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Frank White, 85; Transformed Life With Yoga, Inspired Others

Times Staff Writer

At 65, Frank White was in dire health. A four-pack-a-day cigarette habit for nearly 50 years, a bad diet and a heavy dependence on alcohol had left him with severe respiratory problems, high blood pressure and a leaky heart valve. He was also battling rheumatoid arthritis and was more than 50 pounds overweight. He was, he later admitted, “headed for the cemetery.”

But he changed his life: He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and gave up drinking, then smoking, and not long after that he found himself in a yoga class. He would later say, “A.A. gave me my life ... but yoga gave me a new life to live.”

White, who died of throat cancer on Aug. 13 at 85, was a model of healthy, energetic living in one’s senior years and an inspiration to many people of all ages.

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A committed yogi and a leading teacher of the discipline, he had a large, diverse and loyal following at venues that included the downtown Los Angeles Athletic Club, the Center for Yoga in Larchmont and the West Hollywood Senior Center. He taught hundreds of students over a 17-year period.

His transformation was recorded as part of the 2003 documentary film “The Fire of Yoga,” narrated by Ali MacGraw. In the film, White -- then 83 -- talked candidly about his lost years and his awakening and credited yoga with helping him repair his relationships with his family. He also performed a series of yoga poses with a fluidity and ease that would have made a pretzel envious.

White grew up in Chicago during the Depression. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he came to Los Angeles to study acting. He married Selma Browner in the late 1940s and eventually found work as a character actor in films and later television.

As film and television careers go, White’s was steady yet not spectacular. His credits include “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere.” When there was no acting work, he made his living in interior design and furniture sales.

White said his life was in a downward spiral by the time he was in his mid-40s. He started drinking and developed a serious problem over the next 20 years before he bottomed out.

He found yoga by accident. A gifted jazz and classical pianist, he went to Los Angeles City College for a guitar class and found it had been canceled. But there was a yoga class going on and he stopped in. He later said he felt like he was finally home.

He embraced the discipline’s spiritual, mental and physical aspects with the fervor of the converted. After two years of study, as a practitioner and as an instructor, White looked a decade younger. He was able to stop taking much of the medication he had been using to treat his maladies. He also became a vegetarian.

After earning his teaching certification, he took his practice to the downtown Los Angeles Athletic Club and, at 68, started teaching classes. He is credited with developing the program there, and the club’s yoga studio was named in his honor.

White started teaching at the Center for Yoga, considered the first eclectic yoga studio in Los Angeles, in the early ‘90s. He quickly gained a reputation that made his classes among the most popular and most physically challenging to be offered. Many of his students were young enough to be his grandchildren.

White also taught free classes to seniors and those living with AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

His mantra for his students both young and old was that if he could do it at his age, they could at least give it a try.

“Life is soft and supple,” he said in an L.A. Athletic Club publication. “Death is hard and brittle. So choose one.”

James Morrison started studying with White in 1999 at the Center for Yoga.

“His essence as a teacher was what all great teachers should have -- he understood that his role was to be of service. And that’s what he strove to be,” said Morrison, who now teaches yoga himself.

“He made you feel that you could do and be everything and pass on what you were given from your practice.”

Over the years, White believed he was able to reverse the aging process and control many of his health issues through yoga and holistic medicine, but he still had to contend with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

His health declined further over the last six months, when he had cancer, but friends say he was optimistic that there might be a reversal so he could get back to practicing yoga. He died at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in Hollywood.

White’s wife died in 1975. He is survived by sons Kevin and Rick; a grandson, Austin; and his brother, Jerry.


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