Everyone settles quickly into comfortable seated positions and the room falls silent.
"Namaste and welcome to yoga. Namaste means I honor the light within you. Close your eyes. Let go of all tension, all negativity. Smooth out the space between your eyebrows. Remember, this is your hour." So begins the session that has become a necessary ritual and an important aspect of daily life for many in the class.
Carla Germano has been teaching yoga in Woodside and Portola Valley for 44 years. She started teaching in 1973, a time when yoga was unfamiliar to most people and maybe even uncomfortably exotic to some.
Today, yoga studios are everywhere and variations on yoga's theme proliferate through the culture like Flavors of the Month. With so many options available, it might seem surprising that without active promotion, Ms. Germano's classes are always packed — it's even hard to get in.
The reason for her success can't be neatly boxed or defined by a particular concept. Rather, it is a combination: Ms. Germano and who she is as a person, the relationships she develops with her students, and the philosophy of yoga she has developed over the years.
Once people join, they tend to stay on, and many have been students for 20, 30 and even 40 or more years. Although initially brought together by a common interest in the physical benefits of yoga, they seem to have found something more deeply satisfying.
Asked why she thinks her classes are so enduringly popular, Ms. Germano replies: "Poses are not the most important part of yoga. There's a real feeling of community, and people feel good about themselves."
Longtime student Bobbie Verde welcomes the atmosphere that Ms. Germano has created, adding, "Most important has been her teaching of kindness. We all seem to care about one another."
Christine Soenksen has taken other yoga classes over the years but says: "Carla's voice is in my head most of the time, reminding me to breathe, to keep my shoulders back and down, to honor my body. There is strong rapport among the students in her classes and dedication to her as our teacher. There is an atmosphere of respect for each and every participant."
How Ms. Germano's interest in yoga was first ignited is a surprising tale involving a chance encounter with a horse and, as such, might be said to have been an only-in-Woodside moment.
She and her husband Rich were out for a walk on Canada Road when they met a woman leading a horse. "There was something about her, a quality I couldn't put my finger on," Ms. Germano recalls.
"When I asked her what she did, she replied, 'yoga.' Right then, I knew what I wanted to do."
About that serendipitous moment, Ms. Germano reflects, "There is a saying in yoga: When you least expect it, your guru, teacher or inspiration will be there."
Ms. Germano began by taking yoga classes from local instructors. Along the way she took courses in anatomy and adaptive physical fitness. Although she has studied with a number of high-profile yoga experts, she cites Lilias Folan, of public television's "Lilias, Yoga and You," as being her inspiration and the mentor who gave her the confidence to forge her own unique philosophy.
Ms. Germano describes her approach to teaching yoga as being closest to Lilias' — a combination of "Hatha" (the physical poses), "Pranayam" (breathing) and "Raja" (meditation).
Now 72, Ms. Germano exemplifies the youthful strength, grace and flexibility that practitioners of yoga hope to attain. You will not, however, find her demonstrating headstands. Although she can do the more extreme poses that yoga is known for, they are not part of her classes. One reason is that not everyone can do them.
"When you can't do something, you feel bad. I don't want that," she explains. "My goal for my students is to do the very best they can and feel really good about themselves. Unless you have sufficient strength in a specific area, you can really get hurt."
Ms. Germano's philosophy also includes doing each pose slowly. "Slower is actually harder and also puts you in touch with your body. When you are doing a pose slowly you can also stop if you feel it's not right."
Although she respects the principles of yoga, she doesn't follow a prescribed set of poses. Instead, she develops a master plan at the beginning of each eight- to 12-week session and changes the program every two weeks. "Yoga is about being flexible and in this way you can feel how you progress," she explains.
Woodside resident Thalia Lubin began taking Ms. Germano's classes about six months after they began 44 years ago, and has this to say: "Carla covers the entire anatomy and tailors each exercise to a person's ability. It's a necessary part of my life."
Doing headstands is one stereotype that doesn't apply to Ms. Germano — and there are others. "I love sugar!" she declares over tea and cake. She also loves Elvis and rock 'n roll, and is not a vegetarian. Of the latter she says, "I tried it for 10 years and felt terrible the whole time. I believe each person has to respect their body and do what's right for them. For me, it's everything in moderation."
Over the years, Ms. Germano has taught yoga to people in all stages of life, from nursery and elementary school children, to teens, and to adults as advanced in age as 96. Currently, her classes are composed of both women and men ranging in age from 20-something to 90. Regular students also include a number of physicians.
Elke Demme, 82, started Ms. Germano's class 25 years ago at her daughter's urging, and says, "I am addicted to the feeling I get when finishing a class. ... it is a great feeling, as if there is space in my mind and body."
The distinguished retired judge LaDoris Cordell has been Ms. Germano's student for 10 years and sums it all up with this: "After my first class with Carla, I was hooked. I knew right away that she was the real deal.
"She is passionate about her craft and is a terrific teacher. Carla exudes warmth, compassion, and a genuine belief in her students. I'm able to perform asanas I never dreamed that I could do.
"I made thousands of decisions as a judge, but none was better than my decision to study yoga with Carla. She has literally changed my life for the better, physically and spiritually. "We're so lucky to have her."
(Note: Ms. Germano's classes are conducted through the Town of Woodside Recreation Committee. They are currently fully subscribed, but there is a waiting list for prospective students.)
This story contains 1161 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.