- Written by Jason J. Tabor Jason J. Tabor
“We are at any given time a sum of our past experiences. I like to tell my students to gather up their pebbles of knowledge and eventually it turns into a hill, and that hill will continue to grow into a mountain,” says fitness educator Joy Riley.
Her own journey for knowledge and self-discovery most recently led her to the sandy beaches of Bali, Indonesia, surrounded by turquoise waters, rice fields, and lush greenery while she completed a 200-hour yoga certification course.
Riley has spent most of her life sharing the knowledge she’s accumulated with others, currently as a professor of physical education at one of Harrisburg Area Community College’s campuses, and as a country club’s director of tennis, a recreation center’s tennis pro, and a yoga instructor.
A lifelong central Pennsylvanian, Riley was a natural athlete as a child, excelling at swimming, gymnastics, and tennis. She swam competitively as a student at Shippensburg University, where she studied early childhood education and then taught pre-k classes for two years after graduation.
It soon became clear to her that her real passion for teaching revolved around physical education.
“Even while I was in college, I realized that I had really fallen in love with physical fitness,” she says.
Fittingly enough, Riley met her husband of 37 years, Pat, when they noticed each other working out at the local YMCA.
They married a year later, and Riley then divided her time between starting a family, teaching fitness, and helping run Pat’s bar and restaurant, The Downtown Lounge.
After the birth of her first daughter, Sirae, Riley opened her first fitness studio, Jump with Joy, when she was just 23.
She also started a dog-grooming business to help keep the bar afloat during the lean early years of the studio’s operation. Her second daughter, Kayla, was born shortly afterward.
“Striking a balance between family and career has always been very important to me,” she says. “As busy as I was, my focus was on raising my daughters to be happy and good mothers themselves by serving as a good role model to them.”
Riley began building up her accreditation and teaching certifications, leading fitness and exercise instruction classes at her studio and local community centers before becoming an instructor at HACC, where she has taught for the past 15 years.
“I love teaching at HACC; each new group of students I teach is a new experience with its own set of struggles and rewards,” she says. “It is extremely gratifying to me as an instructor to work with students who are working hard to make positive changes in their lives.”
Most recently, Riley became a yoga instructor at The Healing Habitat yoga and wellness studio after completing her certification class in Bali.
“I had some of the world’s best teachers from India, and when I finished the four-week program, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed, like I had so much more left to learn,” she says.
Riley traveled to Bali in March 2018 to study while her husband, having recently retired after selling the bar to one of his former employees, joined her.
“He got to have a fun vacation while I was hard at work each day,” she laughs.
The yoga instruction took place on the beach, starting at 6:30 each morning and lasting until 4:30 in the afternoon. She, along with a group of other students, studied breath work, cleansing meditation, nutrition, and physical exercise each day.
“It was very challenging, but so rewarding. Most of my classmates were in their 20s and from all over the world. I took on a bit of a motherly role within the group, but we were all equal as students and learners,” she says.
“That role switch — becoming a student again — renewed my compassion for my own students. It reminded me of the importance of empathy for others and understanding other people’s learning needs and individual struggles.”
She credits her friend Emilie Charlotte, owner of The Healing Habitat, for inspiring her to go for her certification.
“As we get older and joint pain becomes more of an issue, yoga can provide beautiful healing powers for the body. I really fell in love with it, and of course me being me, I had to get certified and teach,” she laughs.
Riley views yoga as a philosophy and lifestyle that promotes health of the mind, body, and spirit.
“People associate yoga with stretching and poses, and while that is part of it, the physical aspects serve as a way of preparing the body for what is arguably more important: meditation.
“When I came out of Emilie’s classes at Healing Habitat, I felt physically, mentally, and spiritually sound,” Riley continued. “It’s a special community that provides support, uplift, and kindness in a safe, welcoming space, and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Riley tells yoga beginners that choosing an instructor or class isn’t one-stop shopping.
“You need to determine what you’re looking to get out of yoga, and give yourself time to find the instructor you’re comfortable with,” she says.
One of the biggest lessons she’s learned from yoga is the importance of focusing on the here and now, being in the present, and appreciating the blessings in her life.
“We find ourselves spending so much time concerning ourselves with things in the past we cannot change or worrying about the future, but the only things we can truly control are happening in the present. We can support other people by uplifting them with kindness right now.”
Riley now relishes the five grandchildren she and Pat spend time with each week.
“I’ve been a grandmother for seven years now, and I love every minute of it,” she says. “They’re the love of my life!”
When not doing fitness instruction, Riley likes to recharge during “Riley Sundays,” where family members take turns hosting dinner and spending time together. They have also made a yearly tradition out of taking family trips to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
“I’d like to slow a little bit and spend more time enjoying life with our grandkids, but I’m not ready for retirement yet. The fitness world has a way of keeping you young!”
Riley will turn 60 this summer, a milestone that has her feeling reflective, grateful, and optimistic.
“I see it as a new chapter … I have raised my family, run my household, and had many exciting careers. I am a survivor, and I still feel strong and capable. Life is not over after 50.
“Because our bodies may not be what they once were, we may lose some of our confidence,” she continued. “But stop — and realize that with wisdom and courage, we can enter this chapter of our lives with humility, grace, and pride over everything we have been through and should never feel bad about getting older.
“It’s a privilege that is denied to so many. Don’t stop exploring all the possibilities life has to offer.”