Several years after being hit by a city of Camas truck and suffering a traumatic brain injury, a downtown Camas business owner says he is closing his 16-year-old yoga studio to concentrate on his health.
“Rushing Water Yoga will be closing at the end of March,” owner Paul Cheek wrote to his students in an email sent Jan. 28. “My injuries have forced me to make a change and focus on treatments and ways of living that will support my general health. While I may come back to teaching at some point, I have no idea when that might be.”
For Rushing Water students, many of whom said they found not just restored health but a sense of community in Cheek’s Iyengar yoga classes, the announcement was a shock.
“I’m very sad,” said Elaine Ableidinger, one of Cheek’s longtime yoga students. “I’m grieving a loss.”
Elaine, 54, and her husband, David Ableidinger, 62, joined Rushing Water Yoga about four years ago, after searching for a way to be active in retirement.
“Physically, it’s been great,” Elaine said. “It improved my balance, which helped me stay safe when running or on hiking trails. I’m overweight and rather self-conscious, so joining a bright, shiny yoga group wasn’t my thing. But Paul was very accepting and very knowledgeable. Iyengar instructors have much more advanced training (than instructors of other types of yoga), and a really broad knowledge of the body and joint health and adjusting positions and using props so your body is safe.”
The most important thing to the Ableidingers, however, wasn’t necessarily the flexibility and strength they gained from the Iyengar yoga classes.
“For me and for my husband, the most important thing was the sense of community we had, going into downtown Camas and into the studio, where everyone knows your name — sort of like our own ‘Cheers.’ This wasn’t just a fitness class. Paul believed in giving back to the community. He always focused on a charity we could donate to each month.”
David, the former co-owner of Parkrose Hardware, said he and Elaine are both “feeling achy and creaky” since Cheek stopped teaching in late January.
“I hope he’s able to get well enough to come back,” David said of Cheek. “We’d be back in a heartbeat.”
In the meantime, the Ableidingers and many other Rushing Water Yoga students are looking for other options and not finding too many Iyengar studios in the Portland-Vancouver metro area.
“There are some in Portland and one in Vancouver, but we are looking at tai chi instead. It has more in common with Iyengar than other yoga studios,” Elaine said.
Accident leads to years of recovery, lawsuit against city of Camas
For Cheek, the morning of Nov. 14, 2013, started like many other mornings since the Iyengar yoga instructor’s retirement from his full-time job just a month before: he had woken up, spent time with his new bride, Ingrid, parked his car on Northeast Birch Street in downtown Camas and was walking toward his business, Rushing Water Yoga.
He was less than two blocks from the Iyengar yoga school when disaster struck.
According to the police report, Cheek was crossing Northeast Sixth Avenue near the northwest corner of Sixth and Northeast Birch Street when a city of Camas truck, driven by then-city employee Gregory Emmert, struck Cheek, injuring the front of his face and right side of his head and knocking him to the ground.
Cheek said he suffered a traumatic brain injury after being struck by the truck’s driver’s side mirror then landing on his left shoulder and head when he fell to the ground.
Washougal and Camas police officers responded to the scene of the crash.
A Washougal police report notes Cheek was wearing dark clothing and the “roadway was very wet and it had been raining all morning,” but also states Emmert admitted he was distracted by a leaning sign on the south side of the road prior to the crash.
“There are factors as far as Cheek wearing dark clothing, walking across the street not marked as a crosswalk, and not checking to ensure traffic had stopped for him,” the officer stated in the report. “However, it appears that Cheek had entered the roadway with significant time for Emmert to yield to him if (Emmert) had not been distracted by the sign.”
For Cheek, that one distracted moment led to a five-year struggle for normalcy.
“For the first week or so (after the accident), my face was big and puffy, but I seemed normal,” Cheek said. “Then, I slept for about seven months.”
The yoga instructor said he isn’t exaggerating.
“With a traumatic brain injury, the brain only heals when you’re sleeping,” he explained. “I was sleeping about 20 hours a day.”
For years, Cheek has been trying to sleep in between health practitioner appointments, running a business, being involved in the downtown business community, teaching Iyengar yoga and trying to spend time with his wife and friends.
“I have extreme daytime sleepiness,” he said. “I will hit my wall around 1 p.m., and not be able to think. I have brain fog the rest of the day.”
Cheek said most of his students knew about his accident and slow recovery.
“Sometimes, it seemed he was reaching for a word,” yoga student Elaine Ableidinger said of Cheek’s brain injuries. “He didn’t complain, but we knew he struggled with it.”
The yoga studio owner also struggled with his recovery — mainly in finding practitioners who would agree to forego full payments until his lawsuit against the city of Camas concluded.
“I’ve been to 500 office visits in five years,” Cheek said. “I have to carry my list of symptoms around with me because of the brain fog.”
That lengthy list of symptoms includes things like “chronic headaches, exhaustion, panic attacks, depression, fatigue, general disorientation, ear pain, hearing loss on left side, all over physical pain especially in neck and left shoulder, memory anomalies and anxiety while driving or walking.”
Cheek said he has visited neurologists, neuroendocrinologists, osteopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists and many other practitioners over the past five years in an attempt to heal his body and regain the life he’d hoped to have when he retired just a month before the accident.
Giving up Rushing Water Yoga is not something that brings Cheek any comfort or sense of relief.
“I did everything I could to keep it open,” Cheek said of his yoga school. “I don’t take (the closure) lightly. I just can’t do it anymore.”
Documents reveal concerns about city employee’s driving safety
Cheek’s lawsuit against the city of Camas is set to go to court in November.
In documents obtained through a public records request, Cheek’s lawyer discovered other Camas employees had cautioned superiors about the truck driver, Emmert, before Cheek’s accident.
In an email sent six days after the Nov. 14, 2013, accident that injured Cheek, a longtime city facilities operations specialist with Camas’ Public Works Department, Paul Hargrave, asked Camas Public Works Operations Supervisor Denis Ryan if he recalled a conversation about Emmert’s driving safety months before.
“I knew then that it was only a matter of time before (Emmert) was going to hit somebody or even one of us,” Hargrave stated in the email, sent Nov. 20, 2013. “Well, since one of my worst fears came true and he finally hit someone, I am very concerned about not only my safety, but the safety of the rest of the crew. I worry about which one of us will become his next victim. It’s only a matter of time.”
Hargrave told Ryan in the email he believed Emmert couldn’t see out of his left side and had not renewed his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL).
“I am curious why he has not done this,” Hargrave stated, referring to the CDL renewal. “Maybe even (Emmert) himself is worried the (sic) he might not pass.”
Hargrave urged Ryan to take the matter seriously and address the issues related to Emmert, stating, “The bottom line is that we would all like to feel safe at work.”
Camas City Administrator Pete Capell started his position after the accident and after city employees had voiced concerns about Emmert’s health and driving record, but recently looked into the matter after being questioned by The Post-Record.
Because the city’s lawsuit with Cheek has not yet concluded, Capell said he is limited by what he can legally say on record. However, the city administrator did say Emmert had been cleared by a doctor to drive vehicles that didn’t require a CDL — including the street maintenance vehicle that struck Cheek — prior to the November 2013 accident, and added that Emmert had a valid driver’s license at that time.
Cheek said he would prefer to mediate the lawsuit instead of going to court in the fall.
Volunteers needed to help with yoga studio closure
When Cheek announced the Rushing Water Yoga closure in late January, he told his students he wished he could have told them the news in person, but that his health had deteriorated too much to continue his teaching.
To ease the pain of the studio’s sudden closure, Cheek said he would work to arrange refunds for students who had prepaid for classes and would host a potluck party in mid-March to celebrate his students and the yoga studio’s 16-year run.
“This has been a labor of love,” Cheek stated in his email to students. “It has been a gift to be part of the community through Rushing Water Yoga and I appreciate your support, especially as I have navigated life post my injuries.”
In early February, Cheek told The Post-Record he was looking forward to the potluck party with his students, which was set for Saturday, March 16.
Then, a few days before this article published, Cheek said he’d had more bad health news.
“I was diagnosed with kidney and adrenal cancer and will have to have surgery,” Cheek said.
On Tuesday, he emailed his students to tell them the most recent news.
“One of the students at Rushing Water Yoga told me recently … that if it was not for bad luck I would not have any luck at all,” Cheek said. “I have to have surgery on March 13, which dictates that I have to change the date of the celebration of 16 years of Rushing Water Yoga.” The new celebration will take place from 6 to 8 p.m., Saturday, March 9, at the yoga studio, 417 N.E. Birch St., in downtown Camas. Participants are asked to bring a vegetarian dish to share, a donation for the studio and their own table settings.
Cheek also is hosting a prop sale from noon to 5:30 p.m., March 9, to help fund the studio’s closure. He is looking for volunteers to help with closing the studio.
While students said they are sad to see the studio close, several are hoping Cheek can recover enough to teach again in the future.
“Paul is special,” Elaine Ableidinger said of Cheek. “He lives the life, not just talks the talk. If he is able to get well and come back, we will leave wherever we are and come back to his class.”