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Has Yoga Stretched Too Far?

This ancient Hindu discipline has become so popular that serious devotees are worrying about over-commercialization.

August 23, 2000|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

In the stillness of a light-filled temple, hundreds of yoga devotees sit with erect spines, breathing slowly, drawing their prana--life force--inward and their attention toward God.

Here at the Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades, more than 1,000 followers gather each Sunday to chant, meditate and pay homage to the Self-Realization Fellowship's lineage of gurus--most prominently Paramahansa Yogananda, the Indian swami known as a founding father of yoga in the West who brought the ancient Hindu techniques here in 1920.

A few miles away, along fashionable Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, a different kind of yoga practice is underway. This secular studio is hip, featuring beautiful people in clingy garb who twist and stretch their bodies in poses with names like Downward Dog. Yoga Works offers nearly back-to-back yoga classes--150 a week--along with workshops on everything from the Yoga of Money to Zen Dance.

Yoga, meet yoga.

Seventy-five years after Yogananda established his worldwide religious headquarters in Los Angeles, Americans are embracing Eastern traditions of yoga and meditation as never before. Once seen as the stuff of snake charmers and magic carpets, yoga is said to be practiced today by some 12 million Americans of diverse backgrounds. Celebrities tout it, doctors prescribe it, health clubs teach it, corporations offer it. Advertisers are using yoga to sell Zippo lighters, Ford Rangers and even yoga pedicures--"guaranteed to soothe the sole."

The yoga craze reflects what the fellowship's Brother Anandamoy calls a "survival instinct" for stillness amid the frenetic pace of the relentless information age. Yoga Works teacher Julie Kleinman says at least half of her students are desperate for decompression; others are tired of treadmills, Tae-Bo and weight training. Still others say the attraction to yoga reflects a broader hunger for mystical, direct experiences with the divine--evidenced by growing interest in Jewish Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism and even Christian Pentecostalism.

Even as devotees hail the spread of yoga into mainstream America, some question its secularization and commercialization. Earlier this month in Anaheim, for instance, a national organization of fitness professionals held a two-day seminar on how to teach yoga--now the third-fastest growing activity in gyms, offered by nearly 60% of them, according to the fitness group, IDEA.

Such instant yoga offends some, who say that the practice is more profound than a path to tight pecs and that it takes years of physical and spiritual discipline to master. "Yoga is a sacred tradition meant to discover who we truly are in a spiritual dimension," says Georg Feuerstein, president of the Yoga Research and Education Council in Sebastapol. "If we only focus on our hamstrings, that's a sad commentary on our culture today."

Lina Gupta, associate professor of philosophy and comparative religion at Glendale Community College, says the physical postures of hatha yoga are meant to be a means to an end. The end is self-realization, which requires meditation, sitting for long periods and limber bodies--for which hatha yoga was developed. But the physical postures have instead become the end, she laments.

Yoga Works, in business since 1987, tries to straddle a middle course between the spiritual and secular forms of yoga. Founder Maty Ezraty says the studio deliberately downplays yoga's spiritual dimension to remain accessible to all but hires only experienced instructors well-versed in the broader tradition. Kleinman, for instance, featured light touches of meditation and Sanskrit chanting during her recent class; she has also read the classic Yoga Sutras by the great Indian sage Patanjali.

Ask the group that first popularized it all about any furor and its members seem mainly amused.

"Yogananda-ji would laugh," says Mrinalini Mata, vice president of the late guru's worldwide Self-Realization Fellowship, headquartered in a lush oasis of streams, deodar trees and meditation spots in Mount Washington. "He had a tremendous sense of humor."

Roots in Classic Hindu Philosophy

Yoga, a Sanskrit word often interpreted as "union with spirit," is a 5,000-year-old sacred path to divine realization developed on the Indian peninsula as one of the major systems of Hindu philosophy. Each of the six major yogic paths offer different methods to achieve its ends: hatha yoga, for instance, employs physical postures to purify the body for meditation. The fellowship practices a form of Raja yoga, using meditation techniques to quiet the body and mind by directing the life energy inward, gradually bringing an inner awakening and attunement with the divine.

The Self-Realization Fellowship's own brisk growth, as it marks the 75th birthday of its international headquarters and on Sunday celebrated the 50th anniversary of its popular Lake Shrine, offers testament that the yoga boom isn't merely about muscles.

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