By Ellen T. White

When Hurricane Irma tore through Vaughn Johnson’s bayside property in September 2017, it left his house intact but did considerable damage to the surrounding trees and vegetation. “I started work on the cleanup the next day and was kind of shocked that I was so out of shape,” he says. It was a “fork in the road” for Johnson, 48, who had noticed that a few of his contemporaries were dealing with failing health. “I thought, ‘here’s my opportunity. I can either get in shape now or take my chances with whatever illness or other physical problem comes up from here on.'”

That revelation spurred Johnson to sign up for classes in water aerobics and to head to the gym. But he has found his bliss at Key Largo Yoga, a place for those seeking strength and enlightenment in their daily lives. “I wanted the flexibility and agility that yoga offers, but I found out that it affects so many aspects of your body — your joints, your muscles, even your mental state.”

Entering its sixth year in April, Key Largo Yoga offers daily classes with certified instructors, ranging from the gentler Restorative and Candlelight Yoga to the more challenging Hatha and Vinyasa Level 1-3. The business also holds a host of specialty workshops in subjects such as Reiki, meditation and essential oils.

“We opened with the vision and desire to create a safe and sacred space where our students will feel welcome and inspired to experience and enjoy the transformative benefit of yoga,” according to Kathy Shirley, Key Largo Yoga owner.

What’s interesting is how many men are being called “to the mat” and have chosen Key Largo Yoga as the place to start. Nearly a quarter of the studio’s members are men, and their ranks are growing, along with the national average.

“There’s really something for everyone,” said Bud Conlin, 65, who takes from two to 10 classes a week since joining the studio two years ago. “Regardless of your abilities, you feel welcome, and there’s no judgment from anyone. There’s no testosterone flying around.”

Yoga is a group of physical, mental and spiritual disciplines that originated in ancient India around 3000 B.C. “More recently, yoga came to be associated solely with women,” said Damian Groak, 42, an instructor at Key Largo Yoga. “Historically it was only practiced by men, at least in public.”

Ancient Sanskrit texts on yoga are written from the point of view of male practitioners and there are no pre-modern depictions of women practicing yogic postures. However, it was largely women who promoted yoga in the U.S. in the 1980s, at which point it was branded as stretching, a non-exercise. Yoga picked up a reputation for being New Age, something that “real men” didn’t do, particularly in a class dominated by women in Spandex. Greg Dowell, 71, said he felt “intimidated” at his first class at Key Largo Yoga, in which he was surrounded by flexible younger women, some of whom were “bent into pretzel shapes.”

Ten years ago Dowell was hit by a car while riding a scooter, which left him with titanium parts in his knee and hip. He vowed to change his unhealthy ways, focusing on diet (“no more jar of Skippy peanut butter each week, which I ate with my finger”), daily walks, pilates, and ultimately yoga as the centerpiece. Weighing in at 216 pounds at the start, Dowell is a lean, mean 170 pounds today. He is in such good shape that he recovered from a triple bypass five years ago in record time.

“I don’t have aches and pains. I can do things that most men my age can’t do. Each day I feel energized,” says Dowell, who practices five or six times a week at Key Largo Yoga. “I don’t worry about who’s on the next mat. I’m there for me.”

According to Kat Wheatley, instructor and manager of Key Largo Yoga, the benefits of yoga range from weight loss and lowered blood pressure to full body fitness and improved balance and stability. Athletes like LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar practice to avoid injury, as do sports teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles and the Seattle Seahawks. Bodybuilders use yoga to improve their range of motion and flexibility. Still, “some men tend to dismiss it as ‘just yoga,’ not a real work-out,” Wheatley said.

Todd Ebelein has a different perspective.

A dedicated athlete his entire life, Ebelein, 45, particularly craves the “adrenaline rush” of sports like surfing, kiteboarding, and wakeboarding. He first began practicing Ashtanga yoga 10 years ago at an Islamorada studio, which has since folded.

“Like a lot of guys I chased a girl into the yoga studio at first, and could never have predicted then that I’d still be doing it 10 years later,” said Ebelein, who takes the more demanding morning classes at Key Largo Yoga three time a week. “In every respect — meditatively, physically, spiritually — yoga is a challenge. I think of it as a little like surfing. You’ve got to stay in the moment because it takes your full concentration.”

Ebelein credits the deliberate breathing that is a part of yoga with helping to maintain a Zen attitude under pressure. “I’m a small business owner, which means that every day has its trials and frustrations,” he says. “It’s like a difficult yoga pose. You learn to go back to your breath to calm your mind.”

Newbie Greg Draper, 67, who started practicing yoga last November, claims that the effects of yoga can be felt in a short time. “I wasn’t having much success getting rid of my mid-section with an elliptical gym, but with yoga I can see a difference,” said Draper, who spends half of the year in Key Largo, the other half in Oklahoma, where he plans to continue practicing. “I wish I’d started doing this 10 years ago.”

As for men who are thinking of trying yoga, grab a pair of gym shorts and find a class — no excuses. “It’s a myth that if you can’t bend over and touch your toes you can’t do yoga,” said Groak. “The reality is just the opposite. A yoga practice is where you gain flexibility and strength at the same time.”

Key Largo Yoga is located in the Dameron Building at 99198 Overseas Highway, Suite #9, Key Largo. For class schedules, pricing, sign-up, and further information, visit keylargoyoga.com or call 305-879-0377.

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