Beyond an open iron gate and a stone wall stained by three decades of sun and rain filtering through a canopy of trees, there is a place on Waterline Road where dozens of people go during an average week to stretch mind, body and spirit.
These people are coming to Heartwood, a 7-acre, wooded yoga retreat center where practitioners of the ancient physical and spiritual art can spend hours at a time letting the cares and stresses of life melt into the wilderness around them.
This is not your typical after-work yoga experience, consisting of maybe an hour in a studio with just enough time to roll out a mat, run through a list of poses, do some breathing exercises and grab five minutes of meditation.
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Heartwood is a place where owner Ginny East says people "come early and stay late" to work through all eight components of the practice, including meditating on the divine and universal morality and building inner perceptual awareness.
It's a lot to work though, which is why East opened Heartwood last year with fiancé and business partner David Shaddock. The couple already owned and operated Reflex Arts Dance & Yoga on University Parkway, but wanted to create a place where yoga students, teachers and even people unfamiliar with yoga could take time to go deeper into exercising mind, body and spirit.
Yoga is much more than the stretching and strengthening for which it is best known, East said. Working from the premise "most people are broken" by life's experiences, the retreat and its staff immerse students and visiting practitioners in the nature of old Florida and like-minded people as they learn about themselves and heal.
"We were looking for a broader yoga experience than what can be had on the mat," said East.
When East and Shaddock bought the property, they had been looking for more than a year for the right place to build a retreat center. In the process, they sold their house so they could afford the $500,000 property. Fortunately, Heartwood, so named by its original owners, featured a house where they could live, as well as a workshop and slices of forest and pasture.
Since moving in, the couple rebuilt the workshop into a light and airy yoga studio with attached common room and kitchen, and have carved walking paths and gardens throughout the property.
A chakra garden, featuring each of yoga's eight components, is the focal point.
A pavilion to be used for outdoor yoga classes, weddings and other functions is under construction. The retreat was closed for part of the summer so construction could be completed.
Heartwood has featured numerous classes, courses and events during the past year. East teaches 200- and 500-hour courses for those wanting to be certified yoga instructors. She also teaches a 100-hour yoga lifestyle training to take the average yoga enthusiast deeper into meditation, the karmic elements of yoga and nutrition. The retreat also hosts yoga classes.
Heartwood has attracted people who have turned to yoga for help with addiction issues, and some who want to get in touch with their spirituality after experiencing trauma with organized religion.
Eventually, Heartwood will have onsite accommodations for students and bed-and-breakfast rooms for visitors. All of it, East said, is directed toward helping people get back to the purity of spirit yoga teaches that all people possess at birth.
Cynthia Insinna, a graduate of the 200-hour instructor course who will start the 500-hour course this fall, said yoga has been a lifesaver.
Ten years ago, Insinna's only child died, an experience from which she said she was unable to recover. A career nurse and former Jazzercise instructor, Insinna took her first yoga class this year. After that class, she knew she wanted to keep practicing and become an instructor as well.
"It's brought me out of that dark space," she said. "It helps me to be friends with my life experiences."
Heartwood has attracted even the most experienced practitioners. Pauline Dimitry, a resident of The Meadows who has been teaching yoga for 43 years, said she has been part of a Heartwood class for a year meeting 16 other students for a three-day weekend once a month.
At age 77, she is 55 years older than her youngest classmate. But when it comes to matters of the spirit, she said everyone in the class is at the same level.
"I'm amazed and inspired by depth of spirituality of the people I'm training with," Dimitry said. "These are people who have been around a long time. They're old souls."
As much as anything, being somewhere quiet where it's possible to sit by a fountain or wander through a colorful glass bottle garden is a draw for those who visit Heartwood. Anna Cerniga, a human resources professional at the Pines of Sarasota, teaches yoga to her workmates twice a week. Now a 500-hour student, she said being with classmates and disconnecting from cell phones and email in rural East Manatee is her favorite way to take time for herself.
"When I'm there, it's a very different experience," she said. "You feel connected. You can just kinda get quiet and just be."
Heartwood is joining the ranks of other spiritual organizations in helping the community. Working from the Indian principle of karma, East recently held a fundraiser at Heartwood raising money to fight the trafficking of women.
The center will hold an all-day yoga festival Saturday featuring a multitude of yoga teachers and classes. Proceeds from the $25 entry fee will go to All Faiths Food Bank.
As East and Shaddock continue to develop the center, they plan to remodel a barn on the property to accommodate art classes, build a David Thoreau walking trail and hold more weddings under the retreat's purpose-built arbor. East, who holds a master's degree in writing, will also teach writing and journaling courses, something she has always incorporated into her yoga instruction.
Heartwood does charge for classes, retreats and instructor training. Those who cannot afford fees or tuition can enroll as work-study students, trading work hours maintaining the Heartwood for admission to the retreat center's programs.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.