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Yoga stretches out

• Ancient fitness practice starts to turn up where least expected, and is most appreciated
by: KATIE HARTLEY,  A new batch of teachers takes a Street Yoga instructor training class last month. From here, they will go on to bring poses and perhaps some inner peace to homeless youth, at-risk teens and families in transition in the Portland area.

Let's meditate. Close your eyes. Visualize a yoga class. What do you see?

Shimmering smooth floors reflecting in mirrored walls where fit bodies in fashionable leotards twist and turn themselves into shapes you can only imagine? Now open your eyes.

There are other options.

A handful of instructors in the Portland area are stretching out of the bounds of conventional yoga studios or tailoring their classes to meet the needs of students who might not otherwise have ever attempted downward-facing dog.

'Yoga has attained this kind of celebrity status now - we've Westernized it, we've materialized it and we're focusing on ourselves,' says Lana Davis, a San Diego-based Ashtanga yoga instructor.

Davis, who teaches yoga to girls placed in group homes through San Diego's foster care system, was recently in Northeast Portland to participate in a training workshop for Street Yoga.

Founded in fall 2002 by Portlander Mark Lilly, a former software engineer, Street Yoga brings postures, poses and the chance for a moment or two of inner peace to homeless youth, at-risk teens and families in transition in the Portland area. On a given weekend, youths at Portland's Outside In, where Lilly taught his first Street Yoga class, will be conquering mountain pose and attempting sun salutations.

Street Yoga has come to be involved with seven Portland community programs, and has even expanded to bring meditation and wellness to teens serving time in the Donald E. Long School, a juvenile correctional center.

'There are a lot of services that deal with food and shelter,' Lilly notes. 'But if you're strong from the inside, you can deal with the outside - and that's where the homeless find themselves. And yoga fills part of that need.'

Yoga, he says, can help establish mental and physical balance. From there, kids might just be more equipped to make better choices in their lives.

'There are other things to do besides triage,' says training participant Chris Harvey, 25, a medical student who also volunteers at Oregon Health and Science University and lives near Outside In.

Street Yoga's training sessions, held a few times each year, are open to everyone. Volunteers for the programs may be chosen from the workshops, but some, like Harvey, are aiming to take their passion for the poses to the street all on their own.

'If you're living on the street, you can only spend so much of your time searching for food and shelter,' Harvey says. 'At least for one hour, on one day, you can do something that makes you feel a little better.'

Yoga at the CoHo

On a weekday afternoon in the low-lit heart of the CoHo Theater in Northwest Portland, a few figures stretch on mats and blankets below aisles of empty seats, in a space usually referred to as the stage.

Instructor Steve Davis launched Yoga at the CoHo earlier this year.

It's a gutsy move. The class is just around the corner from Core Power, a yoga franchise based in Colorado. And certainly, Northwest Portland has its share of conventional yoga studios.

Davis, an actor, singer and second violinist with the Oregon Coast Chamber Orchestra (as well as a certified yoga teacher), initially crafted the course for performers. Now it's open to anyone, with CoHo subscribers receiving a discount.

'Yoga builds a calmness, and a connection between mind and body,' Davis says. 'And whether you're an actor or musician, you'll be able to connect directly with everyone in a room, every person in the room, on a deeper level.'

The yoga space feels different without the mirrors, the shined floor and the slickness found in surrounding studios. For actors, transforming the charged energy of a performance zone into a comfortable, meditative climate could tame pre-show butterflies, bringing about, perhaps, an end to stage fright.

'Don't hold this too long,' Davis reminds his afternoon students during the rest period. 'They might ask you to be part of part of tonight's cast.'

Yoga for the Larger Woman

When students in this Sunday afternoon yoga class in Sellwood told their friends and family what they were doing, the reaction, they say, almost unanimously, was the same:

'You?'

There is a pervasive idea of what a woman who practices yoga looks like, say the participants in a recent session of Yoga for the Larger Woman. The stereotype is that people of size aren't active, or don't want to exercise.

It isn't helped by the abundance of images of tiny women gracing the covers of fitness magazines, or the dearth of fitness classes geared toward those with larger shapes.

In fact, it took a bit of digging for some of the students to find this class, which is taught three times a week at the Yoga Project, a second-floor studio behind Grand Central Bakery in Sellwood.But for pupils like Delorie Dutcher, 38, who drives in from Gladstone to take Vilma Zaleskaite's Sunday course, yoga's rewards are worth the time, miles and aches.

'When you're larger, I think you spend a lot of time disengaging from your body,' Dutcher says. 'This puts you and your body back in touch.'

'The size of your body doesn't really matter,' says Zaleskaite, a fourth-generation yogi who was introduced to the family's fitness regimen by her Lithuanian father. 'Yoga is for anyone. … Some people in class have moved into the regular classes, because they feel they can do it here. Maybe it's safer here than somewhere else.'

Zaleskaite has been leading the class for three years, and each term there's a waiting list to get in. The studio recently added a Friday evening session.

While weight loss has been a side effect for some, the goals are relaxation, fitness and enjoyment.

'This class doesn't put the emphasis on weight loss; if it did I probably wouldn't take it,' says Northeast Portlander Molly Gray, 32.

Gray, an instructor in women's studies at Portland State University, has been developing her yoga in this size-positive environment for six months.

'I took a yoga for weight loss class, but once I got there I saw that the students there didn't look like they needed it,' she says.

'Funny thing is, I'll bet I'm more flexible now than some of them!'