So many people came through that weekend. It truly reinvigorated us. We knew if we built it, people would come. That one weekend, when the space came alive, let us know it would be worth it. And now, every year, Fun-A-Day is a reminder to us of the energy we try to carry through the year.
PGN: What prompted you to make your latest move?
AN: It was a calling. I didn’t have any intention of moving to Colorado, but I felt compelled. [Laughing] I never really knew what a calling was until I got one. I’m supposed to come and get land here. Kind of like with the studio, it’s going to be a place where people who need to heal can come. It won’t be advertised. It won’t be a retreat center, but the people who are supposed to know will find it. It won’t be something they have to pay a certain amount of money for. It will be something we make together. That’s all I know. And it wasn’t an intellectual decision. Like, I should do this thing because it’s really needed. It was more of a tap on the shoulder telling me that I’m supposed to create a safe place for whoever needs it. And here I am.
PGN: And you’re leaving the studio to ...
AN: Two wonderful people. There were a lot of logical ways I could have approached deciding who should hold the space next. I’ve been in the very precise world of medicine, and I can do that, but my nature for this was more intuitive. It was really a case of just listening to my heart. Adrienne Dolberry was in one of our teacher trainings and there was just something about her. She’d been in academia and left it to work on sharing the practices of yoga and meditation and mindfulness. When I got the call to leave for Colorado and needed to find someone, I just got the feeling that Adrienne was supposed to take over. It was so fascinating, it just felt right and then I had Kari Thompson who has been with the studio for a while, so I know them very well. They were very supportive of me the past year doing the teacher trainings. They understand the philosophy of practicing abundance, which we’ve always practiced at the studio. If someone wanted to take a class but didn’t have the money, we found a way to make it happen. If we’re about healing, then money can’t be a factor. And when you do that, you find that there’s always enough. Abundance really works. It comes back in the end, and they both get that. I’m really excited. The studio is in a good place and there’s fresh energy taking over. I am confident that they’re going to make it even better.
PGN: It sounds like “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”
AN: Yes, I hope they both feel like they found the golden ticket! It’s not going to be easy, especially since this is like an arranged marriage. They didn’t pick each other as partners. They were put together. But I think there’s beauty in that. I’m already seeing some exciting communication happening between them. It’s an exciting time.
PGN: My favorite quote is from “Willy Wonka”: ‘So shines a good deed in a weary world.’ What’s your favorite quote?
AN: I love Maya Angelou’s quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
PGN: The last person you gave a gift to?
AN: It was an hour ago! I stopped to visit a friend in Boulder and gave her some dried mugwort.
PGN: Last time you danced?
AN:[Laughing] Also an hour ago! I danced with her 7-year-old son to something called “Kidz Bop.”
PGN: A tradition from a religion you admire?
AN: In the Native-American culture, there is a tradition of putting cedar down in teepee meetings. When someone makes a mistake or has a transgression, you go in and there’s a cedar man in charge. He will put cedar on the fire and call the person out on the incident and then it’s considered cleared. It’s a beautiful way of saying, When something happens, just speak it, say it out loud and then let it go. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all do that?
PGN: Something to work on for 2018!
For more information, visit www.studio34yoga.com