For much of her life, Maria Vailakis did not feel like she fit in.

The daughter of chefs from Crete, she was 7 years old when in 1967 her parents moved to Brooklyn. The first person in her family to attend college, she put herself through Hunter by working as a secretary.

She was a computer science major. "For a Greek girl from a strict home, that was out of the ordinary," she says.

So was her decision to marry a non-Greek. She met Gary Wippick -- a German -- while both worked installing Wang computers at the World Trade Center.

The Wippicks rented a "captain's shack" on City Island. When she became pregnant, they started looking for houses. They could not afford Westchester. But when they expanded their search, they found obstacles. Wippick tans easily in the summer. In Darien, real estate agents did not even want to show them properties.

Westport seemed much more welcoming. They bought a foreclosed home. Wippick loved Compo, Longshore, the Westport Country Playhouse and Y. "It was a great place to raise a family," she says.

Still, there was a nagging feeling of unease. "As an immigrant, I always felt like I didn't belong," she admits. Her son Thomas was born in 1992. On playdates, Wippick says, "the moms talked about house renovations, and their husbands' jobs. I felt excluded. That was me -- not them. But I went into a hole."

After Helena was born a couple of years later, things changed. Wippick found friends. Her kids were involved in a host of activities -- PAL football, Dynamic Martial Arts for him; the Family Y dance program for her.

Soon, though, she felt consumed by a "mom's rat race." Wippick got up in the morning, and went to exercise class. She ferried her children from lessons to practices and back again. It was exhausting -- and unfulfilling.

Then, at the Y in 1999, Wippick discovered yoga. "For the first time, I exhaled," she says. "I started to breathe, and relax." She realized she did not have to worry so much about every activity for each child. She learned to let them concentrate on the one or two that they loved. She understood that, when they were so young, she did not have to obsess about their college plans.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Gary lost his job. Yoga helped Maria deal with that stress, too.

In 2003, she went to the Berkshires to become a yoga instructor. That experience was life-changing, she says. She learned to become more confident.

Though she'd never taught before, Glenn Hightower hired her to run classes for the Westport schools' continuing-education program. She also instructed youngsters, at four elementary schools and Coleytown Middle School. She was hired by Dynamic Martial Arts, across from what was then Grand Union. And she taught at Camp Compo (run by Westport Parks and Recreation), and Camp Gan Israel (the Chabad Lubavitch camp at Coleytown Elementary).

Wippick loved it all. She had the same youngsters for several years. When they'd see her in town, they'd squeal: "There's Miss Yoga!"

Wippick added classes at Toquet Hall. She taught teenagers how to relax during exams and not stress about the college process.

Last year, she offered a class to teachers at Staples High School. She charged just $5 per session. The money -- more than $2,000 -- went to the principal's discretionary fund, to help needy students with expenses like field trips and graduation caps and gowns.

She's added classes at the Senior Center. "I love them!" she says of her older pupils. "Our society tends to neglect the elderly. We don't honor their age and wisdom. But they're beautiful people. They're grateful for every class. They've taught me to be in the moment and appreciate each day."

Recently, sitting in a Zen meditation class at Christ and Holy Trinity Church, she realized she could do even more.

Wippick pauses in her story. Then she says, "When I was younger, I was very strict with my kids. A therapist told me I should work on my issues through Al-Anon. That group also helped me feel at home, like I belonged."

So now, Wippick is taking everything she's done -- yoga, 12 Steps, all her life lessons -- and offering a "Yoga and 12 Steps Workshop: An exploration of Will and Surrender." Her goal is to help people increase their understanding of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, while practicing gentle yoga movements and breathing techniques.

Her first session is Saturday, May 16, at a dance studio in a beautiful home at 4 Bluewater Hill (2 to 5 p.m.). "You don't have to wear anything special," Wippick notes. "You don't need any experience."

Everyone, in other words, should feel as if they belong.

For more information, visit www.agapeyoga.com or call 203-856-8157.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer. "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com.