Off Limits

Taking it to the mats

In these pressing financial times, it pays to be flexible.

For those in touch with their inner yogi, the ability to execute a few downward facing dogs and warrior ones could translate into gainful employment -- while their differently abled friends are collecting pink slips. The cities of Denver, Golden, Boulder, Englewood and Aurora may have put their budgets on a diet, but they're all hiring fitness instructors to teach the finer points of sun salutations, tai chi, Pilates and aerobics. And while the qualifications are fairly stringent -- in Golden, a GED and the ability to add and subtract two-digit numbers and multiply and divide with 10s and 100s; in Denver, a minimum of 200 hours of aerobics instruction for yoga teachers -- the worldly rewards are at least better than at McDonald's. Golden offers the best deal, where a part-time fitness instructor earns between $13 and $21 an hour. Boulder pays slightly less at $13 to $20; Denver comes in third at $18.64; and Aurora checks in with a measly $12 to $15. Englewood is one of those irritatingly vague employers that say salary is "commensurate with experience."

For those who like injecting a healthy dose of competition into their exercise -- and removing any Eastern religious roots -- there's always the rewarding career of gymnastics instructor. Both Aurora and Lakewood are looking for the right Bela Karolyi to shape the next little Nadia Comaneci. But as yoga's star has risen -- with celebs like Madonna, Sting, Russell Simmons and Christy Turlington shilling for the ancient posturing -- gymnastics has lost power. (Really, who can name any of the women on the last U.S. Olympic team?) So gymnastics instructors earn a relatively paltry $7.38 to $11 in Aurora (the same as its cheerleading instructor earns), with Lakewood shelling out a more respectable $12.70 to $16.51. But, hey, there's no math requirement.

The assorted cities are quick to point out that these wages are paid out of participation fees, not general funds. Even so, the salary scale offers a glimpse into each of the nabe's values. In Golden, for example, a child-care worker earns $6.50 to $11.25 an hour babysitting Junior at the rec center, while the fitness instructor collects twice that as he helps make Mom and Dad feel the burn. In Boulder, an entry-level cop earns $20 an hour -- the same as a top-tier aerobics instructor. And in Denver, a yoga instructor willing to brave the 20th Street Gym for a full-time gig would make more than a starting Denver firefighter by $3,500.

See? Flexibility really does pay.

You want it Zen? Taking serenity one step further is Jeff Peckman. He's hoping to make Denver a Zen, Zen, Zen, Zen world through a November ballot initiative that would require the city to fund programs that reduce stress -- as long as their effectiveness is confirmed by three scientific studies. (Free yoga for everyone! The Borofskys dance to sitar music!) Since Peckman has already collected all the signatures he needs to put his Safety Through Peace proposal before the public, Denver City Council -- whose members have been far from serene in their response to the project -- has no choice but to refer the measure to voters in November or simply sign it into law. (Three guesses which will happen.)

But Peckman may have a stealth weapon that even he doesn't know about. Turns out that Mayor John Hickenlooper's new appointee to the Mayor's Office for Education and Children (a post previously held by councilmember Carol Boigon) is a bit of a Zen freak herself.

For Hickenlooper's administration, Maria Guajardo Lucero's most crucial credentials were her roles as the founding executive director of Assets for Colorado Youth, executive director of the Latin American Research and Service Agency, Dropout Prevention Coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education, and therapist for Denver Head Start. But the Harvard graduate and University of Denver Ph.D. is also on the board of trustees for Southern California's Soka University, the country's newest liberal-arts college, founded by a Buddhist sect whose stated mission is "the happiness of people and development of a peaceful society."

"I am very committed to world peace efforts, and the goal of this university is to develop global citizens for the world," Guajardo Lucero says.

Opened two years ago, the school sits on 103 acres on a hilltop in Aliso Viejo, surrounded by a 4,000-acre wilderness park. (The original plan was for the college to expand from its existing graduate school's campus in the Santa Monica mountains, but Soka lost a very un-Zen fight with the Sierra Club over spilling into the environmentally sensitive area.) At Soka, students can get a general education (at $110,000 for four years) with an emphasis in either humanities, international studies or social and behavioral sciences and a core curriculum that focuses on "major issues of self, society and the environment."

Also on the $265 million campus is a 12,400-square-foot house for use by Daisaku Ikeda, the school's founder and leader of the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai International, which has approximately 12 million members worldwide, including Tina Turner. Even former mayor Wellington Webb's spokesman, Andrew Hudson, was a onetime member, though he says he left twenty years ago for "personal" reasons.

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