The practice of yoga, believed to have begun more than 5,000 years ago in India, is becoming de-mystified in the Midwest as its popularity spreads from the coasts.

When Jeanne Perino opened Downtown Yoga five years ago, it was Peoria’s only facility dedicated to the ancient practice.

These days, she has competition from Namaste Wellness Studio in Peoria and Heading OM Yoga Studio in West Peoria. Downtown Yoga plans to open a second location in Morton this fall. And many area gyms offer yoga sessions along with their more traditional exercise classes.

"I think it’s great," Perino said. "The more people who have access to yoga, the better."

In just five years, Peoria’s yoga landscape has changed dramatically.

The practice, believed to have begun more than 5,000 years ago in India, is becoming de-mystified in the Midwest as its popularity spreads from the coasts.

"You don’t have to be a pretzel to do yoga," Perino said. "A lot of people look at yoga and think it’s unattainable. In the past, people thought of yoga as being kind of a religious practice where you chanted and meditated and did all this kind of weird, scary stuff like standing on your head. It’s not just that. Yoga can be done with almost any group of people."

Downtown Yoga was born out of necessity. Peoria’s only yoga studio, Yoga Way, closed in 2002. Perino didn’t like practicing at local gyms, which she believed lacked the privacy and calm atmosphere yoga requires.

In January 2003, Perino opened the facility at the Contemporary Art Center on Water Street near the Illinois River.

Today, Perino employs four other yoga instructors and is searching for a suitable space in Morton.

"I think the health benefits are becoming more and more apparent to people," said Perino, a nurse practitioner with Children’s Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. "More people seem to be interested in taking a proactive approach to feeling better."

After opening its original location, Downtown Yoga remained the only yoga-specific business in Peoria until Namaste opened in Peoria’s Junction City Shopping Center in May 2006.

Molly Waller had just moved from Chicago back to her hometown, pregnant and unable to find a prenatal yoga class in Peoria.

So Waller created her first small business, which also sells yoga workout clothing and equipment.

"People are seeking to alleviate stress and anxiety and live a peaceful life in a crazy world," Waller said.

Waller employs eight instructors, many of whom also teach at other facilities, and has found Peoria’s yoga community healthy enough to support multiple studios.

"There’s our practice on the mat and then there’s our practice that we take off the mat," Waller said. "Ultimately, the practice off our mat is the true practice. There are things you can take with you from your mat: calming yourself with your breath, easing your anxiety and stress, letting things go and not taking things too personally.

"The result of yoga should be that it enhances your life in all aspects."

Tammy Mitchell and Lisa Zell sought to go beyond just yoga workouts when they opened Heading OM Yoga Studio this April in West Peoria. Mitchell and Zell are joined by four other teachers at the new business.

The studio’s name combines the street name where it is located and the sound of a yoga mantra. On Heading Avenue, the co-owners strive to create an atmosphere where yoga practitioners will hang out before and after workouts.

"I think it all has to do with connectedness," Mitchell said. "Teachers are there to share their knowledge. Everything else beyond that — the organic snacks, tea time before or after class, the library of books available for people to come and sit quietly and study — provides a community aspect.

"I love our yoga community. That’s why I’m so excited that so much stuff is popping up."

With more yoga studios available, Peoria yogis are able to find a larger variety of classes and teaching styles.

"I hope that more studios just means that more people are going to be aware of it and it will bring more people out to try it — rather than it being a competition between the studios," said Morton resident Peg Giebelhausen, a regular at Namaste who has practiced at several locations since taking up yoga in 2000. "For the yoga people I know, yoga is not a competition; yoga is a community."

After Giebelhausen’s eight years of yoga, the longtime runner said she relaxes more easily and notices improvements in her flexibility, strength, balance and breathing.

"I think it’s a lifestyle thing I can do for the rest of my life, just like I plan to do with running," Giebelhausen said. "You don’t have to be young to start yoga. People say they’re too old or too stiff for yoga. If you’re too stiff, that’s why you should do yoga."

By shopping around, central Illinoisans can locate classes for pregnant women, beginners, small children, serious athletes, partners, corporate and private groups. Some other specialized classes are power yoga, Thai yoga massage and Nidra — a state of conscious deep sleep.

All three studios also bring in national and international experts for seminars.

"Some people take yoga for flexibility, for strength, for inner peace," Mitchell said. "Some people really connect to the idea of the union of mind, body and soul. There are so many different teachers and so many different styles that I believe the bigger the yoga community, the better."

That doesn’t mean the calming effects of yoga work for everyone. Especially in 2008, when e-mails and text messages play a daily role in many people’s hectic lives.

"In our society, we don’t sit around campfires anymore and pound on drums and do dances — which would be really fun," Waller said. "Sitting still is really hard for people, because there’s nothing to do except just sit there. In our society, we’re so overstimulated and everything’s fast.

"Sometimes it scares people. It’s kind of frightening for people to sit still with their thoughts, because it’s really real. Sometimes it’s just easier to be really busy."

Ryan Ori can be reached at