Her destiny in the hills

Times Staff Writer

Lynda Guber's days sizzled with stress. Her husband, Peter, ran Sony Pictures. Everyone wanted favors. She had to change her life. Her first step: "I decided I would drop everything that didn't serve my dharma."

When a yogi anointed her with the name of a Buddhist goddess, Tara, she took it as her own. Empowered by this beloved and compassionate deity, Tara Guber began to move down the spiritual path that led to the creation of her personal refuge, "a place to get away to serve the spirit."

Today, her shrine to high-end Zen, with its sweeping mountain-to-city-to-sea views, its separate gated entrance on a far-flung corner of the 13-acre Guber estate, is the meeting place for her coterie of practitioners of yoga and Zen meditation. This is not the Picasso-adorned Great House, one of six homes on the compound that Sony built. This is the Yoga House, the house that Tara built. Here, even the velvet floor pillows are stitched with "Om."

"I wanted to create a sacred space," Guber says in her still heavy Brooklyn accent. "I didn't create the Yoga House. It created itself. Just like destiny. You don't do destiny. It does you."

As you shed your shoes and step barefoot through the heavy oak door of the Yoga House, your eyes are drawn up to the Art Nouveau script just under the beams, welcoming, in Sanskrit, "Namaste." I bow to the divine in you.

Yet at the edge of the peaceful cliff-top garden, 300 slate steps lead you down a steep, wooded hill to the Hotel Bel-Air. "So we can get room service. Latte and herbal tea," Guber explains. "You see how spirituality and the material come together?"

And much farther down the mountainside, at a charter school in South L.A., Guber has founded a yoga and meditation program for children -- something the Yoga Journal has termed "om schooling." Her Yoga House has become the forward base to expand this program -- the goal, Guber says, that "drives my soul and my spirit."

"I'm OK with all I have," she says. "To me, it's a gift from the universe."

'THE ZEN FACTOR'

Eastern philosophies and religious practices are deeply rooted here, says California State Librarian Kevin Starr. In two upcoming volumes of his series on "Americans and the California Dream," he has included chapters on what he calls "Zen California" -- Eastern influences he traces through the photography of Ansel Adams, the stories of John Steinbeck, the Beat poets and even the California bungalow style of architecture. He sees more contemporary echoes in the ecology movement and the marginalization of smoking.

"California is not merely susceptible to Asian influences, California is Asia," says Starr. "You can't decode California today without taking into account the Zen factor."

Yet Starr acknowledges that the pop culture appropriation of Zen, a Far Eastern Buddhist practice that emphasizes simplicity and meditation, has devolved into a self-help philosophy, a lifestyle brand or simply a verbal shorthand for a feeling of peace and tranquillity.

In Los Angeles, the mainstreaming of Zen has created a world of Zen landscapers, Zen decorators, Zen spas, Zen meditation platforms. Real estate ads read like religious quests, offering "Zen-like" homes with "Zen" gardens. Last week on the Fine Living cable channel, a show hosted by a self-described Toluca Lake yogi named Regina Leeds taught viewers "The Zen of Organizing."

Critics of the trend suggest that, like New Age creeds, Zen has simply provided its less sincere practitioners with another cover for rampant narcissism. But in Hollywood, where white-hot status anxiety is fueled by the ever-shifting hierarchies of who's up and who's down, is there any mystery to the appeal of Zen simplicity or the calming power of yoga and meditation?

"I think that people who work in Hollywood come from a place of boundaries -- not enough for everyone, fear-based 'I have to look great all the time,' 'I have to say the right thing,' " Guber says. "There's pressure and stress and nervousness and basically an attitude of 'I'm not good enough' one day and 'I'm better' the next. So the flow and flux creates havoc on your emotional being."

'DEEP CONCEPT'

Like Guber's spiritual journey, its physical manifestation did not come together overnight. She says her husband wasn't initially crazy about the idea. Her decorator wouldn't go there with her. She chose a tiny spit of land far from the other houses on the estate, which towers over the Beverly Hills like a medieval Italian castle town, and screened off the entrance with bamboo. "I told the workmen, 'This is sacred,' and when they built it, they had that at heart," she says. The Yoga House, five years in the making, opened two years ago.

"I was in line with my destiny," Guber says. "And when you're in line with destiny, every move you make is served by the collective unconscious.

"This is a really deep concept," she says. "It's what Deepak [Chopra] calls 'synchrodestiny.' I don't think about what I do. I trust my inner voice that it will take me to the place where the most good is done."

Guber retreats to her private meditation room in the Yoga House to listen to her inner voice. In this small room with velvet seating pillows and plush carpeting, she assumes the lotus position in front of a low altar. Beyond is a wall-sized window framing a pepper tree, flanked by two golden statues of Buddha -- the young, thin, truth-seeking Buddha, who was called Siddhartha. The pungent smoke of incense sticks drifts up the wall, where a Sanscrit message reads "Honor Thy Inner Self."

Guber is a petite woman with flame-red hair that is styled by a follower of the Indian guru Mai. It spills down the orange prayer shawl she is wearing over her loose black clothes. The shawl was a gift from the Swami Satchidananda, whose portrait smiles down from the fireplace mantel.

"He was the dearest of yogis," Guber says. "He was the one at Woodstock."

When Guber decided to seek the truth, she had already tried EST with her husband. She had gone to the home of her brother, producer Henry Gellis, to listen to the guru Ram Dass. Dass was once a psychology professor named Richard Alpert who taught at Harvard University with Timothy Leary -- until their LSD experiments led to their dismissal from the faculty. She had also tried yoga and found it allowed her to "go inside myself to places I had never been before."

In 1991, the yogi Amrit Desai, from Kripalu Yoga Center in Tanglewood, came to California to meet with some friends of Guber's. They insisted on giving her a spiritual name, and in an elaborate ceremony the yogi called her Tara, after a goddess who is among the most revered in Buddhism.

"I thought this was an incredible opportunity to take a step toward my personal transformation," Guber says.

TARA'S SPIRIT

Perhaps it is no surprise that Tara gazes out from all corners of the Yoga House. On the front door is a demure Tara, an earthenware plaque that was a gift from Arianna Huffington. Inside, on Guber's meditation altar, there is a seductive, bejeweled Tara, her breasts adorned with turquoise- and carnelian-hued stones, her hair a swirling torrent around her bare shoulders.

Guber sometimes spends weekends at the house, an eclectic blend of Mediterranean and Eastern influences of her own design. In her softly carpeted bedroom, the square panes of the leaded windows echo the Japanese shoji screens that cover them and the glass doors onto the garden. There is a fragile rice-paper lamp by Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose boulder compositions popularized the Zen aesthetic in mainstream modern art. The low teak bedside tables, like the stepped tansu cabinets throughout the house, were brought from a Japanese beach house the Gubers sold.

"I love Japanese architecture," Guber says. "There's something very soothing."

The garden, designed by landscape architect Mark Rios, is a half-circle enclosed by thick brush -- majestic native Matilija poppies, which grow to 7 feet tall, and the star-shaped blooms of spice bush. Tangles of lavender trumpet vines cover the house's exterior walls. There are twisted wood chairs and tables, some in the shape of toadstools, around a small pool and spa.

Guber points to two statues of Hindu gods, a four-foot dancing Shiva, the Lord of Destruction and, hence, renewal, and Ganesha, the helpful elephant god. "I love the fact that Ganesha is the remover of obstacles," she remarks. "Having him in the car is perfect."

Then there are the lingam rocks, smooth, phallic shapes representing Shiva's creative flip side, with yoni rings around them representing his female aspect.

"The lingam just stand hard and erect, like any good phallic symbol," Guber says, bending to scrutinize the massive stones. "We need to oil the lingams. They need to shine a little."

'CONTACT YOGA'

The Gubers say the Yoga House has enriched their marriage, in part by giving them a space to practice something called "contact yoga," in which couples intertwine their bodies in poses that are as graceful as ballet and as athletic as circus acrobatics.

On a recent morning, after leading a yoga class, Tara Guber demonstrates contact yoga with Stephen Barton, her personal trainer, stretching out her arms like wings as he holds her aloft. "I want to fly!" she says in a euphoric tone, arching swan-like above him.

"I feel there's no map to tell us how to be in a relationship -- love, trust, truth," Guber explains later. It's all 'she's pretty,' 'he's got this,' and it all falls apart, because they don't have those essential qualities."

Two months ago, the Gubers and five other couples did contact yoga before dinner, and "by the time drinks were served we were so intimate with each other we were lying around on the floor. It was like an orgy," she jokes.

Usually, Peter Guber says, he shares the Yoga House only with Tara. Contact yoga, he says, "is an intimate experience I like to do alone with my wife. Her mastery of contact yoga has made her more understanding and compassionate."

Guber, who now runs Mandalay Entertainment, wonders aloud if contact yoga could foster collaboration in Hollywood, which relies on "epiphany and creative flash, but in order to execute it you need to organize resources and creative people, and let them find their place in the circle. In a sense, contact yoga ... helps support that process.

"That's the way I grok it," he adds, using a counterculture term, coined in the 1961 Robert Heinlein classic "Stranger in a Strange Land," that means to understand through empathy.

But most important, he says, the Yoga House creates a private "oasis" for his wife.

'ESALEN SOUTH'

The Yoga House is also a highly public space. Its front door opens onto a beamed great room, where Tara Guber hosts regular yoga classes, meetings and dinner parties. Deepak Chopra, Anthony Robbins and a host of swamis have come to speak here. Guber says Esalen's Michael Murphy told her the Yoga House is "Esalen South." "It was just this sweet little house on the top of the hill in Bel-Air, but it attracted this energy," she says. "The more energy built, the more people came."

The Yoga House has also become a meeting place for those who would like to bring yoga into Los Angeles schools. One afternoon, as the sun begins its golden descent into the Pacific, Guber and a dozen volunteer yoga teachers sit in a circle on comfortable black floor chairs in a corner of the great room.

Guber chose the Accelerated School in South Los Angeles for a pilot "Yoga Ed" program. "We tell the kids the word intimacy means into-me-see," she says. "Yoga takes them inside. They're dealing with drive-by shootings, so much violence. Nobody goes inside. They subconsciously avoid it."

There are other arguments for teaching yoga in public schools, concedes Denise Busby, a Los Angeles Unified School District intern elementary advisor. Some educators say yoga and meditation help kids focus and reduce their test anxiety. However, "you have to change mind-sets as well," Busby cautions. "A lot of parents think yoga is religion. That can be a barrier."

Guber nods sympathetically. Attempts to introduce yoga into schools in Aspen -- where the Gubers and their Hollywood friends own houses -- were nearly stymied by Christian parents.

The group brainstorms ways to win over the L.A. Board of Education.

"I think if you took the people who have the power among the administrators and get a retreat at an outrageous place where they all want to go and get a sponsor to pay for it," offers a volunteer in tie-dye pants, "it's almost like a paid vacation. And you do yoga ed. They're all going to walk out of there and want to do it. You'd have all the administrators on board."

Everyone laughs.

"You can feel the passion in this room," Guber says as they retire to the teak dining table for wrap sandwiches and salad.

'PEACE AND LOVE'

Today, the distractions to Tara Guber's dharma are well defined: "All projects that are superfluous to serving the children, bringing consciousness and awareness to the people, and creating healing environments," she says, just before jetting off to the Gubers' retreat on Kauai.

There is already a Yoga Ed room at the Accelerated School. Now Guber wants to build a Yoga House on the grounds, for after-school classes for police, fire fighters, parents and others.

"It brings tears to my eyes to think about bringing peace and love to the inner city instead of hatred and violence," she says. "We've lost the shaman and the spirit." Yet when Guber does occasionally drive down to the school to teach, and at the end of each class tells the children, "Namaste," a chorus of young voices replies, "Namaste, Tara."

"When I first started this, somebody said, 'You're a seeker, aren't you? A seeker of the truth,' " Guber recalls. "I said, 'Oh, my God, that's so embarrassing.' And four years later, somebody asked me again, and I said, 'Yes. I'm a seeker of the truth.' Isn't that what it's all about, seeking truth?"

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