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Flex Appeal


It started to feel like yoga was everywhere -- often in the most upscale of venues. Out in Sag Harbor one night, I was invited to a dinner party given by Andrew Farkas -- the young, multimillionaire founder and CEO of the real-estate services company Insignia Financial Group -- on his outrageously well-appointed sailboat. Deck hands passed around mango martinis to a classically New York mix of guests: socialites (Sloan Lindemann), boldface investors (Chappy Morris), columnists (Richard Johnson), fashion designers (Steven Stolman), and the token oddity (Tone-Loc). Among them, I spied a man I swore I knew but couldn't place. He was slight and handsome, about 40, with a sprinkle of gray in his hair. "Excuse me," I said. "Do I know you?"

"Yes," he answered, very matter-of-fact. "We slept together."

Now, this wasn't true, but I suppose it was a good line, better still since it took me a minute to remember that I had, in fact, spent a night of debauched partying at his lavish West Village townhouse about three years back. He was a hedge-fund manager, and the word on the street was that he'd started running a lot of cash. "You should come over to my place sometime," he said evenly, slipping an arm around his waifish girlfriend. "I've amassed quite an art collection since you were last there." Oh, yes, and he said he'd become more devoted than ever to yoga.

This is not to say that he was dropping out -- in fact, it was just the opposite. "Going around India with a begging bowl is the easy way out," he said. "It's an excuse for not doing anything with your life, and that's not my style." Mr. Hedge Fund's style has more to do with winning. "Companies are short, management's trying to defraud us, and I'm like Rambo in the office, headset on, three computers in front of me, mowing them all down," he told me proudly. "Yoga is all about focus and perfect aim."

We left it at that and sat for the meal. The host raised his glass. "To my wife," he said, beaming happily at the young, beautiful blonde he'd recently wed. "She is so damn hot."

"To my husband," his wife responded, with a sly grin. "He is so damn wealthy."

"I'm like Rambo in the office, headset on, three computers in front of me," Mr. Hedge Fund tells me. "Yoga is all about focus and perfect aim."

Later, Mr. Hedge Fund sought me out. "There are many paths to happiness," he whispered. "But only yoga is true."

The more I did yoga, the clearer it became that my path to happiness was going to take a lot more than perfecting a King Pigeon pose. The truth is that being a virtuous person had never been as high a priority for me as being an exciting person. But now I tried to be good. I found myself putting away my makeup and my tighter, attention-grabbing clothes. I decided that I'd no longer write nasty things about people. I got so upset when I saw two women stow their Tod's bags on the ledge of Jivamukti's shrine before class that I moved them to a cubby myself. I quit going to bars and clubs almost completely, and became monogamous with my boyfriend.

"Yoga is about so many things," says Sharon Gannon, the shockingly young-looking 50-year-old who co-directs Jivamukti with her on-again, off-again lover, David Life. "It's about how you relate to the people you live with. It's about how you relate to the animals you live with. It's about the food that you eat, the things that you choose to buy, and who you vote for."

Both Gannon (whose Sanskrit name is Tripura Sundari, meaning beautiful woman) and Life (Deva Das) were little known avant-garde performers before they opened a yoga studio on Second Avenue in 1990. Shortly after, Life was initiated into an order of celibate monks as Swami Bodhananda, taking lifelong vows of poverty, celibacy, and simplicity. It didn't last: He renounced them in 1993. "It just didn't work in New York," he says. "People were treating me like a guru, and I never wanted to be that."

Nevertheless, glamorous pictures of Gannon and Life looking very much like gurus hang throughout the center, and the influence of the couple is felt in every class. Each month has a different focus, which can range from Siva to vegetarianism, from death and dying to "speciesism" (Gannon has even published a book, Cats and Dogs Are People Too). In a mandatory fifteen-minute dharma talk at the beginning of each class, teachers stress the rule book of yoga: the five yamas, usually translated as non-harming, non-lying, non-stealing, non-attachment, and celibacy (Westerners have updated this to mean not too much sex). Many students also participate in Jivamukti's weekly satsangs (devotional gatherings), which include guided meditation workshops, discussions of scripture, and kirtans (chanting sessions). The latter are sometimes presided over by Bhagavan Das, a popular kirtan wallah (traveling singer) soon to release an album with the Beastie Boys' Mike D. Tall and dreadlocked, he appears at Jivamukti trailed by at least half a dozen followers clad in flowing white robes.

We didn't wear robes, but from the beginning, followers of Kelly were a similarly devoted bunch. She was an endless source of curiosity to all of us, and we hoarded any information we gleaned. I learned from a former classmate of hers that she'd graduated from Sarah Lawrence and used to work for Diane von Furstenberg. Someone had seen her getting out of a Ferrari. Someone else found out that she dated only bankers.

It turned out, in fact, that she had been introduced to yoga by Mr. Hedge Fund, whom she met on a blind date back when he was a nearly bankrupt junk-bond trader.

"I used to call him Yoga Faggot to all my friends," admits Kelly. "Yoga Faggot! Can you believe it? What a bitch."

He kept pressuring her to try yoga, and eventually she gave in. "There were only so many times you can say no to someone you're in love with," she says. Then she deadpans: "I mean, eventually, I slept with him, too."

She decided that she wanted to be a yoga teacher during that first class. When she signed up for the Jivamukti teacher-training program, she says, "my parents hit the roof -- we're a Waspy Brooklyn Heights family, and they basically thought I'd joined a cult. But I wasn't going to change my mind." She smiles. "Because for the first time in my life, I had full, complete, unshakable faith in who I am and what I'm doing here. I knew that I wanted to offer my practice to God."

God wasn't all that much in vogue in this city before September 11 brought Him to our door, and yoga class was perhaps the one secular venue where He was spoken about openly and at length. There are few types of yoga (Crunch's "disco yoga," the video series "Yoga for Golfers") that resist paying at least a little lip service to some all-powerful being. The central claim of Vedic philosophy is that each human being is at core a soul (atman) that dwells in the changeless, infinite reality of brahman, the eternal essence from which all creation derives. Thus, according to the Indian Gnostic scriptures, the Upanishads (which include the text most known to Westerners, the Bhagavad Gita), all humans -- and, some would argue, all animals, and all molecules, for that matter -- are members of a single family. All are one: There is no I and no you, no seer and no seen.

"We are all confused, and we think that we're alone out there, and we're sort of sad about that -- but we also like it," says Cyndi Lee of Om. "Because it means we exist, we can do whatever we want, and we're important. But what yoga is about is connecting back with that oneness that is all."

You hear this sentiment over and over again from yoga devotees, many of them lawyers, bankers, actors, successful people, people who by rights should not be lost, people who refer to themselves as "raised Catholic" or "culturally Jewish" but who shy away from the word religion and all its implications. Yet there we all are, memorizing Sanskrit chants to Hindu saints, praying for British animals killed by mad-cow disease, and abstaining from headstands on days when we have our periods, because our teachers claim they would cause energy disruptions. "The physical practice of yoga is the tool, not the goal," explains Life. "The goal is to understand that God is within all of us, and we are all gods. Only with that understanding is there happiness."

This faith hasn't wavered with the events of September 11; in fact, it has given many great solace. Hearing eternal life discussed with such assurance feels like an incredible comfort when death is so immediate. Having a head start on unconditional love when everyone around you is suddenly finding it isn't bad either, nor is the notion of looking more carefully at yourself and the life you're leading.

On the day after the tragedy, as we all sat pensive yet expectant on our mats, Ruth Lauer, a Jivamukti instructor, began her class with this thought: "All of us have worked very, very hard for some time to develop qualities that are good. We have seen ourselves grow as a community, a community of people who value love, scripture, grace, and beauty. We have talked about unconditional love, about making God a reality in our lives through our actions. In some ways, this terrible thing makes us feel our values are right: Love is why we're here."

Her voice got louder and more emphatic. "If we only think about ourselves right now, we are going to be miserable and unsafe, but if we think about God and the universe, I think we will be okay," she said, and then smiled. "We have tried so hard to be good. Let's be good."

"i'm going to talk to your supervisor, and I'm going to get my records, and I'm going to sue you," says Russell Simmons, sitting in a Lincoln Navigator outside the Def Jam offices. A nervous blonde saleswoman has brought him this new car to replace his old one, which he claims is a lemon, but she wants him to pay extra for it. That's not going to happen. "I'm going to spend a little time and a little money," continues Simmons, "and I'm going to get my man the public advocate on the case, and we're going to go to work on Navigator."

He slams the door.

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