April 06, 2020
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‘My spirit is so happy’: Maine woman embraces mindful lifestyle, shares it with others

Old farmhouses, greening livestock pastures and freshly tilled garden plots line the winding Stevens Pond Road in Liberty. At a gentle dip and curve in the road, a small sign identifies the Ayurveda Yoga Center. The studio — bright, airy and spare — is located on the second floor of a new barn. Yoga mats and folded blankets are arranged on the polished floor. The sound of birdsong drifts through the open windows.

This is where certified ayurvedic yoga specialist and consultant Deborah Keene, 61 and a native of Waterville, leads a dedicated cadre of area students through a variety of yoga classes each week. They’re mostly women in midlife and older. The classes include a gentle chair yoga class designed for beginners and those with mobility limitations, a calming “yoga for stress” class and an early morning devotional yoga with chanting that aims to open the heart, cultivate gratitude and restore energy balance.

Keene’s popular yoga classes are inflected with Hindu tradition and draw on the ancient Indian health discipline of ayurveda.

“Yoga is a sister practice to ayurveda,” she said. “It all focuses on oneness. Yoga is about the spirit, and ayurveda is about the body.”

Air, fire, water

Considered a “pseudoscience” by some critics and outright quackery by others, ayurveda in this country is generally practiced as a complementary or alternative therapy that supports good health, a strong immune system and mental and spiritual well-being. It teaches that three substances called “doshas” are present in the human body. These doshas — vata (air), pitta (fire) and kapha (water) — govern all aspects of health and wellness. When they are in balance, well-being is maximized. Imbalance opens the door to illness, anxiety and unhappiness.

The doshas can be kept in balance and brought back into balance through a customized regimen of specific foods, yoga and other forms of exercise and meditation. Personal hygiene is key, as well, along with regular applications of warm body oils and attention to basic functions such as sexual activity, sleep and elimination. All of these elements are adjusted to the season of the year, when changing weather, light, available foods and daily activity levels affect the doshas and call for a change in practice.

On a recent Thursday morning, with the chilly Maine spring only recently beginning to transition to warmer temperatures, Keene led a half-dozen students through a class aimed at calming the fiery influence of pitta as the summer season heats up. Opening with three centering, resonant “oms,” the students moved through a relaxed series of gentle postures, stretching, balancing and breathing deliberately to develop focus and mindfulness. They danced freeform to a lively musical track of sanskrit chanting, with Keene laughing and encouraging them to shake out excess energy and cultivate a quieter, cooler spirit.

Seated again, the students chanted two meditation mantras themselves, one calling for protection from negative influences and the other honoring the divinity of all living things. The class wrapped up with the deeply restful posture known as shavasana — the corpse pose — which challenges the student to be fully relaxed in body yet fully aware in mind.

After the students left, Keene, who smiles readily and laughs frequently, served up a warm tea of cumin, coriander, fennel seeds, fenugreek and ginger. It’s an all-purpose, season-spanning ayurvedic remedy, she said, “effective at cleansing and stopping digestive fire.” She sips warm brews like this on and off all day.

From oatmeal facials to Indian medicine

“We can live in ways that support us or in ways that harm us,” Keene said, settling into a comfortable armchair. “We have to make a choice.” For her, the choice to embrace holistic health and wellness came easily, beginning when she was a child growing up in Waterville. Her father, who struggled with alcoholism, worked at the now-closed Hathaway shirt factory.

“My mom and I used to make facials in the kitchen,” she said. “We used oatmeal, eggs, bananas, milk — all kinds of natural stuff from the kitchen.”

Branching out from kitchen sessions with her mom, Keene and her sister learned to steam bitter burdock and press the big, damp, warm leaves to their faces as a natural astringent to calm their teenage skin.

“We would take my grandmother’s ironing board and wedge one end under the sofa cushions so we could lie head down and the blood would run to our faces,” she said. The inversion increased the efficacy of the burdock treatment.

Years later, as an adult, Keene would learn that “ayurveda teaches you should never apply anything to your skin that you wouldn’t eat, because the skin absorbs everything.” She follows that rule today and teaches workshops in ayurvedic skin care as part of her practice, with a rosy glow to show for her own daily routine.

“It sounds like vanity, and maybe there’s a little bit of that, but skin care is an important part of health and wellbeing,” she said. “Skin is the largest organ of the body. It’s a protective layer that lives and breathes and detoxes and helps all the other tissues of the body be healthy and strong.”

Keene married when she was 19, moved out to Liberty and had two daughters before her marriage ended in divorce nine years later. She raised her girls, grew gardens full of vegetables, flowers and herbs, acquired the first of four pet horses and launched a fledgling exercise class.

“My friends and I would get together and weigh ourselves, measure each other, do some exercise. … It was all about being healthy and checking in with each other.” She became interested in yoga and started incorporating it into those early sessions with her friends.

“They would pay me a dollar a week,” she said, smiling at the recollection.

After her divorce, Keene became certified as a fitness instructor and started teaching yoga and other classes at the Waldo County YMCA and the Belfast Dance Studio. She read deeply into vegetarian nutrition, herbal therapies, meditation and other healing arts.

She also studied yoga more intensively, and in the late-1980s encountered the work of the Indian-born physician and alternative medicine advocate Deepak Chopra. Chopra’s controversial approach to health and healing has been widely criticized by some in the mainstream medical community, but his teachings struck a chord with Keene, who remains a devotee.

“It was that moment when I realized everything I was interested in could come under the umbrella of ayurvedic health,” she said. Since then, she has developed her practice through extensive readings and workshops with teachers in Maine and elsewhere, including a six-week study in India. She opened her own studio in Liberty in the late 1990s and expanded into the new barn space in 2000.

“I wanted to bring yoga and ayurveda to my own community, to the place where I live,” she said.

In 2008 and 2009, about the time a second marriage ended in divorce, she became certified as an ayurvedic consultant and an ayurvedic yoga specialist at the Kripalu School of Ayurveda in western Massachusetts. In addition to her regular yoga classes, Keene offers individual wellness consultations, skin care clinics and weeklong seasonal “camps” to fine-tune personal ayurvedic practices with the changing of the seasons. She also leads a 10-week mentoring program aimed at supporting women as they work toward greater self-knowledge and improved wellbeing.

Having survived an alcoholic upbringing, two difficult divorces and other hard times, Keene said, she knows from personal experience how tough it can be to rebound from trauma. She credits her practice in alternative health with supporting her wellness, resilience and optimism. She is now in a happy new relationship, though she doesn’t see another marriage in her future. Her two daughters live nearby, along with four grandchildren. Although she recently buried her last, dearly beloved horse and sold her horse trailer — a sad surrender, she said — she cherishes her country home and the life she has built.

As she approaches 62, she can’t imagine she’ll ever retire from the work that has brought her such deep satisfaction and interest.

“This work is my dharma, my life’s purpose,” she said. “My spirit is so happy, because I know this is what I’m meant to be doing.”


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