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Yoga's rock stars

L.A.'s top yogis have lifestyles that rival their celebrity clients'.

August 21, 2006|Jenny Hontz | Special to The Times

SHIVA REA, the reigning queen of L.A.'s saturated yoga scene, strikes a pose for Yogi Times photographer Jasper Johal.

"Scoot back a little so that light catches your face," directs Johal, whose photo will grace a "Pose for a Cause" centerfold promoting the international charity Trees for the Future. "Beautiful, nice. Got it."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Celebrity yogis: A caption accompanying a Monday Health article about celebrity yogis misspelled the name of Shiva Rea as Shiva Rae. The caption also said that she was donating proceeds from one of her workshops to charity. In fact, she is donating money from multiple workshops.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 28, 2006 Home Edition Health Part F Page 6 Features Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Celebrity yogis: A caption accompanying an article about celebrity yogis in last week's section misspelled the name of Shiva Rea as Shiva Rae. The caption also said that she was donating proceeds from one of her workshops to charity. In fact, she is donating money from multiple workshops.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Yoga pose: A photo by Los Angeles Times staffer Karen Tapia-Andersen with an article in the Aug. 21 Health section about L.A.'s top yoga practitioners should have made it clear that yogi Duncan Wong was posing for Yogi Times photographer Jasper Johal.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday September 25, 2006 Home Edition Health Part F Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Yoga pose: A photo by Los Angeles Times staffer Karen Tapia-Andersen with an Aug. 21 article about L.A.'s top yoga practitioners should have made it clear that yogi Duncan Wong was posing for Yogi Times photographer Jasper Johal.

Fellow yogi Duncan Wong and a group of DVD promoters cheer on Rea, just out of view of the snapping lens, as a glam-style fan lifts wisps of her long golden hair.

"This brings up my inner rock star," Rea jokes.

It's an offhand remark, but the truth in her statement is impossible to miss. The L.A. studio has the distinct look and feel of a celebrity fashion shoot.

Although Rea, 39, and other A-list yogis may begin their mornings with ancient Indian meditation and tongue-scraping rituals, their days are frequently filled with more contemporary marketing duties. Such is the odd, new balancing act of today's top yogis, many of whom have been teaching for 20-plus years and are now confronting international fame.

Riding a wave of unprecedented yoga mania -- fueled in part by star practitioners such as Madonna -- modern yogis' lives, especially in Los Angeles, increasingly resemble those of the celebrities they often teach.

Practitioners such as Rea, Bryan Kest, Sean Corne, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, Ana Forrest and Rodney Yee are the Nikes, Coca-Colas or, perhaps, Whole Foods, of the yoga world. Their brand names sell clothing lines, DVDs and pricey international retreats, as well as various causes.

"It's a wild thing," says Kest, 41, founder of Santa Monica Power Yoga, whose classes frequently draw nearly 200 people, some squeezing into the studio's bathroom, placing their mats next to the toilets.

His schedule is booked through 2011, and his yogi buddies spend so much time on the road, they have no need for a home. "It's a total rock star life," he says. "They're picked up at the airport, taken to a hotel and then off to the yoga studio, where 150 people all pay a lot of money to see them. It's like a concert."

In fact, all but the wealthy are priced out of the most exclusive yoga vacations. Maty Ezraty and Chuck Miller, the former owners of Yoga Works, are hosting weeklong retreats, costing $8,000 to $12,000, at the Tuscany villa of Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, in September and October.

Regardless of price, the most popular yogis have students who never miss a venue, like fans who trailed the Grateful Dead.

"I do have people who follow me around," said Forrest, 49, founder of Forrest Yoga Institute in Santa Monica. "They are my student base, not 'groupies.' That word implies mindless idiots."

Though some teachers bristle at the mention of their celebrity status, others cultivate and embrace it.

Wong, 38, a former street tough who sports a nose ring and gangster tattoos alongside the Buddha eye on his arm, talks with the bravado of a rap star -- all in the name of enlightenment.

"I'm into name, game, claim and fame," said the Asia-based master of yoga-martial arts fusion. "I'm going for the world, no mistake about that, but not for oneself alone. It's for others. The key is service."

He recently opened studios in Shanghai and Tokyo, released a DVD and will soon launch a high-end clothing line with designer Yohji Yamamoto.

"It's large. It's very high art, the art of living the high life, jet setting and castles," he said of his time teaching and traveling with Madonna.

In this era of insatiable celebrity obsession, it seems anything stars do and anyone they touch also become famous. Yogis are no exception, and Los Angeles is the nexus of the two.

As they live it up, though, some teachers wonder whether yoga has become so commercial -- and so popular among the elite -- that it has lost its soul.

"There's irony in it," said Ezraty, 43, who sold Yoga Works in a multimillion-dollar deal three years ago, in part because she was tired of pulling great teachers from the schedule who couldn't fill classes.

"They wouldn't play the game, wouldn't dress right" or play music, she said. "I couldn't take it anymore. Yoga is not about publicity, the clothes, where you live. It's about being content with yourself."

Ezraty believes the concept of celebrity teachers contradicts yoga's key principle of "union" among all living beings. "It's challenging for yoga teachers to keep their cool and not let it get to their heads."

But perspective is certainly possible. When it comes to yoga superstars, Rea is the ubiquitous lean-bodied goddess du jour. Gracing the cover of June's Yoga Journal magazine, she has her own yoga clothing line called Shiva Shakti and several of the bestselling yoga DVDs on the market. Rea's image and writings also fill the pages of yoga photography books and calendars.

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