LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Yoga was about as novel a concept as pagers were back when Chris Saudek opened The Yoga Place, the first studio in La Crosse, three decades ago.

Although the evolution of tech communication has traveled light-years beyond the clunky paging process, yoga thrives on its ancient traditions, having spawned several studios and classes at a host of other sites to learn and practice in the La Crosse area.

Thousands of Coulee Region residents have been doing handstands, headstands and sundry other yoga positions — with the added benefits of increased abilities to focus, connect with themselves and others and become fit since The Yoga Place opened in April 1988.

"A lot of people didn't have any idea what yoga was. In the beginning, they thought it was just a strange form of meditation — just spacing," said Saudek, who sold her studio to Pam Starcher in 2015 but still teaches classes there.

"The whole idea of the yoga lens has really, really changed. The bad thing with that is anything that includes poses, people call yoga," Saudek said.

"There is more to it than just poses," said Starcher, who had been taking classes at the YMCA Fitness Center before she first stepped foot in The Yoga Place in 2011.

"When I came here, I knew right away it was different. It was very methodical, with detailed instruction on how to do it," Starcher said.

An avid runner and triathlete, Starcher said friends had referred her to Saudek because she had developed back pain.

"I kept coming, and I was a student for almost four years" before deciding to forego her IT job at Trane, Starcher said, explaining further, "I was at a point in my life where I wanted to retire from corporate life."

That timing coincided with Saudek's realization that her business had reached the point where she needed to launch social media and marketing campaigns to keep up with not only her own studio's growth but also increasing competition from other studios.

But the 67-year-old didn't want to give up the mat, saying, "I really, really enjoy teaching."

Oddly enough, just as stress helped propel Saudek's reason to sell her studio, she started practicing yoga because of anxiety.

"I was in grad school and stressed out, so I started yoga and never looked back," said Saudek, a native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who has a bachelor's degree in physical therapy but also earned a master's in applied mathematics.

Saudek went to ground zero of yoga, India, as she has several times since, and studied under the late B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of a yoga style named after him and who is credited with bringing yoga to the West. Iyengar Yoga, which emphasizes precision and aligning practitioners' physical, mental and spiritual abilities, is the only method used at The Yoga Place.

"It is fairly rigorous," she said. "It gets rid of tension, and leaves you very relaxed."

Remaining in poses for several minutes and quieting the mind helps people connect with their inner selves, their spiritual sides, Starcher told the La Crosse Tribune .

Assessing The Yoga Place's longevity, Starcher said, "Our studio continues by offering yoga that is not trendy, but timeless — the best authentic yoga instruction based on the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar."

Yoga has no physical barriers, as far as age goes, and The Yoga Place, like other studios, has several skill levels and includes people into their 80s.

The studio also has a class for students who might need a slower pace or have body ailments, Saudek said.

"We really try to help people understand what they can do," she said. "A lot of the time, older people are told what they can't do. We help them find out what they can do."

Lynne Valiquette, who was one of The Yoga Place's first students, said she continues to practice at age 71 because "it keeps me flexible and strong."

Valiquette learned early on to pace herself, saying, "I tried to touch the floor too fast and pulled a hamstring. It's a mental thing — taking risks, and learning your body and when to push and not to push."

Valiquette, a retired teacher, still can do headstands but quit doing handstands a few years ago, said, "I like doing the headstand. Everything feels balanced and in order. I like the precision. My whole body is connected, and it helps focus and take my mind away from the world."

Yoga is becoming increasingly popular among pregnant women, as evidenced by Rachel Frazee, one of The Yoga Place's instructors.

"I did yoga right before I went in" to deliver her third child on May 30, Frazee said. "I was feeling tired, and it was the end of the day, so I was doing yoga to relax" when she said she experienced labor pains.

The birth was fast, with only an hour of labor, she said, crediting that in part to yoga.

"In my eyes, it was pretty easy," Frazee said, "I mean, it's always hard, always intense — any mom will tell you that — but it was a fast delivery."

Frazee, 35, who grew up in La Crosse but now lives in Sparta with her husband, Joel, and two boys, Harry, 4, and Charlie, 2, who now have a sister, said she started doing yoga in college.

A longtime exercise aficionado whose pursuits have included kickboxing and pilates, said, "Yoga ended up being my favorite. It's an all-encompassing exercise — physical, mental, spiritual. Hormones, nerves, physicality — it takes care of all the body systems."

Yoga stretches during pregnancy help make more room for the baby, Frazee said, adding, "If I'm healthy, the baby will be healthy."

Another yoga studio with staying power is Tammy Z's in La Crosse, which owner Tammy Zee started 19 years ago.

"Initially, it was more about a job," said Zee, whose career in the fitness industry has included stints teaching at the YWCA, being group fitness director at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "I had taken a couple of yoga classes" and sensed a yoga vacuum.

"There were very, very few and far between studios," she said, so she took training and became certified.

"I enjoy the mind-body fitness, with no judgment, no ego," she said. "It comes from within. I felt that peace. Of course, stretching has a euphoric effect."

Zee has a contract with the La Crosse County Health Department, which sends people to her student to help improve their overall mental health, she said.

"We're all going to have stress in our lives, and yoga helps you relax and breathe — stay in the present, center and relax with whatever is thrown your way. Yoga is for everybody — prenatal, and goat yoga is huge," she said.

Also increasingly popular is hot yoga, offered only at Root Down Yoga in North La Crosse, where Nick and Mandy Roush give Xcel's bottom line a boost by routinely cranking up the heat to 95 degrees, with plenty of humidity, for the majority of its yoga classes.

The Roushes, Central High School sweethearts who now live in Bangor, opened Root Down six years ago — as he says, "on 11/11/11."

Nick credits his passion for yoga to the transformation he saw it create in Mandy, who was a health educator at what now is Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse with a degree in school health education.

"She lost her way physically. She gained weight and wasn't herself," he said, so she tried yoga for its potential and "reconnected with herself, physically and emotionally."

With a combination of yoga, walking and running, "She regained her health. She lost 90 pounds and ran her first marathon. From my vantage point, she's my hero," he said.

"I wanted some of that," he said, "and now, there's no part of our life that yoga doesn't touch — family, relationships, the business.

"It's a physically demanding practice, but I believe it's accessible to everybody," Nick said of Root Down's signature classes of Vinyasa, tailored to beginners as well as advanced students.

Vinyasa emphasizes the tie between movement and breathing.

"Yoga enables people to grow physically, and grow spiritually and emotionally," said Nick, whose day job is as a property proprietor, running Roush Rentals in Onalaska after his first career in HVAC.

"Yoga is more about flexibility between the ears than it is flexibility of the muscles," Nick said. "However, it has no judgment and no expectations."

By the way, the use of pagers is said to have peaked at around 64 million users worldwide in 1994, but now, they basically have come and gone. About the only people who use them these days are doctors, firefighters and EMS technicians.

Meanwhile, yoga, which a Roper poll found had 6 million practitioners in 1994, has ballooned to a $27-billion-a-year business, with more than 20 million practitioners in the United States alone, according to a Huffington Post report.

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Information from: La Crosse Tribune, http://www.lacrossetribune.com