At the Eberbach Cultural Arts Building in Burns Park, Victoria Cendrowski is teaching a “flow style” yoga Pilates class. “Take breaks, modify, or stay as you are,” she instructs, as she demonstrates each pose. While some of the twenty women move into full back bends, others do a partial “bridge” pose. (“Safety is always first,” Cendrowski explains later.) She moves into a “deep core” section with challenging Pilates moves. Then, as the class winds down, she has the students lie on their backs in the dimly lit room. “Relax, release, and let go,” she tells them.
Cendrowski, sixty-two, has been fitness supervisor for Ann Arbor Rec & Ed since 1990. Paula Uche says she’s been a “loyal fan” for fifteen years. “I leave her class feeling great about life,” Uche says. Tzena Smith, who “stumbled into” Cendrowski’s class nearly twenty years ago, says the sessions give her the strength and stamina to work up to fourteen-hour days, in her sixties.
Pacing during an after-class interview, Cendrowski explains that the three-times-weekly class leaves her “energized.” Smiling often and wearing yoga pants and a tank top, her waist-length dark blond and silver hair tied in a loose braid, she even demonstrates a handstand against a wall mid-interview.
That exuberance has been tested by more than her share of life traumas. The second oldest of ten children in a Catholic family in Pontiac, Cendrowski says that growing up, she was doing yoga-like poses before she’d even heard of yoga. As a teen teaching gym and swim classes to kids at the Pontiac YMCA, she stumbled upon a book on the Indian physical and spiritual discipline and couldn’t put it down. She was hooked.
She earned her bachelor’s in health, physical education, recreation, and dance at EMU, later adding a master’s of education in the science of human movement from Wayne State. She married her college boyfriend and was pregnant with her first child when an intruder broke into her Detroit home and raped her at knifepoint.
She’s only recently begun to speak of the rape and other painful experiences in her life, including sexual harassment at former jobs and medical malpractice that led to the loss of a pregnancy. Though she’s “a natural introvert and a private person,” Cendrowski says, she’s felt “something is rising up in me since Trump was elected” that compels her to speak out–especially about “equality for women and racial justice.”
Cendrowski’s feeling on those issues run deep. She says her late father “was a really strong civil rights advocate,” a GM manager who hired people of color. Her first husband was African American, and their daughter Courtney, now thirty-five, “identifies as black.” (Now married and a parent, Courtney is an associate professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, with a research concentration in racial bias.)
After her first husband left her, Cendrowski says her “whole focus became my daughter and my career–I was done with men.” But when she was teaching physical education at a parochial school in Berkley in 1989, a photographer named Dwight Cendrowski showed up to cover a special event. A week later, a letter from him arrived in her school mailbox. “If you’re married, have a wonderful life, and if you’re not, here’s my phone number,” he wrote.
Divorced, with two sons, Dwight says he was attracted to Victoria’s “exuberance and how she was so focused on the kids.” Over a few lunch dates, she says, “we connected … we were both socially and environmentally conscious. I didn’t know they made men like this.” She and Courtney had experienced racism in the Detroit suburbs, and Dwight persuaded her to move to Ann Arbor, promising “a better place to raise a child of color.” They married and moved here in 1990.
Now a freelance photographer, Dwight has produced instructional videos for his wife. Their daughter Chelsea has “basically been doing yoga since she was in the womb,” Cendrowski says. Now twenty-four and a nurse at U-M, Chelsea joins her mother in teaching a monthly by-donation “karma yoga” class to raise money for various causes–in March, the ACLU.
Victoria and Dwight still live in the Buhr Park starter home they bought in 1990. People have asked her through the years why she hasn’t started her own studio or left for better pay. She replies, “I’m not in it for the money. I love Rec & Ed. It is all about community–and this is really community service that I’m doing.”
An avid gardener, Cendrowski grows organic vegetables in her backyard and cooks daily. Breakfast is miso soup with one sardine, lunch is a big salad with nuts and quinoa or millet, and dinner includes whole grains, veggies, and legumes. “People think I’m crazy,” she says about her diet. Her “weak link” used to be a sweet tooth, but she gave up sugar twenty years ago after watching her mother suffer from Type 2 diabetes.
“She doesn’t just preach it, she lives it,” Dwight says of Victoria’s “passion for wellness.” And though he says he’s often the “comic relief” in a yoga class, he subscribes to most of her healthy living habits. She says she can only go a day without a full practice and supplements it with walks, often through the trails in County Farm Park.
She realizes competition is stiff for exercise classes in Ann Arbor, with new yoga studios and novel classes popping up, so she’s worked with her staff to offer everything from preschool to senior citizen yoga through the years–and, five years ago, she introduced paddleboard yoga on the Huron River. She plans to retire from Rec & Ed when she turns seventy–but hopes to keep teaching yoga until she’s 100.