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(Credit: David Benthal)

Don’t even think about frowning or complaining in Rosemary Martilotta’s yoga class. You won’t get away with it.

“Big smile. Happiest day of your life,” she says at each class. “Breathe, breathe, breathe.”

The 68-year-old Cutchogue mother of five began practicing yoga at age 40, during a particularly stressful stage in her life and at a time when yoga wasn’t nearly as mainstream as it is today.

“I thought it would be a bunch of hippies,” Martilotta said. “But I had to do something to relieve the stress.”

She signed up for a class at a Cutchogue church and hoped for the best.

Martilotta did not enjoy her first class — a common experience for many first-time yogis. But she returned again and again. Her body toned as her mind calmed. Yoga changed the way she felt and acted — and even eased fears that had been brewing for years about dying young, as her father had. She began enjoying life, and her role in it, in ways she hadn’t before.

“I became less strict and less afraid as a parent, felt better than I had in my twenties and started studying inner healing,” she said.

Twenty-eight years later, Martilotta teaches as many as 11 classes per week on the North Fork. Her students have included a high school athlete who uses yoga to stay limber and avoid injuries while seeking a coveted college scholarship; a chemo patient trying to regain health; and an 80-something who could swoosh down and touch her toes with ease.

A self-described inner-healing specialist, Martilotta is known as much for her motivational advice as for her poses. This vivacious grandmother of seven can twist and hoist herself into some of the most difficult yoga positions, but her attitude and inspirational approach are what that keep her classes filled each week. Some yogis have followed her for decades.

Southold resident Lynne Wentworth, who also teaches yoga, said, “Rosemary loves teaching and her instruction is wonderfully specific and detailed. She can miraculously detect a misalignment a mile away. May she never, ever, retire.”

These are not elite classes, where people wear expensive yoga attire and bring competitive attitudes. Quite the opposite. In the casual atmosphere she creates, Martilotta has the ability to make each class challenging for students who are up to the task and relaxed for those who aren’t.

(Credit: David Benthal)
Rosemary Martilotta (Credit: David Benthal)

“Cheating is allowed,” she often tells students who are unwilling or unable to hold a pose. “If you can’t do the pose, just imagine yourself doing it.”

One class regular who had tried yoga but never stuck with the practice, until now, said she enjoys these classes because “Rosemary lets you be you.”

Over the past three decades, Martilotta has guided students though illness and recovery, grief over the loss of spouses and children and healing from accidents and surgeries. She believes the art of yoga can stave off disease, promote longevity and help people heal from tragedy and illness. And science backs her up: Studies worldwide have shown that yoga can reduce stress, improve flexibility and help alleviate anxiety and insomnia.

“It’s all about opening up our mind, listening to our bodies — it is always trying to tell us something,” Martilotta said. “Every thought we have changes the cells in our bodies. We need to pay attention.”  Her classes are filled with advice on the importance of healthy posture, deep breathing and positive thinking.

Carol Pike of Riverhead has been taking yoga classes with Martilotta for eight years.

“From the first class I took with Rosemary I was hooked on yoga,” Pike said. “I can tell the difference in my body when I go regularly and I really like the snippets of information she tells the class as we are going through our moves.”

At home, yoga is part of Martilotta’s daily routine — sometimes to the amusement of those closest to her. In one class, she laughingly describes occasionally catching eye rolls, albeit affectionate ones, from one of her children or from her husband as she twists into a yoga stretch to reach for something inside the kitchen pantry. She shrugs, “I do yoga every day, all the time.”

And her students, likewise, carry the impressions of the classes with them when they go back to their daily routines. There is a common observation: Rosemary’s voice echoes in their brains, calming them and guiding them, during unexpected moments on any given day.

“Don’t slouch.”

“Forgiveness and gratitude are the path to health.”

“Breathe, breathe, breathe.”

This story was originally published in the 2016 edition of northforker 50 Plus