Nadine Kelly stands next to the edge of the therapy pool at the Franciscan Fitness Center in Chicago Heights using her calm, confident voice to guide six yoga students through a series of aquatic yoga poses.
The students in the water follow her closely with their eyes, mimicking the gestures and poses she models on the platform.
After 12 years of medical training and seven years practicing as a pathologist, the fact that she is now a yoga teacher marks the biggest surprise of her life. “It wasn’t the quote, unquote plan,” she says.
Kelly originally entered the medical field because she wanted to serve her community on the South Side of Chicago, where she was born. She also loved the investigation and thoughtfulness the field required, she said.
“I like to think about a situation, think about a diagnosis, put the whole story together and come up with a good conclusion,” she said. Pathologists also didn’t have to rush as much as other medical professionals, and Kelly has always hated to rush.
But after a couple years working as a pathologist, she noticed her workload was changing.
“It was becoming more like a business, and becoming very much about numbers, and getting a lot of patients seen in a short amount of time,” she said. For pathologists like Kelly, that meant analyzing as many slides per day as she could get through with the same pressure to make an accurate diagnosis in each case.
“I was constantly running a race, and I was dealing with people’s lives,” she said.“I felt like if I couldn’t be proud of what I was doing and proud of myself, then I no longer belonged there.”
Facing the reality of illness day in and out also began to take its toll. Looking back, she said, she was already wondering, “Isn’t there some prevention? Isn’t there a way of being healthier and taking care of yourself in a mind, body, spirit manner?”
The situation became critical. “I couldn’t see myself lasting another 30 years as unhappy as I was,” said Kelly, who was 40 at the time.
In 2011, she made the difficult decision to leave the medical field without any idea what she wanted to do next.
One night, Kelly went to a local yoga class and spoke to the owner who told her that the studio would be offering a teacher training program soon. She signed up.
“About halfway through the program, something clicked,” she said. Kelly realized that she could combine her medical and anatomical background with her training as a yoga teacher in order to serve a group she calls “baby boomers and beyond,” who are often ignored in the yoga world.
“Helping someone who didn’t feel like yoga was for them, who wouldn’t even contemplate doing yoga became my mission. Really helping somebody, really making an impact in somebody’s daily life, became my mission,” she said.
Now, Kelly teaches 10-15 yoga classes per week. The venues include hospitals, assisted living facilities, community centers, a cancer center, and a fitness center, all in the southern suburbs of Chicago.
She works with a diverse group of students, many of whom have health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, scoliosis, sciatica, and cancer. She teaches students who have undergone joint replacements, as well as some who use wheelchairs.
The traits that made her a good pathologist also make her a good yoga teacher, according to student Judi Wolinsky. “She kind of has that way of analyzing things and breaking them down into little pieces that make it very accessible for her students,” said Wolinsky, who has been taking classes from Kelly for more than two years.
Kelly is a genius at modifying for poses according to the abilities and bodies of different students, according to student Beverly Feldt, who noted that she has practiced yoga with Kelly through an injury. Kelly’s classes aren’t just about how the students look in a pose, Feldt said. Instead, she emphasizes function and prioritizes exercises that will help her students in their daily lives, for example, getting in and out of a car and on and off a chair.
In return, Kelly’s students have showered their teacher with generosity. “My sister was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and it was a terrible, terrible moment,” Kelly said. When she told her students, their response was overwhelming kindness and support. “Had I still been practicing medicine, I would never have been able to know these people and receive this kind of outpouring of compassion in a difficult time,” she said.
“I can have real interactions with people, I can develop relationships, I can develop bonds, I can develop trust,” she said, drawing a contrast between her former and present profession. “I can look at my face in the mirror in the morning and I can put my head down on my pillow at night with an easy conscience to know I’m doing the best work that I can.”
Kelly’s Monday night yoga class ends with a five-minute relaxation period. Her students float slowly around the pool, their bodies loosely draped over colorful foam noodles and other flotation devices as Kelly observes them from the platform. As the relaxation period comes to an end, students begin to open their eyes, stretch their limbs, and glide toward the front of the pool.
All look happy. But none more so than the teacher.