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Downward-facing dog goes global

Times Staff Writer

A trip is an opportunity to see and do new things, to eat fried grasshoppers on the zocalo in Oaxaca, Mexico, ride a motor scooter around the French Polynesian island of Huahine, gawk at tree-climbing goats in the Anti-Atlas mountains of Morocco.

But when I travel, I also try to see and do commonplace things. I go into McDonald’s restaurants in Beijing and Rome and am always eager to wash my clothes in the public laundries of foreign outposts.

Learning how ordinary things are transposed from culture to culture is one of the more subtle pleasures of travel. The differences and similarities you notice -- that washing machines don’t all work the same way and that people everywhere use fabric softener -- are reassuring in equal measure. They reflect the sweeping tide of globalization and the globe’s resistance to a force that I hope will never be strong enough to make everyone and everything the same.

Even yoga, born 5,000 years ago in India, is subject to nuanced variation, as I’ve found by dropping into classes when I’m traveling. Yoga is an inward, spiritual search for peace and joy. Its breathing exercises, meditation and body poses -- or asanas in Sanskrit -- can be performed on the bathroom floor or atop a mountain in Tibet. If you take a yoga class in London or Santiago, Chile, you can reasonably expect to encounter such familiar postures as downward-facing dog and warrior.

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Months ago, I went looking for dog and warrior in Paris. I had just finished a three-day hike in Italy that left my muscles so sore that I had to grit my teeth every time I climbed the stairs. Yoga can be an anodyne for such aches, so I was happy to hear from the desk clerk at my hotel that there was a yoga studio around the corner.

I called the studio, named Element, and made a reservation.

Element was off the courtyard of a grand 19th century building on the Rue de Richelieu, and it had the fashionable Zen-minimalist decor of spas and studios in California. But unlike the big, packed yoga rooms I’m used to at home, the Element studio accommodated just a handful of people. When I spread out a mat, an attendant appeared and washed it down with a spray bottle of blue liquid that looked like Windex. It seemed, at first, a charmingly hygienic custom, until I took a seat on the still damp mat.

The instructor, a young woman with a British accent, conducted the class in French and English, which benefited my language study by teaching me that gonflez means “breathe deeply.” But she didn’t say any of the Sanskrit words that take me to India whenever I try to coax my body into yoga postures. We did gentle, amorphous stretches instead of asanas, without ever breaking a sweat.

I left feeling vaguely disappointed, partly because of the lack of challenge, which tended to support the cliche that the French don’t like to exercise.

Regardless, I love to take classes in faraway places -- on a beach in Hawaii, one-on-one with an instructor at Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn, during a downpour in a big palapa-roofed hut on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula -- for the simple pleasure of doing something familiar in a new setting.

I don’t seem to be alone, as evidenced by the growing number of yoga retreats on tropical islands, in the mountains of the American West and on ships.

India Supera, founder of the Feathered Pipe Foundation near Helena, Mont., one of America’s oldest yoga retreats, is similarly sensitive to the effects of place on her practice. She first encountered yoga in India, where she practiced in fields and on rooftops. When she returned to the U.S. years later, she had to adjust to doing postures indoors.

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The variation in the difficulty of yoga classes from place to place is a little more problematic. It stems partly from the way the discipline has spread around the world, says Kathryn Arnold, editorial director of the magazine Yoga Journal.

“It was in the ‘60s and ‘70s that people from North America and Europe started traveling to India, finding teachers and bringing them home,” she says. “Some Indian teachers ... were encouraged to travel by their teachers. By about 1990, a first generation of Western masters had matured.”

As a result, the practice of yoga is virtually the same in L.A., San Francisco, New York and London. But when Arnold recently took a class in Rio de Janeiro, she found it less demanding than the ones she was used to at home. “Yoga is much younger in Brazil,” she says. “They’re 12 to 15 years behind the U.S.”

The ways zeitgeist influences the practice of yoga are more subtle, though they often seem to affirm cultural cliches. Yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater, author of “Thirty Essential Yoga Poses,” says her students in Japan treat her like an authority who cannot be questioned.

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Still, doing yoga in new places taught her that people around the world are more alike than different. “Yoga means union,” Lasater says. “Seeing differences is what the mind does. We try to transcend that.”

I know what she means. As a student of yoga, I love to join strangers doing the same old downward-facing dog. But as a traveler, I can’t help noticing how they’re different from me. Yoga has taught me to try to see the differences without judging, to be touched and amused by them instead of intimidated.

“Have no expectations, and remember that taking yoga classes in foreign countries is an opportunity for deep learning,” says editor Arnold, which basically means to me: Vive la difference, even if your sticky mat smells like Windex.

The Yoga Journal website, www.yogajournal.com, has information on yoga studios in the U.S. and abroad.

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