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Room to Breathe


She didn’t know it, but Gwen Soffer was on a mission to find some focus in her life. Like turning the radio dial to find the right station amidst the static of children talking, dogs barking and phones ringing, she began making jewelry as a creative outlet. Then, while running around at a hectic pace, the mother of three fell head-first down a steep flight of stairs in her Swarthmore home. When she regained consciousness, her dog was licking at the blood around her.

“Recovering from the accident, I was at the physical low point of my life,” Soffer recalls. “I knew I had to slow things down and focus on something that was for me. The crisis created a new time for me to heal and become healthy—eat a better diet, stop drinking alcohol. Then, since I’d studied self-defense in college, I began doing martial arts and yoga.”

Today, Soffer and real estate attorney Adam Marcus, her Budokon yoga instructor/business partner of eight years, have found their focus by helping other people get off the multitask treadmill and find theirs. On Media’s State Street, they opened Enso, a full-service yoga, Budokon and meditation studio. The enso is a Japanese calligraphy circle that symbolizes each individual’s path toward enlightenment, drawn differently by the person each day.

As many crises do, Soffer’s changed her life. “Making time to focus on just one thing, like yourself or your body, isn’t just a luxury anymore but a necessary thing before something bad really happens,” says Soffer. “I pass women in vans and I can just see the looks of pained expression as they take their kids from one event to the next. I want to get the word to them that if they take time for themselves, nobody will miss out on anything. In fact, everybody’s going to benefit—and you don’t go around full of resentment.”

As logical as it is to make that effort, it’s harder than ever for many of us to do these days. Soffer may be a second-degree black belt in karate, but when she first began yoga classes, there was always an excuse not to go. “I think men find it easier to just say, ‘I’m going to work out.’ Women—especially mothers—feel they can’t afford to make it happen.”

Building in the time to create art came a little more easily for Soffer. As a Spanish literature student at the University of Pennsylvania, she began making necklaces for herself and friends. She was wearing one when a New Hope boutique owner approached her about selling them. Mixing silver and vermeil with semi-precious stones like fluorite, apatite and garnet, Soffer found a way to create unique designs, even with kids underfoot. “I had a small box-like tray that I could take where they were playing and have my own personal space,” she says.

Last year, Women’s Wear Daily recognized Soffer as an up-and-coming Philadelphia-area artist, while highlighting the small Philly boutique Moletta, which carried her contemporary, vintage-inspired designs. Sold in outlets across the country, from the Main Line to Texas, her jewelry combines Asian influences and Spanish colors—all in a vintage style inspired by childhood memories of time spent rummaging through her grandmother’s jewelry box.

At Enso, celadon walls, plum-accented pillows and suede-like putty sofas provide a soothing place to drink tea and jewelry shop before a heated flow yoga or Budokon session. The setting—like the jewelry and the instructor herself—is a communion of artistic elements. “I do have certain pieces that are for practicing and teaching [yoga],” says Soffer. “A bracelet I wear has a dangling drop of clear, pure quartz. I use it as a point of focus when I extend my arms in certain poses.”

When it comes to jewelry, Soffer knows what women want and need. “Someone said, ‘The older we get, the more we acces-sorize’—and it’s really quite true,” says Soffer, who also sells her pieces at craft festivals, personal shows, home parties and gwensoffer.com. “When someone is making a decision about a piece of jewelry, I always ask, ‘How does it make you feel?'”

Last fall, Enso began training college athletes, teaching Budokon to the Swarthmore College men’s soccer team and the Bryn Mawr College women’s lacrosse team. Budokon, a blend of yogic and martial arts that combines animal poses in sequential movement, is a specialty at Enso, one of only four studios on the East Coast to offer it.

“A lot of athletic teams are using yoga,” says Soffer, whose husband is a student at Enso and has combined yoga with his medical practice. “It has this ability to help you perform better.”

Making people feel good—particularly women—is what Gwen Soffer does best. At 5-foot-9, she’s a powerful and statuesque presence, with aquamarine eyes that shine like the semi-precious stones she often chooses for her jewelry. Her voice and her touch are soft, and she sets a spiritual tone underscored by contemporary and Asian-inspired chanting and timely, inspirational passages.

“As a teacher, I think my creativity comes with the way I approach each class,” she says. “Everyone has their own set of baggage that I have to help them leave behind. That can take some creativity these days. Women have to push themselves to care for themselves. I always make the analogy to the airplane demonstration with the oxygen masks: You have to put it on yourself before you put it on the child; you’re not going to be able to help the kids if you can’t breathe.”

Soffer’s students are a testament to that philosophy. Betsy Larsen, the mother of a baby and a 4-year-old, followed Soffer from her temporary Swarthmore studio to the new location. “She makes me a kinder, gentler person,” Larsen says. “I’m calmer, and I have a higher tolerance to all the mess-ups and day-to-day stuff.”

Fellow practitioner Debbie Eiel agrees. “I love that it’s my mat, my space and nobody else’s,” she says. “When I relax and Gwen massages my temples, I just think, ‘Ah, this is so nice.’ I live with three boys, a husband and a dog. That’s not something I get all the time.”

The diamond sliver on Soffer’s workout necklace drops from a chain of gold beads. For her, the diamond depicts the clarity one finds in a circle like the enso—always a unique path that links the moments of each day. Circles are good. As long as we’re not running around in them.

To learn more about Gwen Soffer and Enso, visit experienceenso.com.

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