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2009 Cathy Holt Yoga: 10 Years of Transforming Lives By Marjorie Hudson

In March, Cathy Holt will be celebrating her tenth year as downtown Pittsboroʼs premier full-time yoga teacher. Sheʼs not the only one who will be celebrating. Her 85 students are pretty happy about it too.

One student comments that Holt has “a unique ability to make everyone in her class feel loved and cared about.” Another says, “When you sign up to be in her class you are signing up to be cared for and to be on a path that transforms your life.”

Transforming lives is part of what yoga is all about, and Holtʼs path to a career as a yoga teacher, and her subsequent success, have been an ongoing transformation for her as well.

Holt came to Chatham County in 1991 with no plans to be a yoga teacher—she was a full time metal smith, creating original jewelry designs in gold and silver, with a national reputation sheʼd built up over a twenty-year career as an artist in Florida and Georgia. Why did she pick Pittsboro? A Chapel Hill gallery owner told her that Pittsboro had a terrific artist community. In search of that community, Holt became Chatham County Arts Council director and sought out other artists to create the first annual Chatham Artists Studio tour in 1994 (now in its 15th year).

Flush with the success of her art work and the studio tour, Holt had no reason to change horses. Pittsboro had begun to feel like a “hometown” to her. Though she had kept up a personal yoga practice and studied with local teachers through the years, she had no ambition to emulate those teachers. Then, in 1998, came an opportunity for another transformation. “I developed a debilitating repetitive motion injury,” Holt says, “with nerve damage in my neck and arm. Doctors said Iʼd have permanent paralysis if I continued as a metal smith.”

It was a devastating moment. The success of her art career had taken a toll. Bending over a jewelerʼs bench for years had finally caught up with her. A single woman living alone, Holt was faced with a life in which she could not do her chosen work– she could not even turn the key to her front door. But as Holt tells her students, “Problems are opportunities in work clothes.”

She went to work on making lifestyle changes, and after many acupuncture and Rolfing treatments, she began to heal. Then came the task of considering her options for a new way of making a living. She knew she had the kind of natural fearlessness that is required of entrepreneurs. Sheʼd proved that before in creating a successful art career. Her local yoga teacher had closed shop, and she missed the classes badly. Holt thought there might be a place for her as a teacher. When she became strong enough, she went into yoga teacher training. Turned out, she was a natural teacher.

In March 1999, Holt opened her first class in the parish hall of St. Bartholomewʼs Episcopal Church. “My goal was to have one class with 10 students,” Holt says. “Almost immediately I had enough students for 6 classes a week!” Her students came from all over the area—Siler City, Bear Creek, and north Chatham, as well as Pittsboro. “I even had one who came for six years all the way from Durham.”

Two years later she had her own private studio as part of the new WDL offices in Pittsboro, built by brothers Mark and Lyle Estill. “They designed a beautiful room for me, with windows, wood floors, sound insulation, and a separate entrance and bathroom—all because Mark loved his yoga and wanted a studio close by.”

Holt leads her classes gently through each one-and-a-half hour session, demonstrating and fine-tuning poses, providing encouraging readings, and helping individuals focus on “breathing through” challenging poses. Certified through training in 1999, she frequently spends weekends studying with yoga masters from varied disciplines so that she can bring new perspectives to the class.

The practice of yoga builds strength, equanimity, and awareness and acceptance of personal challenges for people at any level of fitness. Each class begins with a quiet meditation, in a seated position, focusing on the breath, followed by a short reading and chant. Then the class transitions to some yoga stretches that work the hamstrings, flex the spine, and relax the shoulders and neck, and build core strength. Standing poses follow, building from such poses as “Sun Salute” to “Warrior” and “Tree,” in which students must focus inwardly and use the breath to respond to physical sensation that occurs at the edge of a challenge. The class often finishes with inversions, gentle twists, and stretches before the final relaxation, or “Corpse” pose.

In recent years Holt has led extended yoga retreats in the North Carolina mountains, Ireland, and Mexico, as well as a regularly offering intensive “Restorative Yoga” sessions several Saturdays a year in Pittsboro.

Class members are known to enjoy themselves so much that they burst out laughing mid-pose—occasionally giving an extra and humorous challenge to the task of balancing on one leg. Holt laughs that her first days of teaching were not all smooth sailing. “My mother announced to my first class that I was a klutz! And itʼs true that as a child I was the kind of kid that was always falling down and getting hurt.” Students have a hard time believing that, watching Holt demonstrate a backbend, a handstand, or a “Warrior III” pose in which she balances on one leg, twists sideways and parallel to the floor, with three limbs extended into the air. But Holt believes that much of her success is due to her down-to-earth way of handling the class. “I think my students do love me because of my ʻordinariness.ʼ I donʼt have matching outfits. My body is not perfect. I donʼt try to pretend that I can do every pose to the nth degree.”

Holt says that probably 25% of her students come to her yoga classes because of pain issues. “The reason they stay is because it works!” she says. Holt teaches six classes per week, in 12-week session. Most current students are repeats, and thereʼs a waiting list for more. Yoga, and Cathy Holtʼs teaching, have transformed the lives of many Chathamites in the past ten years.

But the classes and the training have transformed Holtʼs life as well. “Physically, I feel so much better now at 55 than I did at 30. Itʼs true! I used to have all kinds of aches and pains. I used to have a bad ankle, bad knees, and neck damage. Now I have full range of motion and strength—and an awareness of when Iʼm overdoing it.”

Yoga is more than the physical poses or “asanas” most people are familiar with. Many of yogaʼs benefits come from a focus on the breath. “Long, slow, deep breaths calm the nervous system and give you a moment to choose how to respond to lifeʼs challenges, instead of just reacting automatically,” she says. Holt says she used to be a “hothead”—but the practice of yoga has led to equanimity in her life. “Thatʼs an even bigger change for me,” she says, “than the physical healing.”

Cathy Holt has accomplished something quite rare in the profession. Where most yoga teachers work in gyms or for large yoga centers, she has created a successful independent yoga studio on her own, what she likes to call “a hometown yoga studio.” A student comments that Holt has “given us the chance to continue experiencing all the gifts of practicing and being together throughout the many seasons of change that we have each lived through during the past decade.”

Transforming the lives of Chatham people, one breath at a time.