For Elaine Wolf, life and death are inextricably linked.
“Life and death, they’re one,” she said. “They’re yin and yang. And I think the awareness of both is a gift.”
Those who are aware of both, she said, but don’t fear either have “a sense of bigger energetic connections that I think are eternal,” which gives them a deeper appreciation for their own bodies.
“I see the people who are most loving towards themselves have probably been through a crisis of their body. Those are the people that make the shifts [in their lives],” Elaine said. “Heck, when I was young and thought I was invincible, I wasn’t going to make big shifts because I took it for granted.”
But Elaine’s body went through its own crisis nearly 15 years ago. Though at first she felt betrayed, even suicidal, through a practice called Nia, she learned how to appreciate it again. As a psychotherapist, yoga teacher and Nia practitioner, she works with others to help them heal, as well.
Building body and soul
Elaine, who uses essential oils, energy coaching and both Eastern and Western movement to aid in her treatment of her clients, is not the same little girl who grew up in Central Square, the seventh of eight children — one of two girls — in a strict, but loving, Roman Catholic household. Even in her youth, Elaine was an observer.
“I guess part of me is wired to pay attention to dynamics, relational dynamics,” she said. “I’m very aware of space and how people move and their voice and tone and expression. I’m very aware of it.”
She was also an athlete, involved in sports and dance — but she got mixed messages from the Church.
“I would listen to sermons about the body and be like, ‘I don’t know about you, but my body’s working for me. My brothers are big and I intend to kick ass. I like my body. Why do we keep denigrating the body?’” she recalled. “And I knew at a young age that wasn’t right. That’s not healthy.”
Elaine said she began to internalize that patriarchal culture and carried it with her to college. She started at The University of Buffalo, which she quickly discovered, after the insulated world of Paul V. Moore High School, was not right for her.
“For an introvert, that was overwhelming environment for me,” she said.
Elaine transferred to SUNY Oswego, where, she majored in education, but she was turned off by her student teaching experience.
“I hated it. And you know why? The lunchroom talk,” she said. “Loved the kids. Always loved kids. But the lunchroom talk, putting the kids down, talking badly about the kids, I was just like, ‘I don’t want to hang out with people. They act like teenagers. I don’t like this environment.’”
But she enjoyed the social studies curriculum, so she pursued a degree in philosophy.
“So I have philosophy and education,” Elaine said. “What the hell do you do with that?”
When she turned 20, as she started to find her place in the world, Elaine had what she calls a mental crisis. Ultimately it changed the trajectory of her life
“I got into therapy,” she said “That was my first experience, and she was a counselor at Oswego State and that changed my whole world.”
Elaine’s therapist pointed her away from the more “practical” classes she thought her parents wanted her to pursue and instead suggested subjects she might enjoy: art, women’s studies, human services. In those classes, Elaine flourished. She ultimately went on to get a master’s in social work — “It was practical,” she said, “because it’s a paying job” — but she still didn’t feel like she was where she belonged. After earning a graduate certificate in women’s studies and starting toward her PhD, Elaine realized something.
“I’m not sure I want to be an academe,” she said. “I would have been fine, publishing and writing. I could have done it, [but I] didn’t want that rat race. I like the intimate. I like the details.”
So instead, she went back and got a degree in marriage and family therapy and went into practice as a therapist.
During that time, Elaine wasn’t just focused on her professional life. She got married, and she and her husband were trying for a family. After several miscarriages, Elaine finally got pregnant with a daughter, whom she and her husband, a family physician, planned to call Rose.
But Rose was stillborn in 2004, and Elaine fell into a deep depression.
The healing process
It took the death of her unborn daughter for Elaine to begin to feel alive again.
“There I was again, wanting to die,” she recalled. “Three months I sat in the house.”
Finally, a friend dragged her back into the light, taking her to a Nia class at the local YMCA. Nia dance-cardio classes, which include guidance on mindful movement and somatic education, combine 52 basic movements in five stages: warm-up, sustained non-impact aerobic conditioning, strength training, cool down and stretching. The 60-minute class combines modern dance, martial arts and yoga in a workout set to music. It’s non-impact, self-paced and adaptable to all needs and abilities.
During her first class, Elaine struggled at first.
“I froze. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t do some of it,” she said. “And I started to move again, and I started to cry a little bit, and I started to open up a little bit.”
The experience was so cathartic that she went back — and kept going back.
“It saved my life,” she said. “It helped me heal from that loss.”
Elaine and her husband ultimately went on to have a son, who is now 13.
Nia, Elaine said, provides the perfect counterpoint to those lessons on the body she was given as a child in the Church.
“Nia weaves together philosophy, women’s studies, reclaiming the body as central as opposed to the mind,” she said. “It takes Eastern and Western philosophy and just blends it together beautifully. I fell in love with it over time.”
Though she has continued therapy and acupuncture, cranial-sacral, reiki, massage, “It is Nia which has changed the way I think, feel, and act.”
She said Nia works because it makes us feel good.
“Nia, it blew my mind. Now it took me a long time to really understand what it was all about,” Elaine said. “And then I started to realize how emotionally, it was helping me grieve and let go. And then I started to realize I started to have positive thoughts about myself. Because if the teacher keeps saying to you, ‘Seek the comfort in this move. If you need to be a little bit closer, stay closer. If you need to be further away, be further away.’ She coached us in self-expression, which no other form does. Nia does peaceful, does angry, does energetic, does smooth — all in one hour.”
‘We can do it’
Elaine was so taken by the form that she herself became a certified instructor. On Oct. 13, 2017, she opened her own studio, Life-force Sanctuary, located in the former Vera House educational/administrative building on Thompson Road, which she renovated to accommodate a studio and several offices.
While she’s worked in private practice before, this is Elaine’s first venture as a businesswoman — and it’s getting noticed. Last May, she was honored with Assemblywoman Pamela Hunter’s Exceptional Women of Central New York Businesswoman of the Year Award, which honors women working to make their community a better place.
“Apparently, I wasn’t the only one nominated, so that’s great,” she said. “And my husband nominated me, which is like a fricking gift. And then my son to say, ‘Mom, this is all a fraud. You should have won mother of the year.’”
In October, CenterState CEO also named Life-force Sanctuary a 2018 Economic Champion.
Elaine said she’s especially proud to be part of a community of women business owners like the one in Syracuse.
“We women can be great leaders and leading from a feminine way of being and knowing, with being influenced by the masculine ways of being and knowing,” she said. “It’s time. It’s very important and quite frankly Syracuse is a hot spot for this transformation. It is beautiful how many women are stepping into business…. We can do it. We can balance, family, home, life. We can do it.”
In addition to the studio — which is available for rent for events — Life-force Sanctuary offers energy coaching, BEMER (an acronym for Bio-Electro-Magnetic-Energy-Regulation, which increases blood flow in the body and is used to treat a host of physical and mental ailments), massage and classes taught by certified instructors. Nia faculty includes Brandy Lee Fritzen and Kathlee Crinnin, as well as Elaine herself. The studio also offers Hatha Yoga and Qi Gong, taught by Katrin Naumann. Licensed massage therapist Lauren Ryan is certified in craniosacral massage and reflexology.
Elaine also sees therapy clients in the space, where she said she ties all of her modalities together.
“Everything I do is integrative. Everything,” she said. “My psychotherapy, they’re used to me saying, ‘Okay, it’s time for essential oils. We’re going to do some breathing techniques. You need to come back to your body so you can calmly find the answer to that question for yourself.’ My clients are so used to, ‘What’s she going to whip out of the closet now?’ I’ve got art supplies in there, essential oils in there. We do breathing techniques, we do meditation together, we do gentle movement in psychotherapy. A lot of talk and discerning and listening to stories and finding your patterns.”
The universal connection
In those moments, Elaine said, she forges lasting connections with her clients and helps them to better care for themselves — and, by extension, others.
“Once I get people starting to take better care of their body, be more compassionate about their thoughts and their feelings, they start treating other people well. It happens naturally,” she said. “They listen differently. They think differently. They feel more balanced and they treat other people with more compassion. It’s a process.”
And it’s not just her clients who gain something from the experience.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve had a person say to me, ‘I’ve never told anybody else,’” she said. “And they’ll whisper it or they’ll write it down because they can’t speak it. ‘I’ve never told anybody else.’ That goes straight to my soul. This person is choosing to share with me. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I still get touched by that.”
Sometimes those secrets are a tough burden to bear: bad relationships, abuse, sexual assault. But Elaine uses all of the tools at her disposal to help heal those wounds.
“When I teach a class and I see somebody treating their body well and they get this little smile or they have a little tear — they’re moving through something,” Elaine said. “They’re crying. They’re letting go.”
That’s what Elaine lives for.
“These moments for me when I see healing happen and joy — that’s about, all of us are one,” she said. “That’s the universal connection right there. That’s it — life force.”