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You Call That a Tree Pose?!

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Among yoga teachers, Michaan is something of a cult figure. “She’s kind of the yoga teacher’s teacher,” says her daughter Danielle, who opened the Chelsea branch of Katonah Yoga this fall, where Michaan, who has been teaching yoga for more than 30 years, frequently leads classes. A metaphor-spouting 57-year-old with long graying hair, Michaan compulsively “reads” the bodies of nearly everyone she meets, including Westchester figures like Chevy Chase and Martha Stewart, assessing the weaknesses in their posture and prodding them into better form. “If you want to teach someone to make an origami cup, the easiest way to do it is to make the cup first,” she explains while cheerily manhandling me into a seated lotus position a few days after I have dinner with Regelin. “You give it to them and tell them to unfold it, and then just have them refold the exact same corners.” She lifts my chin firmly but gently. “There,” she says. “Now you’re perfect.”

In Michaan’s brand of yoga, which combines alignment-based Hatha with Taoist ideas, the good is the enemy of the perfect. According to Michaan’s theory, people are like fold-up tables. If something happens to one of the limbs, the whole thing goes wobbly. Yoga postures can help straighten them out, as long as they’re doing it right. “Learning yoga from Vinyasa is like learning French in a bar,” Michaan says. “Eventually you need to learn how to conjugate a verb and structure a sentence.”

As she talks, Regelin sits next to her, rapt. Michaan changed the way he thought about teaching, he told me back at DuMont. “After going to her classes, I started looking at my students and I was like, I’m not helping these people. I saw how their practices were evolving and I thought, I don’t want to be a part of this anymore.”

He began teaching classes that focused more on alignment and form, rebranding them “Vesica,” after the vesica piscis, the geometric symbol with mystical connotations. He became more vigilant about adjustments and unsparing about his students’ flaws. “I’m never going to praise you,” I heard him say once. “Praise is bullshit.”

In contrast to the dialogue chirped by most yoga instructors (“You don’t need to do everything perfectly,” one at my gym cooed recently, “because the perfection is inside of you”), Regelin’s inter-class patter could sound harsh, even when he tried to temper it. “I’m not trying to be condescending,” I heard him say more than once, sounding exasperated. And “You’re not in trouble.”

“You think I boss people around,” he says. “But I’m helping them.” He’s right. Regelin is all-seeing; in his classes it’s impossible to get away with a lazy dog or a floppy eagle without him bounding over to adjust your posture. You leave feeling not only muscles that you usually ignore, but like you’ve learned something. Which is, of course, the idea. “Yoga is not about enjoying yourself and having a fun experience that you like; it’s about changing yourself,” he says. “And what changes you is usually stuff you don’t like. It’s like if you go on a trip, and it’s like the worst trip of your life, it is usually the one that transforms you the most. If you go on a trip and everything’s paid for and you’re shuttled everywhere, I mean, that’s great, that’s nice. But you don’t want to indulge all the time.”

At Kula, not everyone was onboard with his Tiger Mom approach, and Regelin, unsurprisingly, saw students drifting away from his classes. “Most people are completely self-indulgent people who only search for the gratifying thing,” he says. “As soon as somebody points out something they’re not able to do, they get defensive.”

Schuyler Grant, the founder of Kula, declined to comment on Regelin’s tenure there. “I’m not going to get into a back-and-forth with David,” she said over e-mail. “He can say what he likes.” But Regelin’s popularity with the other teachers at the studio began to suffer, too, as he found himself getting into frequent arguments. “You know, I’d tell them like, ‘If you really had something to say, you wouldn’t be shouting it over music,’ ” he says. “Or, ‘If you really wanted someone to learn a pose, you wouldn’t be putting together ten different poses that don’t relate to one another.’ ”

When the opportunity to leave Kula for Katonah came, he took it. “David is intense,” says Danielle Michaan. “But it’s because he’s so dedicated.”

These days, his classes are smaller. “I don’t have as many students as if I was like, ‘Be yourself!’ ” he says. He doesn’t blame the people who skitter out after the first class, freaked out by his assessment of their form. “It’s confrontational,” he says. “It’s like going into someone’s house and opening a closet and being like, ‘What the fuck, you’ve got a huge mess in here.’ People have a fear generally of being known. Like this. I fear this. Now people are going to see me and be like, ‘There’s that asshole.’ ”


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