If anthropologists in the next century ever go searching for the exact moment when yoga passed from spiritual endeavor to mere fitness craze, they might well look to a tall, terrifically fit woman in her 30s named Beth Shaw. Concerned that her traditional yoga training had not prepared her to teach in a fitness club, Shaw created a course that promises to churn out yoga instructors in a single weekend, which is no small feat given that yoga is a 5,000-year-old Hindu spiritual practice that attempts physical purification, in part through breathing and exercise, to reach a blissful state called ananda.
Master that in a weekend and you’re ready to learn brain surgery from the back of a cereal box.
In fairness, it’s not as if Shaw doesn’t know her asana from her elbow. She was trained by Ganga White, the man pretty much responsible for bringing yoga to Los Angeles in 1967 when he founded Larchmont’s Center for Yoga. But Shaw didn’t like the austerity of yoga studios, so in the mid-'90s she decided to move into fitness centers. In those clubs, however, she found the traditional training hadn’t prepared her to teach in “a fitness club environment.”
Shaw says she wanted to develop “a user-friendly, fitness-oriented style of yoga.” To that end, she created her weekend course--and succeeded spectacularly. Her company, YogaFit Training Systems Worldwide, has since processed almost 25,000 teachers on five continents. “We’re making yoga popular with people who have been turned off by traditional yoga,” Shaw says.
Visit, for example, the popular West Hollywood health club called Crunch, where a sign by the entrance reads: “Please check all hang-ups about the size of your derriere, regrets . . . self-loathing . . . stress . . . embarrassment . . . worries . . . angst.” Opposite, a video of an appearance on Howard Stern by the leader of the club’s strip-aerobics class plays on continuous loop. In the locker room are men with sculpted pubic hair. Upstairs, a woman with what appear to be DDD breasts and a 22-inch waist works out with a personal trainer near a roomful of people on whom the absurdity of riding a stationary bicycle indoors on a sky-blue, 75-degree, perfect Southern California morning seems completely lost.
Gradually people with yoga mats appear. One woman plugged into an iPod starts busting hip-hop dance moves as she waits. A fit model tells how coming to yoga has made her a lot stronger, though she also likes it for its “peaceful and relaxing” qualities. Which is a surprise considering she can barely be heard over the electronica. They all head into the room where the yoga class will be held (previously occupied by Tunde’s Super Sculpt class, which obviously takes some of its moves from yoga postures). Once the Crunch yogis have filed in, the teacher takes requests for the morning’s practice. Several in the class pipe up in unison: “Abs!”
But if you’re just doing the poses and not meditating, not instructing people on how to breathe, not chanting, are you really doing yoga? Most spiritually inclined gurus will tell you flat-out: No.
But hey, what do they know about toning abs?
Los Angeles is the epicenter of yoga in the Western world, with at least 60 studios, many of which adhere to the spiritual traditions of yoga. But those studios are now far outnumbered by health clubs offering yoga--or some semblance thereof. The number of people who “do” yoga has doubled nationwide since 1996. But here’s the question: How many of these new disciples see the practice as nothing more than the one true path to a firmer butt?
Western culture, with our anorexia-inducing fixation on appearance, is corrupting yoga. But it’s no surprise that a spiritual regimen involving exercise would attract people for less evolved reasons than personal growth. And it’s not just in L.A.; a poll in Yoga Journal, the glossy, largest-circulation yoga magazine, asked: “Does the Mainstreaming of Yoga Benefit the Tradition?”
Yoga was certified mainstream in 2001 when supermodel Christy Turlington appeared on the cover of Time in the “rooster” pose. What most recent converts call “yoga” is merely one aspect--the physical component, known as “hatha yoga"--of the tradition. But If you ask a yogi in India what kind of yoga they practice, after they catch their breath from laughing when you say you “do” hatha yoga, they are likely to reply “karma yoga,” which means devotion to the service of others, or “bhakti yoga,” the yoga of surrender and devotion, or other forms.
Here in the U.S., though, the 15 million to 20 million Americans who reportedly practice hatha are likely to know it as “power yoga” or “flow,” (interchangeable terms), “ashtanga” (from which the previous two are derived), “Bikram,” “Iyengar,” “Vini,” or “Anusara,” among others. (When describing the practice in L.A. today, “yoga” in this story refers to “hatha yoga.”) It’s the split between those teachers who believe in the need to instruct in the spiritual aspect as well as the physical, and those who see it as another exercise fad no different from step-aerobics, spinning or Tae Bo, that currently rends the movement.
But the balance has been tipped: Yoga is big business. Baron Baptiste, one of many teachers who have achieved celebrity status, has a two-book deal with Simon & Schuster that earned a seven-figure advance. Rodney Yee, another yoga star, has been on “Oprah.” One L.A. teacher, thumbing his alternate-nostril-breathing proboscis at the IRS and the Southland’s burgling community, has boasted that he has $200,000 in cash stuffed in shoe boxes around his house.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Monica Lewinsky and Sandra Day O’Connor do yoga. “Teachers” are leading people from “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yoga.” The results of scientific studies on yoga’s health benefits are widely reported. Yoga is used to sell everything from mattresses to breast augmentation; teacher Seane Corn, of Santa Monica’s YogaWorks, appeared in a Nike ad, to much debate and consternation. Fashionista Marc Jacobs designed a handbag meant to carry a yoga mat and workout clothes. It’s made of canvas and leather--the latter not exactly a material of choice for a Hindu--and it costs $400 (though proceeds benefit a cancer organization).
This week, Yoga Expo takes over the L.A. Convention Center downtown. With 400 exhibits and tens of thousands of visitors expected, the event is the first of its kind--bringing together yoga teachers and students, alternative health practitioners, various stars in the self-realization galaxy, and anybody selling anything remotely Eastern-influenced or organic.
The “executive producer” of the expo is Bikram Choudhury--the originator of “hot” yoga--who lives in Beverly Hills, collects Bentleys, wears a diamond-studded watch and has publicly compared his testicles to nuclear devices. Choudhury’s brainchild will feature a “fashion show” of the latest in yoga apparel--a growth market in the clothing industry. Victoria’s Secret and Puma sell lines of yoga wear, though a pair of undies (Okay, Calvin Klein undies) suffices for one of the most accomplished yogis in the world, Pattabhi Jois, who was profiled in The New Yorker.
But with this growth has come compromises to the aesthetic. To describe someone as “the most accomplished yogi in the world” is to perceive the practice as something to be achieved rather than something to experience for its own sake, absent of ego. And competition over--and efforts to expand--market and market share has led to bitterness and acrimony among the many yoga instructors selling their experience and capabilities in classes, workshops and retreats and through books, videos and branded accessories.
In talking to a few Los Angeles yoga teachers, some prickly debates emerged with several instructors who are among the most prominent, or experienced, or emblematic, of yoga’s current trendiness.
How to deal with people who come in just wanting to look like Christy Turlington? Do you throw a bunch of “oms” at a vain yuppie declaring war on his spare tire and risk turning him off to the practice, and any transformation he may eventually experience, in order to remain “authentic"--whatever that means? Mired in that dilemma is the debate over intentions: If you’re bringing yoga to the masses, is it because you want to open the planet to a new way of thinking and living, or because you want to open the planet’s wallets? And how to tell the difference? Intention, a yogi who has studied the spiritual tradition will tell you, is intimately related to the ontological question. Finally: Who is yoga? Can you really be called a yoga teacher after a weekend certification course?
If you’ve taken Beth Shaw’s level I training course, the answer is yes.
“I do this because we’re able to really contribute positively to society and make a difference,” Shaw says. Certified trainers are required to do eight hours of community service--teaching in schools, prisons, senior centers, etc.--to be certified by YogaFit. She says she believes in socially responsible business practices, and considering she donates proceeds from some classes to charity, there’s no reason to doubt her.
On the other hand, twice in a row in May, Shaw missed the Tuesday morning class she teaches at her studio in Hermosa Beach--once because she was talking to a (different) member of the press, and once because she was hawking her wares on QVC. (“Peace and namaste” was the sign-off on her e-mail informing of the latter.)
Shaw’s wares include nine videos, the biggest seller of which is called “YogaButt.” She travels the country training teachers and students to use yoga poses to shape their posteriors. Doing YogaButt requires the purchase of the YogaFit Core Ball.
On the surface it seems that Shaw has little to no regard for the precepts of holistic healing and spiritual well-being that some regard as essential to the practice. She’s never been to India. Her book, “Beth Shaw’s Yogafit: The Program for a More Powerful, Flexible, and Defined Physique,” promises “sweat--not meditation--is the key.” Strictly and solely marketed to improve physical fitness and appearance, the book and her videos have sold well. Another of her mantras is, “We burn fat, not incense.” However, she avows that “to do yoga and say you’re not getting the spiritual is like saying, ‘I’m drinking milk but I’m not getting calcium.’ Spirituality is inherent in the practice.” Shaw holds her training sessions mostly at hotels, conference centers and other alternate sites. “We’ve been ostracized by the yoga community,” she admits.
Max Strom, founder and co-owner of Sacred Movement, a studio in Venice, wonders if all the gimmicks aren’t sending the wrong message about yoga’s purpose. “If it’s, ‘How can I get people to come take yoga, maybe a mirror ball and disco music will do it'--that’s a different kind of intention,” says Strom.
“I think to give someone a certificate after a weekend could be called irresponsible,” adds Strom, a tall man with long, gray hair sweeping back from a widow’s peak. The retail space at his studio sells the usual array of yoga gear, books, videos, the Bhagavad-Gita, Buddha statues and toe rings. “I think someone who would accept a certificate is also irresponsible, though not as irresponsible as the person giving it.”
In response to the approach of teacher-trainers like Shaw, an international organization, the Yoga Alliance, was formed in 1999 to establish a certification program for teachers that includes apprenticeship to a certified instructor and instruction in the spiritual component of yoga.
Shaw offers several levels of training, including one that satisfies Yoga Alliance’s requirements. “Self-appointed experts,” she calls the organization. “We’re doing it because we want to do the right thing,” Shaw continues. “Do I buy into it ? No, because I know that you can go to India tomorrow and study for 20 years and come back here and you still might not be a good instructor.”
Yoga Alliance’s movement for standardization, which some of Shaw’s critics also oppose, has only created more arguments. Bikram Choudhury, a major institution of yoga in the U.S., is franchising his centers and copyrighting a sequence of instruction; his teachers coach yogis on an identical series of poses so that attending a Bikram class will be like visiting Starbucks--the same wherever you go. This sounds unappealingly formulaic until one remembers what it was like trying to find a decent cup of coffee anywhere outside of Seattle or San Francisco a decade ago.
“I don’t believe in standardization, although I agree with most of the arguments for it,” Strom says. “Who’s gonna control it? You can’t standardize yoga because at heart it’s a spiritual practice.”
In 1967, Ganga White founded L.A.'s Center for Yoga, which today is one of the oldest and largest yoga studios in town. Speaking by telephone from the White Lotus training and retreat center he now runs in Santa Barbara County, White declares that “the tradition of yoga is anarchy. . . . I don’t think the [standardization] argument holds water unless you create a separate, purely mechanical aspect of yoga.”
Other instructors agree that the more spiritually focused classes are not for everybody, and if a class like Shaw’s or one at a health club can get them to try yoga, they’ll be better for it in any case. Some may broaden their horizons and soon find themselves in more traditional classes in a studio setting. “If people come to yoga for health that’s beautiful--it’s part of what yoga has to offer,” says Shiva Rea, a longtime teacher who wrote about yoga for her master’s thesis at UCLA. “Everybody’s perspective for entering into yoga is valid. If it’s for vain purposes, I think eventually you start to see how much suffering it causes to be concerned with how you look rather than how you feel.”
That’s the challenge at places such as Crunch, where Kim Haegele knows she is fighting an uphill battle. She’s been a vinyasa flow teacher for five years, and she has studied under one of the more famous ashtanga trainers in North America. Haegele is 42--though, like most people who do a lot of yoga, she looks 10 years younger. She’s a tall woman with spiky dyed-blond hair and a body that might best be described as a cross between a runway model and a WNBA forward. She regularly reminds students not to look in the mirror that lines one wall. It’s a concave mirror, presumably to make your midsection look bigger and get you coming back. “Don’t be intoxicated by your image,” she implores her students. “Use it to align yourself but not to check yourself out.”
After class, Haegele, who also is affiliated with L.A. Yoga Center in Westwood, tells why she chooses to teach at Crunch: “It’s really interesting because there are all these distractions--the mirror, noise, music, people all around. There’s a stressed-out element of Young Hollywood here, people who are very mirror-oriented. It’s fascinating trying to encourage people to move away from all that. The people who don’t want to, don’t come back. But there’s a core group who are fine yogis. I can look around at the beginning of class and see who’s gonna learn something. The people who want to check out themselves and others leave.”
Distractions ultimately don’t matter, according to Strom. He points out that in India, with its extreme overpopulation and lack of zoning or noise regulations, yoga studios are forced to deal with loud conditions. Furthermore, he continues, “If you keep your intention and focus, and breathe, it doesn’t matter what room you’re in. There’s some benefit to practicing when there’s distractions because part of the practice is to not be aggravated by external stimuli.”
There’s certainly no shortage of external stimuli at Steve Ross’ class at Maha Yoga, the Brentwood studio he owns. When Ross walked through the door on a recent Wednesday morning, interrupting people chit-chatting about mortgage refinancing and eyebrow waxing, his students/fan club set aside their Furla handbags, shed their Chanel flip-flops, said goodbye on their cell phones and put down their lattes. A woman with a six-carat diamond on her finger rushed to the same spot she had taken the day before. Thongs were visible through sheer pants. Some silicone was evident, though little fresh collagen. Ross made his way through the crowded room to an impressive array of stereo equipment and cranked it. And then he ordered a few dozen obliging, beautiful women to spread their feet and stick their heads between their legs.
Perhaps no one embodies the enlightenment/fitness identity crisis more than Ross; he emerged in dozens of interviews as the single most controversial figure in L.A. yoga. (“I don’t want to talk about Steve Ross"; “I’m not going to talk about Steve Ross"; “Don’t even get me started on Steve Ross"; “Steve Ross--ugh.”) Either God or the devil, depending on whom you talk to, Ross is charismatic as they come, a thousand watts of happy beaming from his exceedingly handsome face at all times.
But Ross is something of a contradiction--"a paradox, really,” he corrects. He spent four years as a vedic monk, which means he practiced bhakti yoga and spent every day from 3:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. following a guru around India and the U.S. “I did all the stuff--mantras, tantras, yantras,” he recalls. The purpose was to dissolve the ego--not the Freudian ego but the word in the Hindu sense, the notion that one is not immutably connected to all other things. He eats only raw food--and no meat, no dairy, no sushi, no alcohol, no birthday cake. He took his first hatha-teacher training from Ganga White and has been instructing for decades.
One weekly class taught by Ross is slow and meditative--less a work-out than a stretch-in. He also leads occasional chanting-centered events. But the typical Steve Ross class is the paradigm of what yoga purists find detestable about the current incarnation of L.A. yoga. He plays pop music so loudly you can barely hear the few instructions. The moment the flow portion is through and people can catch their breath, they start chatting again. One day a Jennifer Connelly look-alike flirted with Ross before, during and after the practice, which he can’t be expected to do much about, but which reflects the environment he has cultivated at Maha. Ross doesn’t tell his students to meditate or breathe or instruct them in alignment.
While beatifically possessive of a to-each-his-own attitude, Ross doesn’t countenance criticisms of how he teaches yoga--criticisms usually delivered by people who “gossip, smoke, drink alcohol and eat animal carcasses.” He quarrels with the allegedly spiritual element taught at some studios (which he declines to identify; he and Strom are close friends) that results in what he identifies as a dogmatic attitude and suppressive atmosphere.
The experience provided by many studios “is like going to Catholic school,” he insists, seated on the patio outside Maha Yoga under a June-gloom sky. “If you’re two minutes late you can’t come in. You can’t talk-- ‘Don’t look around, don’t compare, don’t drink water, here’s your 50 rules,’ ” he says. “But there’s a whole spectrum of people who would never do yoga if they had to be subjected to that.” A teacher at Center for Yoga, Jeanne Heileman, agrees: “Steve Ross is certainly getting people into yoga who probably would never go,” she says.
Which, in this regard at least, puts Steve Ross in the same column as Beth Shaw. “I’m all for making it more of a spiritual-roots [experience], which is the much deeper aspect of yoga,” Ross says. “But I don’t think most people are ready for it.” So he’s not going to shove it down their throat chakras.
The result is that many students at Maha, with their American-bred, achievement-oriented attitude, will try the deepest variation of a pose even if it means completely losing the pose’s “correct” alignment--which some say is the whole point. But Ross says the focus on alignment, considered traditional, “was really just made up in the last 50 years. Now it’s, ‘This is the way you do it, this is the alignment, we’re all gonna “om,” and then we’re all gonna suffer,’ ” he says. “‘And this is how long you’re gonna suffer, and you’re gonna feel good about suffering, because you feel guilty anyway, so you can alleviate your guilt for an hour, then you can go home and feel like you’ve done the right thing correctly.’ Meanwhile, it’s no fun.
“All the alignment rules that people say are universal, they’re not universal at all,” Ross continues. “In the ‘60s there wasn’t the [focus on] alignment; you did a lot of chanting. Now it’s all very mechanical. If you’re just doing the pose and enjoying it, not doing it to do it ‘correctly'--because ‘correctly’ is [bull],” he insists, then you’re closer to genuine yoga than if you’re making sure your little toe is pressing down and your chest is open and your gaze is softly fixed at a point beyond your fingertip.
“Steve in particular is very much into the devotional aspects of yoga,” says White. He agrees that other teachers “get so focused on alignment that they get stuck on right and wrong and miss the overall aspects of the practice.”
But are Ross’ students exaggerating the poses--and losing alignment in the process--because it’s fun and it makes them feel good? Or because they’re showing off or letting their ego and ambition determine their practice? Or because it makes them feel good to show off and achieve? As Strom said, intentions are difficult to gauge.
Ross disagrees with Shaw’s assessment that doing the poses is enough to bring out the sacred element, and he’s certainly better informed on the subject. He says, “If you don’t practice the spiritual aspects from which all the asanas (poses) spring, then you’re doing a fragmented part of yoga. That’s not really yoga, it’s just asanas.”
Ultimately, whether someone goes to yoga for mind or body may not matter. People may try yoga with one goal in mind and end up reaching another. Not everyone is ready to meditate right away, although they might discover they enjoy meditation. That is, if it’s offered to them, which gyms and YogaFit classes generally do not--and none of the students questioned at Crunch or Shaw’s studio had tried yoga in traditional studios.
“If everyone would practice what they preach and be concerned about what they’re doing, instead of judging other people, everybody would be happier,” says Shaw. She was sitting in a Starbucks, holding up her hands in an expression of defensive exasperation. “There’s so much politics in the world of yoga, which is what drove me away from it to begin with.”
“The whole fitness industry feels left out and wants to get on the wave,” says White. “You can lose something when it’s not coming from within the yoga community, but in times of evolution there’s lots of mutations, and the good ones survive and are selected. There’s a lot of fluff now and a lot of watered-down versions are coming out all the time. But hopefully people will learn what has depth and what doesn’t.”