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Walt Baptiste

This early yoga pioneer and former Mr. America left a family legacy to carry on the yoga tradition.

By Richard Rosen

San Francisco yoga teacher Walt Baptiste, who died on July 6th at the age of 83, was one of America's pioneers. Baptiste began teaching breathwork at the tender age of 17, having been exposed to yoga by his uncle, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda.

Two years later he opened the Center for Physical Culture, where he combined weight training with yoga and meditation. In 1955, Walt and his wife, Magaña, opened the first yoga school in San Francisco; in 1971, they founded the Baptiste Health & Fitness Center, which included a yoga room, gymnasium, and dance studio as well as a natural food store and restaurant.

Baptiste was also a competitive bodybuilder (he won the "Mr. America" title in 1949), wrote extensively on physical culture, and edited Body Moderne magazine.

But as a committed yogi, he was as much concerned with the spirit as the body. Meher Baba called him a "son of Light," and Swami Sivananda, founder of the Divine Life Society, bestowed on him the honorific Yogiraj, "king of yoga." Over the course of six decades, Baptiste taught countless students, and today three of them—his and Magaña's children, Sherri Baptiste Freeman, Devi Ananda Baptiste, and Baron Baptiste, all accomplished and popular instructors—carry on the family yoga tradition.

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