PHOTO: Stuart Stark helps students with a yoga pose.
Born in Queens, NY, Stuart Stark relocated to Portland in 1985. Stuart has combined a physical therapy and yoga practice for almost 30 years.
I connected with Stuart at the Gudmestad Yoga Studio. After months of work recovering from a car accident, my physical therapist referred me to the studio for additional help correcting issues from the accident. Stuart looked familiar, and he remembered we both taught at Neveh Shalom Sunday School a very long time ago. It really is a small world.
It was a pleasure sitting down with Stuart and getting his take on yoga, physical therapy and life. His answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
You were a practicing physical therapist working with patients from Good Samaritan Hospital and Emanuel Hospital. How did you discover yoga?
After a back injury, I was referred as a patient to Julie Gudmestad, PT. She treated me with a combination of traditional physical therapy and yoga-based exercises. The referring doctor played Yenta by telling me that I should work with Julie. On what was to be my last visit, I said, “Ralph, he’s a funny guy. He said that we should be working together.”
Julie replied, “He said the same thing to me a few times.” That was March 1990, and I now see physical therapy patients and teach yoga classes at the studio.
Do physical therapists and yoga therapists look at an injury differently?
The piece that stands out for me is that yoga looks at the body from the center out. Often in traditional PT, the focus is on the problem area, and bigger pieces are missed. I will often hear from a patient during an evaluation that no other provider had asked them questions I asked. Following Julie’s model of spending an hour with a patient and 90 minutes for an evaluation is essential and different from my other PT experiences.
What do you think about the surge in varieties of yoga in the last decade?
I feel fortunate to have been introduced to yoga as a physical therapist. Having knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology are a vital part of how I teach. I cannot imagine what it is like to teach yoga without that understanding.
The change in yoga in the United States has been dramatic and disconcerting at times. Recently, there was a woman posing on the cover of Yoga Journal, doing a challenging pose in a tutu and high heels! But the various types of yoga have been a plus to allow students to find the style that fits them.
At our studio, many of our current students were former patients, and some of our patients have an injury they want treated by a therapist with knowledge of yoga.
What should one look for in a good teacher?
A teacher needs to be a good observer, seeing when you need a correction or seeing when you have made a correction on your own to achieve a previously difficult pose. A teacher needs a sense of when to back off pushing a student or group and when to challenge them more. Yoga has some basic tenets, and two of them are nonviolence, often seen as not causing injury to yourself, and ardor, challenging yourself more. Finding a teacher and style of yoga that finds the right balance between these two concepts is of great importance.
In our studio we have 10 teachers, and even though the approach to yoga is the same, the character and style of the person is not. Find a teacher that fits your personality and a level that works for you.
How do you explain this partnership between physical therapy and yoga to clients?
Not all patients realize that their exercises for home are broken-down pieces of a yoga pose. For me, the beauty is that you can incorporate as much as the patient needs of one or several yoga poses into a personalized exercise program. If they have previously practiced yoga, then they are encouraged to be doing something they have not been able to do since being injured. I have heard numerous patients say to me, I thought that I would never do a dog pose again. If they are unfamiliar with yoga, they often look to join a class after their recovery.
What are your Jewish memories of growing up in New York?
Growing up in Queens, the whole block was Jewish, so it was the norm. I lived on a street with a surrogate mom behind every door. If I fell down and skinned my knee, I would be gently cared for. There is a line from a song that says, “When I look back upon my ordinary life I see so much magic, but I missed it at the time.” When I reconnected with my peers who grew up on 215th Street, we all agreed that this line is very much how we feel now.
Everybody celebrated the Jewish holidays, spent the weekend visiting Bubbe and Zayde, and studied for their bar/bat mitzvah. I do think back fondly on the times of my childhood visiting the old neighborhoods in Brooklyn where my grandparents lived and Yiddish was spoken everywhere. We used to gather around the yard of the one non-Jewish family on the block to see them light their Christmas tree. I attended Hebrew school from grade one through age 15 and remember learning that Shabbat is so special. But there was no Sabbath observance in our home. I didn’t understand why we only celebrated Pesach, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Fortunately, my older sister was in Israel working on a kibbutz when I was in high school. I spent the summer before my senior year there, and that changed my life. It reconnected me with Judaism. It opened my eyes about how diverse the world can be and gave me the travel bug. I returned to the kibbutz after high school and stayed for a year.
Tell us about your family today.
Dana and I have been married nearly 23 years. She had decided to convert before we met. For the last 12 years, I have taught a yoga workshop in Tuscany, and we add our own vacation time onto that trip. We also return every year to the lodge on Vancouver Island where we honeymooned.
My children were born in the Netherlands, where my first wife was from; we had met on the kibbutz.
Daughter Naomi Leavitt is married to Scot, an instructor at Portland Community College. They live here. Naomi runs a successful tutoring service and is very involved in the local Jewish community. They have the two most adorable daughters. All the stories about what it is like to be a grandparent did not prepare me for the experience. I leave their home after a visit and don’t remember how to drive! I just float with happiness.
My son, Boaz, married Danielle in May. They are teaching in China and are halfway through their four-year plan before returning to the Northwest. Naomi officiated her brother’s wedding.
My kids have my travel bug. Both have spent extensive time in Israel and visit family in Europe.
Does Judaism influence you at this time in your life?
As a teenager I remember thinking I do not want to turn into my father. Yet as I grew up, I realized that I did take on characteristics that I gratefully identify with my dad and my Jewish upbringing – responsibility to provide for loved ones; joy and pride in family; being a socially conscious person who cares about those less fortunate; and supporting my community.
Don’t act your age. The different parts of the human body – muscles, heart, brain – need to be used to stay fit. So stay active, laugh, love with those you care about and stay involved in the world.
Gudmestad Yoga Studio
3903 SW Kelly, Suite 210
Portland, OR 97239
503-223-8157 • gudmestadyoga.com