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Yoga Without Love Beads : The 'New' Twist in '80s Fitness Stretches Back More Than 2,000 Years

April 12, 1987|PADDY CALISTRO

After a surge of interest during the consciousness-conscious '60s, yoga began to fall out of favor. Exercisers apparently lost patience with the activity, which offers slow but steady results, and turned to the fast pace and quick shape-up of aerobics. Now yoga is back--less mystical than in the past, less reminiscent of gurus in pretzel positions, and more attractive than ever to people who are interested in working out rather than working toward some spiritual goal.

"Once you step out of the metaphysical atmosphere, yoga is a great stretch and flexibility program," says Henry Siegel, co-owner of Voight Fitness and Dance Center in West Hollywood. Siegel says that, in the last five years, participation has increased tremendously, and that yoga is being used by both those who consider it their only exercise and by those who practice it in conjunction with other kinds of workouts.

Many aerobics enthusiasts dropped out of their huff-and-puff classes because of injury, exhaustion or frustration. Others burned out on the hard-driving beat of their workout sessions. For the stressed-out aerobics generation, yoga appears to be an ideal way to ease the strain on both body and mind.

Many disgruntled runners, weight trainers and aerobic dancers complain that instead of reducing the stress in their lives, their exercise regimes add more. "I fooled myself for more than a year," says Donnis Galvan, a sales manager in Santa Barbara. "I rushed to work out every day at lunch, forced myself to keep up and then rushed back to work. I thought I was doing something good for myself, but it was just another pressure." Galvan finds yoga less competitive, less stressful, and "above all," she says, "it feels wonderful."

In Los Angeles, a business executive had a similar experience with his program of running and martial arts. He confided to yoga teacher Cheryl Harriman, founder of the Harriman Studio of Yoga in West Los Angeles, that he felt agitated after his workouts. "He was adding more stress and chaos to his body and mind with those forms of exercise," Harriman says. After a few peaceful yoga sessions, she says, the executive felt calmer and more centered.

Actress Raquel Welch added mass-market appeal to yoga when her book, "The Raquel Welch Total Beauty & Fitness Program," became a best seller. Based on techniques that she learned in five years of study with Beverly Hills yogi Bikram Choudhury at his Yoga College of India, the book has a videotape counterpart that Welch also put together. With celebrity backing and a how-to video, yoga had made it to the mainstream.

Welch's consultant on the videotape, Billy Porter, now runs the Urban Yoga Institute in the Voight Center on La Cienega Boulevard. Porter explains that there are many forms of yoga, but the two most commonly taught in the United States are Kundalini yoga, which employs breathing exercises to increase energy, and Hatha yoga, which aims to improve physical well-being through the use of asanas (yoga postures) that stretch specific muscle groups. When most people talk about yoga, he adds, they are referring to Hatha. It is the system that creates, maintains and enhances the body's strength, flexibility, endurance and alignment, and "helps create integrity of all the muscles of the body," he says.

In some interpretations, the psychological and spiritual aspects are emphasized over the physical. "But," Porter says, "the yoga I teach makes you look good, too. People work up a sweat and bodies are reshaped."

Larry Payne, director of the Samata International Yoga and Health Institute in Los Angeles, also teaches the less spiritual approach. "Many priests would argue with me, but you don't have to be in the lotus position. You don't have to chant. Like any very physical exercise, concentration is the key."

Both Payne and Mara Carrico, a Los Angeles yoga teacher and therapist, studied in India with B. K. S. Iyengar, an Indian guru dubbed "the furniture yogi" because he permitted the use of props such as chairs and stools--which was once considered taboo--in classical yoga. Now Carrico teaches yoga using Iyengar's techniques. "Even from a chair, the spine can be moved in all directions: laterally, backward, forward and twisting," Carrico says, and adds, "Yoga relates to different life styles and can be done by everyone." To make her point, Carrico developed a series of 20 asanas to be performed in a chair. "This is a series for sedentary people--beginners who need to limber up," she explains.

"Trying to teach a beginner to do advanced yoga asanas , such as a headstand or the lotus position, without preparation is ridiculous," Carrico says. "They can break their necks or ruin their knees. That's not to say that no one should do these, but each student has to be prepared. Yoga is a healing exercise. It isn't meant to hurt you."

Indeed, the healing aspect of yoga is a key to its renewed popularity. The strained knees, aching backs and neck pains generated by the push for fitness and the stress of making it in a competitive world have inspired a packaged set of a book and audio cassettes called "Healthy Back Exercises for High-Stress Professionals" by Payne of Samata International. Some orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors and neurologists are now referring patients to specific yogis during treatment. And there are special classes for pregnant women, such as one taught at the Yoga Center in Los Angeles.

But devotees maintain that there are benefits to yoga that transcend the physical. Payne claims that students who are disorganized and distracted automatically "learn to be more inward, less scattered." Carrico observes that "students learn to work at their own pace and to be less competitive."

Harriman, however, summarizes simply: "Yoga brings balance to life. That's why it has been used for more than 2,000 years."

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