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Moody yoga instructor perseveres

Gwai-Fen Wheeler, base yoga instructor, performs a warrior one pose, July 30, 2013, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Standard yoga lessons are offered Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and prenatal lessons are offered Wednesdays from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Freedom I Fitness Center and cost $2 a class. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/released)

Gwai-Fen Wheeler, base yoga instructor, performs a warrior one pose, July 30, 2013, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Standard yoga lessons are offered Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and prenatal lessons are offered Wednesdays from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Freedom I Fitness Center and cost $2 a class. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/released)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Iris McDowell twists into a pose during a yoga class at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., July 30, 2013. Twisting poses help improve the spine’s range of motion. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/released)

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Iris McDowell twists into a pose during a yoga class at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., July 30, 2013. Twisting poses help improve the spine’s range of motion. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/released)

Gwai-Fen Wheeler, base yoga instructor, performs her favorite yoga pose, the turtle pose, July 30, 2013, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Wheeler said she enjoys teaching, because it helps her keep fit and make friends. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/released)

Gwai-Fen Wheeler, base yoga instructor, performs her favorite yoga pose, the turtle pose, July 30, 2013, at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. Wheeler said she enjoys teaching, because it helps her keep fit and make friends. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/released)

Katherine Ragsdale, wife of U.S. Air Force Capt. Kenneth Ragsdale, 820th Combat Operations Squadron chief of communications, meditates during a prenatal yoga class at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., July 31, 2013. Prenatal yoga uses modified versions of standard yoga poses to keep expectant mothers and their babies safe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/released)

Katherine Ragsdale, wife of U.S. Air Force Capt. Kenneth Ragsdale, 820th Combat Operations Squadron chief of communications, meditates during a prenatal yoga class at Moody Air Force Base, Ga., July 31, 2013. Prenatal yoga uses modified versions of standard yoga poses to keep expectant mothers and their babies safe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sandra Marrero/released)

MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- It all started a decade ago when a future yoga instructor picked up a dog dish. As she reached for it, her back got stuck and her knee locked, leading her to take up exercising.

Not wanting to bulk up or slim down at the gym, the 54-year-old Gwai-Fen Wheeler, wife of retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Timothy Wheeler, researched fitness classes Moody had to offer. Even though she didn't know what yoga was, she decided to pursue lessons.

It was a catalyst to overcoming self-doubt, a language barrier, and open-heart and spinal surgeries.

Wheeler said she didn't know what she was getting herself into and was nervous when she started.

The instructor closed that first class with the traditional yoga greeting, "Namaste," which, to the Taiwan native, sounded like, "no more mistakes" in English. Wheeler went to a second class, thinking the instructor had told her to improve her form.

"After the second class, my body was aching all over, and I really wanted to quit," said Wheeler.

Despite the pain, she persevered in order to set a good example for her son. Wheeler recalled telling her son to try everything and never quit, so she took her own advice.

She said she began enjoying the class and gained strength and flexibility.

"Yoga turned into a part of my lifestyle and, after that, I never quit," said Wheeler.

Although she was content as a student, Wheeler was reluctant to accept an offer to become a yoga teacher.
Wheeler was the one who convinced her former classmate to take the job when their original instructor quit. When it was time for the student-turned-instructor to make a permanent change of station, she wanted to pass the torch to Wheeler.

"She said to me, 'If you don't take over, this class will die on you. You forced me to become a yoga instructor, and now it's all in your hands,'" said Wheeler.

Being afraid to speak English in front of a group, Wheeler's response was, "No way, Jose."

After the teacher moved out-of-state, a series of substitutes took over the class. Some had no yoga experience and the others didn't last, said Wheeler. One quit without warning, leaving the students without an instructor.

Wheeler decided to step up to the plate, since she was already in the process of becoming a certified instructor. She led the class as a volunteer for several months, because she was apprehensive about finalizing the certification process.

A staff member at Moody's Freedom I Fitness Center gave Wheeler the final push she needed to get certified. He pointed out her class could not be listed on the fitness center calendar, because she was not certified. She could not get paid for the same reason.

The fitness center had funds for a paid instructor, and it was difficult for staff to justify the use of a volunteer, said Wheeler. She decided it was time to get certified and become the class's official instructor.

Once her mind was made up, Wheeler did not let anything get in her way--not even major surgeries.

In December 2010, she underwent spinal surgery and returned to class six weeks later. She took 12 weeks to recover after having open-heart surgery in August 2011 and got back to teaching.

"She's had the surgeries, but she's always been so strong and stuck with it," said Christine Clark, 23d Medical Group central appointments clerk and Wheeler's student of three years. Even when she was at the point she couldn't physically do it, she still went to the classes."

Wheeler explained she continued, because she takes joy from teaching, and it keeps her fit.

"I just feel I'm getting a friend, and I get to exercise at the same time," said Wheeler. "What am I going to do--stay home eating chips and bonbons?"

Now Wheeler can't seem to stop doing yoga and teaching others.

"When I'm at the doctor's office waiting for about an hour, I get so tired, I start moving around and doing yoga," she said.

When onlookers ask her what she's doing, Wheeler she tells them, "I do yoga. I actually teach yoga at Moody Air Force Base."

Aside from teaching standard and pre-natal yoga classes at Moody, she even gives those in the waiting room impromptu lessons, something she hadn't envisioned when she took that first yoga lesson 10 years ago.