CLEARWATER — He needed to heal.
After a Major League Baseball career, Aaron Ledesma's body needed a break from hunching and swinging, from the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Colorado Rockies and the Baltimore Orioles, from hitting streaks and hitting slumps.
It couldn't take the tenseness. He played his last game in the bigs and underwent back surgery in 2001. He turned to yoga to relieve his muscles and learn to stand up straight again.
But was this the end of baseball? Part of him wanted it all back. And in 2003, even as his back still hurt, he got an invitation to spring training.
"I had a choice to make," Ledesma said. Should he keep destroying his body to pursue the only life he knew, or should he try to move on?
"Nobody trains you for life after baseball."
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The former infielder already had his place in baseball history. Drafted in November 1997 as a member of the original Rays expansion team, he earned one of Tampa Bay's longest hitting streaks with a 16-game run from 1998 to 1999 before he was traded at the end of the season.
So, given the choice, Ledesma left baseball behind. He skipped spring training and trained instead as an instructor of Bikram yoga — yes, that's the hot, sweaty kind — in Los Angeles.
"The heat is always something I've been attracted to," Ledesma said. "My body feels like I need it."
For four years, all he did was teach yoga. No baseball, not even on TV.
"When you look at yourself in the mirror 90 minutes a day," he said, "you're going to learn a few things about yourself."
In 2005, he was teaching a class in Tampa when he noticed a new student who didn't bring a water bottle. So he offered her his.
From there, the idea of starting their own yoga studio bloomed. But first came love.
He converted Karen Ashby from her style of Ashtanga yoga — one that avoids drinking water — to his Bikram style. Practicing yoga together several days a week led to marriage.
Like a lot of competitive athletes, Ledesma used to look at the person next to him during yoga poses and think, "Oh, I can do it better than her."
Then he stood next to Karen.
"This yoga has a tendency to humble you," he said.
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In a storefront on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard, next to a hookah bar and a hair salon, heaters crank the temperature in a dark and insulated room to 105 degrees.
It took seven years for the Ledesmas to get here, to a place of their own where they pad around barefoot over soft, shaggy rugs.
Before Yoga 365 opened in November, baseball found Aaron Ledesma again and took him back on the road as the New York Yankees' hitting coach.
As the couple traveled, yoga remained the only stable element for Karen, 34: "It always became my home away from home."
They eventually settled in Dunedin. At Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater, Aaron Ledesma began working as a hitting instructor and player development director for ProBound USA, building up young players for professional play.
The yoga studio dream waited until a yoga studio closed at 2416 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd. and the couple saw an opportunity to move in.
Their studio has brought in about 60 students so far, in addition to sports groups that come through. The couple hopes to attract more athletes and law enforcement officers to the benefits of hot yoga.
"I talk to my players about slowing the game down through breathing," 41-year-old Aaron Ledesma said, citing baseball players Evan Longoria and Barry Zito as other avid yogis.
Hot yoga is a test of flexibility, strength and mind power.
For Clearwater resident Dave Winterhalter, hot yoga fits the culture of fitness he's used to from his former military life — even though his first reaction was "What, are you crazy?"
"We find it more mentally challenging" than other types of yoga, said Winterhalter, 54.
In the heated room, unstoppable sweat courses down bodies. Are legs supposed to sweat like that?
The Ledesmas guide their glistening yogis through 26 traditional postures, each done twice, no music in the background except a steady stream of instructions.
Eyes focused in the mirror, Karen likes to say.
And him: No worries, no stress. Only breathing.
Stephanie Wang can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.