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Omaha Magazine

Teaching Wellness After Illness: Yoga Instructor Tancy Ellis

Sep 22, 2023 04:20PM ● By Carol Nigrelli
tancy ellis 60+ profile october 2023

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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Tancy Ellis sits cross-legged on a yoga mat in the living room of her art-infused, immaculate, cozy home she shares with her husband, Rick, in Omaha’s Aksarben neighborhood. She adjusts her laptop computer to eye level, waiting for members of her Friday morning yoga class to pop up on a Zoom call. John Christensen checks in first. 

“Good morning, John!”

“Morning, Tancy.”

“As I recall, aren’t you going on vacation to Lake Okoboji soon?”

“I’m already here.”

“Oh! I’m surprised you’re with us today, then. There must be many yoga spots near you in Lake Okoboji,” Ellis replied. 

“Well,” he hesitated. “I’d feel like I was being unfaithful.”

Christensen’s endearing sentiment isn’t that far off the mark. Ellis’s yogis exhibit tremendous devotion to her, not just because they benefit from her classes, but because she has become a valued constant in their lives. When COVID shut the doors of the downtown health club that housed a yoga studio, forcing practitioners into the seclusion of their homes, Ellis kept stress levels down and muscles strong by teaching three to four classes a week via Zoom.  Ellis put her students’ well-being front and center; not surprising, having spent the majority of  her life caring for others.

She was born Mary Frances Dodson, the eldest of six children. The family lived near 44th and Pine streets in Omaha in the shadow of Holy Cross Catholic Church and Mercy High School, both of which she attended. Her parents called her “Francie.” However, her little sister couldn’t quite master that moniker, instead pronouncing it “Tancy.” The name stuck.

Gentle and patient by nature, Ellis earned her Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing degree (BSN) from Creighton University’s College of Nursing in 1972. For the next 46 years, Ellis watched over chronically ill children and brought comfort to anxious parents.

“I spent my entire career in the pediatric department at the University of Nebraska Medical Center,” Ellis said. “I began in pediatric cardiology, then spent the last 36 years in pediatric nephrology. In other words, kids’ hearts and kids’ kidneys.

“I had a great love for the work and for the families.”  

But even the most dedicated health professional needs to breathe. Ellis arrived at that point when she hit her mid-40s. 

“I felt a need to work with wellness, not chronic illness,” she said. 

To help achieve this, Ellis went back to Creighton and in 1997 earned another bachelor’s degree, this time in fine art. As a reward for earning the degree, Ellis’s oldest friend gifted her six yoga classes. 

“I thought, ‘yoga? whatever!’” she recalled. 

But those classes changed her life. 

“I did it. I loved it. I never stopped and I’ve been practicing yoga several times a week since 1997,” she enthused. “It helped me personally; deeply. It helped me center myself; to be more healthy and balanced.”

Another gift in 2013, this time a small inheritance from her mother, allowed Ellis to attend yoga teacher training at the Yoga Now studio in Benson. She became certified as a 200-level hatha yoga instructor, which combines physical postures with the breathing and meditation exercises associated with the ancient art of relaxation.

The essence of yoga easily correlates with Ellis’s Jesuit education and the nursing school’s mantra that stresses care for “mind, body and spirit,” making her a natural to help others achieve “whole person” wellness. Her teaching career began in 2016 when the personal trainer at the luxurious Pinnacle Health Club at 20th and Dodge streets asked her to start a meditation yoga class. Her popularity brought opportunities to teach other classes. 

“I had already decided that yoga for aging was my niche and it worked out because all of my yogis were older,” Ellis said. “I had a group of about 20 people, plus a group of Union Pacific retired ladies who said, ‘We want to hire you as our private yoga teacher.’ They’re wonderful!”

COVID not only closed Pinnacle’s doors in 2020, it brought about the athletic club’s closure, forcing Ellis to teach from home ever since. 

“At least the overhead is low,” she cracked. “When Pinnacle closed, my two daughters said, ‘Well, mom, don’t fret. Use Zoom.’ Zoom has forced me to put my body movements into words.”

Ellis kept all 30 of her students. Sheri Kennedy, a yoga veteran whom Ellis describes as her youngest and fittest yogi, understands why. 

“I was used to yoga classes that were a little more challenging,” Kennedy confessed. “But Tancy has such a gentle way about her that I just couldn’t resist. Tancy’s classes are a little calmer and quieter, which is very appropriate with Zoom. She’s very descriptive—you can visualize what she’s talking about.”

Credit to Ellis’s nurse’s training for her communication skills. During Friday morning’s Zoom class which concentrates on the body’s core, Ellis had Sheri and John and the other yogis sit on the floor and twist their body to “scrape the dough off the side of the bowl with your circle the other way…and pause.”

Ellis holds three classes a week, each concentrating on a different aspect, like stretching, breathing, meditation, balance, and the more physical floor work. She charges $35 a month for 10 months and asks her students to donate to a charity the remaining two months. 

“If you do what you love, money follows and grace follows you,” Ellis sagely affirmed. “You have an energy that’s added to your world.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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