By Evan Heichelbech
The first downward dog should be felt in the shoulders. It’s meant to push the world away. The ujjayi breathing has two components: inhaling keeps the heart open, exhaling is a reminder of your bones beneath you to keep you grounded.
Once all that’s said and done, it’s time to set an intention to dedicate this Monday evening practice to. It could be a person, a place, an idea. Anything.
Yoga is a spiritual discipline of many postures. There’s the child’s pose which is the resting pose, the tabletop pose, the warrior pose and the gentle back bend, the favorite of the Warren County public library yoga instructor who is leading this session.
“Your dog will do it with you,” says instructor Laura Beth Fox-Ezell, who draws a subtle laugh from participants in the class.
As soft music plays in a room that is more suitable for conferences or business meetings, Fox-Ezell’s voice is the only other sound that echoes off the dividable walls in the crowded room at the Bob Kirby Branch of the Warren County Public Library.
Sarah Vesole, a 28-year-old physical therapist, has only been practicing yoga for about a month and has found it to be a rewarding free service provided by her local library.
“I come after work to relax and stretch, because we work with a lot of lifting and physical labor with patients,” Vesole said.
Topics like meditation, body art and dieting have been found on the bookshelves of public libraries for generations. Today, these topics are some of the many activities actually practiced under the roofs of public libraries to draw more visitors, a majority of which can all be classified in one way: millennials.
According to a report released earlier this year by Pew Research Center, 53 percent of millennials (ages 19 to 36) claimed to have used a library within a 12-month span prior to the 2016 survey. The research does not include usage of campus libraries.
Nearly 10 miles and 20 minutes from the Raymond Cravens Library on the campus of Western Kentucky University is a Sonic Drive-In. Behind it is a parking lot significantly fuller than the drive-in stalls at the fast food joint, and these cars aren’t parked for hamburgers on this Monday afternoon in November.
The Bob Kirby Branch of the Warren County Public Library opened in 2008 and is no outlier to the national trend.
Forty percent of the 46,877 active patrons or users of the library’s services and goods who had accounts at the Bob Kirby Branch during a recent report were born between Jan. 1, 1980 and Jan. 1, 2000. The report excludes slightly more than 2,000 of the patron accounts which had no birth date information at all, according to the Bob Kirby Branch’s systems administrator Alex Love. Because of this, there could be even more patrons who qualify as millennials that have library accounts. (Library usage data is not able to be gathered by date of birth, so Love was not able to provide any usage statistics by generation.)
While the rising numbers of millennials’ use of public libraries may be surprising to some, that is not necessarily the case for Fox-Ezell, the educational delivery services coordinator at the Bob Kirby Branch.
“I think that,” Fox-Ezell said, pausing, “everyone is just broke,” she finished with a laugh.
“Because this generation is so focused on just making ends meet with the amount of student debt and uncertainty in the job market and with the pension system… just cutting costs and using free library services is growing,” she said.
A millennial herself, Fox-Ezell is a 25-year-old graduate of WKU studying online to get her master’s degree in library science at the University of Kentucky. She also serves as the yoga instructor at the Bob Kirby Branch and the Warren County main branch.
“I never thought I would get involved with working at public libraries until I was exposed to the work that they do, and I fell in love with it,” Fox-Ezell says, talking with her hands as half of a tattoo shows under her long-sleeved gray sweater.
The Bob Kirby Branch, one of Warren County Public Library’s four branches, plays host to at least eight different weekly events marketed toward young children and their millennial parents.
Monday is yoga night. Tuesday mornings are saved for Family Storytime. ¡Preescolar en Espanol! is bilingual story time at 10 a.m. every Thursday for parents to bring children ages 3 to 5.
Two guest authors, a book club reading and a traditional thumb picking guitar concert hosted by National Thumbpickers Hall of Famer Joe Hudson all came to the Bob Kirby Branch in November.
For more traditional knowledge-seekers, the library also offers education prep courses and practice tests for the ACT, SAT and GRE exams for free. If you’re curious about your past, ancestry.com services are offered, as is downloadable music and videos — all for free.
The inside of the library doesn’t have the distinct scent that comes from pages of old books. Instead, it smells like fresh plywood and sawdust.
Construction is underway at the Bob Kirby Branch to build what Fox-Ezell calls “the idea lab” in the back right corner of the library, behind the section where a majority of the bookshelves are. The space will include things like access to a kiln and opportunities for screen printing as well.
Cushioned benches with blue circular patterns that sit on metal legs, high top tables with outlets in the middle of them and several bookshelves with clean wood finishes give the Bob Kirby Branch a modern look for a library.
The walls are colored with a soft, green paint. The only sounds besides an occasional power tool near the construction area are fingers pecking away at computer keyboards positioned in between copiers, printers and more bookshelves where a worker shuffles in returned copies of CDs as a mother with her two teens walk by.
Since Fox-Ezell started working at the Bob Kirby Branch as a WKU student, she has been involved in coordinating book clubs, opening a seed library to encourage “seed saving” as well as teaching “Monthly Mindfulness” programs.
From January to August, Fox-Ezell assists in mindfulness programs guiding people “to learn how to incorporate mindfulness in a new way.”
This past cycle, Fox-Ezell and mindfulness learners made Zen gardens and made henna tattoos.
“I think that millennials are into that stuff where they can show up to something and bring their friends and not have to pay or bring your own stuff,” Fox-Ezell said. “We provide everything.”
Fox-Ezell made Hindu mala necklaces for meditation with those who attended the mindfulness program, and also invited local experts on essential oils as well as local farmers to speak.
“I had never spent as much time in the library until I was actually physically required to be here because of my job and I was like, ‘oh this is such a fun job,’” Fox-Ezell said as she rolled a bead of the mala necklace that serves as a lanyard for her library employee identification between her fingers.
When describing the mala necklaces, Fox-Ezell turned to grab her medi-teddy, a teddy bear with mala necklaces draped around it, which sits next to an essential oil diffuser on her desk.
“I realized that this was not just about books,” Fox-Ezell said. “Libraries are also working hard to connect people to resources that are useful to them in a multitude of ways.”
Across the lobby from the main room of the library is the designated yoga room.
Soon after Fox-Ezell started working at the Bob Kirby Branch, the library director approached her about getting certified as a yoga instructor in order to offer her personal practice to the community.
Now two and a half years later, Fox-Ezell is teaching yoga classes twice a week, drawing people like Dave Dye, who has become a faithful follower of the program.
Dye was one of five men and 24 total people who attended the Monday yoga session three days before Thanksgiving and says the crowd is usually almost double that size on normal weeks.
Dye, 47, said he practiced yoga before, but not with the consistency he has here at the library. He doesn’t plan on missing any upcoming sessions except for Christmas, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, the only Mondays and Tuesdays left in 2017 that Fox-Ezell will not teach yoga.
“Laura Beth has done an amazing job with this,” Dye said as he pushed his hands on his legs in a butterfly stretch. “This is a really cool thing, and there’s not anybody you could ask who wouldn’t say a nice thing about her.”
Originally from Evansville, 27-year-old Haley Allen says she’s been using public libraries for as long as she can remember.
“I check out anything from how to make an apron to mystery audiobooks,” Allen says with a laugh. “Yoga books sometimes.”
But checking out books and attending yoga sessions are just a small part of what Allen claims she gains from her “community of friends” at the Bob Kirby Branch.
“It just opens connections,” she said. “I don’t know if I would still be living here if the library wasn’t here because I met Laura Beth and she’s so open and welcoming. Through that I’ve met new people.”