Yoga teacher holds a pose, in bronze

Times Staff Writer

It may be the classic L.A. yoga story: Man meets yoga teacher, man is inspired by yoga teacher, man commissions a sculpture of yoga teacher.

Andrew Altshule is the man, Vinnie Marino is the yoga teacher and, yes, Altshule is well aware that, even given the enormous popularity of yoga, most people think he's a little nuts for spending a year immortalizing his instructor in bronze, at a cost he won't divulge, saying only that it is in the five figures.

The idea came to Altshule, 35, about a year ago while he was taking Marino's class at Yoga Works in Santa Monica: "One day, Vinnie was doing this difficult pose in class and it just sort of occurred to me that it would be really cool to have a sculpture done." Marino reacted the way most would expect. "I actually didn't think it would materialize," he says. "[Andrew] would keep me posted on the progress, and I'd be, like, 'OK, yeah, sure, tell the guy to make sure my leg's straight in back.' "

Altshule recalls Marino's initial reaction somewhat differently. "He looked at me like I was a stalker," he says. "He thought I was insane.... " But eventually Marino opened up to the idea, and the two men became friends.

In yoga-crazed L.A., devotion to one's yogi is nothing new. Many popular instructors are treated like rock stars and have developed groupies of sorts. Their fans follow teachers from studio to studio, sign up for weekend retreats at exotic locales and seek their counsel on everything from nutritional supplements to relationship crises.

Although former New Yorker Marino, 45, shies away from the guru-ness of yoga, there's no denying his ardent following. He began practicing yoga as a teenager, "wandered off into different paths," and came back to serious study 10 years ago. He's been teaching for the last five, combining challenging yoga with an unorthodox soundtrack of Buffalo Springfield, U2, the Allman Brothers Band and Tom Petty. That, plus his plain-talk spiritual messages, have earned him a spot as one of Yoga Works' most popular teachers.

With a name better suited to a boxer than a yoga instructor, the tall, lanky Marino teaches Vinyasa flow classes known for producing copious amounts of sweat. He guides students through 90 minutes of poses, gently correcting bent legs or swayed backs, letting the music add its own energy. Before and after class, he imparts a few words, sometimes tied loosely to current events. When the Iraq war began, for example, he reminded students to try to find a sense of peace within themselves.

"He emanates a certain friendliness," says Westside businessman Doug Buchalter, who has been studying with Marino for a year and a half. "You really feel like he cares about you. He knows everyone's name. Some popular teachers just shuttle you in and out and see you as a walking dollar sign. But you don't get that feeling with Vinnie."

Altshule began studying yoga three years ago, discovered Marino's class two years ago, and hasn't been the same since. In a good way.

"I just connected with him, and his classes really have become a major part of my life and my lifestyle," he says. When not traveling for work, Altshule, a general manager for a Los Angeles company that makes camping gear, attends Marino's class three or four times a week. "It helps keep my head screwed on straight," he says. "There's definitely the spiritual aspect to it, which is key. But it's also a great release and extremely cathartic."

As he talks, he looks across at the sculpture, a nearly life-size replica of Marino in shorts and a tank top. The artwork is mounted on a wrought-iron platform that rotates 360 degrees. It overlooks Altshule's backyard pool, and the top can be seen above a white brick wall, allowing motorists on Montana Avenue a partial view.

The pose is eka pada koundinyasa, a hand-balance position in which one leg rests on an elbow and the other is extended in back. Altshule chose this pose for its dynamic appearance, and he sent photos to a company in Thailand that produced the sculpture. A year later, after a lot of digital images had been sent back and forth, the artwork was done.

During that period, Altshule had to contend with family and friends who questioned whether he'd perhaps been burning a little too much incense.

"I thought the guy had kind of lost it a little," says Kent Seton, a Santa Monica entertainment attorney who is a friend of Altshule. "It's one of those things that seemingly came from nowhere. I was sure he'd lose interest, and I think his parents were hoping the same thing."

About six months into the process, Seton realized that Altshule was serious: "I think he's been very influenced by yoga and the benefits it's given him. He's a very good-natured person, very positive about life, but I don't think that's necessarily how he was prior to yoga. He was more self-involved, probably a little more insecure. Now he's kind of calm and sane and deals with life moment by moment."

So, by the time the sculpture was unveiled at a party a few weeks ago, the "wacky" taint had all but disappeared. The 200 guests were impressed with the quality of the work, and they have stopped ribbing Altshule about his endeavor.

Because he owns the mold, Altshule has decided to sell a limited edition of 100 sculptures, with a price tag starting at $10,000. He promises to donate a small percentage of any sales to an AIDS-related charity.

Although the sale may appear as though Altshule's motivations go beyond honoring his yoga teacher, he says that it was an "afterthought" and that he has no plans to mount a marketing campaign. "If I don't sell one piece," he adds, "it doesn't matter. It's not what this process was about."

Marino is flattered, but he makes it clear that this is not his idea of a supreme tribute. "Every day, I'm really honored and humbled to be able to teach yoga," he says. "That's the ultimate honor. I don't see a lot of people dying to make bronze statues of me."

He can't resist one more observation, however: "My parents and that generation used to put flamingos on their lawn, and maybe it'll get to the point where you'll put someone doing your favorite yoga pose on your lawn."

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Jeannine Stein can be reached by e-mail at jeannine.stein@latimes.com.

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