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A 25-year stretch for the LI Yoga Association

Yoga classes are offered at the United Methodist

Yoga classes are offered at the United Methodist Church in Farmingdale by the Long Island Yoga Association. Above, a yoga class at the church on Dec. 7, 2013. Credit: Jeremy Bales

Marianne Mitsinikos overheard something 25 years ago that is still helping Long Islanders think and breathe easier, meditate and master upward dog, dolphin plank and lotus poses.

Mitsinikos is a yoga teacher. As a student, she was hooked on the yoga lessons she attended after work at her job as office manager for a medical practice.

"But I was looking for a career change, left my job and turned on the TV one afternoon to PBS, where Lilias Folan, who is known as 'the first lady of yoga,' an internationally renowned teacher, was offering a 30-minute yoga class twice a day," said Mitsinikos, now 77. "Each day thereafter, I tuned in to her 6:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. classes. It wasn't long before I realized my new career would be to become a yoga teacher."

In the early 1980s, as an instructor in Long Island's then fledgling yoga industry, Mitsinikos had two goals: learn more about the ancient practice that had captured her imagination, and spread the word about the physical and mental well-being she was experiencing personally and observing in her students during the yoga sessions she held in her Commack home.

But for Mitsinikos, expanding the scope of her involvement in yoga seemed like an overwhelming task at the time. "I was only one person," she said. And polling her yoga colleagues drew only halfhearted responses.

In 1982, she got a fortuitous break after accepting an invitation from a fellow yoga teacher, Joan Lowitt, to attend a workshop for yoga instructors in White Plains.

"I wasn't eavesdropping, but I happened to overhear a woman in the group lamenting that there was no similar program on Long Island, where she lived," Mitsinikos said. "I thought to myself that she had the same complaint that I had. Her name was Anne Rechter, and I introduced myself to her and asked if she would be interested in collaborating on an effort to form a yoga association on Long Island, and she was all for it."

As with many endeavors, enthusiasm and passion are not enough to transform an idea into reality. It would be six more years before the efforts of Mitsinikos and her collaborators resulted in the formation of the Long Island Yoga Association and the nonprofit's first workshop.

Back on Long Island, Mitsinikos gathered with her three co-founders. "Anne and I and two teacher friends -- Joan Lowitt and Tara Eidmann -- got together, mostly sitting around our kitchen tables, and kicked ideas back and forth," she said.

They all agreed that their goal was to establish a nonprofit organization aimed at providing a forum for promoting yoga and establishing a means of networking the yoga community of teachers and serious students on Long Island. The organization would be a resource center for yoga studies and would conduct workshops to offer opportunities for members to share a diverse array of traditions, techniques and practices, as well as insight into the mystique of yoga.

They took on an ambitious agenda that involved research and preparation and each was given a specific responsibility. Mitsinikos would be the group's first president, and Rechter was chosen as vice president; both worked on promotion and publicity. Lowitt was the group's treasurer and took a $200 loan from Mitsinikos to set up the association's financial structure. As secretary, Eidmann wrote up the group's articles of association and bylaws and kept an eye on all legal issues.

"We made up a mailing list of all our pupils announcing a meeting of the minds that we held in a rented space above a store in Huntington, and it was a smashing success," Mitsinikos recalled of the group's inaugural workshop. "The place was packed, and the Long Island Yoga Association was up and running."

 

Yoga techniques

It may be more than 5,000 years old, but the Hindu system of yoga is still widely acknowledged among practitioners (men are called "yogi" and women are referred to as "yogini") as a method of uniting mind, body and spirit. Ritualistic stretching exercises, contortion-like poses and quiet meditation are said to bring a serene buzz to the mind, reduce stress levels, add flexibility and strength to the body and instill a new awareness of the mystery of life, say experts who expound on the healthful benefits of the ancient discipline.

Techniques can take many forms. Vinyasa yoga, for example, which teaches students how to coordinate body movements as they inhale and exhale, is a popular method. Hot yoga, which can involve a variety of yoga poses, is combined with breathing exercises and is performed in a room heated to 100 to 105 degrees, also has gained a following. The heat helps warm and loosen the body and also promotes detoxification by eliminating toxins through sweat.

The Long Island Yoga Association offers several yoga styles, including Bikram (a series of 26 poses that build body strength), power yoga (which focuses on body strength and flexibility) and restorative yoga (which teaches students to relax and rest). The group is based in Northport, but its classes are held in the basement of the United Methodist Church in Farmingdale. Once a year, the group offers a weekend retreat. This year it will be in October at St. Joseph's Renewal Center in Brentwood. Food and accommodations are included at the retreats, which focus on workshops and meditation.

The association's membership and workshops are free for veterans. Annual fees are $50 for individuals or $75 for studios, which also covers one individual. Association members pay $30 for sessions if they pay in advance (nonmembers pay $50); if they pay at the door, the cost is $35 ($55 for nonmembers).

Theresa Gaenzle, one of the association's members, said yoga changed her life. An auto accident left the East Setauket resident with chronic back pain, and all the doctors could offer was medication. "That was no long-term solution, so I tried yoga," said Gaenzle, 54. "That was 14 years ago. I practice it every day, and I've been virtually pain-free ever since. Not to mention how much it helps on other levels, like lowering blood pressure and stress, even mind control. As for the LIYA, it's a fabulous organization."

Mitsinikos' role in the explosion of interest in yoga on Long Island didn't end with the success of the Long Island Yoga Association. She was a founding member of the Northport Yoga Center and, in 1998, the Yoga Teacher's Training Institute, the first school on Long Island that qualified teachers for certification. It now has several locations on Long Island and in Queens.

"Up until that time, no certification to teach yoga was required, and there were practically no official yoga studios on Long Island that I knew of," Mitsinikos said. "Most of us who were teachers held classes in our living rooms or rented space in karate or dance studios."

To become an E-RYT, or experienced registered yoga teacher, as Mitsinikos is, candidates must log 1,500 teaching hours. The certification also qualifies them to teach other teachers.

When the yoga association celebrated its 25th anniversary in December, a large crowd, including many of its nearly 200 members, was on hand to enjoy a cake and a session with guest instructor Tao Porchon-Lynch. The Westchester County resident is 95 and still travels the world for appearances at workshops and demonstrations. Porchon-Lynch, who was born and trained in India, where traditional yoga was conceived, was named the world's oldest yoga teacher in 2012 by the Guinness Book of World Records.

According to her spokeswoman, Joyce Pines, Porchon-Lynch's oft-quoted philosophy of life is never to think about age, never to entertain negative thoughts and never to procrastinate.

"Tomorrow never comes," Porchon-Lynch says.

Though she is retired, Mitsinikos does yoga daily. She has passed the leadership torch to Roxana Lucero, 46, a North Babylon resident who is the group's president. Lucero took her first yoga class in 2000 at a local gym. Years later, one of her yoga teachers referred her to Mitsinikos, who at the time was teaching at the center in Northport. Lucero said she was interested in sharing what Mitsinikos had experienced and loved so much.

Now that she leads the Long Island Yoga Association, Lucero said she is trying to continue what Mitsinikos started.

"We are continuing M's legacy of uniting the LI yoga community," Lucero said.

As Mitsinikos reflected on the association's success, she said the group's longevity is what she is most happy about.

"I was just doing what I loved," she said.


MIX IT UP

Some like it wet: Some yoga centers offer Stand-Up Paddleboarding as a fun way to get your yoga workouts and your summer swims all wrapped up in one fell swoop. Students balance on a padded floating board while performing yoga poses and exercises under the watchful eye of an instructor.

Some like it varied: In addition to traditional yoga classes, many studios offer specialties such as MiniWarrior Yoga for Kids and consultations on weight loss, sleep disorders and nutrition.

"But we are not doctors and only offer suggestions, not diagnosis or treatment," cautions Dawn Stidd, 29, owner of Peaceful Warriors Yoga Center in Rocky Point.

 

WHEN & WHERE Long Island Yoga Association, 70 Mar-Kan Dr., Northport; 631-261-1777

WORKSHOPS AND SESSIONS United Methodist Church, 407 Main St., Farmingdale; 516-694-3424

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