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War of the poses

Yoga, competitive? A onetime New Yorker finds a surprising lack of harmony as Angelenos salute the style they practice and dog the rest.

April 04, 2005|John Rosenthal | Special to The Times

I first came to yoga a few years ago, while living in New York City. I was mystified by the number of different styles, so I sampled several of them: Kundalini, Iyengar, Anusara, some that were the unique recipes of the instructor and some that were closer to Pilates.

Some styles struck me as too heavy on chanting, while others left me with severe back pain. I didn't go back to those classes. Eventually, I chose Iyengar as my favorite. Its scientific approach appealed to my methodical -- OK, plodding -- nature. I warmed to its beginner-friendliness, its emphasis on alignment and the props that let me modify the postures to accommodate my taut hamstrings and shoulders.

So when I moved to Los Angeles a year ago, I was surprised to hear Iyengar yoga described in terms such as dry, boring and rigid. Flow fanatics complained that Iyengar was yoga with training wheels. They groaned at Iyengar's insistence on precisely folded blankets, or headstands against a wall, with a belt and maybe suspenders. They were convinced that the props were a crutch that prevented you from doing the asanas without help.

The feelings of disdain were often mutual. Some Iyengar folks criticized other forms of yoga as undisciplined or even dangerous. They rolled their eyes at sweatshops with techno dance soundtracks. I heard tales that B.K.S. Iyengar himself was something of a tyrant who deemed all other styles of yoga second-rate. And his intolerant institute forbade instructors from teaching any other kind of yoga. Ever.

What was with all the pettiness? I was prepared for an East Coast/West Coast divide in rap music, but the idea of sniping between Iyengstas and Ashtangstas just didn't seem very yogic to me. Yoga was supposed to be about opening your heart, not belittling others.

In New York, a city hardly known for its humility, my teachers had impressed upon me the value of nonjudgment from my very first down-dog. The types of yoga all had boosters, but few sank to bad-mouthing the others the way so many L.A. yogis did. My fellow yogis sometimes had less than complimentary words to say about individual instructors, but I seldom heard anybody condemn an entire style. On the contrary, yoga class was a refuge from the battle that is daily life in New York.

Mary Dunn, a junior advanced teacher at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York, shared my bewilderment at L.A.'s uncivil war on the hardwood floor. "I feel very friendly toward the Ashtanga community. There are a great number of yoga systems that have their own internal logic that make them work as vehicles for transformation."

In hopes of understanding this cultural divide, I started asking around various yoga communities here in L.A. Most of the yogis I talked to were well aware of the snippiness. But the attempts to explain it seemed to bring out the usual stereotypes about Los Angeles as the land of touchy-feely, granola-crunching fitness fanatics.

"Mr. Iyengar has shown therapeutically that his style uses the correct alignment," said Chris Stein, a junior instructor at L.A.'s Iyengar Institute. But in nonconformist, New Age L.A., "people may not like to be told, 'This is the right way.' "

L.A.'s reputation as workout city elicited another explanation I call the "Madonna factor." Ever since the singer-actress-Material Girl credited her hard body to her Ashtanga practice, many women desperately seeking slimness have turned to yoga. It's not hard to see why perfectly pedicured starlets-in-training would find Iyengar frustrating. It just doesn't provide the heart-pumping, sweat-inducing workout that comes from dozens of sun salutations.

"Many people are working out; they're not practicing yoga," said Jasmine Lieb, a yoga teacher and yoga therapist at Yoga Works in Santa Monica. "These people are not necessarily going to stay with [yoga] when that is no longer the vogue."

On the flip side, the proliferation of yoga classes taught by oh-so-recently converted aerobics instructors has made Iyengar teachers wary. "Part of the ambivalence on the part of the Iyengar community toward flow teachers is that [many of them] don't teach with safe alignment, or with conscientious sequencing, which could lead toward injury," said Lisa Walford, a senior instructor at L.A.'s Iyengar Institute. "That tarnishes the potential of what yoga can be."

But the explanation that put it all into perspective for me came from Hala Khouri, an instructor at Sacred Movement in Venice. In her opinion, it's the familiarity that breeds such contempt. "L.A. has a denser concentration of yoga studios than anywhere else. In most places, you don't have a choice of 10 different classes a day or the opportunity to compare so many different styles."

Rather than worry about which is the true path to enlightenment, I'm just glad I've got dozens of options to choose from every day. Now if only somebody could do the same thing for the freeways.

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