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Yoga’s Big Stretch

Whereas Sharon Gannon had prodded her students to “go past what you think you can do,” Charles emphasized the importance of stretching within one’s limits. “Don’t strain,” he repeated, beaming a permanent smile -- but not one of those hologram smiles you see on NY1 anchors. “Relax. Find your strength through your breath.” His approach, though lacking the electric exuberance of Jivamukti’s, made me feel safe. I even managed to keep up with two thirds of the postures.

Afterward, Charles, a 26-year-old Jivamukti defector, told me he’d grown up on an ashram in Iowa and learned yoga from his grandparents. Yoga is his life, yet at no point in the class did he attempt to make it mine -- or anyone else’s, for that matter. No sanctimonious spiritualism, no philosophical grandstanding. “I never push anybody to become spiritual,” Finger says. “Pushing a person into spirituality will push them into a cult and push them into an ism.”

To the Jivamuktans, who pride themselves on their spiritual schooling even more than the physical experience, such Finger-pointing is for lightweights. The way Gannon sees it, until Jivamukti came along, “teachers would just offer some exercises to do without saying anything about the history of those exercises or how they would benefit their students.

“That’s withholding information and asking money for it,” she adds. “Now they’re all starting to copy us: ‘We’d better start chanting oms and reading from the books.’ “

Gannon and Life credit Jivamukti for the resurgence of yoga’s popularity in the spiritual wasteland of the nineties. Mark Becker, who closed his studio in 1988 but plans to reopen this year, sees something broader stirring. “What’s happening now is that as baby-boomers are getting older they’re feeling their own mortality,” says the holistic-health entrepreneur, who currently runs New Life Expo, a huge metaphysics symposium-cum-carnival. “As for the younger generation, they realize there’s a void. It’s like the Dylan song: They know something is happening but they don’t know what it is. So they’re apt to seek new things.”

Willem Dafoe says he doesn’t care why yoga is popular. “What’s more interesting,” he wonders, “is whether it continues to grow or whether it will pass, as some superficial thing that once had cachet at a cocktail party.”

Well, who knows?

“It wasn’t until I saw Sting walk out on stage and do this,” says Life, closing his palms together in silent prayer, “that I thought: If only we could get him to do that more often, it would be a really good thing for the whole world.” By the time this issue hits the stands, Sting, Dafoe, and friends will have performed at the new Jivamukti center’s strictly no-shoes party, for which Donna Karan donated socks -- an idea that was born when a publicist mused about whether le beau monde could seriously be expected to walk around in bare feet.