In the early 2000s, Cheryl Fenner Brown lived in California, stressed and exhausted by her job as a software trainer. Her position required a lot of travel, and she often worked out on the road as an outlet for stress relief. In the gym, she read her book-of-the-moment, listened to music from her earbuds, and occasionally glanced up at a television flashing images nearby. “I was engaging in exercise, but I wasn’t mindful about what I was doing,” Cheryl remembers. Such was the norm. While one might assume that Cheryl’s first time engaging in yoga was an “aha!” moment, it actually wasn’t a great experience.
On travel for work, Cheryl attended a class at a local gym and found herself at the mercy of a teacher who called out random poses that she didn’t know; furthermore, the instructor failed to explain or demonstrate what each pose was. Cheryl tried her best to imitate the movement of those around her in the class, but left feeling frustrated and unimpressed.
An opportunity to try the practice again soon came. This time, though, the instructor was someone who explained the how and why of each movement. The teacher also emphasized the importance of focusing on one’s breathing. “And this lightbulb just went off,” Cheryl recalls.
Suddenly, she found, focusing on one or two things – internal things, not external ones – completely opened her up to what yoga is really about. “It’s not necessarily how many weird shapes you can make with your body,” she explains, “but focusing on what it feels like inside.”
A routine becomes a passion
Cheryl began taking yoga classes on a regular basis in 2001. As she practiced, she felt more and more drawn to the way it made her feel. “As a pretty Type A exerciser, to go slow and to not push were kind of groundbreaking for me, psychologically and mentally,” she says. “We tend to multitask a lot, especially when we’re at work. You’re doing five things at once, but you’re not focusing on any of them that well. [Yoga] just sort of pulled me back from feeling like my brain was being pulled in five different directions to just focusing on one thing.”
After being laid off in 2003 – one layoff of several that she had experienced over the years – Cheryl spent some time reflecting. As a software trainer, she had found it to be such a joy to teach adults. Having taken yoga classes for a while by this time, and recognizing the happiness she found in teaching others, she decided to approach her yoga teacher to see how to get started as an instructor herself.
The student becomes a teacher
In January 2004, Cheryl began attending Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California, where she studied with internationally renowned teachers Richard Rosen and Rodney Yee. She gained around 725 hours of practice time over the next several years. In her course of study, she dove into advanced subjects, including anatomy, philosophy, and yoga literature.
When she finished her initial program, she almost immediately started exploring additional training. While she did begin teaching some classes, she also decided to work toward becoming a yoga therapist. Yoga therapy is different from regular yoga classes in that it uses the various tools of yoga (movement, breathing, gesture, sound, and relaxation) to help people with specific health conditions.
In 2007, Cheryl enrolled in the Integrative Yoga Therapy program at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Around the same time, Cheryl began teaching yoga to cancer patients – the part of her work that would become her forte. Her emphasis in this role is about helping patients get through the side effects of their treatment and boost their immunity. After completing another 1,000 hours of yoga practice through therapy training and wrapping up the program in 2015, Cheryl and her husband moved to Durham.
Serving the underserved
Locally, Cheryl serves people affected by cancer through her work with You Call This Yoga, a local non-profit organization that teaches yoga instructors how to work with underserved populations, like veterans, at-risk youth, cancer patients, and those with physical disabilities.
Beyond teaching yoga poses, a lot of Cheryl’s job is teaching her students about yoga and its purpose. Consistent practice can help improve mood, energy, fatigue, and side effects. “It really is about relating to yourself in a way that’s a little bit more kind, diminishing a lot of the negative self-talk that we get ourselves into,” she explains.
In her initial work with cancer patients, Cheryl saw a lot of people over 50. “That sort of became my subspecialty, working with older adults,” she says.
Upon Cheryl’s arrival in the Triangle in 2015, she was surprised by the “fast, vigorous, and hot and sweaty” nature of the yoga that was taught here. Realizing that her slower style of yoga likely wouldn’t appeal to the 20-something crowd, Cheryl cold-called Sheri Sampson, Fitness Program Manager at The Forest, and presented that she had something great to offer the residents in our community.
Teaching at The Forest
Today, Cheryl has been practicing yoga for 18 years and teaching it for 15. She spent four of those teaching years at The Forest, where she has already touched a lot of lives. A significant part of her work here is ensuring that the practices she teaches are safe for older adults.
At The Forest, group exercise classes are divided into three levels of fitness. In Cheryl’s classes, Level 3 participants are able to independently get down on the floor to engage in the practice and get back up again. Level 2 exercisers complete their yoga movements either sitting or standing, using a chair for balance and comfort. Finally, residents at Level 1 are in the Health & Wellness Center and receive regular visits from an instructor to work on joint mobilization and focus on their breathing. Each level meets twice a week. Cheryl has taught all levels of learners. Currently, she leads Levels 2 and 3, though she fills in for Level 1 as needed.
Something for any body and every body
If anyone feels hesitant about attending a class on campus, Cheryl encourages them to take another look. “There are a lot of misconceptions about what yoga is. People think that you have to be already flexible to do yoga, and that’s really not true. There are always alternatives to the positions that I show in class. …And there’s usually an alternative to the alternative,” she laughs.
Furthermore, Cheryl emphasizes, “You don’t need to be able to touch your toes. You don’t have to be able to sit cross-legged on the floor in yoga. Anybody, literally any body, can do yoga. I’ve taught yoga to people who were bedridden. I’ve taught yoga to people who were in wheelchairs. Everybody can do some yoga, even if it is just for a few minutes. And it always makes you feel better.”
Learn yoga from one of the best
Cheryl teaches multiple practices, encompassing movement, breathing, sound, and Yoga Nidra, a guided meditation. (She just taught a three-week Yoga Nidra class in the spring and will lead another this fall.) “These practices together help to access our different layers – the mind, the body, the energy, the emotions,” she explains. “They can act on those layers of us and help us to feel more comfortable in our bodies.”
Apart from her regularly scheduled classes on campus, Cheryl also sees private clients at The Forest. A lot of the people she sees have a very specific issue, like recent surgery or an injury; additionally, many have recently completed a stint of physical therapy and rehabilitation. With Cheryl’s guidance, yoga helps them get back into their normal exercise routine and regain their compromised function.
To inquire about private yoga instruction with Cheryl, Forest residents may email her at email@example.com or leave a message on her Google telephone line at 919-964-2808 so that she can get in touch.
Further information about Cheryl, her experience, and her practice can be found on her website, YogaCheryl.com. Notably, her website is also home to a plethora of free resources; check out the “Home Practices” section for full class-length videos to watch, pictures of yoga poses, philosophy, Yoga Nidra, and more.
As for yoga on campus, Cheryl says there’s room for the classes to grow. “If you’re questioning what level of class to take, come to the chair class,” she suggests. “See how you feel. If it feels like it’s not quite doing enough, try the Level 3.”
—Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist
Header image: Cheryl leads the Level 3 yoga class in the Group Exercise Studio at The Forest.