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Middletown Life

‘To be able to gaze into our own eyes’

Aug 18, 2023 11:26AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

“The only response to adversity or misunderstanding is to be more completely who we are — to share ourselves more.”
Mark Nepo,
 The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have

The standard size of a yoga mat is 24 inches in width by 68 inches in length, and when a practitioner unfurls theirs at the beginning of a session, he or she does so with the knowledge that they are wise to completely surrender to it for the entire duration of their time on it.

Far greater than the mundane purpose of protection against the hard surfaces of a yoga studio, this thin sheet of polyvinyl chloride serves as a receptacle for their vulnerability and defeat, their fear and anger, and their expectations both unrealized and delayed. Then a miracle happens, in rhythm to the sweet and sweaty pulse of their breath; the mat becomes like a book of prayer opened to a treasured psalm, repeated in whispers.

Over the course of the last few years, and more than 40 times a week, Danielle Bukowski of Free To Be Yoga & Movement in Middletown invites her practitioners to unfurl their yoga mats and dump the entire contents of their mental mush on its rubbery surface, and move to her encouraging voice.

There it all is on one mat and then another and another; Bukowski recognizes all of it, piece by piece – the veritable gunk in our life’s collection. It reflects back to her as she teaches, the commonality of experiences that she has with her brothers and sisters on the mats.

It is this shared doubt, wrapped rigorously around an aching desire to know one’s own self, that first led Danielle Bukowski on her journey, and it is the reason why she is here.

Part of the solution, part of the challenges

“I was a hyper child, and at first I didn’t know where to put the energy,” said Bukowski, who as raised in Rising Sun, Md.” I was always moving and climbing and my mother would often find me on the top of the refrigerator. I began ballet classes when I was in the second grade, eventually found that ballet became my outlet and I went full force into it. Even though I was a free spirit, I loved the structure of ballet, and I was then introduced to modern dance, and I found that this spoke to another part of me. It became my introduction to the idea of breath and intention that I found years later through yoga.”

When she was 17, she turned down a scholarship offer from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia to attend the prestigious Joffrey Ballet in New York City, where she attended a summer program and accepted an offer to remain as an intern. She was clearly on the path to becoming immersed in the life of a performer.

The tests were first diagnosed as asthma attacks, but were later revealed to be a series of panic attacks. She left Joffrey four days before what would be her last performance of the program, and returned to Maryland, where she graduated high school at less than 95 pounds and carrying the full weight of her personal demons.

“The movement of dance was my outlet at Joffrey, but then I found that I couldn’t get enough if it,” she said. “I was very much a perfectionist and I have never done anything half-way, and that’s part of the wonderful solution in my life and part of the challenges that I have had.

“I wanted to be perfect in everything, and failing was not an option for me. I could not merely be good. I had to be the best, but in the process, I was not acknowledging the other part of me.”

She began drinking, changed her diet to include unhealthy options and added nearly 125 pounds to her small frame. She was 18 years old, and the barriers that she placed around her had become insurmountably high.

My true life began then’

For the next few years, Bukowski bounced from living arrangement to living arrangement in a series of stops and starts. She became a server and later a bartender at a Pike Creek restaurant, and it was there she found the first of what would become the many angels who helped give her guidance and love.

“A woman at the restaurant overheard me asking for a ride home, and she came up to me and told me, ‘I don’t know you, but I have a room in my home, and if you need a ride right now, I will give you one,’” Bukowski said. “That woman is Mary Huntington, and she changed my life. It started a trickle effect that began when she encouraged me to get back to dancing, or some form of movement. It began when I asked myself, ‘What can I do every day that will amount one small shift?’ It was acknowledging layers of things that had to go.

“In many ways, my true life began then, when one person supported me and gave me a safe place.”

A former boyfriend encouraged Bukowski to work with a personal therapist, who led her client on a path to meditation. At the same time, she began practicing yoga at Kirkwood Fitness in downtown Wilmington, and later at Empowered Yoga, where she developed her early practice under the tutelage of founder Johnny Gillespie, and began training to become a certified yoga instructor. Gillespie was in great company; as her practice and her teaching blossomed, so did the number of teachers who served to inspire her.

“Through the influence of my teachers, I learned very early on that yoga was far more than just movement,” Bukowski said. “This is where dance meets met emotions which met my sweat which met my impurities. The community, I found, was like-minded and to varying degrees, broken and searching and curious, and yoga was speaking to each one of us differently.”

Eventually, she entered teacher training at Empowered Yoga, while at the same time balancing her duties as a bartender and being a single mother to her then six-year-old son, Emerson Luke, now 10. After she took a position as the front desk coordinator at the studio’s new location in Greenville, Bukowski went through teacher training again with Gillespie and in 2019, she earned her certification as a yoga teacher and began giving her first classes.

To be able to gaze into our own eyes’

On May 12, 2017, Bukowski lost her mother to heart failure.

“I think when my mother died, I felt like I died with her, and I know that I could have very easily gone back to drinking,” she said. “But I sat with the tears and relied on the love I had for my son, and the tenderness of my friends, who kept reminding me that it was time for me to use my dreams.

“While I had been teaching dance for a long time, learning how to lead yoga practices became everything for me, and it was just the right time for me. It became such healing power, but it could not have happened until I was ready for it. It became the movement of the body, the emotion and the layers of support.

“Before yoga, I did not like the sound of my inner voice. I was always thinking catastrophically, but now my inner voice feels balanced. It is organic, it is human and it is healthy.”

In her own words, Bukowski felt that is was time for her to encourage others “to be playful, be joyful and to find their own super power.” After she and Emerson moved to Middletown to be with her partner Gary Thomas and his daughter, Bukowski was inspired to look to create her own teaching experience in Middletown.

Through the encouragement of her friends Kevin and Heather Thomas, Bukowski officially opened Free To Be Yoga & Movement on Dec. 12, 2021 in a temporary studio at Central Movement Martial Arts, where she has since expanded to a full schedule of classes and workshops for adults and children.

“You can see the light in Danielle’s eyes when she teaches the practice of yoga, and how driven and passionate she is about it,” said Heather, who serves as Bukowski’s business partner. “A lot of people are afraid to make a jump of this size, but when you see so much potential in someone like Danielle, it becomes very easy to sort through documents in order to help her further her passion.”

“At Free to Be, we believe variety is the spice of life,” it reads on the company’s website. “Each of our classes carries our funky, free-spirited vibe while focusing on different elements of yoga and movement.”

The culmination of Bukowski’s dream is in the final stages of construction. Free To Be Yoga & Movement’s new studio in Summerton Place is scheduled to open in early fall nearby at 103 Patriot Drive.

“When people walk through the door at Free to Be, I want them to feel energy, to see smiles and know the feeling that they are home,” Bukowski said. “The only obligation a practitioner has is to get to his or her mat and breathe. I want this to be a place where people can follow their own avenues and options. Maybe you are a single parent with four jobs and all you want to do at this moment is to lay on your mat in child’s pose and breathe because you made it, or maybe your inner warrior is craving a funky flow. Whatever you bring to your mat that day, we can give you that space your mind and your body need.

“Believing that we are more than the shell that we carry around allows us to step away from the physical component of yoga. There are mirrors in our studio not to judge ourselves or others, but to be able to gaze into our own eyes.”

To Bukowski, the mirrors are there for another purpose, a personal one.

“Throughout most of my life, I did not see what was right in front of me,” she said. “I didn’t see that I was able to balance myself and feel and cry and be sad and not be scared of it, to move my body in a way that is healthy, and to be able to encourage others to start to develop and understand themselves better.

“Every part of my life’s journey – even the parts that have been horrible – has allowed me to see and love myself so much more. I get so much from those people who walk through those doors when I share my life’s moments, more than they will ever know…and that is community. We may make this climb alone, but we get to do it together.”

Free To Be Yoga & Movement’s new location – scheduled to open in early fall -- will be at Summerton Place, Suite 104, 103 Patriot Drive in Middletown, behind Royal Farms and across the street from First State Brewery.

To learn more about Free To Be Yoga & Movement and its many classes, visit, or call 302-927-1143.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].

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