Space is the Place 

A Richmond yoga teacher harnesses the exploratory power of art.

click to enlarge Instructor and Lucid Yoga owner Claudine Varesi is tired of yoga being treated like a fitness trend.

Scott Elmquist

Instructor and Lucid Yoga owner Claudine Varesi is tired of yoga being treated like a fitness trend.

Claudine Varesi is far out. Her idea of a good time involves launching some art into outer space, literally. Here on planet Earth, at 408 S. Shields Ave., she finds fulfillment in a yoga studio suffused with sunlight. It’s called Lucid Yogi.

Despite the studio’s vibrant paintings and rainbow-colored mats, Varesi is pondering a black hole: how to keep yoga from turning into a fitness cult.

Until July, Varesi ran mission control from a small studio on 2233 Park Ave. That’s not far from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, where you can check into popular group yoga sessions. After Varesi met demand for large classes, her studio’s front window fogged up from body heat and positive revenue.

Then Varesi lost her way. As she sensed it, modern yoga was all about toned derrières and cash money — enlightenment, not so much.

“The reality is that yoga, as a trend, is based on churning out more yoga teachers and hosting ever-larger classes. It’s a system,” Varesi says. “That’s what happened at Lucid Yogi. I was no longer a teacher, I was an events manager.”

This system works to its own detriment, she says. There are more yoga teachers than places to teach. People end up taking the financial risk to start studios, or they sub at existing studios. Either way, there’s one guaranteed cash crop: big, fitness-oriented classes. Formerly, Lucid Yogi had half a dozen instructors offering various types of yoga sessions.

Varesi is feeling more comfortable on Shields Avenue, where she calls herself a coach. She holds an accredidation from the International Coaching Federation, and two benchmark yoga certificates, from 200 and 500 training hours.

At the new Lucid Yogi, she says students have more time to talk and ask questions as compared with other studios. Students still will move through asanas, or postures. Yet it’s less about following the lead of someone barking, or chanting commands. Instead, Varesi prefers to harness the exploratory power of art. Students might work through intuitive painting sessions, color theory and one-on-one dialogue.

“It’s important to note that my approach to yoga is not therapy, counseling or giving advice,” Varesi says. “I’m there to help the client explore. So first, we have to know: What is it that they want to achieve?”

“It feels like attending a painting class,” says Sara McKay, an art education professor at VCU. “I’m able to explore my practice, much like art lets you explore your identity. I don’t feel threatened by having to live up to an idealized form.”

If students want to sing the body electric, she says, they must exercise their whole personality, not only the muscles. Otherwise, they’re just doing a Frankenstein hack job.

“Most yoga studios are only selling you the arm or the leg,” she says. “The stretches make a lot of people feel good, and suddenly they think: My life goal is to sign up for a teacher training program. On the flip side, those do cost you an arm or a leg.”

For all of Varesi’s big-picture musings, she seems down-to-earth, preferring to offer encouragement over criticism. Her journey started in Peru, where as a teenager she visited the Geeta Ashram. She later moved to Mexico City, and then to Switzerland in 1990, where for a decade she assisted a nonprofit with the promotion of space art.

A high water mark came for Varesi in 1994, when one of her paintings was selected from hundreds of entries to go on board the Mir space station. An astronaut wrote his diary on the back of her canvas, and she keeps the painting today in Lucid Yogi’s studio.

Varesi had another major trip ahead: immigrating to the United States in 2000. She turned her experiences into a service by helping other Hispanics and Latinos with the immersion process. For the next 15 years, her profession as a liaison and interpreter profoundly affected how she approached yoga and coaching.

“I had to learn what makes people tick,” she says. “I got to know about basic human needs and questions, regardless of culture.”

“Lack of communication is a great source of problems — that was my takeaway,” says Varesi, who speaks six languages. “When I’m teaching yoga, I like to say, ‘Let’s play.’ It all comes down to questions of who we are, what we are doing, where we are going.”

As for Richmond’s direction, Varesi says the city’s cultural acceleration caught her attention about five years ago. Her daughter is a local graphic designer who’s worked on sets for “Mercy Street” and “Turn.” Varesi made the move from Washington last year.

“It’s a great time to be here,” she says. S


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