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Yoga center marking 25th anniversary with special dinner

Updated: 
March 10, 2014 - 6:50am

Located upstairs of general surgeon Larry Peebles’ Kealakekua office is Big Island Yoga Center, a serene, welcoming space for those seeking peace, self-discovery, balance and fitness. For more than two decades, it’s been a sanctuary for those who share a passion for yoga.

On a recent Monday morning, instructor and former director Julie Benkofsky-Webb led a class. Her calming voice guided students through a series of positions, performed with precision and seeming ease.

Benkofsky-Webb, who has taught yoga for 12 years, has found it enhances her roles as a massage therapist and therapeutic touch teacher. She believes yoga can benefit everyone, helping expand one’s body, mind and spirit, while also allowing a fresh sense of self-awareness and discoveries.

“The physical practice always leads us inside,” she added.

The fun part for Benkofsky-Webb is seeing how students transform, whether it’s mastering a pose, sleeping better or overcoming an injury. She likes that the center is a volunteer-fueled grassroots organization that is like a second family for many. She said the center would not be able to function without the volunteer efforts — not only of its teachers, but also its students.

“We have student volunteers in a variety of areas at the studio who make it possible for us to thrive and stay in touch with our community. We so deeply appreciate their service,” she said.

For 25 years, Big Island Yoga Center has served the community, offering classes and workshops for the study and practice of yoga. It is believed to be West Hawaii’s oldest yoga center.

The center is celebrating this milestone at 6 p.m. Saturday at Christ Church Episcopal on Konawaena School Road in Kealakekua. The evening includes a dinner catered by Lotus Cafe, entertainment and a tribute to those who have made an impact on the center. The dinner cost is $25 per person and reservations should be made by today.

The center is also launching its membership program. Membership starts at $50 and has tax-deductible benefits and other perks. The first 25 people to sign up receive a complimentary 25th anniversary tote bag.

In its database, the center has about 1,000 people who have taken classes, but only a few hundred are regulars, said administrator Karin Shaw.

The board recently sent out a survey to all in the database and the results will be shared in the coming weeks, Benkofsky-Webb said.

“At such a milestone in our history, we felt that we needed to look both to the past and also to visions for the future. And for this we wanted the input of our students, who are the reason we exist,” she said.

In 1989, Iyengar yoga instructor Darina Archer began teaching classes where she could, including in a makeshift studio at the Kona Trans Building and the Kona Hongwanji Mission. Her students would follow.

Archer was instrumental in helping cultivate homegrown yoga teachers and helping them bloom. She invited her teacher, Aadil Palkhivala, who had studied yoga since age 7 with B.K.S. Iyengar and became a certified advanced yoga teacher at 22, to conduct a workshop. Palkhivala, who co-founded the Alive and Shine Center and the College of Purna Yoga in Bellevue, Wash., will be a special guest at Saturday’s celebration.

Archer is credited for founding Big Island Yoga Center, but it is Marcia Carman — a former anthropology teacher — who transformed it into a thriving yoga center. Carman became the senior yoga teacher when Archer left in 1995.

As the interest grew in yoga, a permanent space was needed. It was Peebles, a supporter of the center, who generously offered the second floor of his building in 1994.

“Yoga keeps you flexible so that you can remain active and healthy. The mindfulness of yoga increases serenity in life,” Peebles said. “Staying in the present allows you to maintain the perspective that life is not passing you by. It’s comforting to have a yoga studio upstairs while I’m working.”

Big Island Yoga Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and that status allows it to help people enjoy the many benefits of yoga regardless of financial status, Shaw said. The center offers classes by donation and a free class on the first Sunday of the month, as well as scholarships for teachers to continue their training or expand their knowledge, she added.

The number of certified teachers has grown from six in 2007 to 11, Benkofsky-Webb said.

Reagan Breen, an instructor and devotee of Iyengar yoga since 1980, thinks the studio and its teachers encourage people to “step out of a comfort zone.”

“For several of my students, the biggest obstacle was just to come to class for the first time. Once there, they can feel comfortable that they are welcomed and accepted right where they are. People want to know they are safe; safe just to be in the space, as well as safe in a pose,” she said. “Big Island Yoga Center creates and supports safety as one of its main purposes and functions. I have witnessed my students grow in confidence in their bodies, feel better each and every time they leave class, and develop a deeper need for the habit of coming to class regularly because of the benefits.”

Big Island Yoga Center offers three levels of Iyengar yoga, which emphasizes precise and careful body alignment, muscular balance and maximum spinal extension. It also offers hatha flow, kupuna yoga, prenatal yoga and restorative classes.

In addition, there’s Purna yoga, a practice nurturing the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of one’s being. Palkhivala is hosting an intensive Purna yoga workshop, “Releasing Stress and Finding Joy,” Friday to March 17. The cost is $160 per day or $550 for all four days. Space is limited. Those interested should call Stephanie Conant at 895-7802 or email AADILsummer14@bigislandyoga.com.

Big Island Yoga Center said it is the only studio on island to offer a wall ropes class, held Fridays. On average, there are six to 10 students in a class, Shaw said.

For more information, call 329-YOGA (9642) or visit bigislandyoga.com.