Deb Berlin, yoga instructorFrom the top of the Washington Monument to the soles of its wingtip shoes, Washington, D.C., epitomizes uptight, workaday America. Big egos, small offices, bad traffic and an embarrassment of poor eating habits contribute to a city teeming with stressed-out workers.

Enter Deb Berlin who, once one of them, found freedom in yoga — and, like a modern-day Harriet Tubman, is working to free the rest of us.

Having worked in senior positions with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Green Spa Network and the Associated Press, Berlin (pictured right) is no stranger to work stress.

A child of 1970s New York City, Berlin spent her childhood training to be a competitive figure skater. Her lean physique is proof of more than three decades of regular, committed athleticism.

“Figure skating is very demanding on the body,” she says. “My daily workouts included ice time at 5 a.m. as well as skipping the afternoon of high school for ballet, dance and weight training. When I was 17, I started practicing yoga regularly and noticed a dramatic improvement in my flexibility. I knew then that yoga-based stretching is superior to any other form of stretching that I’ve encountered, and nothing since has changed my mind.”

When not practicing yoga, Berlin teaches it to federal workers at government agencies throughout the nation’s capital, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Her first students were workers at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, followed soon after by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the EPA, the Peace Corps, and the U.S. Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

Berlin says federal workers are among the most in need of yoga — because of the pressure and stress of working on high-profile issues.

“I’ve had students in my class who returned from fighting in Afghanistan, who worked on Obamacare as the world watched, and who were alone at Peace Corps posts in remote bush locations. Such jobs are enormously challenging to the body, mind and soul — and yoga addresses it. You can take a lot or a little from your practice, that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to cross the finish line to get the benefits. You can come to class, stretch the cramps out of your hamstrings, and focus on your breath instead of something anxiety-inducing. You feel better, and that’s enough.”

“After the shootings in Washington earlier this year,” she adds, “I had the class interact more to gain reassurance from a sense of community. It was effective, and promoted yoga’s healing power in a new way.”

Investment in yoga

She bubbles over with enthusiasm, and quickly points out that one doesn’t need to be a yoga veteran to practice it. All you need, she says, is a few minutes a day and a desire to age gracefully.

“Like everyone else, I’m overbooked and don’t always prioritize well. But exercise is not optional for me,” she says. “It’s more like taking a shower, which you’re going to make happen. Ten minutes on my mat while the coffee is brewing resets my body and mind for the day. A little investment in yoga now pays big dividends later.”

Berlin says more is needed to expand yoga’s reach — particularly to men, who are a distinct minority among yoga students — and that she is constantly innovating new methods to expand yoga’s healthful influence.

“I’ve studied every major style of yoga plus power stretching, and I sequence my class with a mix of many poses,” she says. “I look around at stress and obesity exploding everywhere, and I feel an enormous responsibility to help turn the tide. That’s why I am leading the development of a more mainstream form of the practice.”

She says yoga has found mainstream acceptance, but remains challenged by various misconceptions – chiefly, the idea that most people aren’t flexible enough to do it.

“That’s like saying you are too hungry to eat. Few of us are born flexible, but a regular yoga practice can get you there,” she says. ”As we get older, we become even less flexible, so starting yoga now will transform your experience of aging. The D.C. lifestyle is damaging enough. Fortunately, more and more people are learning that yoga can offset it!”

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Yoga instructor helps heal the nation's capital, one stretch at a time
Deb Berlin is determined to soothe frayed nerves in Washington, D.C., through yoga, a practice she picked up in her teens.