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Way beyond yoga: Classes offer a chance to get your chi moving

"Wellness," the new-age concept fusing marketing and lifestyle, has gone mainstream. There's big business in hormone balancing, chakra massaging and self-help books, and in increasing awareness that herbal teas are not meant only for the long-haired yogi - you might enjoy them, too.

The newly opened Elephant Pharm in Los Altos demonstrates the broadening reach of alternative health products. Customers can still find aspirin and Vicks VapoRub on the pharmacy's shelves, but they are snuggled next to elderberry and zinc lozenges (they boost the immune system) and "Just for Kids" herbal tea.

Alternative and complementary medicine is not a new concept for Californians, but its presence in mainstream retailers is exposing new demographics - including skeptics - to the vocabulary and theory behind supplements, lifestyle changes and movement classes.

The value of some alternative treatments is no longer a controversial subject - even the Stanford Cancer Center sponsors a yoga class for its patients as part of the recovery process. At the Qigong class at Elephant Pharm, you will see older, white, middle-class Los Altans - without a speck of tie-dye - practicing breathing and muscle relaxation.

Qigong is one of a dozen movement classes at the Pharm that offer an antidote to high-speed, spandex-clad gym classes.

Participants trickle into the casual, free classes in street clothes and don't need experience, or flexibility, to participate.

In Joe Deisher's Qigong class, most of the hour is spent standing still, slowly and meditatively breathing and relaxing the body. It might not look as constructive as a yoga class full of human pretzels, but this reporter felt a lingering knot loosen up in her left shoulder muscle, and woke up the next day with surprisingly sore calf muscles - the class is gentle, but it works your body nonetheless.

"When I was growing up in a doctor's family, this stuff wasn't recognized," Deisher said. "The ability to pay attention to natural energy is absolutely fascinating to me."

Deisher isn't what you'd expect in a teacher of Chinese movement and medical philosophy (he teaches tai chi as well). Short, Caucasian, with a bushy gray beard and suspenders, when he walks into a classroom you might expect him to teach crop rotation or wood carving. Instead, he demonstrates how to relax the body, lengthening and broadening the neck, shoulders and back, extending and balancing the limbs and breathing fully.

The class aims to reduce muscle tension and help students stand and move with a healthful posture, working their joints, muscles and bones gently and efficiently. Qigong is a discipline from traditional Chinese medicine that focuses on breath and energy, "Qi," also spelled "chi," and its movement in the body. Many practitioners believe that physical motions and breathing affect and reflect natural energy that flows in the human body.

Regardless of a student's private philosophy, the practice of improving posture and thoughtful, deep breathing is a wellness behavior acknowledged by cultures, voice teachers and physical therapists the world over.

The teachers and specialists at Elephant Pharm come from a diverse range of backgrounds, including traditional pharmacists, homeopaths, herbalists, naturopaths, nutritionists, life coaches and even Ayurvedic specialists. The advice and classes can be serious - such as "Natural Solutions for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome" and fun - the makeup department offers minifacials and natural makeovers.

For more information about classes offered, drop by the store at 4470 El Camino Real for a calendar, call 472-6800 or visit www.elephantpharm.com/calendar/losaltos.

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