Ten Minutes With Helen Ansari
A Fitness Expert
Photo by John Rizzo
Helen Ansari has been in the fitness industry for more than 40 years and recently celebrated 30 years at the Saw Mill Club where devoted fans flock to her yoga and Zumba classes. She taught herself to dance by watching television as a child in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and was a “Prancing J-Sette” at the University of Jackson where she first started teaching aerobic dance. The former Miss Black America and breast cancer survivor is the mother of two daughters and grandmother of four.
How did a cancer diagnosis at 42 affect your approach to teaching fitness?
You can’t give in to the heaviness of depression or feeling sorry for yourself. Positive energy is contagious and that is what drives me. Fitness is more than just jumping around—it makes you feel lifted. When I started working at the Saw Mill Club, I felt I had been given a platform to be used by God to help others find harmony and balance. You need to feel good to truly be well and that is what I focus on every day.
Where does yoga fit in?
It’s my lifeline. Yoga is an adjunct to cardio and weight work, one part of a triangle for a complete holistic workout. Think of a wool sweater that you accidentally threw in the wash. The fibers shrink and lose elasticity, and while the sweater is still strong, it’s not at all what you want. Your body can be toned and strong, but if there is no flexibility, you can’t be free to work through all your joints. You need to keep an even flow of energy to deal with what life hands out. The flow has to be there to be creative and productive in whatever you do—whether it is raising your children or running a corporation.
You talk a lot in your classes about the three ingredients in wellness.
The first one is patience: love, kindness, and nurturing yourself are equally important. The second is observation: listen not with your ears, look not with your eyes, feel not with your body, but have an internal dialog about how you are feeling. The third ingredient is ability, being able to accept what you are capable of doing in the moment. That’s when you get to a place of surrender. When you get there, take a deep breath. Then another. Meditation becomes your medication.
When did you get interested in Zumba?
I was invited to my first Zumba class at a fitness convention in 2008. Turns out there were 700 other people in the class and that’s when I got the bug. In 2012, Zumba Headquarters in Florida asked me to be one of their Zumba Gold Education Specialists for New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, and the District of Columbia. Zumba Gold is a modified version for people who don’t want—or can’t jump around and have an intense workout. It is also good for those who have been deconditioned, due to an injury or illness. I have a group of 20 to 30 seniors who come to my class every week and they have the best time. My two daughters are also licensed Zumba instructors so it is truly a family passion.
What is your personal workout?
I combine yoga stretching and Zumba dance with weight training. I’m turning 65 this year and I thank God every day for my health and ability to help others improve theirs.