The thought of breaking a Guinness World Record usually conjures up images of the tallest, fastest, strongest and most unusual feats and environmental oddities on the planet. Hula Hoops are generally the last things to come to mind.

For Betty Hoops, though, the idea of using a hula hoop to break a world record became as natural as, well, swinging a hula hoop. Hoops – who lives in Boulder, Colorado but has fitness clients here in Santa Barbara and parts nationwide – got hooked on hula hoops ever since she first picked up one at a Colorado festival in 1998, where a group of hula-hoopers encouraged her to join in a hypnotic-like dance with hula hoops.

“I was horrible, self-conscious, physically rigid and barely patient,” Hoops recalls.

With practice Hoops got into the rhythm, so much that she changed her last name to fit her new passion.

“I found that hula-hooping had immediate benefits, similar to the yoga and energy work I was doing,” says Hoops, who has studied various types of yoga, as well as massage therapy. “It was easy to use and I quickly incorporated breathing techniques and postural alignment while I was hooping.”

Hoops, who was adopted as a newborn and raised in what she called an “abusive family,” says she also found hula-hooping to be surprisingly healing.

“I started to feel that my intentions to heal my physical and emotional energy was brought into motion while hooping and I developed ways to free up tensions in my body,” says Hoops, who is 35.

From that moment on, hula-hooping became an integral part of her life and Betty Hoops Dance Therapy was born. Hoops now teaches her dance therapy classes all over the country.

The classes integrate yoga, Pilates, strength training and dance techniques, as well as healing arts. Class participants can burn 100 calories every 10 minutes, Hoops claims.

“My classes are based on infusing Earth, water, fire and air rhythms into your life,” she says.

Hoops compares the hula hoop to a prayer or medicine wheel. “The hoop’s physical space marks your energetic space,” she explains. “While rotating around, one can feel the force of its push and pull around you. If your intentions are focused on healing, your body will find ways to heal.”

Coincidentally, the original creator of the modern hula hoop, Bill Hess, lived in Santa Barbara. Hess owned a pipe injection and molding company and his pipes irrigated much of Santa Barbara county. After witnessing a Native American powwow in Arizona in which participants used hoops to dance, Hess decided to market his own hoops made from his pipes.

Hess passed away last year, but during a recent trip to Santa Barbara to teach classes at Yoga Soup, Hoops met his son and daughter. They presented her with their dad’s personal journal, something that no one outside the Hess family had ever read, says Hoops.

In addition to teaching classes, Hoops has created the Betty Hoop, a collapsible hula hoop and a 40-minute DVD in which she guides the hooper in a cardio workout set to music. In 1999, she began training to create a new world record by snowboarding and hula-hooping down Long Shot, the longest vertical run in North America, located on Snowmass Mountain in Colorado.

At first, she says Guinness Book of World Records officials were excited to have this new record. However, they eventually declined her request because she says they believed no one else would ever be able to break or even attempt the record.

By the time 2005 rolled around, Hoops was training to run the Boulder-to-Boulder race, a half marathon in Boulder, Colorado of 10 kilometers, the second largest road race in the country.

Later on, with the blessing of the Guinness Book people, Hoops set out to “create a new category,” says Andy Lo Russo, Hoop’s biological father and a Montecito resident (they were reunited just recently).

At the Boulder-to-Boulder race in May of 2005, Hoops was only one of 50,000 participants who ran while swinging a hula hoop around her waist. For the race, she had three front runners and three back runners to make a bubble around her to prevent other runners from knocking into the hula hoop.

“I had a runner’s and a hooper’s ‘high,’” says Hoops, a feeling she describes as a “Zen-like state where one’s body, mind and breath are moving in sync and with such ease.”

That Zen-like state allowed Hoops to finish the race in record time – 1 hour, 43 minutes and 11 seconds. This May, Hoops ran the race again as Team Hoop and beat last year’s record by 18 minutes.

Team Hoop also raised more than $500 for Lance Armstrong’s cancer foundation, Livestrong. “ My goal was not just to make money for a cause, which aids in cancer research and treatment, but it was to inspire others that they can fundraise and think outside the box a little,” Hoops says.

“She has really created a niche for herself in the hula hoop industry,” says Lo Russo, of his daughter. “I’m very proud of my daughter; she’s out there doing what she loves to do.”

For more information on Betty Hoops can be found at www.bettyhoops.com. Her dance workout DVD sells for $14.98. It comes individually or in a combo kit with the collapsible hula hoop for $39.98.