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Flex Appeal

In the last few years, yoga became downtown's glamorous answer to organized religion (not to mention a way to lose stress -- and fat). But after September 11, the discipline has taken on new meaning. The story of one woman's body search.

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"If you are a young soul, you still might be attracted to worldly offerings," says Kelly Morris, an aristocratic-looking blonde who'd pass for a Christie's curator but for the microscopic gold stud in her nose. "But if you've been around for a couple trillion generations, the truth might be beginning to dawn that the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz or the younger wife is not going to do the trick for you." She surveys the assembled crowd: about 60 long-limbed twenty- and thirtysomethings in unitards or bright baggy pants. To the left of a massive, candlelit shrine, Def Jam and Phat Farm founder Russell Simmons has his mat next to Anh Duong, the style icon-actress-painter. We are all stretching our hands toward the sky in Warrior pose, and hanging on Kelly's every word.

Kelly is one of the most popular instructors at Jivamukti, the city's largest yoga center (conveniently located above the Crunch gym on Lafayette Street) and in many ways the spiritual, social, and sexual nexus of downtown New York. It's the place to see and be seen, to work out your body and your mind, a kind of group therapy for a generation that's never quite understood that perfection isn't the foremost goal in life.

"You always think, If I just had a promotion, I would be happier; if I just had a different boyfriend, everything would be perfect," Kelly says as she leads the class in a complex salutation to the sun. "But it never works. More never, ever makes you happier."

Simmons calls out from the back: "What about more sex?"

"Rus-sell," Kelly scolds.

The music crescendos -- the thrumming beats of DMX.

"You live in the city for a while, and you become the quintessential New Yorker: You're smart, you're funny, tough, attractive. But where do you go from there? Where is the room to grow?" Kelly asks. "So give, and not just when you're getting something back. Stop mistaking money, sex, looks, food, status, whatever, for love. Start to love everyone, not just the people who collude with your ego."

It is the ego that Kelly has declared war upon, and the eradication of it is what she considers the aim of yoga. "If you really want to get a great body, you can go do the Pilates Reformer machine: up, down, up, down, up, down," Kelly tells me later, with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Or you can join the cult of Lotte Berke, with a bunch of really competitive 35-year-old women trying to keep their asses in the same place that they were when they were 18."

She laughs, a low, slow cackle.

"You might say that a good body is the reason you do yoga, but it's just not true," she declares. "You say it because what else are you going to say? 'I'm really into finding my true, higher self'?"

Once the domain of hippies and Californians, yoga has become a New York obsession over the past few years. It's a commonly held notion at this point that yoga provides a good workout, a salve for aches and pains, a great way to de-stress. Even before the events of September 11 set us on a new search for inner peace, much of the city had found that yoga was also the answer to bigger questions of how to find your place in the world, a so-called meditation in motion that put the trivial in perspective. Afterward, yoga even served as the answer to coping with tragedy -- panicked students in search of guidance mobbed classes immediately following the disaster. Because yoga might also be the answer, as in the Answer.

Think of it as the only form of spirituality that burns body fat: The "practice" -- never call it exercise -- is in many ways an extreme sport. The poses, called asanas, are difficult, and it is easy to get hurt. The length of a typical class is just under two hours, as long as the most dedicated gym bunny's workout. Classrooms are often sweltering -- there's even a California-based derivative of yoga, Bikram yoga, in which 105-plus-degree heat is piped into studios -- and, in intense classes like Jivamukti's, everyone is usually packed in so closely that beads of sweat often roll off the person next to you and land on your calf.

Nonetheless, the stargazing at Jivamukti is often better than at the Park. Christy Turlington goes there, as do Molly Shannon and Jennifer Connelly, who's brought her toddler along. I've taken classes with Willem Dafoe, Jeremy Piven, Christian Slater, and Woody Harrelson (they are all short). I see Simmons regularly; he takes class daily and scurries to his chauffeur-driven car afterward, still in sweaty togs.

The goal may be egolessness, but that hasn't stopped entrepreneurs from creating, branding, and trademarking their very own types of yoga. It's a crowded market, so each studio has to have a gimmick: There are yoga centers for young seekers (Jivamukti), for the physically insatiable (Pantajali Yoga Shala), for those who want to avoid a scene (Integral). There's even a Buddhist yoga studio, Om, run by Cyndi Lee, a former choreographer who crafted the moves for Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" video. "What you're seeing right now is the product of a wildly innovative crop of teachers adapting traditional practices to Western psychology," says Kathryn Arnold, editor of Yoga Journal. "It's the birth of a truly American form."

"In the sixties, we couldn't have even imagined what people have done with yoga today," says Judith Lasater, pioneering teacher and yoga scholar for over 30 years. "No way would this have happened back then: We never would've had the chutzpa!"

That chutzpa has led to what sometimes seems like the only burgeoning business of the new millennium. Most studios have their own videos and how-to guides as well as their own line of clothing. Jivamukti even sells its own bottled water. Gucci makes a yoga mat.

One day, I was getting changed in Jivamukti's locker room when an older woman asked a blonde where she got her elaborately embroidered pink purse.

"It's Fendi," the blonde answered.

"Oh," said the first, looking confused. "I thought maybe you got it in India."

"I used to think all the time, Am I exploiting my love of yoga? And it's like, no! Yoga doesn't mean that you can't do business or can't succeed. It means doing things with consciousness," says Christy Turlington, supermodel and co-founder of a yoga-inspired beauty line, Sundãri, and president of a yoga-inspired line of clothing, Nuala, which can be found at Scoop, L.A.'s Fred Segal, and what her press release calls "high-end yoga centers" like Jivamukti. She bats her beautiful gray-green eyes. "Modeling is a career I didn't feel so good about -- it wasn't something that I felt like I chose. And yoga has helped me to make sense of that -- helped me make sense of my life, really. It's a whole new lifestyle."

It was about two years ago that I came to accept yoga as my personal savior. I got hooked on Jivamukti almost immediately. This was a separate world from the competitive and driven adult one to which I had become accustomed, a lavender-painted oasis for the 13-year-old in me who just wanted to sing and do gymnastics. Plus, Jivamukti was populated by that species of hard-bodied girl you find stalking around downtown in high-tech sneakers, earphones clamped on, tank top rising to show off a pierced belly button and the curlicue of an OM tattoo on the small of her back. That was a self I wanted to connect with.

I soon found that the more yoga I did, the more I wanted to do. Inspired in part by the fact that my dress size had dropped from an 8 to a 2 in a matter of months, I began to structure my days around yoga. My first teacher, a calm, radiant 28-year-old named Jessica, opened her own studio in Sag Harbor. I began to make a lot of trips east.

Then I found Kelly -- the only teacher at Jivamukti whose classes are so popular that an assistant must be posted outside the door to ward off crashers. There's always a fair amount of frenzy before her classes begin, and that day I'd seen not one, not two, but three people I knew and was happily working the room when Kelly appeared in the doorway. Everyone instantly quieted down.

"You do not know," she said, deftly arranging herself in lotus position at the front of the room, "how disappointing it is for a teacher to walk into a room and see her students talking."

Yoga was serious business to Kelly, the serious business of complete personality transformation that would lead all of us to become jivanmuktis, souls liberated in this lifetime. In her classes, yoga became less gym class with a message than message with a side helping of exercise.

"With yoga, the reality of life will no longer be something that you have a glimpse of when you're on LSD, or when you're having an orgasm, or when someone hugs you and you have a transcendent experience and feel oneness and complete," she explained, pacing up and down the aisles of students grimacing as they balanced on one leg for Tree pose. "You can have that feeling all the time."

That sounded pretty good to me.


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