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Yoga instructor leads ministry on a mat

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Published:   |   Updated: April 29, 2013 at 12:01 PM

Roni Sloman has accomplished more in her 32 years than many people do in a lifetime.

She backpacked through 11 European countries in three months. Served in mission work in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Trained to be a wilderness emergency medical technician, then worked in a rural clinic in Kenya.

Obviously, she’s one of those people who aren’t afraid to take chances. She’s willing to step out of her comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory.

Now she’s doing it again. Except she’s doing it in her own backyard.

Roni is the founder and owner of Bella Prana Yoga and Meditation on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa. She has 28 instructors teaching more than 50 classes a week at the busy studio.

But it’s her classes that are causing a buzz. She’s created a hybrid session, combining the Eastern-influence practice with Western spiritual values. Think of it as a ministry on a mat.

She picks a few teachings for the 75-minute sessions that relate to everyday stress and issues. Among them: Family and relationship problems, insecurity, financial stress, job challenges. Although she avoids the “J” word — “I don’t want people to get scared off by hearing too much about Jesus” — she’s not afraid to mention God in seeking solutions to life’s complications. Occasionally, she’ll rely on a Scripture or two to illustrate her point.

She calls it a “little bit of church, a little bit of gym and a little bit of psychiatry” all at the same time.

“Some people are never going to set foot in a sanctuary,” she says. “But in this environment, they might feel less threatened. I want them to have a safe atmosphere to explore their inner selves. If they happen to be Christian, they’re going to feel more comfortable.”

As word spread about Roni’s approach, class size quickly tripled. The demand overwhelmed her.

“I’ve been blown away by the reaction to it. I know people are thirsty for meaning, but they don’t always feel comfortable finding it in a religion foreign to them,” she says. Buddhism isn’t what they grew up with, and they may not accept or understand its beliefs. “I know how this worked for me, and now I’m witnessing all the time how it’s helping others as well.”

How it all began, as so many innovative ideas do, relates to her personal experience.

If you met her today, you would get the same impression I did: Roni is all sunshine and light with a smile that could blind you. She looks calm, contented and very much at peace.

But it wasn’t always that way for this 1999 graduate of Plant High School.

“Four years ago, I was so depressed,” she says. “Nothing earth-shattering, just a series of things. I was in a dark place and needed to find a way to climb out.”

So, what’s your secret, Roni? Whatever it is, it worked wonders.

It began with meditation, which led to yoga. A longtime fitness advocate, she says she found healing powers — spiritual, emotional and physical — in both practices. She took an instructor course to earn her certification.

But here’s where she was conflicted.

Growing up, she dreamed of being a pastor one day. She was very active as a teen at her church, First Presbyterian in downtown Tampa. Her role model was co-pastor Kathy Conner, who gave her inspiration that she, too, could lead a congregation.

After graduating from Florida State University in 2003, Sloman went into full-time ministry with Young Life. But she learned that part of being in ministry meant you had to be a fundraiser. That wasn’t a strong suit for her.

She shifted her career track and moved to North Carolina to pursue her love of the outdoors, working at REI and developing her climbing and mountaineering skills. Her desire for adventure and to push her body led her to earn an EMT certificate so she could work in the rural African clinic for a few months.

A broken relationship and an uncertain future led her back home to Tampa. She didn’t know how to climb out of her funk. Someone suggested meditation and yoga as an outlet to clear her mind and find peace.

“I was willing to do anything at that point — dance in a circle, chant endlessly — anything to feel better again,” she recalls. “I can tell you that it almost immediately changed my life.”

Still, her Christian faith was her foundation. And like many of her fellow believers, yoga’s Eastern roots were foreign to her. Although she appreciated Buddhism and Hinduism, she wondered how she could incorporate her own faith traditions into the practice.

Yes, that’s entirely possible. Because Roni is a get-things-done kind of person. She started implementing biblical teachings during her personal meditative and yoga times. And she also began building her own business.

She rented a back room of her mom’s business, Skin Savvy Rx, in South Tampa, to launch her first yoga classes. After outgrowing that space in less than a year, she moved into roomier digs on MacDill Avenue. Within two years, she was able to expand and build her current studio, Bella Prana.

Even the name of her business reflects her love of blending cultures: “Bella” is Italian for beautiful, which comes out of her love of Italy and its relaxed culture and the tendency there to savor things. “Prana” is Sanskrit for breath or energy.

“Beautiful energy,” she says. “That’s what I want everyone to feel when they walk in the door here.”

Eric Yanta-Smith, a manager at Lincoln Heritage, is feeling it.

He came to help rehab a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee. Of course, he had no idea just how strenuous yoga can be.

Fifteen minutes into his class, “I was shaking like a 2-year-old with the flu,” says Yanta-Smith, 39. A former two-time All-American wrestler from Ohio State University, he thought he was a tough guy who could handle yoga with ease.

A year later, he’s still sweating through her classes, but he’s loving it. And just as important, he’s hooked on the spiritual lift he gets from Roni’s teachings.

“She’s like a life coach, preaching on how to make yourself a better person, how to push through things,” he says. “One of her biggest messages is that you are loved. She spreads a lot of positive energy and gets you thinking about not judging others.”

Conner says she’s not surprised by the direction her protégé took in developing this hybrid style of yoga and meditation. In fact, she is so impressed by Roni that she hired her to lead yoga classes for a First Presbyterian women’s retreat.

“This isn’t the ministry she imagined 15 years ago,” Conner says. “Yet the transition has been seamless. God is using her in a different way, but just as powerful and meaningful.”

I don’t have the courage to try Roni’s class — yet. When I first looked at her website (www.bellapranayoga.com), I was alternately impressed and horrified at some of the contortions pictured there. And when I attended a class — no, I didn’t participate — I was awestruck by the limber and flexible students going through the maneuvers, led by Roni, who weaves in and out of the rows.

She promises me all of that gets easier in time. That’s why it’s called “yoga practice,” because you’re always learning, always improving.

Though I wasn’t willing to join the sweat-drenched participants on my first day, I did reflect on some of the life lessons delivered in her soothing voice. By the time class ended, I was stress-free and ready to conquer the world, spiritually and emotionally recharged.

That’s just how Roni wants it.

“Life is a balancing act,” she says. “I needed to find a way to combine my two loves and get the most out of it. Apparently, it’s working for others, too. That’s why I tell people to keep an open mind and take a chance. You might be very surprised by what’s waiting on the other side.”


mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

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