Finding her Zen

Deana Sabasino enters the room at St. Agnes Wellness Center, removes her coat and fiddles with a few audiocassettes. She finds what she wants and chats gregariously with the women arriving in workout gear — many of the same faces, but a new one here and there.

The new ones usually become instant regulars, converts to the multi-faceted training session that is Sabasino’s yoga — a mix of forms and functions, all with the same goal and result.

Then it’s time to focus.

Using her almost-hypnotic "yoga voice," the slender Sabasino ceases the friendly banter, assumes the seated position and pumps up the mystical mood music. Those who don’t already know the drill can follow her lead.

Everyone sit up nice and tall. Close your eyes and focus. Inhale, exhale. If you’re feeling tension, breathe into it …

… all in a voice that could soothe a frayed nerve or two.

This is serious business, and any yogi worth her tree pose knows how to make her clients focus.

Sabasino, 46, started focusing on fitness as a career only five years ago. Now a certified trainer and yoga/Pilates instructor, she can assume almost any position as well as help her students find and hold their own balance.

Rooted in India, yoga is linear and can be practiced in various fashions. In these parts, practitioners typically use mats and perform the movements barefoot and in loose-fitting clothing.

Hatha, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Vinyasana, Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, Laya, Mantra, Raja (Sanskrit translations omitted here) — the language and forms of yoga are vast and complicated, but the benefits are simple, says Sabasino. Chief among them are a gradual incline to greater flexibility, increased strength and balance and the ability to synchronize breath and movement.

Sabasino describes her style as more Western than Eastern — that is, more physical than spiritual. She has a personal interest in adapting to the more-meditative Eastern methods, but for her clients, she employs a mix of the more commonly practiced Hatha, Vinyasana and Ashtanga, aka Power, yoga forms.

In her typical class, you become immediately familiar with poses and maneuvers like downward- and upward-facing dog, forward bend, mountain, tree, table, chair, boat, triangle, plank, side angle, spinal twist, sun salutation, airplane, chalice, lunge, cat, cobra, lotus and warriors I and II. You might finally learn to lower your chin and chest to the ground without bringing your hips down with them. And you’ll end each session with "Namaste" — the prayer pose and the word, which means "I salute the divine light within you."

Sabasino found her divine light after she turned 40. Now teaching about 20 classes a week, often with 10 or more clients per hour-long session, she’s working out and moving about constantly. She averages four classes a day at various sites, including St. Agnes Wellness Center, Lady Fitness Center, the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center, Fels Community Center, Bally’s in both South Philly and Center City and Lifesport in Fairmount.

Her clientele runs the gamut from teens to seniors, men and women, married couples and pregnant women. "Pretty much anyone can do yoga. You take it to where you want to go," she says. And though she has many more female than male customers, she adds, "I notice that older men are starting to get into yoga, maybe because they’re losing their flexibility — and because they know you don’t have to be perfect to do yoga."

A lifelong local resident, Sabasino grew up at Eighth and Pierce. She attended the neighborhood public schools and had taken dance and karate lessons, but wasn’t exactly on the treadmill to a fitness career. She worked in the hotel and restaurant business as a concierge, manager and bartender for 15 years, and before she hit 40, she was 40 pounds heavier.

That’s when she rediscovered the gym.

Sabasino endured intensive cardio routines but fell in love with her yoga class. And she had a real knack for it. Her instructor at Fitness Works encouraged her to keep at it. She watched yoga videos and read Yoga for Dummies — still a book she swears by. She discovered she was miserable bartending.

She dropped the extra 40 pounds in six months. And while she pushed herself on the cardio routine, Sabasino says it was the yoga that gave her strength and endurance. Her flexibility increased, and she learned to use her workouts to achieve a "mind-body connection."

Then she lost her bartending gig and fell into a jobless depression. She was looking for a new direction, "and this might sound sappy, but I prayed."

Her prayer was answered by a help-wanted ad. Sabasino began her fitness career as both an instructor and a salesperson at Lady Fitness Center. Most of her initial classes were in weight-training; then she made the move into Pilates and yoga. "People were curious about the yoga," she recalls.

Sabasino, who now lives at Broad and Tasker, finally can say that her longest steady job has been that of a fitness trainer.

Proud of her age — and, judging by her appearance and �ber-positive attitude, she darn well should be — her personal fitness motto has become: "I don’t compare myself to 20-year-olds." (Indeed, she’s in better shape than most 20-year-olds.)

In yoga, the concentration is on breathing and stretching, and ultimately making your muscles behave.

A person’s real strength, Sabasino explains, comes from the small parts of the body. Weight-training, while good for the bones, is only part of the total fitness package. That’s why Sabasino focuses her classes on strengthening the abdomen. "People don’t tend to work on their abs. People who can do 200 crunches can’t necessarily do a Pilates rollup."

She starts her yoga sessions with a series of head stretches to get her students "centered," and conducts her routines based on her feel for the crowd. When new clients are participating, she’ll take it slower. She also encourages her students to tell her what they’d like to work on.

And because she knows everyone can’t touch their toes on the first few tries, she demonstrates the modifications for the tougher maneuvers.

Sabasino tailors her sessions to her age groups, as well. For her senior citizens at the community centers, she conducts stretching classes. For groups not singularly interested in yoga, she does a little of everything, including aerobics.

"My seniors are fun because we do a lot of bumping and grinding — and you should hear the things they say!" she laughs.

Her young female clients are more competitive and often push themselves too hard, she says, and "that’s missing the whole point of yoga. You should use modifications, because if you’re forcing your muscles to behave, you’re defeating the purpose. I try to tell people to leave their ego at the door and relax and enjoy the movement."

Perhaps every student’s favorite part of yoga is the last five minutes, when everyone goes into relaxation mode. In Sabasino’s line of work, it’s actually flattering to be able to put someone to sleep.

"I had almost a whole yoga class zone out on me once," she says. "It’s a compliment to know I’ve gotten you in a state of mind where you can clear out your brain and relax. Some people have a really hard time doing that."

Meanwhile, the yogi continues to attend conferences and watch videos to check out the latest techniques, and often touts the lesser-known (toxin release) and better-broadcast (sex-life enhancement) benefits of the routine.

She likes the idea of the trendy "hot yoga" — that which is performed in up to 108 degrees, and for up to 90 minutes — but she has little control over the heating of the gyms in which she teaches. One of her goals is to teach yoga on a warm, sunny beach; another is to open her own fitness studio in the community. "I think it’d be fun. Of course I’d have to hit the lottery," she adds with a laugh.

Sabasino, who’s single but "looking," admits she enjoys the occasional drink, but overall she tries to eat healthy as a complement to her life’s work. Because, finally, she has a job that she loves.

The best part: "When people come up to me and tell me how good they feel — especially my little seniors — and when they tell me they’re getting a little more flexible. That’s what keeps me going."

To contact Deana Sabasino for private sessions or for more information on yoga or any of her classes, e-mail