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Balancing act: war and inner peace

Times Staff Writer

Tova Joffe’s morning commute includes tuning in to National Public Radio for news, but lately that ritual has lost some of its pleasure now that war coverage is virtually nonstop. “I’m getting a little sick of it,” says the 29-year-old development consultant for the Children’s Museum of Los Angeles. “I just have felt a lot of anxiety in general, and [yoga] definitely calms me down.”

It was a Saturday afternoon, and Joffe was at Sacred Movement in Venice for some respite from the daily bombardment of words and images. She wasn’t the only one hungry for psychological refuge from the endless reel of war coverage. While some search for escape in their Xanax prescriptions and others in the nearest Krispy Kreme, thousands seek it in yoga classes, meditation, tai chi or even while on a surfboard or pounding urban streets on a long run.

But it is here in yoga class, amid the “oms” and cobra poses, that yoga teachers across Southern California are feeling the collective pain, fear and frustration of their students. Some are responding by talking about it, albeit briefly, for the most part trying to avoid seeming too overtly political. That hasn’t been the case everywhere. In San Francisco recently, a group calling itself Yoga for Peace set up mats and started exercising in front of the Transamerica building during morning rush hour, blocking the entrance. Some were arrested.

At City Yoga, above the bustling intersection of Fairfax and Santa Monica boulevards, co-owner and teacher Sue Elkind, six months pregnant and wearing peace sign earrings, sits cross-legged and addresses the recent spate of antiwar protests. It’s ironic, she notes, how some protesters have become aggressive, leading to arrests; the search for peace must start from within.

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No one responds; this is not a dialogue, there is no student-teacher give-and-take in yoga. Yet the class doesn’t seem to mind these few minutes of yogic philosophy.

“People are used to this with us,” Elkind says later. “In our classes, [teachers] talk about what’s going on. I try to keep my messages universal, and I don’t think our place as yoga teachers is to be political.” Bringing up the protesters was “a way to say that if we come from a place of anger inside, the outside is going to turn into not such a nice place. Even though these people might have the right intentions, they’re creating more disharmony. What we do affects others.”

Kali Londono didn’t mind Elkind’s war-related reflections: “It helps to have somebody else kind of put it in perspective and talk about it,” says the 36-year-old New Yorker, whose job as a personal assistant brings her to L.A. regularly. It reminded her of her yoga classes after Sept. 11: “A lot of teachers were talking about it. They weren’t preachy or anything, but just acknowledging that this is a difficult time. It’s like having a little group therapy before you start your downward-facing dog.”

At the Sacred Movement yoga studio, Joffe and 39-year-old Kurt Larsen mop their faces after instructor Max Strom’s class, which included long stretches of meditation backed by music of calming chants. They listened to him talk about achieving peace in the outer world through finding peace internally.

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“I think the message is generic, but really loving,” says Larsen, a construction manager from Venice. “Just in a humanistic way it’s really nice.” Both had heard other teachers utter similar sentiments, but they said none of the instructors had crossed the line into explicit political talk. “I think they’re sensitive to the general level of acceptance,” says Larsen.

The message is nothing new, says Strom, a tall, imposing man with long gray hair tied in a ponytail. “What’s different is the awareness of the students and the need of the message. It’s almost like talking to deaf ears sometimes, and now these ears have opened.”

His intuition nudges him when his students need more reflection: “I can tell when I suggest that we go to meditation,” he says. “People sit right up and they’re ready. This class today was gentler than I usually do -- I sensed that we needed that.”

Yoga teacher Vinnie Marino has been forgoing his usual repertoire of Grace Slick and Fleetwood Mac lately in favor of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (whose lyrics start “there’s something happening here”) and U2’s “Peace on Earth,” part of the musical offerings at one of his recent classes at Yoga Works in Santa Monica. “There’s a lot of craziness going on right now with the war,” he says to the 60-plus crowd crammed mat-to-mat, “and the reason why we come to yoga practice is to find that balance, that sense of peace within us.”

He doesn’t feel comfortable straying from that ideological path, wanting the studio to be a safe haven for his students. “The songs I pick kind of reflect what’s going on,” he says after the class has dispersed. “When I teach, I try not to say, ‘Hey, let’s get out of the war.’ I want people to have their own experience, whatever they believe is the right thing.”

It’s this neutral ground that Andrew Altshule, a 35-year-old manager at an outdoor equipment firm, seeks when he comes to class: “With all this stuff going on in the world,” he says, “yoga is about letting go of judgment.”


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