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Patchogue yoga enthusiasts reinvent studio after owner's death

Renee Lennon, a co-owner of Yoga Sangha studio in Patchogue, spoke with Newsday about the members that came together to help save the yoga studio after the original owner died. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Shafts of sunlight stream through the windows of the Yoga Sangha studio in Patchogue, bathing Lee Stevens in a golden hue as he stands straight, firmly rooted on his left leg, his right raised to a 90-degree angle. His right arm extends so far that he has wrapped his thumb and forefinger around the big toe of his right foot.

There's no shaking, no quivering, no beads of perspiration forming as he maintains this one-legged stance. He appears as strong and solidly grounded as the tree that yielded the wood for the oak floor upon which he stands.

This pose — which goes by the Sanskrit name of utthita hasta padangusthasana — is not something your typical 73-year-old Long Islander can pronounce, much less perform: But after 17 years of practice, plus teacher training and certification, as well as a trip to study in India, Stevens is an accomplished yogi.

And he's not alone. Sitting on the mat next to him, his wife, Terry Stevens, 72, has just propelled her legs upward and smoothly thrust herself into a headstand — where she stays, straight and steady as a flagpole.

Arrayed across the floor on this Saturday morning in mid-February, five other older adults are engaging in a similar series of tendon-twisting poses (called asanas) that defy age and gravity — and would be challenging even to a young supple body.

This is a so-called "self practice" — an hour that many yoga studios set aside during the week to allow students to practice their own sequences at their own pace (as opposed to being guided through the poses as a group by a teacher). What makes this one unusual is not simply the fact that this sunlit room-full of older adults are practicing yoga at a very advanced level — but that they are the owners of the studio in which they are practicing.

It wasn't as if they set out to become yoga-preneurs. "None of us actually wanted to own or run a studio," says Stevens. "We just wanted a place to practice with friends."

A native of western Pennsylvania, Stevens moved to Long Island after serving in the Army in Vietnam. He went to Dowling College at night and embarked on a career in banking, before becoming a personal chef. "I guess you could call this my Act 3," he jokes, referring to his new life as a yoga studio co-owner.

In addition to Lee and Terry, the group of friends that co-own Yoga Sangha are Jimmy and Renee Lennon, 69 and 65, respectively; Lou Ann Roche, 66; Dianne Zdan, 63; and Stacy Dundas, 55.

Bound by passion for yoga

The seven, who all live in the Patchogue-Medford area, are bound by more than business ownership: They share a passion for the ancient mind-body discipline of yoga that they all discovered together, when this same studio went under a different name, Yoga Yama. It was owned by Peg Koller, an experienced teacher in the vigorous style of yoga known as Ashtanga.

There, in beginner's classes more than a decade and a half ago, the seven met. As their interest in and dedication to yoga deepened, so did their friendships. "It was almost like a bowling league where people form social circles over time," Stevens says.

In the past few years, however, the owner of their beloved studio became seriously ill. The seven friends tried to help, eventually taking over the day to day running of the operation when Koller was unable. But at the end of August 2019, the lease expired and Yoga Yama closed. Koller died in December, and handwritten tributes to her from her students — including Stevens and his friends — adorn the walls of the staircase leading up to the space.

Besides the loss of a respected teacher, the closure of the studio threw things into a yogic limbo for the seven friends.

"All of a sudden, our core group has no place to practice," Stevens says. "We wandered to this place and that trying out different studios, but nothing matched our old studio, which has a beautiful wood floor practice room with huge windows and a southern exposure." According to Stevens, the landlord, offered the seven a "good deal" on the rent. "The next thing I know," he says, laughing, "we’re signing a two-year lease for the place."

In November, refurbished and under new (older) management, Yoga Sangha opened: According to Jimmy Lennon, a retired Suffolk County police officer, "the word 'sangha' in Sanskrit, means 'gathering of like-minded souls.' That just seemed to fit."

The seven souls have organized the studio to fit their approach to yoga practice. They offer fewer classes than most studios, and there are no membership packages. Those who want to practice simply pay $15 per class.

Students new to Yoga Sangha appreciate what has been done here. "When I found that they came together basically to keep a studio alive in this space, I thought it was just wonderful," says Uschi Donnelly, 53, of Medford. "They're a very committed group of yogis."

Committed to providing a space to practice yoga, yes; but when it comes to the demands of running a business, the co-owners — most of whom are retired, with mortgages paid off and children grown — take a slightly different view.

"It's the business equivalent of having grandchildren," says Lennon, with a chuckle, referring to the oft-made observation that grandparents get to enjoy all the benefits of kids without any of the headaches. "If we can make a little money, fine," says Lennon. "But we're fortunate in that what we don't need to quote-unquote 'make a living' from the studio."

"And we all get along," adds Renee Lennon.

Welcoming atmosphere

Indeed, the low-pressure approach has not only kept friendships among the partners intact, it has provided a welcoming atmosphere that is conducive to all levels of yoga practitioners, and particularly to older adults. Including one group that Stevens has long wanted to reach: veterans.

Stevens, who served in the Army in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, started a Tuesday morning class for veterans that he teaches.

"It's gratifying to me personally," he says. In addition to helping the older men with improving their strength and flexibility, "the class gives the vets a place to gather with fellow Vietnam vets and just be ourselves."

"Lee is a very advanced practitioner, but he adjusts to all our levels of ability," says Denis Demers, 72, one of about six vets who regularly attends the class.

Even more important, says Demers, a retired social worker from Bohemia, the calming effects of yoga can help vets with what he terms "the unaddressed, unresolved trauma so many of us carry within."

But even those who can't imagine the trauma these men endured a half century ago, those whose stress is simply driving on the Long Island Expressway, have found that yoga is good for the body — and mind.

At Yoga Sangha, the very space is conducive to serenity. The soft green carpet and candles in the entrance area, the spacious studio, the magnificent light from the four southern-facing windows:

"I'm thrilled with what they've done," said Karen Zorzenon of Patchogue, a regular in the old studio who has recently returned to Yoga Sangha. "It's like my second home."

Going to the mat for health

Lee Stevens, the 73-year-old co-owner of Yoga Sangha in Patchogue, says that what he enjoys most about teaching older adults, is "showing the great value yoga can bring to an aging body."

Exactly what is that value?

Exercise physiologist Hank Williford, professor emeritus at Auburn University-Montgomery, and a longtime researcher on senior fitness, says yoga meets most of the physical activity guidelines for older adults recommended by public health organizations such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — and then some.

"It improves strength and also improves flexibility, as well as balance, which is another big concern with older adults," says Williford, who has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology.

He adds that studies have shown that yoga practice can reduce hypertension, as well as provide many mental benefits: Reduced stress and anxiety, enhanced mood and sense of well-being have also been associated with yoga.

Practiced properly, he says, it's also a safe activity for seniors. "Yoga is about doing what you can," says Williford, who at 73 has been practicing yoga for four years. "There's no clock, no timer, no finish line. Everyone's an individual."

Amy Garvey, owner of two local studios — Oyster Bay Yoga and Glen Cove Yoga — recommends that older adults considering yoga instruction look for classes with names like “restorative,” “gentle” and “chair yoga.” The latter — in which the traditional yoga poses are done while seated — are particularly good for seniors with mobility issues. (Local libraries, and community and senior centers frequently offer classes that cater to the older crowd.)

As for the mats, blankets and blocks that are often used in yoga practice, most studios will have them available. And while apparel brands like Lululemon have been built around yoga attire, there is no dress code. "Just wear something comfortable," Garvey says.

When in doubt, talk to the instructor. "Most studios want to create a welcoming atmosphere for everyone," she says. "One of the best aspects of yoga is the community that forms around it."

— John Hanc

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