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Explosion of relaxation

South Tampa proves a breeding ground for yoga enthusiasts, and venues can barely keep up with demand.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 8, 2002

TAMPA -- A good day used to be when six students showed up in a small room off Henderson Boulevard for Annie Pomerantz's early morning yoga class, before the tai chi instructor arrived.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
From left, Mark Wilhelmy, Rhonda Albanese and Elizabeth Strong imitate the pose demonstrated by instructor Tony Nenov, foreground, during Nenov's Saturday morning flow yoga class inside his home studio.
Sometimes no one came, and Pomerantz fell asleep on the red carpet, lying next to her portable heaters.

Two-and-a-half years later, she has a school on Platt Street called Yogani Studios. Her sessions are so jammed, she just built a second classroom, along with showers and a lobby. She counts 600 students, easily.

"I never would have dreamed," said Annie, who has since married and goes by Okerlin. "It has been beautiful for me lately to see this become a way of life."

Once seen as esoteric and narrowly new age, yoga has blossomed in the nation's most sophisticated cities -- among them, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. Fitness and beauty magazines trumpet its benefits, as do celebrities such as Madonna and Ali McGraw, who have sworn by yoga for years.

Perhaps you've taken note:

Yoga now overruns South Tampa like so many red Porsches.

"You'd have to have your head in the sand not to notice," said Michelle Hammond, owner of Sun Dog Yoga, which opened a year ago on S Dale Mabry Highway.

Okerlin's pioneering days are part of the not-too-distant past, a time when people with blue mats, rolled tight and tucked under their arms, drew blank stares. Today those coiled mats, a yoga prop for comfort and traction, are less exotic than Via Spiga shoes.

"It exploded last year in South Tampa," said Stacy Nixon, who teaches yoga at MacDill Air Force Base and other venues.

There's no shortage of yoga instructors happy to give lessons in private homes for $75 a class. Gyms muscle in on the action, too. Some have offered yoga for years but only recently have increased the number of classes.

Still, clients keep asking for more.

"They're popular," said Lola Strickland, operations manager and yoga teacher at Shapes Total Fitness on Swann Avenue.

All YMCA branches have the classes, but the one on S Himes Avenue has the most by far, 11 weekly.

South Tampa, it seems, is a natural breeding ground for yoga enthusiasts. The area has a particularly urbane outlook that some say feeds the industry.

"Generally speaking, the people that tend to migrate to South Tampa tend to keep up with what's trendy and what's going on in the big cities," said Lauren Golen Turkel, an instructor at Yogani.

Hammond sees the same characteristics.

"It's a pretty educated, health-conscious population," she said. "I think with that influx, there comes a kind of open-mindedness and an explorative quality."

Yoga involves a series of poses, stretches, balancing postures and resting positions. Some poses are held steady for a minute or longer, strengthening muscles throughout the body. Others are meant to deepen flexibility.

Students sometimes tremble from the effort. And ultimately, they lie on their backs in repose.

Yoga, some insist, isn't for sissies.

"I think people are resistant to it because they see it as an older adult activity, and it's a misconception totally," said Strickland, who credits yoga with helping her to lose 300 pounds.

[Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
Sara Frendahl, left, Leila Martini and the class practice the revolved side angle posture during an ashtanga oga class taught by Steve Green at Yogani Studios on Platt Street. Ashtanga is a sequence of asanas, or postures, which use breathing, gaze and locks.
Tony More is a strapping 31-year-old who runs, swims, lifts weights and goes to Yogani. "You're dealing with muscles normally you would not deal with, and it gives you strength and stamina," he said. "There's a certain spiritualness also."

Locally, there's a smorgasbord of yoga. Traditional forms like Ashtanga, Iyengar and Hatha are offered. One of Yogani's most popular classes is Bikram yoga, in which the room temperature is raised to the high 90s to help rid the body of toxins and maximize flexibility.

Others are a mix of disciplines, classes with names like "power yoga" and "stretch yoga."

Yoga's broad appeal, say instructors, is that it can be so many different things to different people. To some, it's simply a sport like jogging or spinning, to tone muscles and burn calories.

Others view it in the traditional sense, as a tool to condition the entire individual, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually.

"Yoga is being kind to yourself and kind to others," said Barbara Newborn, who teaches yoga to people with physical ailments.

"It's really about connecting to what makes you tick," Okerlin said. "Stress and worries coat your mind and your body. Yoga really allows you to peel the layers back."

Although Strickland has lost weight from her practice, she is adamant that yoga is about more about spirituality than firming up and slimming down. But students aren't always ready to hear that.

"If you make them think it's too spiritual, you'll convince them it's inappropriate," Strickland said. "It works in spite of the fact that they're unaware of it."

Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means to join or to yoke. Instructors say it signifies the union of body and mind. Western exercise often incorporates intentional distractions such as loud music in aerobics classes or TVs blaring above treadmills. In yoga, participants are taught to listen to their breath and cultivate a quietude in difficult poses.

Some trace its origins 5,000 years back to ancient stone carvings discovered in the Indus Valley that depicted yoga postures. But it is just as relevant today, say enthusiasts.

"Probably, yoga is needed more than ever," said Antonin Nenov, who quit his job as a computer engineer last year to teach yoga full time with his wife, Barbara Newborn, in South Tampa. "We don't, in this speedy life, have any anchors. . . . Yoga, as an anchoring practice, is finding the very deep essence within. It's like staying in the hurricane's eye."

The sudden surge in demand for yoga teachers has meant fitness instructors and personal trainers have rushed off to get quick certification.

"They're just frantic to get anybody in there to teach so they can say they offer yoga," Hammond said.

That has generated a recent schism in the yoga world between purists who think only traditionally schooled practitioners should teach yoga and those who are glad America is getting any yoga at all.

"I think yoga people worry that it's being bastardized beyond recognition," Strickland said.

A class without a classically trained teacher is less effective, she said. "You're not told to quiet your mind, to quiet your breath, to release your grocery lists."

Michelle Dowell, an instructor at Just Fit Exercise and Wellness Center on Bay to Bay Boulevard, was an aerobics and step teacher and recently learned yoga. She rejects that contention.

"I didn't go to India or Hawaii (to train), but I am trained," Dowell said. "I think there's always a place to bring in the teachings of yoga as long as they are taught in a safe manner. I don't see anything wrong with that."

Xtreme Total Health & Fitness ran into a different yoga conflict.

Manager Dave Traynor said he moved the classes to the early morning because they clashed with the high-energy atmosphere at night.

"A lot of times," he said, "people want a secluded environment so they can get that mind-body relaxation experience -- which, for some people, is difficult to get in a health club."

As yoga saturates South Tampa, some don't even have to travel to a health club to partake.

Witness Danny Hernandez, a sometime yoga student who recently complained to Okerlin of a head cold as she devoured beans and rice at his Davis Islands restaurant, Pipo's.

In the city around him, people were racing out to buy cold remedies or sitting home with chicken soup.

Okerlin gave him her own brand of a prescription. She threw down her spoon and sprang to her feet.

"Just hang," she told him, holding her elbows as she dangled dramatically over her toes. "You need to do half moons."

Hernandez nodded.

-- Reporter Kathryn Wexler can be reached at 226-3383 or

Want to try yoga?

Here's a partial list of South Tampa yoga venues and the cost of a single class. Some gyms offer yoga free to members. And some studios offer package deals. Check with individual sites to learn more.

Just Fit Exercise and Wellness Center

  • Address: 3418 Bay to Bay Blvd.
  • Phone: 831-2136
  • Two classes weekly
  • $12.50 per class

Barbara Newborn and Tony Nenov

  • Address: 2906 W Price Ave.
  • Phone: 831-1598
  • Five classes weekly
  • $15 per class

Shapes Total Fitness

  • Address: 3808 W Swann Ave.
  • Phone: 872-8427
  • Five yoga classes weekly
  • $10 per class

Sun Dog Yoga

  • Address: 1548 S Dale Mabry Hwy
  • Phone: 902-1235
  • 15 classes weekly
  • $15 per class

Xtreme Total Health & Fitness

  • Address: 936 S Howard Ave.
  • Phone: 258-2639
  • Three classes weekly
  • $10 per class

YMCA -- Interbay Glover Family Branch

  • Address: 4411 S Himes Ave.
  • Phone: 839-0210
  • 12 classes weekly
  • $12 per class

Yogani Studios

  • Address: 1617 W Platt St.
  • Phone: 251-9668
  • 39 classes weekly
  • $10 per class

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