Deborah Baker understands vitality from the sage perspective of a person who lost it while battling cancer. A longtime Iyengar practitioner and instructor, she incorporated yoga into her healing regimen and continues her diligent practice and rigorous teaching schedule.
“I credit my yoga practice for returning me to health after chemo and also for keeping me feeling good every day,” Baker says. “Even on the bad days, yoga makes me feel so much better.”
Baker discovered yoga in the 80s while serving in the Peace Corps in Guatemala. “I got a yoga book and started stretching,” explains Baker, a former ballet dancer and runner. She began teaching yoga part-time in 1996. She opened Park Hill Yoga in Denver in 2005, resigning from her classroom teaching job in 2008 to teach yoga full-time. All along the way, she drew from her own vitality.
“I think vitality is physical or mental vigor. Vitality and resilience are synonymous,” she says. “I’ve thought about resilience so much during the pandemic, and it requires taking care of yourself and being physically and emotionally and mentally strong. It involves awareness and discipline. My yoga practice includes active and passive poses and meditation and pranayama [breathwork], too. These bring the gift of vitality to my life.”
Baker intensified her vitality by studying with B.K.S. Iyengar. She traveled several times to Pune, India for extended stays to study with Iyengar — sometimes referred to as “the pope of yoga” — and his daughter, Geeta Iyengar, both deceased yet widely revered in the yoga world.
“Mr. Iyengar was the most disciplined human I’ve ever met. He embodied the yoga sutras of Patanjali. He was unswerving in his commitment, and nobody worked as hard as he did. He was on a different plane,” Baker reveals.
“He was really sickly when he started practicing yoga,” she adds. “Pranayama was likely a big contributor to his vitality. I practice pranayama, and I believe it helps keep me healthy, but Iyengar practiced so much, much, much more. He had a very advanced pranayama practice, and I wonder if this had something to do with his mental sharpness and his truly happy nature, even in old age. I think of his smiling face. I also wonder if love contributed to his vitality. He had so many people who looked up to him and who really held him so close to their hearts.”
For Baker, yoga entails much more than just the poses and pranayama. She studies the sutras, as well as the extensive writings of B.K.S. Iyengar. Her embodiment of yoga likely helped save her life when, in 2015, Baker was diagnosed with an aggressive blood cancer. She received high-dose chemotherapy for six months.
“Obviously, Western medicine saved my life, but I credit my yoga practice for the remarkable recovery I have made,” she explains. “I still have follow-up care, but I feel very healthy right now. Every day is a gift.” As she recovered, Baker did not teach for about nine months. She currently teaches a free weekly yoga class for cancer patients and survivors. “I plan to teach this class for the rest of my life,” she says. “I want to give back in any way that I can because I am so grateful that I am still here. My next community service goal is to begin a free yoga class taught in Spanish.”
Meanwhile, Baker teaches from her Denver studio and also on Zoom due to the pandemic.
“Early in the pandemic, I added poses for resilience and to get us out of our heads and out of our fear: chest-openers, standing poses, poses to boost the immune system and poses that give us the vitality to deal with so much grief associated with the pandemic,” she says.
Baker considers food another source of vitality. “I know a lot about nutrition, and I’m a very healthy eater, but I like to bake,” explains Baker, a wife and the mother of two young adult sons. “I’m not a fanatic about anything. I eat small amounts of meat. I’m not gluten-free. I eat raw every day, but I also eat cooked food. My weakness is cheese. I don’t take supplements.”
Baker says yoga helps all the rest of my movement, adding to her vitality rather than depleting her energy.
“I go to the mountains and hike,” she shares. “We have only one car, so I ride my bike to do errands, instead of driving. I walk my dog. I don’t take the elevator, I take the stairs.”
Photo by Tina Hangerling.
Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2021 issue.
Colleen Smith, a yoga practitioner for almost 30 years, studies in the Iyengar tradition, but also practiced Bikram hot yoga, power yoga and Volo suspension yoga. An award-winning multi-media communicator, she’s the author of several books, a journalist, screenwriter and filmmaker. She has interviewed and written about yoga leaders including B.K.S. Iyengar and Baron Baptiste. Connect with her on Facebook at Friday Jones Publishing or visit her website: colleenwordsmith.wordpress.com.