Out of the oven, on to the mat

By Julian Wise - October 12, 2006

Primo Lombardi. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Primo Lombardi, pizza impresario turned yoga instructor, is flourishing in his new career, and it shows! Photos by Ralph Stewart

If you run into Primo Lombardi these days, it's the same old Primo, yet something's different. With his shaved head and fit, trim build, it seems he's shaved years off his chronological age. His gentle, soft-spoken manner suggests a more serene phase of his life than when he labored long hours in kitchens serving up some of the finest Italian American cuisine this Island's ever tasted. In a remarkable career transformation, the former restaurateur has become a Anusara yoga instructor, guiding students in the subtle art of reconnecting their minds with their bodies through ancient yoga postures. The man who satisfied palates for years is now serving bodies, minds, and spirits through his gentle instruction.

Sitting at a table in his Chilmark home overlooking Menemsha Pond, Mr. Lombardi reflects back on the journey that took him from seven-day workweeks in the kitchen to advanced yoga trainings with Anusara founder John Friend.

"I used to think it was coincidence," he says of the chain of events that led to his induction into the world of yoga instruction. "Now I look at it differently, to be aware of how things connect in our lives."

Mr. Lombardi (at left) works with a student, adjusting her posture.
Mr. Lombardi (at left) works with a student, adjusting her posture.

Mr. Lombardi's story on Island begins in the 1970s when he was living in Peabody. As the son of Irish and Italian parents, he was imbued from an early age with a vigorous work ethic. In 1976 he delivered a car to Martha's Vineyard for his sister and became enchanted by the Island's beauty. Several years later he returned on vacation with his wife Mary and their two children Primo and Ariane. Soon he and his wife began contemplating a life on the Island.

"We fell in love with the place right away but couldn't figure out how to make a living," he recalls.

Drawing on the sharp instincts that guided him through three decades of business, Mr. Lombardi noticed the Island lacked a fast, affordable family restaurant.

"There was no place to take a young family out to dinner," he says. "I thought, 'everybody has to eat.'"

In a series of coincidences, he bought the old A & P building (currently Pomodoro) in Oak Bluffs from Anthony Paladino (initials A.P.). His two children, Ariane and Primo, had names that start with A. and P. It seemed a good omen.

Papa's Pizza made its debut on May 10, 1978 and in short order the eatery became a local institution. "It was gangbusters from the go," he recalls. "What we hoped for actually happened. The need we felt ourselves was the need other people felt."

In his characteristically humble manner, Mr. Lombardi spreads the credit for the success of Papa's Pizza. "We hit it at a good time. We worked hard, we had some good luck, and any town we worked in, it was very supportive."

In 1990 Mr. Lombardi sold Papa's Pizza and took over The Chilmark Store. Once again, his hard work and emphasis on customer satisfaction paid off. "It was beyond our expectations how the business grew and took off, the support we had from all over the entire community," he recalls.

"The people really welcomed us and were happy with what we offered. Mary and I and the kids were always there, we knew what the customers wanted. It was a ton of work. It was like a gold mine, but you needed to show up with a pick and shovel every day."

Mr. Lombardi took yoga classes with teachers Bonnie Menton, Megan Grennan, Emily Sims, and Josh Montoya towards the end of his tenure at the Chilmark Store. He's quick to praise the caliber of the local instructors, noting "The Island has a lot of good teachers. We're really blessed in that way. Everyone has something good to offer in their own voice."

During a particularly grueling August day at the store in 2003 Mr. Lombardi's friend Peter Goodman suggested Mr. Lombardi join him in Florida for a winter yoga retreat with Anusara founder John Friend. In December the two were disembarking from the airplane in Jacksonville, Florida when they ran into John Friend in the airport. When Mr. Goodman fell ill the next morning, Mr. Lombardi took his place in a private gathering with Mr. Friend and five certified teachers prior to the retreat.

Under Mr. Friend's guidance, Mr. Lombardi felt he'd found a missing piece in his life. "I felt more complete," he recalls. "It was very life-enhancing for me. I wasn't going to let this go."

Mr. Lombardi was already planning to sell the store that winter, and the introduction of yoga into his life seemed like a perfectly timed occurrence. "It came at a time in my life when I had the opportunity to pursue something that was close to my heart. I had a wonderful time. For something so new, it also felt familiar and close to me at the same time. It's helped me live the way I'd like to live."

The following month Mr. Lombardi traveled to Seattle for more training. In the following months he would complete his level 1 teacher training in Miami, his Level Two training in Tucson, Arizona, and a week of therapeutic alignment instruction in Cincinnati. He completed a pair of 100-hour teacher trainings in Rochester, N.Y., and Sarasota, Fla. Last winter Mr. Lombardi began teaching in Sarasota. This summer he began offering beginner and intermediate classes to the Island community.

Mr. Lombardi's classes are offered in a safe, structured, and supportive atmosphere where students are challenged without feeling pushed beyond their physical limits. Mr. Lombardi possesses a natural, intuitive ability to read the students' body language and guide them to proper alignment without intimidation or discomfort. The same man who spent summers in a blazing kitchen shouting orders for pizzas and sandwiches now sits in a quiet room instructing students in a hushed voice to "allow the breath to guide and support you."

Mr. Lombardi describes Anusara yoga as an affirming, supportive practice that helps individuals reconnect with their bodies and genuine selves. "It's a heart-oriented yoga," he says. "It comes from within. It gets us in touch with ourselves, to see the beauty in ourselves, that the beauty is in our diversity. We all have something to offer."

While exercise routines like weight lifting and running are exertion-based activities centered around pushing the body through willpower, yoga flows in a different direction. "The challenge is to let go, to soften," Mr. Lombardi says. "It's not about domination over the body, it's a harmony. Anusara yoga is heart-oriented but it's based on biomechanics and universal principles of alignment. When our ego gets in our way and we want to be like the person next to us, sometimes that results in going too far too fast."

Above all, yoga is a practice, a process rather than an arrival.

"The practice will always change day to day, just like our life changes day to day. The yoga is an expansion of your wisdom and the humor in your life. It's about staying open to possibilities rather than being trapped by expectations."

While his yoga journey allows him to move at a slower pace than the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, it has offered its unique challenges. When he began the yoga teacher trainings, he found the experience overwhelming at times, stripping him of the control and mastery he'd achieved in the restaurant business.

"I asked myself, 'what are you doing here,'" Mr. Lombardi recalls. "I was used to doing something well for so long. Most of the people were younger. There were self doubts. Fortunately, the environment was always encouraging and welcoming. It's been an uncomfortable good spot, and I think that's where the growth happens."

US News and World Report magazine recently ran a cover story titled "7 Reasons NOT to Retire" which profiled individuals making mid-life career changes that were based less on economics and more on personal fulfillment. Mr. Lombardi's story mirrors the article's theme of applying one's talents and resources to a new phase of life. When Mr. Lombardi envisioned a life beyond the Chilmark Store, he says, "I wanted to learn more than earn. I wanted to do something I could do throughout my life. I started yoga because I wanted to stretch and feel better. It's like a lot of things; once we get involved, we take something that's very simple and add so much more to it."

Mr. Lombardi pauses and allows an easy silence to fill the room before adding, "I'm grateful for all the teachers I've had, not only on the mat but off the mat as well. I hope to be able to continue on this path and help others help themselves."

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.