AZTEC – On the stage of a darkened high school auditorium, 50 people inhaled, pulling the oxygen deep into their lungs. With a 1-2-3 count, they audibly exhaled, sending a few of the candles flickering.
Staci Zweschper believed the positive energy generated in this space on a Friday evening, as invisible as the breath expended in the auditorium, could ripple out to the surrounding Aztec community. The class was the first of a free continuing yoga series for Aztec schools offered by Zweschper’s Lift Each Other Up Foundation, which focuses on supporting those in need with free mindfulness, meditation and movement classes.
“When we raise our vibrations, we raise the vibrations of those around us,” she said.
As the two-year anniversary of the Aztec High School shooting and the death of two of its students approaches, the community continues to look for ways to cultivate healing, and Zweschper’s series of free classes offered at the high school aims to be a part of that process.
While Zweschper’s studio, Soul Den Hot Yoga, primarily offers hot yoga classes – performed in a studio set between 80 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit – the foundation’s free community classes place an emphasis on slowing the mind and body. They provide a vehicle for Zweschper to discuss stress reduction, managing negative energy, trauma healing and strengthening the mind – points she touches on throughout the hourlong class.
Tania Prokop, deputy superintendent of Aztec Municipal School District, said the idea for the series at Aztec High School originally spread through teachers who took classes at Soul Den.
“Educators are givers. They’re nurturers, and they give a lot of themselves not only financially but also energy-wise,” Prokop said. “We’re really hoping this is an opportunity they can fill their own bucket.”
While the Aztec-based classes are open to everyone in the community, the majority of the first class consisted of teachers and students. Some were routine yoga practitioners, but for others, like Sylvia Candelaria, this was their first yoga experience.
Candelaria, a day care provider at Vista Nueva High School, said the class was an opportunity to “just let go of everything,” and an almost spiritual release of anxiety. “Aztec in general has gone through a lot, and I think they need it to let loose,” she said.
While the classes were not specifically designed with the anniversary of the 2017 Aztec High School shooting in mind, Zweschper said, there are undertones of healing running throughout her class.
Prokop acknowledged yoga might not be for everyone but said, “If through this, people get an opportunity to release something that doesn’t have to take up space in their story, I think that’s really a good thing.”
Another participant, Tammy Rinerson, received her teacher’s certification from Zweschper in 2017 and has her own studio in Aztec. It’s the community classes that Rinerson finds especially uplifting. “Every community has its downs, and Aztec has definitely had a lot in the past couple of years, and I think we all need a little inspiration,” she said.
Finding yogaZweschper, a U.S. Army veteran, worked for over 20 years as a pharmaceutical sales rep in Albuquerque. Throughout this time, she struggled with anxiety and depression. While she tried antidepressants and therapy, it wasn’t until her first hot yoga class in 2010 that she found something clicked. Two years later she gained her yoga trainer’s registration and has been teaching ever since.
When she moved to Farmington in 2014, her husband built a small studio for her to practice, but she soon began holding public classes. “There weren’t any yoga studios at that time, really,” she said. “So there was this need in the community.”
While Zweschper continued to build her studio, she also realized there was a missing link between those who attended yoga and those who could most benefit from the experience. She began offering free classes to community members like first responders and holding fundraising classes through her studio. From this, the Lift Each Other Up Foundation was born, according to the nonprofit’s president, Monica Nagahiro.
Nagahiro, whose first yoga class was held by Zweschper after the Aztec High School shooting, said attending a yoga class can feel intimidating but the free events help to break down those barriers. “They get the idea that they can do it,” she said. “It’s available to you and it’s not scary or weird.”
Offering these classes to first responders or health care providers is especially important, said Nagahiro, who is also a registered nurse. “It causes a bit of self-realization. If I don’t take care of myself, how can I take care of anyone else?” she said.
For the foundation’s launch as a nonprofit in July, Zweschper recruited Farmington’s mayor, Nate Duckett, for a Yoga with the Mayor event. Duckett said it was important to support the individuals who work to give back to the community, and he continues to attend hot yoga classes, often with his wife and kids. “It’s a good family experience to get in touch with yourself and reflect on things that have been hampering you,” he said.
An unmet needMany community members said the work of the foundation has tapped into an unrealized need in the community.
Duckett said this is one reason why he initially supported Zweschper’s foundation. “Those folks on a daily basis are dealing with things that most people would run away from,” he said. “They don’t have the opportunity to look away.”
Danny McNealy, whose wife is a first responder, began attending the yoga classes with her. His business, Motto Mortgage, sponsored the first class held last week at Aztec High School. “First responders go through a lot of trauma that they don’t really get to deal with, so I think having a space where they get to just focus on breathing and centering can take them out of that space,” he said.
Zweschper will continue to offer the free classes to the Aztec community every other Friday through April.
“It’s not just a fitness routine,” she said. “We really focus on the healing, emotional benefits.”