Yoga classes traditionally are filled with the thin, the young and the flexible.

Seniors, prisoners and at-risk children don't typically fold themselves up like pretzels in the name of fitness. But a new Austin nonprofit is spreading yoga to exactly those nontraditional audiences.

As co-founder of Community Yoga Austin, Jyl Kutsche finds herself dimming the lights, spritzing a little lavender-scented water in the air and launching into meditation and breath work in front of students wearing prison stripes or elderly people who just can't bend like they used to.

"There's a tremendous population out there that hasn't experienced what yoga can bring," says Kutsche, 41. "It has something to offer anybody."

But not everybody can afford it. A typical yoga class here in Austin costs $15 or $20.

According to the 2008 Yoga in America Study by Yoga Journal, 44 percent of yoga practitioners in the United States have a household income of more than $75,000. Nearly a quarter earn more than $100,000. More than three-quarters are female, and only 18 percent are age 55 or older. Collectively, they spend nearly $6 billion a year on yoga classes and products.

Community Yoga Austin is focusing on clients who fall outside those parameters, teaming with the Travis County Correctional Complex at Del Valle, Family Eldercare, Communities in Schools and LifeWorks to offer free classes once a week to underserved communities.

Most of Kutsche's new students have never heard the term downward dog. Some think yoga is a religion. But many are finding a new sense of calm through yoga.

At the Travis County Correctional Complex, prisoners in Kutsche's class range in age from their teens to their 60s. They've been incarcerated for a range of offenses, from DWI to murder.

"It's a pretty intense environment," she says.

Kutsche is convinced yoga eases stress and helps her students learn that power isn't always about physical violence.

"It slowly becomes a lifestyle," she says. "It sinks down below surface level. We're all in these physical bodies, but yoga taps below that with healing benefits. If everybody did yoga, the world would be such a better place."

Capt. Art Cardenas with the Travis County sheriff's office thinks she's right.

"Ultimately we hope that this program will help to reduce recidivism," Cardenas says. "In other words, we want to provide programs such as this one which would help an individual deal with the stressors of life and prevent them from returning into our custody."

Prisoners aren't the only ones to benefit from the program.

Through Family Eldercare, Community Yoga Austin is also teaching yoga to seniors and disabled residents at Austin Housing Authority properties.

Carol Stepp, 69, never dreamed of attending a yoga class until Kutsche started offering free weekly classes at Gaston Place Apartments.

"My body won't do things like the lotus, so when they started talking about yoga in chairs, I decided to sit in, and I'm glad I did," Stepp says. "We're encouraged to move at our own tempo. If you can't bend or turn as far as (Kutsche) can, it's OK. ... It's ideal for anybody, even if you're in a wheelchair."

Laura Kuenstler, 53, attended a class at the urging of her 90-year-old neighbor. "I didn't think I could do yoga, but it was pretty cool, all the breathing and stuff," she says. "Anything that gets me to move or stretch at this point in my life is all good."

The classes are adapted so seniors with health and mobility issues can still benefit, Kutsche says.

"We're introducing something brand new to them, and I can sense the intimidation," she says. The classes are "stress relief and relaxation oriented, and they soak it up."

Community Yoga Austin is bringing yoga to elementary, middle and high school students, too.

This spring, the organization led yoga classes at nine campuses, through the Communities in Schools program. About 20 schools have expressed interest in getting yoga classes this school year, and Kutsche's goal is to provide them at any school that wants them. She says yoga helps kids deal with the pressures of home and school.

"Kids anywhere have so much stress," she says. "This is planting seeds — tools for how to deal with home situations and other stuff. It gives kids a different sense of body image and burns off some energy."

To pay for the free classes, which are led by paid, certified yoga instructors, Community Yoga Austin organizes donation-based classes on the first Sunday of each month. The classes are taught by yoga instructors who volunteer their time and are held at locations such as Bettysport and Casa de Luz, which donate space. All types of classes are offered, from vinyasa flow to hatha to restorative yoga.

It's a way to try a new teacher or new style without a huge risk.

"People throw in $10 here and there, and it adds up," Kutsche says. "They donate old mats, too. And we're starting to apply for grants and ask for funding."

Kutsche, who has been practicing yoga for 16 years, spent 12 years as owner of the retail clothing store Therapy on South Congress. She's also known for launching the First Thursday movement there as a way to draw shoppers to the strip.

Three years ago, she got certified as a yoga instructor. A year later she closed Therapy to teach yoga full-time. Then she moved to New York City, where she spent 10 months teaching yoga to inner-city youths through a nonprofit program called Bent on Learning.

When she moved back to Austin last November, she and Alyson Fox launched Community Yoga Austin, with the goal of uniting the yoga community and spreading the healing benefits of yoga to those not normally touched by it. They hope eventually to expand the program into other cities such as San Antonio or Dallas.

"This is really about giving back," she says.

It's the realization of a long-held dream for the retail maven-turned-yoga guru, who couldn't be happier about the change yoga has brought to her own life.

"How did I go from selling clothes and chocolate to this?" she says.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

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More information

For learn more about Community Yoga Austin and for a schedule of the donation-based First Sunday classes, go to www.community-yoga.org. The next First Sunday is Sept. 3, and classes will be at Austin Kula Yoga, South Congress Athletic Club, Therapy Yoga, Bettysport and Casa de Luz.