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Free weekend yoga festival at RiverWorks to offer lots of twists, turns

Erin Szwajda discovered yoga after her mother, Nancy Ward, was diagnosed five years ago with multiple sclerosis.

"I was on a quest to help my mother and fell in love with the practice myself," said Szwajda, of Hamburg, who became a yoga instructor about two years ago after receiving her training at the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo.

She will be among two dozen instructors teaching free yoga classes from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday during the Budding Tree Yoga Festival at Buffalo RiverWorks, 359 Ganson St.

Budding Tree owner Julie Leatherbarrow launched the annual festival in 2014. More than a dozen yoga studios are partners or sponsors this year. Those who wish to take one or more classes should bring a mat and water bottle. For more information, visit

Szwajda, 41, is a married mother of an 8-year-old son, as well as a hairdresser. She took up yoga at home, working up the nerve after six months to try her first class. Now she leads a weekly gentle yoga class of her own on Friday mornings at Budding Tree Yoga in Elma. She will teach the last class at the festival, starting at 3 p.m.

Q: How's your mom doing now?

MS is progressive. She's had a lot of downfalls but the mindfulness of yoga is very helpful for her.

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Q: What has yoga done for your life and well-being?

It has changed my life. I’ve embraced letting me be me, being OK with being human. It doesn’t matter what we look like in our poses, but how we feel and what we’re getting out of our practice. Before my training at the institute, I felt like the underdog in class. Most of my co-students had practiced much longer. I felt they were so much further along. The more I studied, the more I understood that it doesn’t matter where we are, it’s our personal journey, so there is no competition. It’s a real game-changer when you get to that point.

Q: How do you continue to practice yoga?

I try to sneak into Julie's all-level classes on Saturday mornings. Last week, I brought my son to the kid's yoga class. It was a nice way to start the weekend.

Q: Talk about your training.

"Yoga is for everybody. We have so many types," says Erin Szwajda, one of two dozen teachers who will lead a yoga class Sunday along the Buffalo waterfront.

It was about a 10-month, 200-hour training program. It was weekly on Tuesdays, and once a month we met Friday night, all day Saturday and all day Sunday. The weekends were intense. We did everything from philosophy to breathing techniques, pranayama, and we spent a lot of time in our asanas, our postures. During weekends, we probably practiced our asanas over about seven hours but not in a powerful way. The Himalayan Institute I felt was a really safe, supportive place and they taught us to be in tune with our stillness, which is beautiful because it's something we could take with us and teach to others. It was not so much about learning handstands as how our breath can help guide us with our movements.

Q: What are the festival classes like?

The energy is amazing. When you bring so many people in who are passionate about the same thing, it's not something you can explain. There's a lot of positive energy, a lot of smiles.

Julie started this for the community. It's not just to promote Budding Tree, which is really cool when you think about it. This is her fifth year and most of those years she didn't even have a studio to promote. She's done it for the yoga community. We have a really nice yoga community here.

Q: What will your gentle yoga class be like on Sunday and who should take it?

It's going to be accessible to anybody, even practitioners who like a more powerful yoga flow type of class. It's a nice way to end the day. I'm hoping everybody will leave feeling really relaxed and balanced. That's the goal for every one of my classes. We will do some asana practice but we'll probably spend most of the time on the ground linking the breath with the motion and looking for that stillness in ourselves.

Q: What do you recommend to someone who wants to try yoga in Western New York this summer?

Yoga is for everybody. We have so many types. That's also a nice thing about the yoga festival. You'll see a lot of styles. Students tend to go to teachers who resonate with them, so do a little background research.

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