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Yoga Purists Mourn Spiritual Discipline's Loss of Innocence

Health: A movement to restore tradition begins among those who see its purpose drifting away from toning the mind toward toning the body.


NEW YORK — Heated to precisely 105 degrees, the Bikram yoga studio is so hot the windows look like it's raining--inside. And then there are the 25 very sweaty bodies, all trying to stretch themselves into increasingly strenuous positions as the teacher calls out an occasional "Don't panic!"

Sometimes they do, bolting from the carpeted sweatbox for a few minutes' respite in the hall.

"The smell is intense in there," says one man, guzzling water and pacing the corridor before heading back to finish the 90-minute class.

To some who practice yoga, there is something far more offensive at the Manhattan studio than the heat or stench. To them, this newfangled yoga represents the biggest threat the spiritual discipline has faced since people began practicing it more than 5,000 years ago in India--fasting, abstaining from sex and meditating in search of higher consciousness.

Yoga Golf?

They fear that the discovery of yoga by millions of Americans is killing its soul, distorting its purpose from pursuit of a better self to pursuit of a better butt.

Among the things that scare them: $38 skimpy "chakra" tank tops, disco yoga and a Web site called "Yogasm: Where Yoga Meets Fashion." Car ads that show a person meditating in front of a sport utility vehicle. Aerobics teachers who take two-day yoga courses that supposedly prepare them to do a job intended for spiritual gurus. Yoga golf.

Now a movement is afoot to return yoga to its more traditional roots. To replace sweating with meditation, hip hop with silence. To supplant Madonna as the face of yoga with people more the likes of Patanjali, the man who standardized the ancient philosophical texts about 800 years ago.

"When yoga was in its womb in India, it was safe and protected, but as it ventures into the harsh world, it is in danger of disintegrating," said Scott Gerson, a prominent alternative medicine expert and internist in New York who has practiced yoga since the 1970s. Gerson refers to most of the newer yoga classes as "debauchment."

Yoga purists such as Gerson are calling for a return to teaching yoga in its original form, a program aimed at seeking self-enlightenment by training the mind. The physical postures, or asanas, most people think of as yoga are just one segment and were meant to be part of a years-long path of study that includes practicing nonviolence, restraint and meditation.

In the last decade, however, yoga has been vigorously Americanized, repackaged, re-marketed and spit out in a multitude of images, primarily one with a hard body. It is now taught everywhere from hip city gyms such as Crunch on Miami's South Beach to grimy basement studios on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and even at the Monroeville, Pa., Senior Center, where class meets right before quilting and pinochle.

According to Yoga Journal, the industry's biggest magazine, 15 million people practice yoga in the United States, up from 12 million in 1998. In that time, the magazine's circulation has nearly tripled, to 250,000.

A frequent target of yoga purists is the genre practiced by Bikram instructor Raffael Pacitti, a popular form known as "hot yoga" because it calls for 90 minutes of deep stretching in a heated, carpeted room. Founder Bikram Choudhury, a childhood yoga champion in his native India who now lives in Beverly Hills, says the heat means it is easier to stretch. It also means the air smells like a massive pile of soiled gym clothes.

"The most exciting, hard-working, effective, amusing and glamorous yoga class in the world!" promises Bikram Yoga's Web site.

The fear of purists is embodied in the locker room at Bikram, where one sweaty young woman finished the class and exulted, "I could die right now and be perfectly happy."

Most of the women leaving Pacitti's class don't know that classical yoga often has little to do with stretching, and certainly not with strenuous positions or movements fast enough to make you sweat.

Maty Ezraty, who runs a popular yoga center in Santa Monica, sounds heartbroken when she talks about Americans' "physical addiction to sweating" and how she feels it is afflicting yoga.

As a longtime yoga practitioner, Ezraty feels she is seeing a profound philosophy and lifestyle reduced to nothing more than an alternative to step aerobics or kick-boxing. But as a businesswoman, she knows she can't fight the market.

At YogaWorks, Ezraty offers the athletic style Ashtanga, or "power yoga," as well as meditation and deep breathing.

"Senior people are looking in awe at these sweat classes, and it's really sad," she says. "But it's a real dilemma because these workout classes are so popular--there's no stopping them. Yoga teachers who see yoga as more than exercise are caught."

The bandwagon of those cashing in on yoga's popularity is crowded. It ranges from YogaFit, a company that trains teachers over a single weekend, to individuals such as Alan Ripka and Ashok Wahi.

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