Swami Beyond Ananda, a comic said to be a cross between Ram Dass and Haagen-Dazs, was addressing the crowd of legitimate yogis and yoga teachers gathered for the Unity in Yoga conference over the weekend at Murrieta Hot Springs. Getting around to the latest in yoga, he reported a startling variation big in New York: "punk yoga--that's where you stand on somebody else's head."
Though Steve Bhaerman, the man also known as the "Yogi from Muskogee," offered his remarks purely in jest, he wasn't far off the mark. There are now so many Americanized versions of the ancient Indian art of yoga, punk yoga might well have been one of them.
Consider that at this conference alone--which drew about 350 participants from throughout the United States and from as far away as France, India and Australia--these hybrid forms of traditional hatha (physical) yoga were among those demonstrated and discussed:
--Double yoga (exercises designed to be performed with a partner)
Other variations, such as yoga with weights and nude yoga (a staple at Elysium, a clothing-optional center in Topanga Canyon), were not on the conference menu, but participants indicated that they and other adaptations are growing in popularity.
Just as Americans have remodeled Japanese traditions such as sushi with such Yankee concoctions as California rolls, so have Americans mutated the serene, Indian practice of hatha yoga postures to fit their needs.
"Exercise has evolved. The whole (fitness) field has come of age, so I use modern tools of exercise. They didn't have these things in India thousands of years ago," said Lilias Folan, a Cincinnati-based yoga teacher whose televised classes have appeared on PBS stations since 1972.
Thus, Folan doesn't hesitate to use such non-traditional devices as belt-like straps (to assist students to deepen stretches) or light weights (to invite muscles to work a little harder). And in yoga-based morning workouts she taught at the conference, Folan incorporated Native American rituals (burning sage for purification, for instance).
Though she teaches classical yoga for the most part and is generally regarded as a serious teacher, Folan emphasizes making yoga accessible to those who find it strange or off-putting.
Seeking to Be Practical
"Because I go (via television) into the fields of Nebraska, the mountains of Colorado and the snows of Alaska, I have to be practical, usable, reachable," she said. "There is a lot of respect for many of the variations that are coming up in yoga. The senior teachers of this country know there are many routes to the same mountaintop." Ganga White and Tracey Rich, a husband-and-wife team who run the Center for Yoga in Los Angeles and the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, gave conference presentations on aerobic yoga and double yoga.
In their version of aerobic yoga, the postures very closely resemble standard hatha yoga poses--but there are no pauses between postures.
"I was taught an old form of yoga where you rest after every pose. The problem was I never got fully warmed up and injured myself," White explained. "Actually, aerobic yoga is an ancient form of vinyasa yoga, but we've changed some of the older sequences and put them in line with what we know about kinesiology."
White admits his system of double yoga, however, is mostly American. "You see double (yoga) postures in old cave carvings, but I've never come across a complete system of it," he said, noting that his teachings on partnered yoga have been criticized by some "ascetically oriented" Indian teachers as being "distractions into sensuality" since practitioners touch throughout the exercises.
"Some people feel you must stick to the exact tradition but that implies you know what the tradition really is--or that anybody does," White argued. "The tradition is always interpreted. That's the nature of the mind."
Differences in individual physiques also require that yoga exercises be adapted, maintained Larry Payne, director of Samata International Center for Balance in West Los Angeles.
Payne, who has specialized in yoga therapy and what he calls "healthy back exercises for high-stress professionals," has developed yogic variations on the types of treatment and exercises typically prescribed by MDs, chiropractors and physical therapists. "We add breath and concentration and other elements of yoga to these exercises and it makes all the difference in the world," he said.
Whatever its form, yoga appears to be thriving, if numbers of magazine subscriptions and mailing lists are any indication. According to Michael Gliksohn, publisher of Yoga Journal, the magazine's circulation--about 50,000 subscribers--has increased by 40% since 1984.