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Lifestyles of the Rich & Flexible

An Excursion into America's Newest Yoga Trend
by Maura R. O'Connor

Anything is possible in America; everything goes. Could the ramifications of yogi Swami Vivekananda's 1893 visit to the Parliament of the World's Religions possibly have been known? Who could have believed it would result in this? Madison Avenue. Versace and Christian Dior doused in spring sunshine, standing in a marble entryway with inlaid mahogany walls, waiting with the concierge for the elevator. Up one floor and here we are—exhale. No, literally. Exhale is a yoga studio and “mindbodyspa” dedicated to helping people transform their inner and outer selves. Step through the threshold flanked by two-hundred-year-old sliding wooden doors imported from Asia. Enter into a “new paradigm in the well-being world,” a realm of luxury where you can view the “menu of spa therapies” and order a “four-handed body enlightening massage,” “true transformation facial,” or “guided relaxation” that will “awaken your consciousness.” Yoga has never felt so good. I finger the supersoft jersey spandex clothes for sale before moving on to the array of candles in frosted white glass. Scents of “Magnolia,” “Green Tea + Rose,” and “Tangerine Lemongrass” with names like “Prana.” Spirituality has never smelt so good.

It's a fully, perfectly postmodern fusion, this new beast we call yoga today. An ancient Indian tradition, five thousand years old, co-opted by the inexorable forces of American culture. Twenty million yogis across fifty states now do downward dog. Twenty-five million more people will try it this year. Yoga is the thing hundreds of thousands of people are styling their entire lives after—a modern spiritual path born in our image. It is also a twenty-seven-billion-dollar-a-year industry, projected to nearly double by the end of 2005, with products ranging from six-hundred-dollar Prada yoga mat bags to two-dollar incense sticks. Videos, CDs, DVDs, clothing, and accessories—unless you're Bikram Choudhury, founder of the world's first yoga franchise, you can't actually “sell” asanas (yoga postures), but you can make people feel they need a variety of commodities to do them. For the aspiring yogi armed with a credit card there are thousands of options to choose from. And it is pervasive. Walk into the supermarket and yoga is on the cover of Time; turn on the television, it's starring in Nike, Tic-Tac, J. Crew, and Jeep commercials. MTV has its own power yoga video series featuring members of the Real World and live DJs; hip-hop record label mogul Russell Simmons has his own Yoga Live DVD, whose infomercial features guest appearances from Donald Trump and P. Diddy. These days, the image of a beautiful woman resting in the lotus position, eyes gently closed, bronzed stomach taut and exposed, selling authentic peace and happiness on the merit of her authentic sexiness is stock photography for advertisers eager to capitalize on yoga's ever-increasing popularity among the masses.

Dozens of yoga teachers are also riding the crest of yoga's popularity—some (Sean Corn, Baron Baptiste, Cyndi Lee, Shiva Rea, and Rodney Yee) to celebrity heights. In a recent New York Times article, journalist Mary Billard wrote that “among their fans they have the aura of rock stars. When Mr. Yee, his long dark hair flowing, strides into the registration area with his blond fiancée . . . it's as though Mick Jagger had appeared.” Yee, the man Time magazine deemed the “stud-muffin guru,” appeared on Oprah in 2001 to teach a yoga class in front of twenty-two million people and recently signed endorsement deals with health food purveyors Nasoya and Vitasoy. Oprah's website states, “Yoga is the practice that has helped everyone from celebrities to stressed-out moms lose weight, gain energy, improve their health, and connect with themselves.” When Puerto Rican heartthrob Ricky Martin, most famous for exuberantly gyrating his hips while singing “Living La Vida Loca,” appeared on the show, he testified to yoga's powers. “It's fascinating,” he said. “Once again, it's all about getting to know your 'self.' Connecting your heart and your mind in order for you not to make obsessive or compulsive decisions in life. Simplicity is the medicine.” Countless other celebrities practice yoga. There are the usual suspects (Madonna, Sting) and then some not so obvious—Al Pacino, Pamela Anderson, and Kirk Hammett from Metallica, the heavy metal band that, after carrying the torch of human angst for twenty-five years, recently discovered therapy together in the documentary Some Kind of Monster.

I thought I might meet a few celebrities at the mindbodyspa Exhale, but the only ones in sight are in the paparazzi photographs of Gwyneth Paltrow and Drew Barrymore next to the holistic skin products they've purportedly used. One hundred twenty-five dollars for half an ounce of age reversal skin cream? Ah, it's engineered from neonatal human foreskin. In this situation one need only heed Exhale's advice and “surrender to spa therapy.” I came to see Exhale's Hip-Hop Power Yoga class that promises an “energetic and challenging vinyasa practice for all levels to the beats of 50 Cent.” 50 Cent is the crack dealer turned multimillionaire rap star whose recent hit “Candy Shop” goes: “I'll take you to the candy shop / I'll let you lick the lollypop / Go 'head girl, don't you stop / Keep going til you hit the spot.” 50 Cent doesn't practice yoga, but one of his songs mentions it: “The 16 top shot loader'll bend ya ass up like yoga.” Unfortunately, the class is full. Instead I peruse the über-healthy gourmet café selling herbal tonics and protein cookies with seeds before venturing into one of the Core Fusion classes that mashes yoga, Pilates, and orthopedic stretching into one regimen to produce “a flexible, youthful body and a sense of peace and relaxation.” I watch as the predominantly female class stretches, breathes, and sweats, all the while noting the polished Indonesian wood floors, neo-Asian garnishes, imperial marble pillars, and high ceilings draped in elegant green gauze.

Yoga, like spandex, has proved to be a perfect fit for the American populace by virtue of its elasticity. For decades it was merely the pastime of seekers and hippies on the fringes of the East-meets-West counterculture. It wasn't until the 1980s that the number of yoga practitioners climbed into the millions as people's body awareness and health consciousness increased and they sought new forms of physical exercise. But even then it was simply an alternative workout cut loose from its roots in Hindu religion and spiritualism. Then during the 1990's, the self-improvement phenomenon exploded and spread like a contagion throughout the nation. Yoga was now much more than a workout: it was America's favorite secular fix-it drug, a means to unwind, relieve stress, find clarity of mind, lose weight, heal oneself emotionally or physically, and tone buttocks. And shortly thereafter, for those who had found themselves marooned on the desert islands of their increasingly materialistic, secular lifestyles, it became a source of spiritual fulfillment. “For efficiency-oriented Americans, a workout that can double as a spiritual exercise, and even triple as a substitute for going to the shrink, is understandably appealing,” wrote Rebecca Mead in her article on ashtanga yoga for the New Yorker. Spiritual seeker and yoga teacher Suzanne Clores wrote in a recent essay for Body & Soul, undoubtedly voicing the experience of many others, “While I could not walk the path of St. Catherine of Siena or St. Francis of Assisi and shun material items, social life, and other worldly things holy people relinquish, I still craved spiritual depth. . . . It was three years before I found yoga.”

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December 2005–February 2006