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Om-ing in America
The Western Incarnation of Yoga

By Ephrat Livni

N E W   Y O R K, Jan. 19 — Stillness is in.

    Treadmills are being traded for yoga mats in health clubs across America, and with the help of some pro-bono celebrity endorsement, a 5,000-year-old Indian tradition is taking hold in Y2K America.
     Yoga, which means “to yoke,” is an ancient eight-pronged approach to achieving union with God — only one aspect of which involves contorting into pretzel-like poses — and it has entered the nation’s mass consciousness through the gym door. But as yoga comes of age in the West, some critics say that in a nation obsessed with progress, the very teachings that yoga emphasizes — mindfulness and process — will be lost in a flurry of muscle flexing, calorie counting and ego-driven handstanding.

The Path Is the Goal
“People can only hear what they are ready to hear,” says Beryl Bender Birch, wellness director of the New York Road Runner’s Club and co-founder of The Hard & The Soft Astanga Yoga Institute. Birch, who authored the best-selling Power Yoga and now Beyond Power Yoga, says she deliberately attached the word “power” to her book titles to attract Americans.
     Her students, she explains, come to her with various motivations — injuries and, increasingly, injury prevention, stress and relaxation — but soon incorporate spirituality into their practice.
     “A corporate executive type can come in because he is tight from jogging, and he’ll start sweating and start changing, and six months later he will be asking me questions about Zen meditation,” she explains.
    Since yoga has long been considered a last resort after the doctor and chiropractor, Bender Birch believes in gentle introductions, leading students in on the physical level. Her books, however, do stress the spiritual, discussing the “moral preliminaries for waking body and mind to meet each day.”
    But if yoga is about coming to know the “divine self” through a commitment to practice, is it still yoga when the commitment is to looking good in a bathing suit?
     At New York’s mega-gym chain Crunch, spirtuality is served in smatterings, according to taste. The classes range from the more contemplative kundalini to the nouveau-yoga, yoga-plus-trim. Meditation and more esoteric aspects are incorporated, to varying degrees.
     “Some people freak out about om-ing,” says Crunch yogini Franzi Reider, referring to the requisite chanting that starts her favorite kundalini class. “But I could be going to an aerobics class, if I wanted to just burn calories.”  

From Calories to Compassion
But David Life, co-founder of the fashionable Jivamukti yoga center in New York, points out that in India too, yoga is now seen as a way to trim inches off the waist. He disagrees with the notion that Americans are taking over, or distorting yoga, saying, “It’s not about co-opting culture. It’s about cooperating.”
     “There is a thirst for guidance in this country,” Life contends. If Americans are religious about fitness, than what better place to introduce notions like “right action” and “right livelihood” than at the gym?
     An average of 350 students a day attend classes at Jivamukti — Woody Harrelson and Sting among them — and Life reminds them, as they flex, bend and breathe, to forget their personal dramas, and extend compassion to all sentient beings.
     Wending his way through a room full of stressed-out city folk, he places a hand on a back and introduces his flock of urban truth-seekers to a notion that is radical for our medication nation: Sit with the discomfort.
     “It gives a greater sense of one-ness,” explains Jivamukti student Tanya Mara Miller, who says she has become more giving, more loving, more focused, and more conscious of all other beings in the three years since she started practicing yoga. Miller suggests the world would be a better place if everyone did yoga, but says, “In some ways it’s a fad that will pass like aerobics.”    

Holier Than Who?
Indeed, another “new” fitness craze eventually will sweep the nation, replacing headstands as the path to our ideal of perfection, but Life and Birch both agree that Americans are enriching the practice. As yoga moves into the everyday lives of more and more Americans, they are turning a once-exclusive spiritual practice into something for laypeople, allowing everyone to evolve.    

 “Some of the fundamentalists are kicking and screaming,” Birch says of those who criticize the Westernization of yoga, with ads suggesting nirvana is just one hour away, but she sees the so-called “new yoga” as part of the universal flow of energy, just another incarnation of the ancient tradition: “America is at center of the most exciting developments in yoga. The heart of yoga is here.”  




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