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Clearspring Yoga, our city's first yoga studio, and its early teachers. Back row: Anthony Crutcher, Tammy Burns, Howard Brown, Cecilia Keefer, Sally Beckes; middle row: Becky Dempsey, Kim Eisdorfer, Sue Reynolds, JennyMac Merrill, Janka Livoncova; front row: Maggie White, Pat Sterling, Christine Mashburn, Stephanie Rider.). Photo contributed by Sue Reynolds.

In these very difficult days, many of us have deepened our spiritual practices, like prayer and meditation.

And yoga.

The mind-body-spirit discipline, originating in ancient India, has permeated Chattanooga. Nearly everyone reading this knows someone who practices. At churches. At schools. Last winter, I saw a local men's college basketball team stretching down-dog during warmups.

It wasn't always this way.

How did yoga begin in our city?

This is the story of something small becoming extraordinarily large.

Even if you don't practice, yoga's history matters, for what we do today can become far-reaching tomorrow.

(Regretfully, many names weren't included because of space. Plus, many households have been quietly practicing for years; this is your story, too.)

The First Class

Fifty-six years ago this week, Randy Webb walked into the old YMCA on Georgia Avenue and made history.

He taught a yoga class.

"As far as I know, it was the first yoga class in Chattanooga," he said. "June 16, 1964."

Webb is a local fitness legend, with a background in martial arts. (He once fell asleep during a headstand in class, to the shock of students nearby.)

Soon, his class had more than a dozen regulars.

"Who doesn't want to get rid of stress?" he asked. "Who doesn't want to feel better?"

Webb taught secular yoga, removing its spiritual philosophy. He was still criticized.

They stopped him on the streets. Knocked on his door. Called his phone.

Christians shouldn't practice yoga, they said.

Sure we can, Webb responded.

"Just because you drive a Toyota doesn't make you Japanese," he'd say.

Webb taught yoga classes for 11 years, he said; then, a devoted student named Betty Ray took over teaching.

One day, Sue Reynolds walked in the door.

The First Studio

In the late '60s, Reynolds stumbled across a book on yoga. She fell in love.

"I had never experienced the joy of using my body in this way," she said.

A schoolteacher, she eventually found Ray's class.

"She became my mentor," Reynolds said.

By the late '70s, Reynolds — thanks to Ray, who is now deceased — was teaching traditional yoga across town. A church. The Jewish community center. A local university. Twenty or so in a class.

"We'd never heard of hot yoga or power yoga," she said.

In 1999, her friend Becky Dempsey called: Let's open a studio together.

They renovated a below-ground space at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Vine Street.

In November 1999, Chattanooga's first yoga studio opened: Clearspring Yoga.

"People were flooding in," Reynolds remembers.

Yoga's local roots began to establish. Clearspring offered practice, philosophy, training, out-of-town teachers and fellowship. For many in town, Reynolds was our first yoga teacher or trained the person who teaches us today.

"All bodies welcome," the studio proclaimed.

In 2003, Clearspring moved to the North Shore. (Anthony Crutcher and Stephanie Rider became co-owners. In December 2017, the studio closed.)

Back in 1999, Reynolds thought: I hope we can make it five years.

"It made it for almost 20," she said.

(Early teachers and students: Lori Bilbrey, Cecilia Keefer, Margaret Green, Asha Wolf, Janka Livoncova, ''JennyMac'' Merrill, Maggie White, Jeff Atkins, Jann Sullivan, Annie Sherrill, David Nazar.)

The Second Studio

Since high school when she read a Norman Cousins book, Madia Swicord has been drawn to the relationship among mind, body and spirit.

In the late '90s, she took an ashtanga class at the Sports Barn taught by Asha Wolf. (Swicord praises David Brock for incorporating yoga there.)

"This is it," she told herself.

With degrees in exercise physiology, Swicord, 52, began training, then teaching and offering massage therapy.

In early 2000, she opened our city's second studio: Madia's Studio for Yoga and Massage on Williams Street. (Kristina Montague, she said, was a pivotal encourager.)

"The doors were flying open," she said.

Still, yoga remained underground. (Swicord was accused of devil-worshipping. She jokes about being afraid to say the word "energy" in class.) For Swicord, mainstream wasn't the goal.

"As yoga became more popular, it began to lose elements of depth," she said.

In 2010, Swicord stepped away to raise a family and went into private practice.

A new generation arose.

The Roots Bear Fruit

Growing up, Jessica Jollie remembers a friend giving her a book on meditation. And the comforting sound of a beloved aunt practicing yoga in a back room.

In the late '90s, after a snowboarding injury, Jollie refused surgery.

"I remembered Aunt Susan," she said. "I started doing yoga every day."

Yoga healed and transformed her.

In 2008, she left a career in school counseling; Jollie, 43, and Sara Mingus, 47, opened North Shore Yoga on Manufacturers Road.

"We were selling out classes almost immediately," said Mingus. "We ended up doubling size to 5,000 square feet within three months of opening."

If Clearspring was the roots, North Shore — soon our city's largest studio — became the branching, fruiting tree.

"Westerners like the physical aspect of power yoga. That gets them in the door," said Mingus. "Once they start doing it and start reaping all over the other benefits of yoga — mind-body connection to spirituality, internally healing wounds we are carrying — they keep coming back because they feel so amazing."

North Shore later became Hot Yoga Plus.

Mingus opened Southern Soul.

After traveling and teaching, Jollie, an old friend, opened Yoga Landing in 2012 inside Warehouse Row. She taught yin and ashtanga, vinyasa and philosophy.

"The deeper roots," she said.

In 2018, Yoga Landing moved to Sydney Street, near South Broad.

One day, friends left a gift outside her door: sculpture art of poses from the old Clearspring walls.

"Keep spreading the light," the note said.

They are hanging inside Yoga Landing today.

The Present and Future

Today, there are roughly 20 local studios. Local yoga reaches thousands.

Reynolds, 74, and Webb, 80, are still teaching.

Mingus recently sold Southern Soul to Heather Dendy. (Mingus will still teach.)

Swicord has opened Chattanooga Yoga and Healing Arts at the base of Signal Mountain.

One of her students, Roe Anderson, represents the future of local yoga. Anderson, who grew up in the Southside, created Girl Stance, which uses yoga to empower young African American women.

Recently, she and Swicord announced Justice In Peace, a yogic response to racism. (June 20, 9:30 a.m. at Riverfront Park. See Facebook for more info.)

"Yoga is about union," said Swicord. "It is about uniting."

We are a healthier, wiser and kinder city because of these yogis. From all of us who practice: Thank you.

Thank you for your courage, love and instruction.

"You're going inward. You get quiet," said Reynolds. "What do you find? What do you find when you go inward and get quiet?"

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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