Striking a Pose

Fifty years ago, yoga was the province of California communes and fringy New Agers. Now it’s teetering on the brink of overexposure and commodification. So, is it a spiritual antidote to the upscale Western lifestyle, or just the latest manifestation?
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The ‘Yoga Prince

Baron Baptiste adjusts his headset and steps up on the platform for a better view. About 150 people have come here to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, for his famous “Personal Revolution” workshop, and they are awaiting his instructions. He starts them off in the classic yoga pose, downward-facing dog. “Your thighs are enthusiastic,” he says. “Your belly is in.”

I’d come here to see what a guru in the New New Age is like, and Baptiste is a perfect example. He is often described as a “yoga prince,” because his parents were yoga pioneers in San Francisco. But he looks more like a white rapper, in his trademark B-boy bandana and a T-shirt and long shorts—all black except for the red Nike swoosh. “This is your whole life, right here in this breath,” he says, between calling out the poses. “This is it.”

As he speaks, heavenly women in tight T-shirts with Baptiste mottos (drop what you know; Suffering is optional) come around and adjust, massage, and lift various parts of your body, like angelic nurses in a room full of war wounded. Baptiste’s pattern is to send the class soaring into a mental and physical high, and then, when he’s at the brink of New Age hokum, reel it back with some bit of self-deprecation or irony. “You’re going to be so powerful this weekend,” he says. “And I’m the jerk who’s going to make you powerful.”

Baptiste grew up as the son of the Bay Area guru Walt Baptiste, the 1949 Mr. America and co-founder (with his wife, Magaña) of the Yoga Philosophic Health Center. He was raised around incense and chanting monks and tins of Indian herbs and hundreds of devotees coming to sit at his father’s feet. Now he thinks of that as so much dust in the attic. “People have so many weird associations with yoga,” he says. “A lot of that ‘yoga-nese’ just turns people away. So I just simplified it, invented a new language. I was a pioneer in bringing yoga to the masses in the mid-’90s. No one was talking the way I was talking.”

Baptiste banished some of the Hindu and Hare Krishna associations and made yoga Christian-friendly, quoting Jesus and biblical scripture in his lectures and interviews. He declined the title of “guru.” “A guru is someone who says, ‘Follow me.’ But Americans don’t like to be led, to be told what to do.” Instead, he describes himself as “a coach. A dialoguing coach, because it’s about a conversation between me and my students.”

In the early ’90s, Baptiste would show up in magazines like Self and Cosmo as one of the yogis to the stars. Then the yoga craze started to peak, and instead of coaching the stars, Baptiste became a kind of star himself, with all the attendant dysfunction. He joined forces with Maxwell Kennedy, brother of the environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr., and opened a studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute. It was hugely successful, with 3,000 people coming a week, and a local magazine called the packed Saturday- and Sunday-morning classes a “substitute church service for his loyal Boston following.” Five years later the partnership ended in a nasty lawsuit. Baptiste accused Kennedy of “unprofessional” conduct toward female staff and students; Kennedy denied it and accused Baptiste of the exact same bad behavior. Baptiste declined to comment further, though according to his counsel, they settled the lawsuit to everyone’s satisfaction. Baptiste’s wife and three children moved to Utah during this time, and shortly thereafter he got divorced.

Today, though, Baptiste is floating above all that. It’s a clear, bright Saturday morning but, because the blinds are drawn, it might as well be night in this little sanctuary. Baptiste is onstage, with everyone gathered on the floor around him on cushions, looking up. This is when he fulfills his priestly role, leading the audience into faith-healing territory. This is the space where yoga causes miracles—where it cures cancers and prevents suicide and generally saves lives.

“Any of you have any stories of dramatic shifts in your life due to yoga?” he asks. One guy raises his hand to say he was a “raw foodist” and he’d tried everything (“liver, intestinal, gall bladder, colonic”), but nothing worked like Baptiste yoga. “It’s like I’m having this insane cleansing,” he says. “It’s like I’ve found a way to have direct communication with the cells in my body.” People talk about losing sixty-five pounds after practicing with Baptiste for a while, about revealing to their parents or partners—after an especially intense session of power yoga—deep secrets they’d never been able to tell. One handsome guy with a crew cut talks about being diagnosed with ADD and put on Ritalin, and then anti­depress­ants, then losing his job, and feeling generally adrift until he came to his first Baptiste yoga class.

Baptiste looks on patiently from the stage and smiles, like a successful surgeon, or rabbi, at peace with his gifts. “You can measure this as the day you started a whole new life,” he says. “It’s the best day of your life. Yogically speaking, it’s your new birthday.” And everyone claps—for him and for themselves.

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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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