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    Body by yoga

    Once considered the realm of hippies and Eastern mystics, yoga has gone mainstream, thanks to the toned bodies of supermodels and rock stars who swear by it.

    [Times photos: Carrie Pratt]
    Luciana LoPresto, a yoga instructor, teaches her students last week at Dunedin Community Center. She has been teaching for 11 years.

    By EILEEN SCHULTE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 25, 2001


    Inside a room at Lifestyle Solutions Fitness and Yoga Studio, Cheryl McDonald dimmed the lights and lit a candle that sat on the CD player.

    Everything about the room was soothing: the beige carpeting, palm plans, orange Oriental throw rug. Relaxing music poured from speakers near the wall of mirrors.

    photo
    During her Gentle Yoga class, instructor Anita Rao, owner of Yoga Shakti in Safety Harbor, stretches in a classic yoga pose.
    Four women of varying ages sat on purple non-slip mats, waiting for McDonald to start. When she did, those gathered crouched, bent and reached in slow motion. Joints could be heard cracking above the music.

    This was advanced powerflow yoga, a powerful 90-minute cardio-vascular workout that would leave beginners sore for a week. And it's just one more sign of yoga's evolution.

    "Yoga has become mainstream in the last few years," said Pat Massey who owns the Tarpon Springs fitness center. "It has finally gained the respect of the fitness industry."

    Kurt Gratzol, 54, is a believer. He began taking three yoga classes a week at Lifework Yoga Studio in Clearwater about a year ago to improve his strength and flexibility, but found it had an even greater benefit.

    photo
    Ginger Messer stretches toward her feet during a class last week at the Community Center in Dunedin.
    "I had high cholesterol, high triglycerides and (was) anemic," said Gratzol, a paint salesman. "I knew my father died from heart disease, and for years watched my weight, ran 10 to 15 miles a week, but my blood tests still came out bad. My last blood test was normal. The only thing that's different (is the yoga). I have the same wonderful wife, same job, the same job pressures."

    His teacher is Claude Griffin, who founded Lifework Yoga Studio 12 years ago, and has been teaching the discipline for 38 years. He credits yoga and clean living for a lifetime of good health.

    "I'm 70 years old," he said. "I stopped smoking and drinking when I was 28 or 29. At 70, I teach several classes a day. I'm building a building by myself. I don't use any drugs, not even prescription drugs. I help people get healthy using alternative (techniques)."

    Griffen described yoga as a way of uniting mind, body and spirit. One class he offers called Yoga For Your Mind, helps clients set goals. Sometimes the goal is simply to find happiness.

    photo
    Candles and relaxing music set the mood to relax and stretch. Rao lights an incense stick before meditating with her yoga class. The incense rests in a holder in the shape of Om, an ancient symbol for the cosmic vibration of the universe.
    Christy Maceina, 42, took that class, and it changed her life. Unmarried with no children, she said she was a "workaholic" with a job as a business manager making $82,000 a year. She tried to reduce stress by running. Then her sister introduced her to yoga. Two years later, she quit her job and now teaches CPR for the American Red Cross.

    "I found there was more to life than just going to work and being driven by money," she said. "The yoga is the body portion for me. Meditation is stretching the mind, sitting very quietly and being by myself."

    While yoga doesn't typically cause people to change professions, it does get them to slow down and listen to the whispers of their bodies, said Denise Britton, 45, president of the Suncoast Yoga Teacher's Association and Palms of Largo Holistic Health Spa director.

    Britton said she has been practicing yoga since she was in junior high school, and has seen interest in the discipline wax and wane, "but during the last year there's been a huge resurgence."

    "Only now I believe I can earn a living from teaching," said Britton, who will resign her post as spa director to be a full-time instructor.

    Britton can thank movie stars and models like Christy Turlington for her good fortune, and said "when people recognize celebrities and professional people who are doing it, it gives them a lot of reason to try it themselves."

    Right now, she said, there isn't a gym that doesn't offer it. The teaching approaches have become more varied, active and aggressive like power yoga and ashtanga. But it's still yoga, an ancient discipline with 3,000 postures.

    It's the same yoga Anita Rao, owner of Yoga Shakti in Safety Harbor, learned as a child from her father in an open courtyard in central India, where she was raised.

    "It's a whole philosophy. You do all these postures, then you go into relaxation and meditation, then you are growing spiritually," Rao said. "It calms your mind, and you are focused. You are aware of where you are at the present time."

    She said through yoga and meditation, you deal with the physical body to achieve mental clarity.

    It takes people to such a high spiritual level, "you notice that everyone is a divine spirit," she said.

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