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South Tampa Instructor Bringing Yoga to RNC Visitors - and Vets

Annie Okerlin of Yogani Studios is helping RNC attendees find an "Oasis" in Tampa, but her bigger passion is helping injured veterans heal through yoga.

A few blocks away from the hustle and bustle and nonstop noise of politicians, journalists, protesters and law enforcement colliding at the Republican National Convention, Annie Okerlin is providing a bit of serenity.

Okerlin, who owns in South Tampa, is one of several yoga instructors pitching in at the "Oasis," a posh yoga and massage station and spa set up inside Aja Channelside and sponsored by The Huffington Post.

The scent of grapefruit candles wafts through the air of the second-floor sanctuary, which features a squishy, padded floor, dim lighting and a juice bar serving coconut water. 

Politicians, journalists and celebrities have been invited to the Oasis, intended to be a respite from the stresses that come with the RNC.

"There's a lot of energy around," said Okerlin as she prepared to lead another class Wednesday morning. "I think that gets people jazzed up."

Okerlin was invited to take part by Oasis organizers Off the Mat Into the World, who use yoga to inspire activism and social change. It's Okerlin's involvement with the Exalted Warrior Foundation, a nonprofit she founded nearly seven years ago to teach yoga to wounded military veterans, that likely got their attention.

Exalted Warrior holds classes four days a week at Tampa's , helping injured local vets improve their flexibility and providing healing to supplement their physical therapy. The vets also come to her 6,200-square-foot studio once a month, providing them a chance to get out, meet others in similar situations and reconnect with the world away from combat.

The project began when a former Navy admiral came into Okerlin's South Tampa studio to try yoga.

"He said, 'I feel better now than I have in my entire life,' " Okerlin said.

From there the program has spread, to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, and other veterans' hospitals around the country.

Yoga, Okerlin said, is making a difference in the lives of young soldiers injured at war.

"One of the biggest things I've seen is that these guys get off pain meds easier," Okerlin said. "Nobody at 20 wants to be addicted to pain meds."

One of her pupils Wednesday, Paul Zipes, understands the benefits of yoga for veterans firsthand. In fact, the former Navy diver now runs his own studio in Panama City and also created Yoga For Vets, a movement to provide free classes for those who served in any U.S. war or conflict.

Zipes, 44, served during the first Gulf War but didn't see combat. He first took up yoga on a dare from his wife — "I was more sore than I'd ever been before from that one class," he said — but eventually fell in love with the practice. 

Now, about 500 studios across the country, including Yogani, participate in his Yoga For Vets program.

Patch and the Huffington Post are owned by Aol.

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