Yogi Mayor

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While the once-neglected downtown sector of Springfield, Missouri, was undergoing revitalization in the mid- and late 1990s, local attorney and city councilman Tom Carlson was undergoing his own transformation into a serious yogi.

Unsatisfied with the limited yoga offerings at a then-rundown YMCA, and eager to introduce the community to the benefits of a regular practice, Carlson decided to create a yoga studio right in the heart of the city. Body of Work, located in the basement of a historic bank building that he owns, buzzes with activity.

Carlson, now the mayor of Springfield (with a population of 151,000), teaches a 6 a.m. Ashtanga class three days a week, and eight other teachers fill out the schedule of roughly 15 weekly classes. The bank's former vault now hosts a pillowed meditation room, and a small retail store sells yoga products.

The success of the studio is mirrored by the businesses that surround it. Today, downtown Springfield boasts upscale restaurants, loft condos, an independent bookstore, an art-house cinema, and a trendy boutique. An art-gallery stroll on the first Friday night of each month has grown so popular that pedestrians are now crowding the once sleepy sidewalks after the sun goes down. Carlson estimates that, when done, about $300 million will have been spent on new development or rehabbed historic properties in the district since 1998.

While the mayor is modest about Body of Work's influence on the downtown's revitalization, he allows that people who are interested in yoga tend to have an interest in their quality of life. And because they are also frequently open to new ideas, art, and culture, he says, there is some cross-pollination of like minds in the downtown business area.

Longtime yogi and fellow city councilmember Mary Collette is just one fan of Carlson's investment in and vision for the community. "Body of Work truly adds to the diversity of offerings in an urban setting," she says.

For her part, Collette is working to generate interest in another historic part of town that's struggling to come back to life. For two years, she has offered space for twice-weekly hatha classes in an abandoned firehouse that she and her husband purchased in 1995. The classes, which draw mostly residents of the surrounding neighborhood near Drury University, sometimes end with potluck suppers.

Collette's efforts seem to be working. For the 2007 summer solstice, her Historic Firehouse #2 and Carlson's Body of Work cohosted a gathering that drew about 70 people. One of the participating yoginis then ended up renting the firehouse for her wedding reception. And throughout the summer, Collette hosted a silent-film series in the firehouse's back garden, projecting the moview onto the wall of a neighboring building.

"Sometimes yoga is the entry point that gets [people] involved in other activities," she says, "and sometimes it's the other activities that get them involved in yoga." Either way, Springfield is enjoying the renaissance that has been fueled by its yogi mayor.