HARLEM — Before he started doing yoga with Vivian Kurutz at the Harlem Center for Healthy Living, Anthonyson "Kent" Gonsalves, 60, was overweight, suffering from a bad back and had high blood pressure.
A year later his pressure is back to normal, he's lost and kept off 20 pounds and his back rarely bothers him even as he works as the superintendent of several buildings.
"My life and health have improved to the point where people are surprised when I tell them my age," said Gonsalves, who is also a musician. "I'm 60 years young."
So when Kurutz informed attendees that the center, operated by New Song Community Corp., was closing June 28, they told her that she couldn't let that happen.
"The members rose up and started having round table discussions. They wanted to know what they could do to keep this going," said Kurutz who served as the center's director.
The solution they came up with was that Kurutz should launch her own wellness non-profit.
The self-described "wholeness junkie," wants to use the new, independent non-profit to continue her mission of helping underserved Harlem residents learn how to live healthier lifestyles.
The new center will offer yoga, Pilates and zumba, but also acupuncture, healthy cooking demonstrations, massage, meditation and retreats.
"I have a passion for reaching out to people who would not otherwise afford these services. Yoga is becoming a luxury item," said Kurutz who was inspired to her healthy ways by the early death of an aunt with health issues related to her lifestyle.
There is a need for what Kurutz is offering in Harlem. City statistics show that obesity and being overweight are common for people of all ages in East Harlem and Central Harlem.
More than 4 out of 10 children in area Headstart programs are overweight or obese and 6 out of 10 adults are also classified as overweight or obese, according to the 2007 survey.
One out of four adults reported that they did no exercise at all and 8 out of 10 adolescents and 9 out of 10 adults do not eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.
For Kurutz, it's all about exposure. Some Harlem residents simply aren't exposed to healthy ways of eating or cooking. And parts of Harlem are still a food desert where it is difficult to get fresh fruits and vegetables, she said.
Kurutz said she didn't learn about an alternative and healthier way to cook collard greens by sauteing them until she was an adult.
"I thought that meant they weren't cooked," she said.
On top of the pressure and incentives to buy cheap, highly processed food as part of the "American lifestyle, there is also the false belief that yoga, Pilates and meditation are only for rich people or white people, she said.
"When you come to class and see an instructor who looks like you it makes a big difference," said Kurutz. "When black people saw that I was the director of the center and also led Yoga classes, they were like 'Wow.'"
Kory Marrero, a member of the board of directors of the Harlem Wellness Center, said the fact that the people stayed together and continued to exercise shows how committed people are to living healthier.
Marrero, who is also a real estate agent, said finding space in Harlem was not easy but they will close on a space in Central Harlem this month and continue their mission. In the meantime, a group of people have been meeting for yoga and exercise classes in borrowed space at the Dream Center on 119th Street.
Marrero said the new center "will be a place where people will be able to ask questions. There will be someone to hold your hand if that's what you need."
Kurutz also wants the center to be a meeting place for people of all incomes and races in a rapidly gentrifying Harlem.
"Our center will be a community center first. People will not just get off the mat and leave, they will talk to one another and serve as encouragement to each other," said Kurutz. "I want the wellness center to be a place of reconciliation."
Gonsalves said he can't wait for the new center to open because he has invited many friends. Not long ago, some people would laugh when they learned he did Yoga. Not anymore.
"They've seen the changes I have gone through. Now I have a lot of people who say, 'I have to go check out this yoga class'," he said.