The Western Incarnation of Yoga
By Ephrat Livni
N E W Y O R K, Jan. 19 — Stillness is in.
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.
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
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.”
Calories to Compassion
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
“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
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
“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.”
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.”