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To the mat no longer

Yoga, which is known for good things like enlightenment and healing, is suddenly under attack from several quarters.

John Friend, the founder of one of yoga’s fastest-growing styles, stepped down after he was accused of sexual indiscretions. New York Times science writer William Broad, in his best-selling book “The Science of Yoga,” says some yoga poses can wreck your body. Worse, they don’t necessarily help you lose weight.

Even Gwyneth Paltrow has traded in her yoga mat for a personal trainer.

Some of the complaints are clearly exaggerated. Broad asked: Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? Why does the male race produce so many philanderers?

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But here in L.A., people are increasingly rejecting yoga in favor of boot camp or spinning classes. They claim it’s for fitness, but that’s not true. We Angelenos have the attention span of a mayfly, and all we care about is what we see in the mirror. The holy grail of a “yoga butt” has been supplanted by “Pilates abs” and “kickboxing thighs.”

I find debates over yoga’s value silly. Any exercise practice can be tough or wimpy, depending on the intensity and commitment you bring to it. And I say this as a former aerobics instructor from the shiny Lycra era, although I realize that may not enhance my credibility on this or any other subject.

Figuring they might attract the most dedicated yogis, I decided to investigate the city’s early morning yoga classes to see whether you can get a good workout. And if any randy stuff was going on.

Which is how I found myself on the way to the Golden Bridge yoga studio in Hollywood early Sunday, just as the club kids were heading home. Many yoga studios start at what one teacher called the “luxurious” hours of 9:30 or 10 a.m., raising the age-old question of whether people in L.A. work for a living, and if so, when?

The Golden Bridge class starts at the ghastly hour of 4 a.m.

Golden Bridge teaches Kundalini yoga, a mystical style that includes chanting, breathing exercises and sound meditation using a gong (before breakfast!). Practitioners speak of awakening the serpent energy coiled at the spine’s base and other woo-woo-sounding concepts, but the classes are friendly and you don’t have to pledge allegiance to anything to attend. When I said I didn’t think I could make it through an hour of meditation, the person who answered the phone replied, “That’s OK, you can go to sleep.”

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The class began with strength poses, broken up by five-minute interludes of free-form shaking and dancing. Sadly, in my case, it was hard to tell the shaking from the dancing.

If you want to know what the hard-core part was like, stick your arms straight out in front of you and bend your wrists backward at a 90-degree angle. Now hold it for 21 minutes. It’s excruciating, but good for toning your arms and upper back.

I mumbled along with the Sanskrit chanting, and did better with the English, hitting every third or fourth word (“bountiful … beautiful … blissful”). But really, the two hours went down easy. And I didn’t even nap, although a neighbor appeared to take a short snooze.

After class, one of the students said he practiced in the “ambrosia hours” to work off anger so he can be a better parent to his 3-year-old daughter.

“All I ever wanted was to be a dad,” said Melvin “Deep Red” Boyce, 39, who teaches yoga at the American Grace Conservatory performing arts center in Los Angeles. Boyce actually gets up at 3:15 a.m. so he can walk to class. “It makes me happy all day.”

The instructor, Ana Netanel, 32, said the class is timed to Earth’s most powerful alignment. She also said something about a Hindu god whose name I didn’t catch, but she looked so happy and glowing, I didn’t point out that I had no idea what she was talking about.

The next day, I headed for the 5:15 a.m. class at Equinox in West Los Angeles. This is one of the swankiest gyms in the city, with its own shop, cafe, beauty salon, waterfall fountain and attentive aides everywhere.

The class was Ashtanga yoga, one of the more rigorous, strength-building styles, taught by Jerome Mercier. I expected grim-faced Type A Westsiders sweating through the challenging weight-bearing postures before decamping to their offices.

Instead I found Michael Olsson, a UCLA administrator, who said he had tried several other regimens to recover from a paralyzing stroke 13 years earlier. Through Mercier’s class, he has finally regained almost full mobility and strength.

“The first time I did a head stand I broke out in tears. It was such a barrier gone through,” said Olsson, 60. Olsson said the mystical feelings he sometimes gets in class don’t interfere with his Methodist faith: “If anything, they enhance it.”

Another student, Martin Petcoff, relies on the class to get through the side effects of the chemotherapy he has undergone the last 21/2 years for colon cancer.

“If you allow the chemo to take ahold of you, it will destroy your day,” said the 71-year-old biomedical engineer.

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I didn’t have any of their challenges, but by the end of the class, my muscles were burning and I was drenched in sweat.

Mental fortitude was also the watchword at Black Dog Yoga in Sherman Oaks, where Katie Heeran taught a 6 a.m. class. It was during the recent cold snap, and, obeying the L.A. rule not to go out in any kind of weather, only two other students showed up.

It was a flow class, meaning the poses were stitched together in a relatively fast-paced routine to provide an aerobic workout as well as strengthening and stretching. Rebecca Harris, 32, a Van Nuys musician and yoga teacher, said the training has her in the best shape of her life, but the mental benefits far outweigh the physical ones.

“It’s not like when I was in my 20s, when it’s like, ‘My butt’s cute, but I’m a wreck,’ ” she said. “If I don’t practice regularly, I get a little nutty.”

Heeran, 34, of Toluca Lake, acknowledged the early morning class time kept her out of the club scene, but she doesn’t care. “That time of day is so fresh and clean, so full of possibility,” said Heeran, who is recovering from an eating disorder.

“In that room I get to be creative and people share themselves with me,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “With yoga, you’re working with your own body and it’s always a work in progress. Just like life.”

gale.holland@latimes.com


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