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Originally published June 7, 2013 at 12:03 PM | Page modified June 7, 2013 at 1:26 PM

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Working out together, we find the will to keep on going

We check in with runners, yoga practitioners and CrossFitters to explore the concept of community through fitness.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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ABOUT TWO YEARS ago, Bob Smith learned his yoga studio was going to be demolished. This was not a development he could just breathe into.

His Hatha Yoga Center had been in the same University District building for 32 years — long before the Lululemonization of this ancient spiritual practice brought a wave of sleek new studios into this city. To Smith, his wife, Ki McGraw, and their students, the building itself was part of what made the studio so special. Located in an old church, the studio featured big, arched windows that let in the same glorious light that had warmed worshippers for decades before.

"There was just a really strong positive energy," says Lynn Jensen, a student for more than 25 years. "I had this idea that if that space ever went away, it was going to be terrible."

Now it was about to turn into condos. Some of Smith's students went to city meetings to protest, but really, there was nothing they could do.

He found another location not far from the old church. But it was smaller, and the sight lines weren't exactly ideal. It was right on the Ave, with its panhandlers and parking picadillos. The light? The aura of spirituality? Gone.

Turns out it didn't matter. "It wasn't about this physical shell of the building," Jensen says now. That was "a big revelation."

Smith had built more than a yoga business in that funky old church: He had created community.

If you think about this, and think about yoga, it is in some ways remarkable. Yoga is as individualistic as a fitness pursuit can be. Yet somehow, among those rows of sticky mats, a community was formed. A community through fitness. That's the idea we wanted to explore.

This spring, we visited with Smith and his students, picked their brains. We also found a longtime runners' group that has become its own living, breathing community. And, finally, we checked in with CrossFit, a challenging new exercise program whose devotees feel like they're in a club — a wholly nonexclusive one, that embraces all fitness levels.

Is community formed because of a leader, like Smith? Because of the particular activity involved? Or because of the personalities of people who join? Whichever it is, we found connections can sometimes be made in the strangest of places. And if you're lucky, you get gleefully, irrevocably, hooked.

IN A TYPICAL yoga studio, you'll hear a few sounds: the soothing voice of the instructor, the whisper of students' breath, maybe some soft music. And that's about it.

This is not Bob Smith-style yoga. Smith tells stories during class. He talks about golf. He even pokes fun at himself. And, inevitably, there is laughter.

It could be when student Richard Gold jokes about his yoga strengths — or more likely, his weaknesses. Or when Smith notes how relaxed Gold's wife, Celeste Ericsson, looks in a pose and Gold blurts out, "she's thinking about the chocolate mousse she's going to eat afterward!" (True, she concedes.) Or when 81-year-old student Joyce Turner complains that she can't quite do backbends like when she was in her 70s; meanwhile, a twenty-something next to her struggles with the basics.

If you think yoga is a solemn affair, guess again.

"There's a playfulness and inclusivity, which is, it's just really joyful," says Betsey Beckman, who's been a student for more than 20 years. "What I get there is so nourishing to me."

For Gold, the Hatha Yoga Center was something entirely different. As a newcomer to Seattle in the early 1980s, he joined an athletic club downtown hoping to make friends playing racquetball. "They'd just want to come in and whip my ass and leave," he discovered.

Gold figured he'd have the same experience with yoga. Instead, he's made lifelong friends. Side-by-side on their mats, students share their struggles, whether they involve a difficult pose or more personal things, like how to deal with aging parents, or college-bound kids, or career changes.

Smith's style makes that OK. He began studying yoga in the 1970s under a legendary Seattle instructor named Marie Svoboda. He described her as a "brilliant teacher" but a "cold taskmaster."

"With Marie, it was a business. You come in there, you pay, and you leave," he recalled. "I thought, I'm going to try to do it the opposite — by making this a community."

When a student had a medical problem, he'd call after a doctor's visit. He'd arrive at the studio early, to sit and chat; afterward, they'd sip homemade chai. Sometimes they'd all go out for lunch or dinner. Like Beckman, many students have been with him for decades.

Smith says turning yoga into a bonding experience wasn't all that hard.

"People wanted the community. They want to feel they're part of something bigger than themselves."

BIGGER THAN themselves? That's not necessarily what most people are thinking when they sign up for a fitness program — at least not consciously. But Sarah Ullrich-French, a professor in the kinesiology program at Washington State University, says this really does help.

For most of us, she says, maintaining motivation hinges on three things: feeling competent in an activity; feeling like you have some choice (autonomy); and "the concept of relatedness, or belonging."

Joining a group, she says, takes care of that third component. It can help you with the two others, as well.

In fact, it might even help you become one of those devoted few who seem to have no problem with motivation — the type who will exercise even when time is short, or when they're sore or tired or it's raining. Those folks, says Ullrich-French, "have really internalized that behavior. It's part of their identity. That's what allows them to sustain it across the challenges."

Wait a minute. She said a minute ago that being part of a group helps maintain motivation. Now she's saying motivation has to come from inside you?

Both are true, Ullrich-French explains. Joining a group helps you internalize an identity, whether it's as a runner or a yoga practitioner or, for that matter, a chess player. Feeling like you belong makes you want to continue with the group; continuing with the group helps you incorporate the activity as part of your identity. And so on.

"It's counterintuitive, but the sense of belonging supports autonomy," she says. "The stronger the group gets, it reinforces and fosters your own interest and commitment."

Keep at it for a little while, in other words, and you might get hooked.

I WILL CONFESS that a few years ago, I wouldn't have believed there was true community in most fitness pursuits — at least not in the ones I was willing to try. Team sports, sure. But yoga? Uh, no.

Back then, I was a treadmill trudger. "Must. Log. Miles," I'd tell myself as I huffed and puffed. "Must. Log. Miles." I trudged alongside others, of course, but was determined to keep the blinders on. (Duh!)

Then I wrote a story for this magazine about a relatively new, and notoriously hard, fitness program called CrossFit. A so-called Workout of the Day, or WOD, might involve rowing and rope climbing, pullups or dead lifts or flipping heavy truck tires, and can leave participants on the floor, panting in their own puddle of sweat.

My boss thought I was crazy. What she didn't understand at the time is all that sweating and struggling is just surface-level stuff. CrossFit is addictive because it's really about community.

Once you join a gym, explains Dave Shephard, a competitive CrossFitter and an Army captain at Joint Base Lewis McChord, "you immediately have a family. I consider these guys like brothers and sisters. That's what keeps me coming."

Everyone in a CrossFit class, whether they're a firebreather or someone who's just trying to get in shape, does the same workout together. There's an ethic of cheering each other on and sticking around until the last person finishes.

"It's almost like a shared suffering," Shephard says. "In the military, we do similar things. It inspires esprit de corps."

That's part of why the sport has exploded in the past few years. In 2009, about 50 CrossFit gyms were operating in Washington; today, there are more than 140.

Every gym is an independently operated affiliate, but when there's a chance to join with others, CrossFitters do it in droves. In 2011, when CrossFit launched its virtual, worldwide, all-comers competition known as the Open, about 26,000 people signed up. This year, 130,000 entered, most of them pretty ordinary athletes. They pay $20 for the privilege of putting themselves through prescribed physical tests and then posting their results online to see where they rank. Even if they're in 30,000th place.

Last winter, Shephard looked around Seattle and saw an opportunity for a real-live, rather than virtual, competition and launched Seattle's first CrossFit league, called the Seattle Affiliate League. Basically, it's the equivalent of a basketball or kickball league, and it's open to all levels of athletes. The first season, advertised solely by word-of-mouth, attracted 75 participants. Dozens of spectators turned out for the league's Sunday events, too, to cheer for friends and perfect strangers alike.

"The fact that you can get this many people to hang out there on a Sunday afternoon, I think it says a lot," says participant Ernie Munoz, of Leschi.

"There'd be someone grilling steaks and sausages, they'd have beer and wine and music, and people hanging out watching and people waiting to compete," says teammate Jeff O'Mara. "It never occurred to me there would be that block-party aspect."

O'Mara used a technical term to explain the appeal of the sport: gamification:

"You allow people to accrue points for taking an action you want them to. "By creating a sport around functional movement, it creates community, it creates the game, it creates that sense of fun. I think, in the end, it helps you get fitter faster and continue to maintain that good behavior."

His team, alas, finished third from the bottom. In some ways, Shephard says, folks like O'Mara and Munoz are the type of athletes he really wanted to attract: people who just want to get out and have some fun, but who may not have had a chance to compete before. In true CrossFit style, the losing teams get some of the biggest cheers.

"People seemed to like to watch us," laughs Marie Gipson, whose team came in dead last — light years behind the winning team. "They said they were really inspired by us."

BRIGHT AND early every Sunday, 40, 60, even 100 people gather at an appointed location in Seattle to run. They are teenagers and grandmothers; overweight and slim; Iron Man-ready and barely able.

They come rain or shine. They come even after losing an hour of sleep on a chilly first day of Daylight Saving time. They come because coach Cheryl Marek will give them a few instructions, a few words of encouragement, and a ready-set-go to break into pace groups and hit the road.

Actually, Marek says, they come initially because they've signed up for an event, like a half marathon, and want some coaching. They stay for something else entirely.

"My groups are really social groups," she says. Meeting for coffee afterward is part of the appeal. "They'll come run just to go for the coffee," Marek says with a chuckle. "It's a means to an end."

Over the years, she's added biking groups and hiking groups to her weekly coaching schedule. In all the groups, she says, most of the participants are women.

"Women are really social," she explains. "They really kind of need that, I think. They're building miles, but the social part's probably the most important."

Running with a group, says Paula Terhaar, "turns an individual sport into a team sport." It doesn't matter here if you're fast or slow — unlike a typical team sport, where skill-level mixing doesn't necessarily fly.

Logging miles together is like free therapy, says Rachel Gross. "We talk about our problems, brag about our kids. It's just really fun and social and healthy."

Admittedly, she's come a long way. She still laughs about her first kickoff meeting, when longtime members of the group introduced themselves around the room: I've done 10 triathlons, one woman said; another bagged a half-dozen marathons, and so on.

She would have bolted if she could. She'd never even made it twice around Green Lake. But Gross stuck it out and reached her goal of doing a half marathon for her 50th birthday.

Cris Kessler, a longtime member, and one of its biggest evangelists, explains part of the appeal. "Most of us are pre-Title IX." She's talking about the 1970s law that said girls must get equal opportunities in sports. "You watched your brothers play sports, your father. You watch your son and your daughters. And you're just making treats. Now I have an opportunity to do something and have it feel fun, that physical bonding experience."

Most of Marek's students have been with her for years. Including Gross. After her first half marathon, she joined the group again. And again. She's now at eight years and counting.

"I was surprised that I could really put my mind to something that seemed impossible like that, and I could do it," she says. "It was kind of a shock."

And now she's hooked.

"It's a cult," she jokes. "Because once you're in it, you don't want to get out of it."

Maureen O'Hagan is a Seattle Times staff reporter. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.

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