First of a two-part series

Bob is a self-described "Type-A" personality. On any given day he may easily jump on his bicycle and ride from Minneapolis to Wisconsin and back again, or pile his seven grandchildren into the family van and spend the day swimming and water sliding and then dress up and join his friends for an evening at The Dakota listening to Mikhala Iversen caress her audience with a sultry, jazzy rendition of "What a Difference a Day Makes."

Two times a week Bob is stretching, breathing and relaxing in a yoga class at Walker Residence with local yogini Aleeah Sheehan and friends; and a couple more times a week Bob sweats it out through a personalized, private yoga class with me.

Bob will be 70 this May.

"Yoga keeps me young," Bob brags, "and keeps my hamstrings stretched, wrists supple and neck loose," he continues, not shy about showing off his bulbous calves, toned arms and fit physique. Bob exudes an attitude of optimism and enthusiasm for life. "Blessed are the flexible," he will tell you, "for they shall never be bent out of shape!"

Betty is a 50-something employee at Allina Hospital Commons. A lively, pretty woman who loves to walk and garden, her sedentary job has forced her to search out a fitness regime that will carry her into her Golden Years. Betty began attending the Midtown Community Yoga class two times a week last August and now practices on her own each day as well.

A far cry from a "Type A" personality, Betty maintains that yoga has given her a level of fitness to be able to enjoy her life to the fullest.

Gary used to be a marketing executive with a huge cable network. He was so successful that he was able to purchase an expensive house in Forest Lake, drive the fanciest cars and dine at the nicest restaurants. And by the time he was in his thirties, that privileged lifestyle darn near killed him.

Then Gary found CorePower Yoga and Pilates. He shed the extra 100 pounds he had been toting around and he discarded his forced persona and ego, as well. Gary is now a successful Pilates instructor, fitness buff and founder of the Minneapolis-based chapter of Acro-Yoga (combining acrobatics, Thai Massage and Partner Yoga).

These three real-life stories can provide upliftment and inspiration to the average Twin Citian who may become discouraged while trying to achieve a level of fitness in their lives.

These are the days of sedentary living and over-everything (including over-striving to be a magazine cover version of "fit"). Thankfully, the beauty of embarking on a yoga regime to supplement one’s fitness program (or to provide an entire fitness package by its own rights) is becoming evident to thousands of Metropolitan residents who hail from a variety of lifestyles and age ranges.

My story

I was never in my adult life able to "achieve" fitness. Having contracted a debilitating disease in my teens, my days of naturally staying fit through ice skating, gymnastics and bike riding came to an abrupt halt.

The cyclical nature of my "dis-ease" guaranteed that I would be hard-pressed to ever maintain a degree of fitness, and this produced in me a form of social anxiety disorder. "Going to the gym," became far more distressing than going to confession or even to the gynecologist.

Over the next 20 years, my level of fitness – or lack of it – came in fits and starts. No matter how good my intention, any exercise program that I embraced ended in failure. Fitness became an impossible goal and a torturous measure of my worth – one in which I would never "measure up."

Even walking, my favorite form of moving meditation and exercise, failed me. Since the illness of my teens, I had at various times been fortunate enough to live a few miles from my workplace and pick up a habit of striding to and from work. I would frequently take on part-time waitress jobs to stay on my feet. But those efforts would eventually give way to the erratic rhythm of my "condition" and I would be in bed again for periods of time.

In the early 90s, I developed asthma on top of the other conditions I had been hosting. One day, I mustered up the courage to take a Yoga class. Hung over from too much time in bed, my first Hatha Yoga class was a disaster: I arrived with a depressed and over-stimulated nervous system, and my self-conscious psyche couldn’t jibe with the soft music and sunny ambience of the Santa Fe artist’s home where the class was held.

Everyone else seemed to know what they were doing as they milled about getting ready for class. They all looked serene and healthy, fit and in high fashion. I, however, was keenly aware of my baggy shorts, frumpy t-shirt and pudgy pear-shaped body. Once on the mat, I realized that my breath smelled like garlic and the odor was oozing out of my pores, as well.

The experience ended there, at the beginning, when the instructor had me bend over, hands on the mat, butt in the air, looking upside down at the flesh surrendering itself around my kneecaps. I cringed as she began to make adjustments on me, grabbing and pulling my thighs away from me and pressing on my rear end with her hands. As my spongy flesh gave way to her touch, I thought I would die from embarrassment.

I stood up, let the stars in my brain settle, and pulled her aside. "I think I have left my iron on!" I whispered.

I pulled my sneakers on over bare feet. "I’d better go check," I explained, with assured concern. And then fled the scene before she could say, "Namaste!"

Then something in my life changed.

I hurt my back serving banquets at the Eldorado Hotel. I had no insurance, so I went to Club International where I had a dormant membership. On my way to the hot tub, I saw the sign: "Kundalini Yoga Workout, Monday, Wednesday and Fridays, 8:00 a.m."

The next morning I attended the class before even having my coffee. I took a spot near the door and was exhausted halfway through the class and left.

But I went back again two days later. I made a commitment to go and show up to the class and simply do what I could and no more. I liked the "hands off" policy of the style of yoga, the fashion of wearing "loose comfy clothing," and the encouragement to "stay in this breath, in this moment."

Nine-week intensive

The teacher, Gurumarka, a big lug of a guy with a booming voice, also offered a nine-week intensive and I also made a commitment to attend that series. Soon I added a 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning teacher training session to my yoga practice menu.

When the low side of the cycle of the Tao descended upon me, I was still able to keep my commitment to the Kundalini Yoga classes. I would simply modify the effort I put into the class.

Then I had a breakthrough. Even though I couldn’t hike halfway up the local mountain or keep up with a moderate aerobics class, I could do this Yoga, and I came to trust that the yoga would carry me when my will couldn’t.

I went on to become a yoga teacher and moved to the island of Jamaica. At one point, a burly woman named "Samuri Sue," who was the head of the Jamaican Women’s Mud Wresting Team, challenged me to a dual involving a variety of arm wresting and other strength intensive competitions.

I won.

In 1999 I began the practice of a very physically ambitious form of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. Many of the members of the New York Runners team, having a need for a daily workout and a daily yoga practice, were drawn to this style of yoga and eventually developed a similar style called "Power Yoga," which satisfied both needs in one session by stretching, toning and providing an intense workout. Runners find that Yoga helps them loosen up the tightness of running.

Since then, I have spent time in the rooms of Iyengar Yoga, where the architecture of the pose provides the containment of the experience; CorePower Yoga, a workout that involves "dancing warrior" and other flowing, graceful movements; Bikram Yoga, where a precise format of exercises is performed in a heated room, and Classical Yoga where the attention on each posture is tantamount.

I still have a bi-polar style of being in the physical world, but I am no longer victim to that ebb and flow, and I tailor my practice each day accordingly. Sometimes all I can do is lie on the floor in my bedroom and perform gentle stretches and breathing exercises; other days I can teach three classes and sail through a CorePower II class.

Nowadays, this is how I "measure up": Yoga meets me where I am, and I meet myself there, as well – sans judgment and critique. Compassion and acceptance have supplanted social anxiety disorder, and the Yoga experience of being present has replaced the treadmill of fitness ambition and fantasy. And as a Yoga teacher, I can coach my students to, "Stay in THIS breath, in this moment, and all will be well."

Find a list of some Twin Cities Yoga offerings by checking out www.yoga.meetup.com/503, www.YogaFinder.com and www.CitySearch.com for more listings. Next month Edge Life magazine will feature Yoga, and we will explore the more spiritual and esoteric aspects of the yoga path.

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Gaia Richards is a yoga teacher & freelance writer and a grandmother of three. She and her global crew are envisioning and creating the 2012 International Yoga Festival in Jamaica. She also is instrumental in the creation of the The 4th Annual Twin Cities Yoga Festival on October 23 at the Holiday Inn Metrodome. For more info and tickets, visit www.TwinCitiesYogaFestival.com.

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