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The Road From Hell to Nirvana

Fitness: Nine years ago Frank White was an overweight, alcoholic smoker. Now he's hooked on yoga. He leads up to 15 classes a week and is thought one of the best instructors in Los Angeles.

September 08, 1997|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 77, Frank White is the picture of health. A rather offbeat one, too.

With a completely shaved head, the fitful vegetarian stands an even 5-foot-8, 145 pounds. He can boast of an enviable cholesterol count, low blood pressure, and a near religious workout schedule--everyday, up to two hours at a time.

Except for the Midwestern accent and his earring, the bespectacled former actor is like Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi.

But just nine years ago, White looked more like the picture of near hell. He was 50 pounds overweight, drank a quart of booze, and smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. All of which did little to improve his heart condition or osteoarthritis.

"I was headed for the cemetery," White said.

Then came yoga, along with Alcoholics Anonymous. Within six months after enrolling in his first yoga class, he began teaching it. Today, he is considered one of the best yoga instructors in Los Angeles.

"AA gave me my life," he said. "But yoga gave me a new life to lead."

With the zeal of a converted sinner, White leads as many as 15 yoga classes a week throughout the Los Angeles area. His aerobic yoga classes, which run 90 minutes, provoke the kind of sweating seen during NBA games.

But the action and dialogue is slightly different than what you might hear at court side.

"Tighten your right buttocks," instructed White during a recent class at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. "And don't move unless you breathe."

When he is not performing the precise yoga movements himself, White patrols his students--straightening a leg here, readjusting an arm position there. He also peppers his class with impromptu pointers on lungs, hips and spleens.

"You'll feel loose as a goose when you leave tonight," promises White--whose screen and television credits include "Rosemary's Baby," "Hill Street Blues," and "St. Elsewhere."

His students swear by him. After one class as she toweled off the sweat, one student volunteered: "Frank is the best."

Said another: "I've lost 18 pounds in Frank's class."

Before enrolling in White's class seven years ago, yoga student Carole Scurlock of Pasadena said she had lower back pain. According to Scurlock, yoga and White erased the problem.

"He's an inspiration," said the 54-year-old graphic artist. "He's so defiant of his age. I'm aware of the transformation he's made and continues to make. I admire how he presses on and helps others."

White also volunteers as a yoga instructor to people with AIDS, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

"Of course, it doesn't cure the diseases," White said. "But it makes the patients more comfortable. Yoga promotes healing and it does take away some of the pain."

Though gaining in popularity, yoga still doesn't attract the number of enthusiasts it should, White said. He blames bad stereotypes.

"People think yoga is sitting in the lotus position, burning incense in your navel, and chanting ohms. Most people have no idea of the physicality of yoga. It's the most complete workout for the body on the planet. And contrary to what people believe, it's very aerobic."

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