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Bend Into Shape

Exercise trends come and go, but after 2,200 years, yoga is more popular than ever. Pick a class and liberate yourself from the illusion of fitness.

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Yoga classes, like restaurants on East 6th Street, work by word of mouth. A friend swears by Yoga Zone, so one day, when you simply can't bear the thought of another session on the Power Glider, you decide to see what all the fuss is about. But if you don't like it, you may never try yoga again -- which is a shame. There's a wide range of yoga training available throughout the city, for all ages and physical abilities. You just took the wrong class.

After a year of going to Integral Yoga Institute twice a month, I became curious about other types of yoga. So I tried six of the major disciplines: Hatha, Bikram, Vinyasa Hatha, Sivananda, Iyengar, and Kundalini, over the course of a month to compare. My posture and flexibility have never been better -- though I still lose my mind when the subway gets stuck.

Whatever your motivation may be -- to reduce stress, burn calories, tone the body, ward off evil spirits -- I promise, as Ganesh is my witness, that there is a discipline of yoga out there that will meet at least some of these needs. Sessions range from $10 to $17, plus a $1 towel rental, and usually consist of an hour-long series of asanas (poses); you may also chant, meditate, and listen to the teacher's thoughts on reincarnation. But often the most immediate difference between disciplines, particularly for neophytes, is how long the asanas are held -- in other words, will you be standing on your head for ten seconds or ten minutes?

Hatha. Confusingly, "Hatha" is both an umbrella term that covers a number of disciplines (including the ones mentioned below) and a discipline of its own. Expect a reasonable amount of chanting and a moderately quick series of asanas -- as well as a long relaxation period at the end of class. Beginning to advanced levels of Hatha, as well as specialized workshops like prenatal and Hatha for Spanish speakers, are taught in the pastel-colored, plushly carpeted rooms of Integral Yoga Institute (227 West 13th Street; 929-0586), where the emphasis is on correct postures rather than working up a sweat and teachers tuck you in with a blankie afterward. The clientele is co-ed and fit (but refreshingly unfabulous).

Bikram. Developed by former yoga champion Bikram Choudhury, Bikram relies on a set series of 26 asanas, mostly forward bends and spinal twists, per 90-minute class. There's no chanting or meditation, but the teachers maintain a constant, Alpha-wave-inducing patter on topics like inner-thigh stretching and inner-eye gazing. In Bikram, the classroom temp is set at a minimum of 100 degrees in order to warm the muscles for easier stretching (afterwards, you experience a pleasant, lightheaded buzz). This was the most physically taxing form I tried, but I was pleased to find that I was able to hold poses longer and more correctly with Bikram than with other types of yoga. Manhattan's first center devoted entirely to Bikram yoga just opened in Hell's Kitchen: Bikram Yoga College of India (797 Eighth Avenue, near 48th Street; 245-2525). The place is bright and spotless and -- thank Shiva -- offers cold and hot showers.

Sivananda. This one adheres strictly to yoga's five fundamental tenets: proper exercise (asanas), proper breathing (pranayama), relaxation (sarvasana), meditation (vedanta), and proper diet (vegetarian). A class begins with ten minutes of chanting and ends with a fifteen-minute relaxation period, but the middle is a vigorous physical workout -- twelve sun salutations in a row will kick-start your heart rate, no matter how fit you are. Chelsea's Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center (243 West 24th Street; 255-4560), a narrow brownstone with cute, if slightly cramped, quarters, offers a free introductory class for beginners.

Vinyasa Hatha. This is the house style at Jivamukti Yoga Center (404 Lafayette Street; 212-353-0214), a 9,000-square-foot space that is the city's largest yoga studio. It's extremely challenging: a long, fast series of asanas with lots of shouted chanting, headstands, forearm stands, and handstands, all of which were held a little too long for me, an advanced beginner. Don't come here hoping for a serene city respite -- the subway rumbles beneath the building, motorcycles blare by on Lafayette Street, and you're checked in at a bank of computers by women who buzz around like Starbucks baristas. The clientele includes stars like Uma Thurman and Sting -- along with more than a few scantily clad babes who are celebrities in their own minds. Vinyasa Hatha is also taught at the new OM Yoga Center (135 West 14th Street; 212-229-0267), a shabby-chic studio where the jovial teacher offers this gem one morning: "Try to let go of your stressful life. But if you can't let go, that's okay," she sighs. "At least try to relax a little."

Iyengar. Like Bikram, this form is named for its creator, B. K. S. Iyengar, who has taught yoga since the age of 19. The instructors make an effort to impart the fundamentals of anatomical alignment to their students, many of whom are elderly or have sports injuries. Taught six to ten times a day at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York (27 West 24th Street; 212-691-9642), Iyengar is as interval-oriented as Vinyasa Hatha is fluid: The focus is on alignment through held postures. At times, while holding triangle posture for half an hour, you feel like a statue. But afterward, you'll feel like a god.

Kundalini. Kundalini, which refers to the energy force that exists at the base of the spine, is the most overtly spiritual discipline. To the plink-plink of Indian music and the scent of pungent incense, Kundalini classes move slowly through gentle stretches, prolonged chants, and lots of breathing (or not-breathing) exercises. On each breath, the student is told to repeat, inwardly, "sat, nam," which translates as "truth is my name" -- truth be told, it has a strangely calming effect. Kundalini Yoga East (873 Broadway, near 19th Street; 212-982-5959), a quiet, green-carpeted studio near Union Square, is one of the city's few Kundalini centers. Classes are small, and the turbaned teachers will happily answer inquiries about a possible pilgrimage to India. Sutra of the day: "Recognize that the other person is you."


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