Extending the legacy

Born to fitness leaders Walt and Magana Baptiste, Sherri Baptiste Freeman
was destined to teach yoga

Sherri Baptiste Freeman wasn’t born on a yoga mat but she might as well have been. The Kentfield yoga teacher is the daughter of San Francisco fitness pioneers Walt and Magana Baptiste, who opened the first yoga studio in the city nearly 50 years ago. She grew up with yoga. For a woman who started teaching the breathing and posture exercises as a teen, the current boom is almost a source of pride. Baptiste Freeman can look at the yoga mats sticking out of half the backpacks on the street and know that her family had a part in it. “I watched it all my life and saw all the good that can come from it,” Baptiste Freeman says. Along with her brother, Baron Baptiste, who has taught yoga to everybody from NFL teams to Hollywood celebrities, Baptiste Freeman works hard to continue her father’s work. She teaches 15 classes a week at four Marin health clubs and has two weekend retreats scheduled at the Green Gulch Zen Center. She recently released her own video, “Baptiste Power of Yoga,” a 60-minute class designed to bring the class experience home. Her classes are growing, she says. The current yoga boom is no surprise. The combination of relaxation and fitness is ideal for the times. “This is accessible and real,” Baptiste Freeman says. Mary Frank tried yoga before, but she didn’t get hooked on it until she took Baptiste Freeman’s class at Elan Fitness Center in San Anselmo.

That was six years ago. Now, the TV commercial producer says, “I feel better. I look better.” The difference was Baptiste Freeman. “This isn’t just something she kind of does; this is something that has been in her blood since birth,” Frank says. “She’s inspiring.” Married for 27 years with four children ranging from 10 to 25, Baptiste Freeman puts herself out as a testament to the yoga lifestyle. She has the energy. She has the fitness. She has the youthful bent. She’s out to convert the masses. “I want people to bring this into their everyday life,” she says.

Marin IJ: Why is yoga booming now?
Baptiste Freeman: Yoga fits the times so well because yoga is not complicated. You can feel and see it working. That mind/body connection really happens. Perhaps the first and most profound benefit that most people notice is stress reduction. The real beauty of yoga is that it creates a balance of strength and flexibility, mentally and physically, and you notice an increase in vitality and an overall sense of well-being. Yoga feels good.

IJ: Can this kind of popularity hurt yoga?
Baptiste Freeman: Well, to be honest there are concerns of raw, untrained and inexperienced people stepping into the yoga rooms to teach. Yoga is really wonderful, and a true teacher knows yoga from the inside out. It’s something that you must know from personal practice and experience over time in order to be what I consider a qualified teacher. I am mentoring a group of wonderful teachers right now, and their process for training through me is deep, extensive and over a long period of time. My classes are known to be safe. I typically have 50 to 65 people in my evening classes, with each level working constructively and safely at their own level of ability all at the same time. This ability to teach such a big class safely and effectively comes from a lifetime of experience and personal practice.

IJ: Why are women more receptive to yoga than men?
Baptiste Freeman: Stepping out of our own element and comfort zone can be a challenge for us all. Women tend to be more open and more at ease when it comes to bringing things into their lives. In the Baptiste family work we have always had a strong balance of men and women in the classes. In my classes here in Marin, I typically see 30 to 40 percent men in attendance so I think stepping into a yoga room is getting a lot easier for the guys too.

IJ: What other exercises do you do?
Baptiste Freeman: I wake up at 6 a.m. and take a 45-minute brisk walk with my husband and our dog. I work out in the gym twice a week. My family have been leaders and pioneers in the fields of health and fitness. Along with opening the first yoga center in San Francisco in the 1950s, my dad was a former Mr. America, and my mom was a first runner up in the Miss USA contest in the 1950s. Our family has also helped to take the science of bodybuilding mainstream. Even in the gym I stay aware of what I have learned in my yoga practice. I use my breath. I’m calm, focused. I use my intuition to know when less is more and when to push further. Yoga is applicable to everything in our lives.

IJ: Is yoga changing?
Baptiste Freeman: I have noticed that yoga acquires a new significance for every generation. And watching yoga all of my life, I have realized that the system of yoga has neither a beginning nor an end, but it is permanent and is based on universal principles that appeal to us on every level, mentally, physically and spiritually. Yoga effects deep change. It’s the real deal.

IJ: What mistakes should beginners avoid?
Baptiste Freeman: Probably the biggest mistake that someone can make is to come in with expectations. I tell people let go of your expectations and mental limitations. Just get yourself to class. Come in. Get on that mat, and let me get you breathing and flowing in and out of poses. It will all grow from there. It’s simple, each time you come to class you’re taking a step in the right direction. In yoga the prize is in the process.

IJ: What would you change about the way exercise and fitness are presented to children?
Baptiste Freeman: I would like to see yoga in the schools for kids and teachers too. When kids practice yoga, we notice that it increases their attention span and calms the nervous system. Yoga keeps kids physically healthy. Children learn by example. Having a yoga program for the teachers as well sets a good example. Offering even a half hour yoga class for the teachers during the day keeps the teachers less stressed and feeling good and healthy.

IJ: Why are Americans so fat?
Baptiste Freeman: Lack of movement and not figuring out what their own best way of eating really is. The Baptiste family is known for its leadership in the area of nutrition/healthy eating, and what we know to be true is that no two people are the same. We have noticed that what works best is when you really tune in to how your body and emotions respond to the foods you put in your mouth. I teach at least 15 yoga classes a week, have a family and home and have plenty of energy to spare. By eating a diet that consists mostly of fresh-water rich foods and healthy protein sources such as salmon, I feel fantastic. This is the diet that works for me. I have paid attention, and doing my yoga helps me to really get in touch and notice what works and what doesn’t work.

IJ: What do you say to people who are reluctant to try yoga?
Baptiste Freeman: Just get your body there. Come in with an open mind and with an open heart, and let me do the rest.

Learn more about Sherri Baptiste Freeman’s VIDEO, CLASSES, WORKSHOPS AND RETREATS. For more information contact using the form, email or call 1-888-804-YOGA.

Article by Richard Polito

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