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Hill Staffers Stretch Away Their Stress With Yoga

Doug Graham/Roll Call
People perform yoga poses in the Upper Senate Park on July 22, 2010.

Fold, stuff, glue. Fold, stuff, glue. In the front room of Rep. John Yarmuth’s Congressional office, the Kentucky Democrat’s staff assistant Marisa Wittebort folds letters to constituents into thirds, stuffs them into envelopes and sticks them shut.

The clock reads 6:15 p.m. — time to wrap up the 10-hour workday.

The 25-year-old assembles the last letter. Fold, stuff, glue. She turns the phones to voicemail for the evening, tidies her desk, grabs her yoga gear and a blueberry granola bar and clicks off the lights as she shuffles out the door.

From the Cannon House Office Building down Pennsylvania Avenue, Wittebort heads to a hole-in-the-wall yoga studio near Eastern Market. The brisk walk warms up her leg muscles for the upcoming hour of intense stretching and balancing while her mind drifts, reflecting on the day’s challenges.

It’s a typical day for Wittebort, a routine she follows at least four days a week. A half-hour after leaving her office, she’s in an underground yoga studio sitting in “sukhasana,” a pretzel-like meditation pose with palms facing up on her thighs.

With its deep-lunge stretches, contortion-like balances and breathing-focused exercises, yoga seems to draw stress-prone Hill employees to studios across town.

It’s no wonder — the physical and mental discipline, which originated in India under Hinduism and Buddhism, has a unique effect on the body and mind, serving both as an exercise class and a time to reflect and meditate.

At the House Staff Fitness Center, the gym’s yoga classes are the “most popular group class by far,” center associate Eileen Danielski said. Twenty to 30 House staffers attend each of the week’s four classes, she said.

The Supreme Court, Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration offices are also rumored to offer yoga classes for employees weekly, and yoga instructors on Capitol Hill have noted a large number of staffers practicing.

Wittebort caught the yoga fever after she moved to D.C. during the spring of 2009. Hoping for a position in politics, she found herself barely making ends meet as a waitress.

Noting her stress level, an acquaintance recommended yoga as an escape for Wittebort, and she got “sucked in,” she said. Now she dons her yoga gear almost daily, and when the phone calls and constituent letters pile high on her desk, she’s able to relax and rejuvenate with evening yoga classes at Capitol Hill Yoga.

“Life throws things at you: Sometimes it’s your job, sometimes it’s a friend or family member who’s hurt you,” Wittebort said. “Yoga really helps you put things into perspective. I feel like I’m rebooting my system each time I go.”

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