Tiffany O Cagwin

The Power of Yoga

By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson

Tiffany O Cagwin’s practice is based in love. The owner of O Yoga followed this love from a tumultuous childhood, to a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease in her late teens, to the ultimate realization of her calling in life — her dharma, she said — in founding her studio. Even her business model is to love people, she says, only half joking.

Tiffany’s journey to love, yoga and the balance the two provide wasn’t straightforward or easy. But the power of yoga, she explained, is connection to the true essence of self.

“It’s a nonaggressive way to go about understanding your body,” Tiffany said. “You just start to find peace with yourself through your practice.”

Finding peace in turmoil

When Tiffany tells the story of yoga and O Yoga, she explains it starts with her own story, long before she discovered her passion.

Early in life, Tiffany mastered a different type of peace. When her parents divorced at a young age, she learned to play the role of peacekeeper, gaining knowledge about the “complexities of relationships” that many don’t realize until adulthood.

Her parents shared joint custody of their daughter until Tiffany was 12. At that point, she had to make the decision of staying in Ohio with her father or moving to a farm in New Mexico with her mother, who was pregnant with Tiffany’s first sibling. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to be an older sister, Tiffany opted to move.

A few years later, when she was 15 years old, Tiffany’s life shifted gears again. The young scholar had aspirations of going to an Ivy League university. But one day, she came home from school and her mother surprised her with an executive decision: going forward, Tiffany would be homeschooled.

While Tiffany was disappointed that her life took that turn, and admits she’s pondered the “what if” of staying in traditional education, it was during that time that Tiffany experienced her first meditative moments.

Some days, she would ride her horse into the mountains, and spend the day exploring. There was no noise, Tiffany recollected, no chaos. It was the first time she had that in her life.

“It was substantial enough then as a 15-year-old to know I could feel the difference in my body, being quiet,” Tiffany said, explaining that in those experiences, she learned to be simultaneously still and alert, feeling the movement of the horse and her own breath. “That was probably my first real mind-body connection, and understanding of stillness and meditation.”

Unbalanced body

When Tiffany turned 17, she decided to return to Ohio. While working full time and attending community college part time, she started experiencing stomach pains.

It was a persistent problem. Having trouble eating, she lost weight. Tiffany was down to about 85 pounds when she ended up in the hospital back in New Mexico. Her entire body was inflamed; if she had gotten there much later, the doctors told her, she could have died.

Tiffany was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. For the next couple decades, it was a “nonstop battle,” she said, explaining that she was given drug after drug in attempts to provide her with relief. Many were experimental medications. Her health was not in balance.

“I think the toxicity of the meds was also contributing to how poorly I was feeling,” she said. “It was a struggle for a lot of years. I lived at the doctor’s office and the hospitals. I became very, very comfortable with floating in and out of those.”

Despite the dramatic prognosis — “This is what it is, and you’re probably going to have to have your colon removed,” they told her, “It doesn’t matter what you eat. This is just the life you’re facing.” — Tiffany stayed optimistic.

Going back to college in Ohio — now full time — she earned a degree in teaching, and led a fourth grade classroom for a year. Then she got sick, and found herself in the hospital again.

Around that time, something told Tiffany there had to be another method to fight Crohn’s besides the medley of drugs and long stints at the doctor’s office and hospitals. She started research into alternative healing, and discovered the macrobiotic diet, a dietrooted in whole grains, vegetables and greens. It was the first time she’d heard about inflammatory foods, and the idea that what you eat can control inflammation in your body, she explained.

She hired a macrobiotic chef and went all in, Tiffany remembered. “I was just at that point where I was like, ‘This is all or nothing for me. I can’t keep living like this. I’ve got to figure this out,’” she said.

Struggle with self image

The diet helped curb the Crohn’s symptoms to an extent; but emotionally, Tiffany was still reeling from years of struggles with her body image. Because of the medicines, she went through periods of extreme weight loss and extreme weight gain. Feeling like she had very little control over her own body, she began to develop eating disorders in college.

“I craved a lot of sugary, terrible foods with the drugs, and so I’d put on a ton of weight, and then crash diet, and it started to create this cycle,” she said.

Even after she began to feel relief from Crohn’s, the ingrained habits had created a deep pattern that was hard to break, Tiffany explained.

It wasn’t until she found yoga that Tiffany really felt she had regained control of her body.

“I kind of felt like it was something I was going to struggle with my whole life, because I could see that it was never going to go away,” she said, explaining her fear of consistent returns to body image obsession and calorie counting. “And then I started doing yoga, and it almost stopped instantly with the regular yoga practice. It just became a nonissue.”

Discovering her practice

Tiffany stumbled upon yoga seemingly by chance. She’d moved to Syracuse and had her son Caden with her first husband. It was during a visit to the hospital that someone suggested she try yoga. She’d already gained some control of her body with diet; they suggested practicing yoga to deal with the chaos of life.

It began with a curious Tiffany following along with basic yoga poses from a DVD in her home in Syracuse. Even with just a physical practice, she began to sense changes in her body. She didn’t delve into any sort of related philosophy for years, but she still felt stronger, healthier and calmer from the beginning, she explained. Tiffany didn’t want to beat up her body anymore.

“It’s hard for me to understand how I worried the way that I did, or looked at my body that way,” she said, thinking back to a time before she’d discovered yoga. “I was battling myself. There was no peace. There was no acceptance of just really loving who I was.”

Yoga practice, along with her healthy lifestyle, has led Tiffany to be symptom-free of Crohn’s for the last six years.

For a while, the physical practice was enough for her, but eventually Tiffany started getting curious about the philosophical aspects of yoga. So she bought a book and began to study.

She eventually enrolled in teacher training with the Himalayan Institute, a distance learning program, and it looked like Tiffany was on track to becoming a yoga instructor. The program was slated to end with a month-long trip to India, and she was ready to embrace it.

But then she was offered a job in Boston. Having worked full time in administration at Syracuse University College of Law, Tiffany saw herself following that track in her professional life.

“I just dove right back in. I saw this career path unfolding. I loved the MBA program, so I was getting really involved. It was great to be back in school,” she said. “All the ambition took over.”

Yoga was moved to the back burner.

O Yoga

But then one fateful day, Tiffany was walking along on her lunch break, and saw a sandwich board promoting a yoga class. The teacher was Ame Wren, and the school was Boston Yoga School.

Tiffany followed the sign’s direction into the class, and she was home.

It was the most nurtured she’d felt until that point in her life, Tiffany remembered. Looking back, she realized that until then, she wasn’t living her purpose. The heaviness of experiences life had thrown her way had encumbered and covered her. When she started practicing yoga regularly with Ame, that all changed.

“It just lit me up. There was a spark. It was this fire in me that just knew that…” she trailed off, her eyes sparkling, as she tried to capture the right words. “The best way I can describe it is that I’d felt so dark and heavy, and then yoga started to liberate me.”

On the path to teaching yoga once again, Tiffany enrolled in teacher training at the Back Bay Yoga Studio in the summer of 2011.

But because of family matters, she had to move back to Syracuse soon after, leaving the beloved yoga community she’d come to call home.

On a retreat to Costa Rica, she talked to Ame and another teacher, Sarah Sturges, about her predicament: she’d be certified to teach, but have no yoga community once she returned to Syracuse.

Ame answered: “Open a studio. Make the community.”

Sarah immediately agreed: “Yes. And you need to call it O Yoga.”

Tiffany hadn’t had any aspirations of becoming a business owner; but out of pure curiosity, when she arrived home from the retreat, she started looking into possible Armory Square real estate locations and crunching the numbers.

On a weekend trip to Syracuse, she found the perfect space on Walton Street, and with no concrete business plan in mind, signed a year lease. She told some acquaintances in town she was moving back and opening a studio. Soon word spread, and on opening weekend, O Yoga was packed.

Since then, the community has grown in leaps and bounds. In 2013, O Yoga moved to its current central location at 1003 W. Fayette St., doubling in size and adding space for teacher trainings, which Tiffany offers through the Boston Yoga School. In September 2016, O Yoga expanded to a second location at 4465 E. Genesee St. in DeWitt.

Through the entire journey of O Yoga, Tiffany’s aim has been to show people yoga is for everyone. The community aspect of the classes offers a supportive energy from people of all different ages and levels of physical fitness. The message of class at O Yoga is that it’s your own practice.

“It’s not about trying to achieve perfection,” Tiffany explained, adding that it’s about inquiry and working from the outside of your body inward. “You work from the periphery to the core: physically, mentally [and] emotionally.”

The importance of self-care

Along with O Yoga, Tiffany’s own practice has grown over the years. Very recently, she’s developed a stronger desire to delve deeper into teaching and her own study of yoga. The longterm goal, she hopes, is to turn the administrative side of the business — things like marketing, accounting and social media, all of which she oversees now — to someone else, and be able to focus more on the mission of O Yoga.

In November, Tiffany finished the first five-day immersion in a long program of study with Nikki Costello, a teacher in New York City. All roads have led to Nikki, she explained; many teachers Tiffany’s connected with and admired have studied with Nikki.

“It’s given me a clarity in my path that I haven’t had before,” Tiffany said. “I’m very excited. It’s just a whole new depth.”

Since her new study began, her teaching methods have shifted as well, she remarked. Initially, she was worried that a change in direction would deter people from her classes, but her students love it.

For Tiffany, yoga is no longer just a physical practice. Now she uses activities like Crossfit for exercise, giving herself permission to work slower, deeper and more intelligently and effectively in her yoga practice, she explained.

With the help and encouragement of her husband and fellow O Yoga teacher, Tyler — “He is the rock I stand on that allows me run the businesses and help people the way I do,” Tiffany said fondly — she’s also delved deeper into the practice of meditation.

Yoga, Crossfit, meditation: they’re all part of Tiffany’s self-care, another practice by which she swears. With the schedule she keeps, Tiffany stressed the importance of carving out time for yourself, be it an hour-long massage, 10 minutes in child’s pose or a session of light therapy.

“I think sometimes when we don’t rest, we don’t know the power of it,” she said, stressing that when you take care of yourself, you’re of more service to others. “There’s so much that I’d love to share with people. But overall — if I could just get one message across to people — it’s just to take seriously self-care.” SWM

To learn more about O Yoga, including class schedule, workshops, teacher trainings and rates, visit theoyogastudio.com. O Yoga is located in Syracuse at 1003 W. Fayette St., 5th Floor, and DeWitt at 4465 E. Genesee St.

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