Paying it back
Corporate-escapee-turned-yoga teacher now offers his services for free
Maybe you did your first Sphinx pose during your P.E. elective years ago at Chico State. Perhaps Jim Salber was your teacher. Maybe Salber challenged you to a King Dancer pose during yoga classes at In Motion Fitness.
These days, people can be introduced to imaginatively named yoga poses—for free—in one of Salber’s senior-yoga classes at the Paradise Yoga Center and the Paradise Ridge Senior Center.
“All my teaching is free now,” said Salber, the boyish 70-year-old whom many know as Yoga Jim. “I just like to volunteer my time. I like to pay it back.”
Students past and present (this writer is one of them) know Salber for his words of wisdom, shared with a confident calm and a non-preachy delivery; his welcoming tone and messages soothe, like a radio host for classical music. “My approach is to allow space, and have a soothing voice,” said Salber of his teaching method.” It’s not something I tried to develop. I was just blessed with a calm and soothing voice.”
Salber—a slender 5 feet 9 inches tall, blue-eyed, agile and easy to talk to—helped build two local yoga programs that now have thousands of devoted followers. He estimates that during his time at Chico State, he taught yoga to 3,000 students. The yoga program he co-founded at In Motion now has hundreds of students and 40 classes a week, covering a dozen different styles and levels.
Salber was born in Ohio and raised in the Bay Area, by parents ahead of their time with regard to healthful living. “One of my earliest memories in the 1950s is watching my mom watch Jack LaLanne teaching exercise classes on TV,” Salber said. “Exercise was as much a part of my family as brushing your teeth. It was about light eating; we had no second helpings. My parents were both good role models. Integrating exercise into your psyche as a childhood experience is important.”
Salber wasn’t always known as Yoga Jim, or—as some affectionately call him—“Groovy Jim.” He graduated from San Jose State in 1965 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. “I had a lucrative business career when I graduated,” he said. “For 30 years I was a salesman for IBM, and at a small startup electronics company. At different times I also worked as a stock broker, in corporate sales, and I built solar houses.
“I’ve really just pursued my passion for yoga for the last 17 or so years.”
He returned to college at age 40 at Southern Oregon University, where he earned an interdisciplinary master’s degree in business and social science in 1985. Salber’s adventures also include living in the country of Jordan—in 1998 he and his former wife became Peace Corps volunteers.
As though he senses I’m turning 50 next year, anticipating major changes in the direction of my life, Salber gets excited to tell the next part. “You can have a real transition time, to make the jump you’ve been wanting to make in your life,” he offered. “For a lot of people I know, 50 is when they really start to follow what’s in their hearts.”
Salber recalls the toll his career lifestyle was taking as 50 appro-ached. “I was in hotels and planes half the time. It was affecting my chi, my prana—you know, my life force. I read a book called Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow [by Marsha Sinetar].
“That’s all true, except for the money part,” he joked of teaching yoga for free. “But that’s what I’ve been doing anyway—what I love.”
Salber had traveled for business through Butte County in the 1970s, and wanted to live in Northern California. “I’ve been a gypsy most of my life, and I didn’t want to live in the Bay Area again. Living here I had an opportunity to be near a university, and teach at a university.” And that’s what he did, from 2001 to 2008.
Annalisa Cunningham, a local yoga teacher, had persuaded retired coach Dick Trimmer to add one section of yoga to the Chico State P.E. Department offerings. Salber took over the program when Cunningham left a few years later, applying his experience in marketing to get college students to register for yoga.
“Annalisa created a great base for the yoga program, and it really took off,” Salber said. “I went to the university bookstore and got the manager to carry those colorful yoga mats. I had him order a bunch of colors.
“When you see someone carrying that [a mat] around, you have to ask, ‘What’s that?’” he continued. “I got the school newspaper to … [do] a front-page article on yoga. We went from three, to five, to 25 sections of yoga classes. We couldn’t add sections fast enough.”
The year prior, Salber had worked with Deanna Figueroa to start the yoga program at In Motion. “We had one or two students per class sometimes,” he recalled. “We thought it was not gonna fly. Within a year, we had 20 or 30 students, and by the end of the next year we had maybe 70.”
Yoga is only part of what Salber does for exercise, though. “I lift weights. I garden. I walk 15 to 20 miles a week. I do a variety of things. Unless you’re a cement block, you need variety from repetition.”
Salber doesn’t expect any kind of credit for his role in the local growth of yoga. “I’m just a guy who happened to be chosen by yoga to pass it on,” he said. “I didn’t choose yoga; it chose me. I’ve tried to leave it, but it keeps pulling me back.”