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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.


Since Yogananda's centennial birthday celebration in 1993, the fellowship's number of temples and meditation centers has increased from 400 to more than 500, with members in 178 countries. Between 1993 and 1998, attendance at temples increased an average 42%, the organization reports.

The reach of Yogananda's teachings go well beyond membership. To meet the demand for material, the religious group recently began publishing a line of books in Spanish, along with hand-sized books in English on simple themes such as prayer, success and meditation. And Yogananda's spiritual classic, "Autobiography of a Yogi," remains a perennial bestseller, having sold millions of copies in the more than half a century after its first publication six years before his death in 1952.

"It was a pivotal book," says Phyllis Tickle of Publishers Weekly magazine. "It was the first book on Eastern spiritual practice that made a big play on the popular market. It took spiritual seeking out of never-never land and gave it definition and substance."

While secular practitioners may aim for physical strength and flexibility in their practice, fellowship members profess strong spiritual yearnings. They include newer devotees such as Lorrie De Young, a Hollywood artist who joined the group with her husband and two sons two years ago. Older members include celebrities ranging from George Harrison to Mariel Hemingway, and the producer-director team of Gloria and Michael Schultz. The practice has brought new energy, peace and calm, say the Schultzes.

Gloria Schultz says that on her first visit to the Lake Shrine 24 years ago, she was instantly gripped by pictures of the gurus and, as she was leaving, felt a powerful urge to make the spiritual commitment she had avoided her entire life. Her husband was a tougher sell. He came from New York with an attitude: "This was California fruitcake stuff," he recalls thinking.

But when his wife exhorted him to listen and not judge, Schultz says, he found the sermon about how to maintain calm detachment from life's highs and lows deeply relevant to the roller-coaster entertainment industry. The clincher, he says, was finding that the techniques of concentration, meditation and energizing the body actually seemed to work.

"There was incredible peace and an ability to deal with the toughest situations in business and not be swept away by it," says Schultz, who produced the film "Car Wash," has worked on TV series including "Touched by an Angel," and recently started, with his family, two Internet film and animation firms.

Even as yoga franchises expand in the secular business world, the spiritually based fellowship operates quietly to carry out what leaders say is its highest purpose: to guard the integrity of Yogananda's teachings and disseminate them as requested.

The board of directors is comprised of six nuns and two monks, following Yogananda's wish to keep control in the hands of monastics to minimize "undue financial or commercial interests," according to Brother Chidananda.

Longtime disciples recall Yogananda turning down various marketing schemes to boost membership, preaching a desire to attract not crowds but genuine truth seekers. "Some have said we could pull in a lot of members if we use crystals and spin the approach to where present civilization seems to be rolling," says vice president Mrinalini Mata. "Never! That would be compromising the teachings."

The fellowship's "Mother of Compassion," president Sri Daya Mata, has kept affairs so true to the days of Yogananda that services almost seem a countercultural throwback to the past--especially as other churches rush to rock music, multimedia sermons and other peppy innovations. Mrinalini Mata says services have not appreciably changed in 75 years, still featuring meditation, a sermon and chants sung to the strains of a harmonium.

Leaving Trendiness at the Door

Unlike many temples that mainly serve Indian immigrants, Self-Realization centers are devoid of Hindu ritual objects and statues of Hindu gods. The centers instead feature a simple altar with flowers and pictures of its six gurus.

The fellowship also bucks current trends toward blending worship and "mix and match" religion--a strong phenomenon on the American religious scene. Yogananda warned of "spiritual indigestion" resulting from too many practices and advised people to choose one and stick with it, according to Sister Savitri of the fellowship. (Even so, she says, Yogananda believed that all faiths were essentially different paths to the same God, and in particular taught that an essential unity exists between original yoga and original Christianity--one reason that Jesus Christ is considered one of the gurus).

The group's lack of trendiness seems to be one of its attractions. "People say they are looking for authenticity," says Sister Priya.

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