True grit: 4 yogis who overcame adversity
Celebrating four incredible yoga teachers who fought back against life’s challenges to help and inspire others, both on and off the mat By Wanda Bogacka-Plucinski
After suffering ill health as a child and a teenager, culminating in a heart attack aged just 13, yoga changed everything for Joseph Encinia
Meet Joseph Encinia, a Texan native with a proud Mexican heritage. He’s now a patriarch of his local community in Harlem, New York. At the age of eight, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and suffered a heart attack at 13, brought on by medication.
Throughout his adolescence, he struggled with his weight and depression. Everything changed after he discovered yoga. “My first yoga class wasn’t easy, but the effects greatly outweighed the effort,” he recalls. After two years of regular practice, his arthritis went into remission, and he quit his medication. Having experienced the benefits of yoga first hand, he knew it was his calling to become a yoga teacher and share the practice with others. In the process, he also became a three-time National Yoga Champion and the 2011 International Yoga Champion. “Through yoga and a plant-based diet, I was able to control the conditions that ruled my life for years and use them as a source of inspiration,” he adds.
Encinia started out with Bikram Yoga and says he still enjoys hot yoga. “Heat made the most sense because of my stiff joints and weak cardiovascular system,” he tells OM. With the Covid-19 pandemic, however, his practice has adapted. Rather than practicing in a hot room, he became accustomed to practicing in any environment and is now eager to explore other lineages.
When asked, “What is your ‘why’?”, he responds: “After being face to face with my mortality at only 13, I knew then that my ‘why’ is to treat every day as a gift, share my life and passion for yoga, and be of service to others.” He adds: “The one thing I know for sure is that we must continue to do more of what we love, give back and expect nothing in return. When you have nothing to gain or lose, life’s experiences become opportunities. The choices you make affect all.”
As a teacher and a studio owner, the past year has meant changes in how Encinia connects with his students.
“Over the past year, I’ve transitioned into teaching online, and the results have been phenomenal. I host classes daily and provide yoga teachers opportunities to connect with students worldwide.”
When he’s not teaching, he spends his time volunteering in his home town of Harlem. From gardening, to trash pick-up, he believes that every action – no matter how big or small — has the potential to create lasting social and environmental impact. “I’m grateful to be alive and to have the opportunity to serve others daily through yoga classes, community gardening, composting, and offering the support needed to make the world a better place.”
Connect with Joseph Encinia on Instagram @joseph_encinia
Pareti Be grateful for everything in your life, says yoga teacher Emily Amador Pareti, who has battled cancer not just once, but twice
Emily Amador Pareti discovered yoga when she was 22 while living in Oahu, Hawaii with her boyfriend (now her husband). “I mainly tried yoga for something to do; a hobby to maintain flexibility and strength from when I was a dancer, gymnast and cheerleader,” she tells OM. “Movement always made me feel amazing. It gave me so much freedom and joy.”
She started in the Bikram Yoga lineage. After seeking out more information and inspiration online, she made it her mission to bring her mat down to the beach every Friday evening to ‘free flow’. “I was involved in a boot camp class in Waianae, Hawaii, and the instructor asked me to teach a stretch camp core class, which was basically a yoga class,” she says. After a year, it became clear to her that teaching yoga and movement was her calling.
Due to her extensive movement experience, she immediately taught vinyasa flow classes at her local yoga studio and led retreats in Greece as well as Florida during her first year as a yoga teacher. Shortly after, she also received her aerial teacher certification and became certified in reiki. “I love being able to connect with people, help them on their journeys and bring yoga into many people’s lives.”
Looking at Pareti, you may not realise that she is also a two-time cancer survivor. Her battle with cancer changed her and her outlook on life forever. “I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at 18. It has been 11 years since my first diagnosis, and I cannot remember what life was like pre-cancer,” she says. “Cancer changed my family’s lives too. My brother was also diagnosed with the same type of cancer when he was 13 (he is eight years younger than me). It’s so crazy. My family is now in a research study looking at the genetic and environmental links to Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
After her second diagnosis, she and her husband chose to go vegan. “We decided to cut all animal products out of our diet after doing a lot of research into what society ingratiated in us as a ‘healthy diet’. Reading many books and articles on the topic and watching eye-opening documentaries woke me up to just how horrible the meat industry is. I haven’t looked back since! To be honest, even when growing up, I never really enjoyed eating meat; I honestly found it gross because of my love for animals”, she recalls.
There have been many big positives during these challenging times as well. “Although cancer did a lot of damage to me, it also gave me so much strength and taught me to never take anything for granted,” she says. “I lost my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes not once, but twice.” Her relapse happened when she was 25, while living in Hawaii. She said that being diagnosed for the second time was scarier than the initial diagnosis. Although Hawaii was a beautiful place to heal, she hated being far from home and from her family. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation (for the second time); however, this time, she had a different experience. “I had minimal side effects from the treatments because I chose to also implement my newfound knowledge of holistic approaches to my healing – yoga, meditation, breathwork, prayer, along with adding cannabis, alkaline water, soursop tea, essential oils, celery juice and a plant based diet.”
Pareti is now in remission and four years cancer-free. When asked about her ‘purpose’ what’s behind everything she does, she says it is her mission to help others find healing through their practice,
“Whether it’s physical, spiritual, energetic or emotional, I teach many cancer survivors and thrivers like myself, as well as people who experienced severe trauma, the importance of self-love”. She loves inspiring others through her own healing story, and feels it’s important to not only be a teacher but also a mentor to her students. Her goal is to take each opportunity to make the people around her feel loved and supported, but more importantly, share the amazing joy, hope, and light that the amazing practice of yoga has given her. “I know firsthand, that life can change in a heartbeat. Hug your family, tell the people in your life that you love them. Don’t stress about the small stuff, it’s not worth it!”
Pareti now supports charities and organisations that helped her in her health journey, such as Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, where she received treatment in 2010. When she relapsed in Hawaii, her oncologist communicated with her doctors in Hawaii to make sure she was given the best treatment. And guess what? She now works at Rutgers Cancer New Jersey in development and fundraising. She also supports Compassion That Compels, a faith-based organisation that helps women battling cancer. She even chose to donate to the group in lieu of wedding gifts when she and her husband married. “I now teach a monthly virtual gentle yoga class for any cancer overcomer with them!” Other groups she supports include St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Leukemia Lymphoma Society, Cuck Fancer, and animal rescues, like Pitties and Pals, where she and her husband rescued their pitbull pup, Jasmine.
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Pareti quickly transitioned to virtual teaching. She taught Instagram and Facebook Live classes, created YouTube videos and taught virtual livestream classes at her local yoga studio, Honor Yoga North Brunswick. “The pandemic gave me time to focus on my own home practice,” she says. “It’s so important to find stillness in our yoga journey which isn’t always so easy when you’re moving around the room teaching all the time.” Although she found it fun to teach virtually, she is grateful that we are slowly transitioning back to in-studio classes.
When asked what she’s most grateful for, the answer is simple: “Life, my husband, family, my dog, Jasmine, health, my work in yoga and the cancer institute.”
Connect with Emily Amador Pareti on Instagram @emilypareti
Growing up as a gay man, and then losing his father at a young age, yoga brought with it acceptance, gratitude and a sense of community for Salvatore Macaro
A dual citizen of Italy and the USA, Salvatore Macaro found yoga as a way to help with pain from old injuries. “As a child, I taught myself gymnastics and tumbling in my backyard,” he tells OM. “Having been selftaught, I acquired numerous injuries from training on grass, concrete and asphalt.” In fact, he sustained so many injuries he was in constant pain for years. At 24, Macaro decided to try a hot yoga class. “I was hooked after just one class,” he recalls. He saw and felt the instant benefits of the practice and was determined to become a certified teacher. “I quickly realised how beneficial yoga was for the body and fell in love with teaching others.” Twelve years later, he loves the practice and teaching others even more.
Growing up as a gay man, Macaro struggled with his confidence, acceptance and sense of belonging. “Being a part of the LGBTQ community, most people are often stuck in between trying to ‘blend in’ with society, while feeling completely different and isolated. Unlike other physical practices, I feel like yoga encompasses both male and female energies, so my yoga practice became a physical manifestation of how I was feeling internally. Even though there is not a lot of LGBTQ representation in the yoga world, I do feel the yoga community is truly an all-accepting community.”
Yoga has become such an integral part of his daily life that he carves time out every day for practice. “My home practice, above all else, has taught me to be patient with myself and let go of what no longer serves me.” As he became energetically lighter and more accepting of himself, he learned how to carry it off the mat and into his day.
Gardening and spending time in nature is another huge passion. He compares it to meditation. “When I was young, I learned how to garden from my Italian grandmothers which turned into a deep passion of mine even into my adulthood.” He is today an environmentalist and a minimalist. Through gardening, he discovered the importance of sustainability and strives to be eco friendly in every area of his life. “I learned the environmental benefits of growing my own food, permaculture farming and homesteading. I was fortunate to spend many summers with my family in Italy, where farming and gardening are not only a huge part of the culture, but an essential way of life in a small village.” He adds: “I will always have a passion for being able to create life from elements of nature.”
Macaro’s passion for the outdoors means he now teaches gardening in his community. He stresses the importance of noticing how many resources we are using just to sustain daily living.
The amount of trash, toxic chemicals, and pollution we willingly expose ourselves to could be greatly reduced with more self-awareness and a social focus, he believes.
He is also a huge animal rights advocate and supports charities and causes that rescue animals. “I try to donate as much as possible to animal shelters, rehabilitation and animal rescue.” He is a proud guardian to a rescue dog and cat.
Like other yogis, Covid-19 changed his job as a yoga teacher. “In some ways, it helped me ‘branch out’ and start teaching on an online platform, which was completely unfamiliar to me before. However, I do think that nothing will replace having an actual teacher in the room with you, especially for the student.” He adds: “As a teacher, I miss seeing my regular students, packed rooms, and of course, being able to see the progression of students over time.”
Today, he says he is most grateful for his amazing family. He has a very close family network in the USA and in Italy, a family that is extremely accepting and loving. “My parents emigrated to the USA from Italy but always kept us very close to our family heritage and lineage,” he says. “Having lost my father at a young age, it really put into perspective what is important in life and that we must live life to the fullest.” After years of teaching, he realises how many people have lost touch with this culture and heritage. “I feel truly blessed every day to be so close with my culture and my Italian lineage.”
The loss of his father also explains his own personal motto: “What’s the worst that can happen? It serves as a reminder to live life without regrets and take risks.”
Connect with Salvatore Macaro on instagram @salyogi
Lack of worth and self-esteem resulted in self-destructive behaviours and self-harming that were only reversed when Madeline Plucinska truly embraced her yoga dharma
Madeline Plucinska discovered yoga when she was only six years old, when she was taken to classes by her mum. “Although I was too young to take class, I would sit in the lobby and peak through the steamy windows with curiosity. I was mesmerised by the quiet strength in each of the practitioners’ movements as they gracefully transitioned from asana to asana.” This allure with movement captivated her, so her parents introduced her to competitive ballroom dancing.
For the next nine years, she trained in Standard and Latin, enduring long hours in the car commuting to New York City from New Jersey each day for lessons and competing across the country. Because she strived to be the best in everything she did, Plucinska piled a great deal of pressure onto herself; she fell into a trap of comparison and self-destruction that disintegrated her self-esteem and self-worth.
After moving to Lugano, Switzerland for university, she gave up her passion for dance to commit to her studies. In doing so, she felt as if she lost purpose in life. As she kept up with the demands of school, she began to struggle with anxiety. “I felt like I was drowning, as I tried to keep up my grades, work to make ends meet, navigate living in a new country, make new friends and discover who I truly was.” Her obsession to achieve, soon manifested in unhealthy mental patterns, including self-mutilation.
Her local yoga studio became her place of refuge, where she could escape the demands of life. “My yoga practice took on a new dimension as I explored a variety of lineages: Vinyasa, Hatha, Ashtanga, Restorative, Iyengar and Yin. I realised that movement was not only medicine for my body, it was also therapeutic for my mind.”
After graduating with a B.A. in Psychology and Environmental Science, she pursued a career in digital marketing. But soon after, she felt she was unfulfilled and burnt out. So she decided to quit and pursue the things that she loved. “I travelled to Bali, Indonesia for my 200-hour yoga teacher training. It was during a seven-day silent meditation retreat that I had a profound realisation as to why I was so unhappy. My constant desire for perfection and external validation came from a need to feel seen, heard and valued. The only person that could give me these experiences was myself.”
And so she began a journey to heal body, mind and spirit through the practice of yoga. During her healing, she felt a profound calling to teach others how to reconnect with their soul and alchemise their pain into wisdom, so they could reclaim sovereignty in every realm of their lives. She knew this was her dharma.
Although she teaches Vinyasa, her preferred yoga lineage to practice and teach is Kundalini Yoga. “I love how the lineage entwines movement, breath, meditation and sound to create a powerful experience of self-initiation. From my experience, it was one of the few practices that completely transformed my relationship with money, purpose, love and vitality.
It helped me heal childhood and ancestral wounds around scarcity, relationships and self-worth. Most importantly, it expanded my awareness to see the interconnectedness of all sentient beings, such as animals, plants and ecosystems.”
She adds: “When we have the courage to follow our soul’s calling, we not only become vessels of prosperity, but more importantly, everything we do becomes an act of service. By being ourselves, we have the greatest potential to initiate ripples of change in ourselves, our communities and our world.”
Like others, her teaching has had to adjust over the past year or so. “When Covid-19 hit, I quickly transitioned to virtual teaching. I lead Vinyasa-based Zoom classes for the studios I teach at as well as my followers on IG Live.” However, over time, she noticed a shift and realised that many of her students were no longer seeking a rigorous practice; they were craving more purpose, connection and compassion with themselves and the world. “Because the body keeps score, it’s vital that teachers use movement, breath and sound to release traumatic experiences and rewire the subconscious mind. Since these practices activate the nervous system, it allows students to safely integrate new beliefs that actually change their mode of relating in the world. This transformation gives them the courage to own their stories, alchemise their pain into wisdom and follow their soul’s calling.”
Aside from teaching, she is passionate about sustainability and animal welfare. She’s a huge supporter of organisations like Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, Easel Animal Rescue, Sea Shepherd and Laguna Ecology Centre. As an animal lover, she’s also rescued three cats from Easel Animal Rescue: Kubuś, Waylon and McGregor. She believes in adopting the least adoptable animals, giving them the love they deserve!
Connect with Madeline Plucinska on Instagram @madeline.plucinska