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Yoga class a breath of fresh air

I have wanted to try yoga for quite some time, but I was too timid to join a group. I thought that at my age I would surely stand out as the only person who couldn't twist into the shape of a pretzel.

But when "Ageless Yoga" was added to the classes at my Senior Resource Center, I decided to give it a whirl. I hoped I wouldn't be so conspicuous in a group where only seniors would be signing up.

I arrived early for the class, which was being held in the library across the street from my apartment. As I stepped into the room, I spotted the instructor.

He was standing on his head, as straight as a telephone pole, motionless and barefooted.

Sensing my presence yet still remaining upside down, he explained that he hadn't had time to warm up. When he straightened up _ or should I say down _ he smiled warmly as he noticed the panicked look on my face. "Don't worry," he said. "You won't be doing this, I assure you. . . .

"Not at first," he laughingly added.

I was relieved, and we introduced ourselves. Meredith Watts was an instructor from the Milwaukee Yoga Center and an expert in Ivengar yoga. I knew from that very moment I was going to like him and the class.

Our class is an affable and close-knit group. We look forward to the sessions and to seeing one another. And to our amazement, we do much more twisting than we ever dreamed we could.

Meredith (we are all on a first-name basis) adapts the postures to accommodate any physical limitations some participants might have. He works cautiously, using props, so all the positions are accessible to everyone. One day, for example, he passed out neckties so that we could more easily stretch our arms.

Under his guidance, we have learned what is happening inside and outside our bodies as we slowly and carefully move in and out of various postures. He also explains how yoga affects our breathing. Breath is a big part of yoga, and because of all the careful stretching, I am getting more oxygen into my lungs.

Finally, our winding-down period _ a state of meditation _ washes away stress. Our darkened room becomes quiet, and the instructor's voice softly guides us into relaxation with an added breath control exercise. The class ends in silence with the final clasp of our palms together as we say, "Namaste," which means "my spirit salutes your spirit."

Because of the class, I am more in tune with my body and its functions. After class, I lightly step into the world again. As I carry my bag and new yoga mat (a birthday gift from daughter No. 3, who first sparked my interest in yoga), I feel refreshed, healthier and even a bit taller, perhaps because of the increase in my flexibility.

Yoga has not only stretched by body, it also has expanded my mind and spirit. And I didn't even have to twist into a pretzel.

LaVerne Hammond, who divides her time between Wisconsin and Florida, is at work on her memoirs. Write her in care of Seniority, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.