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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Interviews: "Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop In" (November 21, 2006)
Hanna Rosin, the author of "Striking a Pose," discusses yoga's journey from Himalayan mountaintops to the studio down the street.

Is Uma coming?” asks one of the pack of New York tabloid photographers.

Alas, not yet. For the moment, the paparazzi will have to make do with the lesser, two-name celebrities already crowding the VIP room at this unveiling of the new Jivamukti studio, the center of New York’s yoga scene. In one corner, hip-hop tycoon Russell Simmons is being interviewed by a six-foot-tall bombshell from the Food Network about top vegan chefs (“His soy bacon is fabulous!”). In another corner, Elizabeth Berkley, who made her name pole dancing in Showgirls, is shifting her bare feet under a hot-pink dress, insisting to a reporter, Trendy is not really the word I would use to describe yoga.”

The altars are dusted and polished, the big plywood Ganesh outfitted with a fresh new lei. Fat, happy tomatoes that have never known the horror of chemicals glide out on trays from the studio’s new vegan café—which feels more like a cathedral, with its chandeliers and stained-glass windows and sandwiches named after great, unspecified powers (“The Creator,” “The Preserver,” “The Muse”). It’s only an hour into the party, and 400 people are already here. “It’s difficult when you invite half of New York to your opening, and they show up,” says David Life, one of the studio’s founders.

Julia “Butterfly” Hill, the woman who lived on a branch of a redwood for two years to protest logging in ancient forests, is holding court (“I started to do yoga when I got down from the tree”). She is unrecognizable. Instead of her usual worn wool hat— she is sporting a black cocktail dress, a new Winona Ryder pixie cut, and a stylish purse made out of recycled soda tabs. She is trying to sell the reporters on her new project—enlisting the actress Daryl Hannah to help save the South Central Farm in Los Angeles—but they keep coming back to her purse (“Are those real soda tabs? That’s so cool!”).

“Sting!” someone yells, and in he walks, with his wife, Trudie. Sting looks like his just-got-out-of-the-coal-mine self in his washed-out overalls, but Trudie is all glitzed up in a red satin getup and silver spike heels. “Trudie, look this way! Look at me!” the photographers shout, as if it’s a fashion shoot, and she does, expertly turning her head this way and that. At one point an actual Hare Krishna devotee wanders into the VIP room with her robe and her drum, a poor pale soul whose only makeup is a slash of white on her forehead. She’s invited, but she seems like a traveler from a lost era, the last one to have heard the news: in America, yoga has come out of the ashram.

Stretching Out

For at least fifty years, the prophets of California’s communes have told us how much the denatured, stressed-out West needs the curative power of yoga. Now, to their great dismay, the West is listening. No longer does yoga belong to the handful of seekers making their annual pilgrimage to India. It’s everywhere: on every third corner in New York or Los Angeles, and available in any city big enough for a gym or a country club. According to a 2004 Harris study commissioned by Yoga Journal, an estimated 15 million Americans do some kind of yoga. The study reported that 25 million more planned to try yoga within the next year—enough to make it as unexotic an Eastern novelty as Chinese food or judo.

In Washington, D.C., where I live, there are now roughly twenty-five yoga studios, many of which opened in the last five years, according to a Washington Post survey. They share a growth pattern with Starbucks, and a similar connotation: in a fast-gentrifying city, yoga studio spaces are attached to developers’ fancy new lofts to signal to potential urban pioneers that the neighborhood is more cutting-edge than scary. (“Let’s face it—yoga is something that people with disposable income can do,” one woman, who just moved to the marginal neighborhood of Petworth and is taking classes at a new yoga studio there, told The Post.)

I took my first yoga class in the living room of someone who seemed too old to be using saris as window treatments. That was about eight years ago, when it was hard to find a studio and practically the only style of yoga around was one called Iyengar, imported here in the 1970s by the godfather of modern American yoga, B. K. S. Iyengar. I’d worn my running shorts and a Nike shirt and quickly realized my mistake: in this room the body was a temple, and common exercise gear was proof that you’d defiled it. After class the teacher pulled me aside to say she couldn’t properly see my alignment in the loose clothes; she suggested I wear something else. Like what? I asked. She pointed to a picture of Iyengar himself floating on one hand. As far as I could tell, he was wearing a black cloth diaper. I wasn’t sure what would count as the matching top.

Now I do yoga at an airy, lavender-painted studio called Down Dog in Georgetown, Washington’s posh shopping district. Like many of the fast-growing schools of yoga, this studio’s style is a subset of “flow yoga,” which involves moving quickly from pose to pose while breathing in a regulated way. This particular version is called “power yoga” and is associated with Baron Baptiste, who perfected it while training the Philadelphia Eagles football team in the mid-1990s. On weekends the room is packed with a particular cross section of Washingtonians: students from Georgetown University wearing next to nothing, preppy Georgetown moms with their $84 lotus-flower pants from the studio’s boutique, men built like bouncers in tight shorts. A couple of former Washington Wizards basketball players come regularly as well, and so does the entire Georgetown lacrosse team.

Once the door shuts on the heated-to-90-degrees room, you are in for a combination of basic training and morning chapel. It begins with a grueling routine not meant for the contemplative. (By the end of class some of us find ourselves in a literal puddle of sweat, even though we’d laid down towels beforehand.) Usually, toward the end, the teacher offers what can only be described as bits of a sermon in which, in another context, the word Jesus would not be out of place: “Trust in the higher power,” the instructor will say, as you’re contorted into some excruciating pose designed to open your hips. “Your mat is a sacred place.” “This studio is your sanctuary.” “Find grace! Feel the possibility of that which is greater!”

Although we are a society known for creative multitasking, it seems odd that we have mixed up our gym and our church. Monks once flagellated themselves in hopes of getting to heaven, and it’s true that once or twice the image of Silas, the naked self-whipping monk assassin in The Da Vinci Code, has popped into my head while I was holding a particularly difficult pose. But Silas was deferring his pleasure until after death, whereas I’m just deferring mine until after class. Where older religions promised heaven, the church of yoga promises quicker, more practical, earthly gratification, in the form of better heart rates and well-toned arms.

The yogis say people come to class to get fit, but wind up answering a more urgent call. “There is a deeper spiritual hunger for something larger than ourselves, which is many times not answered by organized religion in 2006,” says John Friend, another yoga celebrity, who founded one of the fastest-growing styles of yoga, called Anusara. But yogis have been saying such things to Americans since the nineteenth century. In fact, yoga had to wait until now, when our spiritual hunger runs a little more shallow, to reach the American mainstream. We’re attracted to self-denying faiths of all kinds—Islam, Latin-Mass Catholicism, traditional Judaism. But we tend to take what suits us and discard the rest. Young Muslim women choose to wear the veil in defiance of their more assimilated parents. Jewish Buddhists can meditate for hours on the souls of insects and rocks but still eat their pastrami and rye. In this atmosphere you can pick up some of the old familiar language—“higher power,” “grace—and layer on some incense, and no one will feel confused, or threatened.

Even being “New Age” doesn’t require particular effort anymore. You can find twelve-step programs at evangelical megachurches, and holistic language on every label at Whole Foods. When a Jivamukti teacher says she practices yoga as her lifestyle, she means something involving great sacrifice: she meditates every morning at six, doesn’t eat meat or wear fur, and applies the yogic moral code of ahimsa—Do no harm—to all of her life. For the rest of us, though, yoga is like Red Bull: a midday pick-me-up for the body and mind. In a world where Butterfly Hill is a fashion trendsetter, yoga is no longer a spiritual antidote to the upscale Western lifestyle; it’s just the latest manifestation.

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.

New age, new world

America’s first gurus, imported from India, neglected their  bodies as a sign of their holiness. When Swami Vive-   kananda took the boat over from Bombay in 1893 to attend the World’s Parliament of Religions, in Chicago, he slept in a boxcar, wore a robe and turban, and begged for his food and lodging. In the streets, people treated him like a circus freak. But he was the star of the parliament: the Transcendentalists, Unitarians, and biblical skeptics in attendance had already begun studying Hindu texts, and Vivekananda gave a more polite and formal version of the kind of “One God” talk—about the “beautiful earth” and sweet harmony and different streams mingling in the great big sea—that would filter down through the New Age movement and ultimately make its way to the parking lots of Grateful Dead shows.

Because of the difficulty of travel and immigration restrictions, very few yogis followed him. But Americans began trekking to ashrams in India and bringing back their spiritual trinkets. Nobody back then thought of yoga as exercise. In the ’50s and ’60s it was considered either a spiritual practice or an alternative kind of trip, one of the many ways to get high. Allen Ginsberg praised yoga, and in 1968 the Beatles and Mia Farrow made a pilgrimage to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. By the ’70s yoga was part of the flotsam of hippie culture (“If you like piña-coladas, and getting caught in the rain / If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain”).

In the ’80s and ’90s yoga popped up as a West Coast fad. Sting and Raquel Welch were early adopters. Jane Fonda eventually worked it into her fitness routine. Madonna played a yoga teacher in a film, Gwyneth Paltrow bragged about practicing ninety minutes a day, Charlie Sheen took private lessons to lose weight (and presumably to stay clean). In 2001, Christy Turlington was outed on the cover of Time, and it seemed everyone had jumped on board: Jerry Seinfeld, Cameron Diaz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nicolas Cage, David Duchovny, Angelina Jolie, Sarah Jessica Parker, all three Dixie Chicks.

In the meantime, the Baby Boomers were reaching midlife with their joints aching and crises looming. John Abbott was a Citicorp executive and marathon runner who started doing yoga after a knee injury. He bought Yoga Journal in 1998, when it was housed in, as he put it, “a dump in Berkeley, very hippie- dippy, dirty lavatories, that kind of thing.” It used to be more New Age than yoga, with articles on crystal gazing and trapeze flying and liberal use of the word consciousness. Now it’s a guidebook to the new yoga nation: a thick glossy with a readership of more than 1 million, printed in cheerful hues of melon and saffron and lime. The new generation of yoga entrepreneurs—Lululemon Athletica, Yoga Works, Gaiam—compete for attention on its increasingly numerous ad pages. Meanwhile, mainstream companies—Chevy, Toyota, Nike, Quaker, Eileen Fisher—try for a piece of the well-toned demographic.

Abbott is trim and fit, and on the day I interviewed him in the magazine’s new downtown San Francisco office, he was dressed in soothing light blues and grays. When he bought the magazine he was new to publishing, but he learned quickly. Once he tried running a cover story titled “Life Without Sex,” but that issue’s newsstand sales were among the lowest in the magazine’s recent history. The day I visited, the editors were laying out the antidote—a feature on “Sex and Yoga,” with a photo of a couple in bed; she’s straddling him, her long, lithe back is bare, her thick curly hair trailing down it. The staff debated whether this was too much, but then decided it was OK because this couple was married, and both were real yogis. “We have to thread the needle,” Abbott told me. “Things have gotten so mainstream that we want to appeal to broad consumer interest, but still keep the depth and integrity.” Then he disappeared into a meeting about ad revenues.

When the old yogis complain about commercialization, who can blame them? Gucci sells a yoga mat and matching bag for $655. Companies use famous yogis and yoga lingo to advertise cereal, beer, and Hormel pork-loin fillets. Jane magazine’s new ad shows a foxy blonde: “She practices yoga,” reads the caption. “She’s perfected the keg stand.” Yoga is at a confused, precarious place, teetering on the edge of overexposure. On my way to the Jivamukti party I stumbled on a tiny store in the ultrahip Lower East Side called Fuck Yoga, which features store-branded T-shirts, matchbooks, skateboards, and neon signs. I figured this was my proof that yoga had indeed crossed over to the dark side, becoming a close cousin to the SUV and the fur coat and dental insurance—all the eternal targets of youthful mockery and protest.

So was this all meant in hostility to yoga? I asked Fuck Yoga’s owner, Barnaby Harris, thinking I was asking the obvious.

“No, not at all,” he said, “I practice yoga every day. And we sell yoga mats.”

You do? So what the—?

“Enough already,” said Harris. “I mean, OK, [yoga’s] great for you, makes you glowing and healthy, etc., etc. But enough already.” (The store also sells T-shirts that say fuck frank gehry. Same basic idea.)

The Here and Now

So yoga may be overexposed and commercialized. But that doesn’t mean we’re all hypocrites. This is not the ’60s, not an age of ideological purity. What harm can it do if a rich couple in Beverly Hills wants to fund yoga for East L.A. schools, or if a psychiatrist prescribes yoga to one of his patients? It’s a tepid approach, perhaps, but it’s harmless, and maybe even a little bit cheering. If anything major is lost, it’s a sense of abandon. Yoga hurries the trend of what Christopher Lasch called “the corruption of sports,” where “[g]ames quickly lose part of their charm when pressed into the service of education, character development, or social improvement,” as he wrote in a 1977 essay.

Yet the abandon is still there, if you know where to find it. Late in the evening at the Jivamukti party, after all the concerts and speeches, the buzz dies down. Sting is gone; so is Trudie. Russell Simmons and Kimora Lee, Simmons’s diva wife (they are reportedly separated), have gotten tired of sitting cross-legged on little folded blankets. Baptiste is gone too. There are yoga celebrities here, but they’re of the old-school kind, known only to real insiders.

This is the authentic Jivamukti, which better than most studios seems to effortlessly, unself-consciously hold odd things together: the fun and the overly earnest, the fringe and the impossibly trendy. The whole staff once posed in one of those PETA ads (“We’d rather go naked than wear fur”) and made it look like the Princeton Nude Olympics. The Jivamukti teacher who taught my class that afternoon looked like a fourteen-year-old’s fantasy of a camp counselor: blonde and tan and a little mysterious, a party girl with a serious side.

Just before midnight, Michael Franti is singing his jokey reggae, and everyone’s dancing. Now that the paparazzi are gone, Uma Thurman has finally turned up, in the back of the crowd. Her brother teaches at Jivamukti (he’s the central Jesus figure in the naked ad), and her father is an eminent scholar of Buddhism. Some stars are less overwhelming in real life than on screen, but Uma is not one of them. In a cotton dress and a long cream-colored cashmere sweater, she is some fabulous combination of gigantic and gossamer-light. For the rest of the night she stands next to a podium, perfectly at home, instant-messaging on her cell phone, swaying a little to Franti’s music, and you think: this is the only place in the whole country where—for a night at least—her celebrity is irrelevant.