Yoga’s Big Stretch

In an airless, low-lit room on Second Avenue that’s painted in purple and turquoise, Sharon Gannon snakes her way among the closely parked, partly pierced, mostly beautiful, all-white young people contorting their bodies in impossible-seeming ways. More than once during the one-hour-35-minute session, she reminds them that this is something “normal people” don’t do.

“Shift your identity toward the immortal,” she urges softly. “We’re tuning in to the cosmic station.” Jangly Indian music gives way to Van Morrison. Communal sweat fogs the windows. At one point, as 30 people exhale slowly in unison, it feels like Darth Vader has joined us. By the end, Gannon, who appears to have perfected the jet-black-hair-dark-eye-shadow-gold-nose-stud look, has me lying down in the dark, joining in the meditation mantras. She is rubbing what smells suspiciously like Vicks VapoRub on the back of my neck, and I am thinking: They could do with a bit more space around here.

Space – 9,000 square feet of it – is exactly what the Jivamukti Yoga Center is getting when it moves next week to new digs on Lafayette Street. Gannon and her co-director, David Life, describe it as the biggest yoga studio in America, an interdisciplinary, interfaith gathering place where one can take classes in Sanskrit and the Bhagavad-Gita as well as yoga, or see dance performances, all in one building replete with an entrance-hall waterfall, a meditation room, and a huge studio.

Jivamukti’s new downstairs neighbor happens to be Crunch, which, like most other fitness centers, has begun offering its own yoga classes. Nevertheless, Gannon and Life appear to have turned the holistic-health-care bandwagon to their advantage. Several Jivamukti teachers already give classes elsewhere – including at Crunch, whose CEO, Doug Levine, is himself a student of Gannon and Life’s and has welcomed them despite a lease that allows him to bar competing businesses from the building.

The real battle for minds and muscle is taking place within several yoga subcultures setting up ever-bigger shops around town. Now that the practice has reached a critical and spiritual – not to mention celebrity – mass, yoga has become big business for those very people who practice disconnection from the material world. People like Yoga Zone founder Alan Finger, a 51-year-old South African whose two Manhattan studios together equal Jivamukti’s new center. He, too, plans to open a big new space, in midtown, this year.

Tutored by his father, Kavi Yogiraj Mani Finger, Finger left Johannesburg in 1976 to start his own studios in the States, first in Washington, D.C., then in Los Angeles, where twelve years ago he opened up Yoga Works, teaching Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams, Bob Dylan, and other celebrities. But having sown the seeds of L.A.’s yoga boom, Finger packed up and moved east in 1988 because of his students’ relentless fixation on who was showing up to stretch. “Your merit as a teacher in L.A. is judged by who’s in your class,” he says. “In New York, there was less glamour. Yoga is the star, not these people.”

Of the handful of credible yoga centers in the city, each fills its own niche. Sivananda, which set up shop here in the early sixties, is perhaps the most respected of the old-guard studios, with ashrams around the world. Patanjali is the place for ashtanga purists, who practice a highly aerobic form sometimes referred to as power yoga. Iyengar, the first to develop the use of belts and blocks, has been dubbed furniture yoga.

The most commercialized contenders – Jivamukti and Yoga Zone – are amalgams of styles and cater to distinct clientele, as reflected by their locations and, to a lesser extent, their prices (they both charge more than most gyms). Jivamukti, whose fees recently jumped from $750 to $1,200 a year, regards itself as a youthful, downtown beacon for seekers (more than 300 a day, which may well double at the new center) of the light. Yoga Zone’s midtown mothership attracts a higher quotient of stressed-out suits (Finger refuses to discuss numbers). The school even operates a “yoga at work” program, offering sessions in your own office. Membership runs to $1,480 a year.

Jivamukti and Yoga Zone both lay claim to the title of top studio in New York – even as they vehemently decry any suggestion that they might actually be in competition with each other. The very notion of rivalry, I am told emphatically, is essentially non-yogic (the word yoga does, after all, mean “union”); both add that they make a point of encouraging their students and teachers to seek out other schools. “We don’t want them to be kept in the dark,” Gannon says. “That doesn’t promote yoga; that promotes fear, and we don’t have anything to be afraid of.”

“I don’t even consider Jivamukti in my mind as anything, I just teach my teachings,” says Finger, a barrel-chested grizzly bear of a man with small, kind, hooded eyes and an ever-present necklace of meditation beads. “Where did we all get our techniques, Jivamukti and us? They were handed down from the seers of yoga through the centuries. They are tools, and they can’t be claimed. It’s not for someone to say, ‘My hammer is better than your hammer’; it’s how you use your hammer.”

Notwithstanding centuries of magnanimous hammering, the fact remains that within only months of each other, both centers are (a) opening megaspaces, (b) increasing their merchandising (Jivamukti boasts a new boutique; Yoga Zone has launched a mail-order catalogue that includes a line of clothing designed by Finger’s wife and co-founder, Greta Finger), and (c) producing their own videos (Jivamukti has enlisted devotee Willem Dafoe; Yoga Zone has joined forces with Buns of Steel maestro Howard Maier). In 1996-97, there was a 26 percent decrease in exercise-video sales, according to VideoScan, Inc., which tracks retail sales of videotapes. Yet Yoga Journal’s “Yoga for Beginners” was 1997’s seventh-best-selling exercise video in a pack of around 100 on the market.

For the past nine years, Gannon and Life have been trying to change the face of yoga in the West through their unapologetically God-centered method (Jivamukti comes from Jivanmukti, Sanskrit for “liberation of the soul”).

“Our project from the very beginning has been to respiritualize the practices,” says Life, whose deep, narcotic tones and hollowed cheeks lend him something of an Iggy Pop mystique. “Yoga is a tool for realization of the self, not for creating big muscles.”

Despite their cramped East Village studios and despite – or perhaps because of – their take-it-or-leave-it attitude, Gannon, 46, and Life, 47, have attracted a following that verges on the cultlike. Boldface acolytes include Dafoe and Christy Turlington; Sting and his wife, film producer Trudie Styler, recently hosted a ten-day Jivamukti retreat at their new villa in Tuscany, and are traveling with Gannon and Life to India in March.

“Someone said they’re the wild children of yoga, but if anything they’re the most traditional exponents in New York City because they teach it as a religious concept,” says Sting, who has practiced ashtanga for seven years and claims – tongue loosely lodged in cheek – that it enables him to make love for as long as seven hours at a go (“that’s counting dinner and a movie”).

Three years ago, however, he became a Jivamukti convert. “I’m pretty fit, and I was humiliated by the whole practice because I simply couldn’t do it,” says the 46-year-old king of pain, who these days commutes from his English country estate to New York more often than he does to London. “There are some people there who can twist themselves into a pretzel.”

Gannon and Life began their own tantric journey in 1983. He had been running Life Cafe on Avenue B since the late seventies; she was waitressing there and had broken a vertebra. After considering surgery and deciding it was too great a risk, she sought out yoga classes, which she credits with saving her. Life tagged along, too; four years later, they founded Jivamukti.

In 1992, despite his misgivings, Life became a monk at the prompting of his guru. After two and a half years of poverty, celibacy, and sartorial surrender, he renounced his vows, having found that instead of making life simpler, monkhood had made him a celebrity – “the most sought-after bachelor in Manhattan,” Gannon says. Their own on-again, off-again relationship, they say, is “sort of” back on these days. “There’s a little bit of romance on the odd weekend,” Life quips, “but most of the time we work.”

Life says his years of celibacy were simply part of an overall commitment to Jivamukti’s principle of transcending the material world. As Christy Turlington puts it: “When you’re standing on your head, you can’t think about what you’ve just done or what you’re going to do, these little details in life that drive us all crazy. You shut yourself off from the outside world, and when you leave, you’re, like, floating.”

Transcendence is one thing; jeopardy is another. All but one of the six Jivamukti students I spoke with said they had been injured as a result of the center’s work-through-the-pain philosophy. One student claimed that different teachers taught contradictory moves. Several other students were hurt because of aggressive hands-on assisting when teachers trying to correct their posture had pushed them beyond discomfort. Another student confided that she had damaged her back: “I was so addicted to that place, it destroyed me. You want to know something really psycho? I went back and reinjured myself. The whole time, I was in pain, looking like an idiot, with these people who could be in the circus.” And, she says, she can’t wait to go back.

“This one woman was saying, ‘This is too much for me,’ but it was her head that was saying it,” says Marni Task, a Jivamukti teacher of a year and a half. “How do you grow in your mind if you’re constantly saying you can’t?”

That attitude is, in fact, part of Jivamukti culture; danger, Life tells me, is what Jivamukti is all about. “The practice of yoga is intended to be extreme,” he insists. “It’s not intended to make the body more healthy. The intention is to put your personality at risk.”

Jivamukti’s yearlong teaching program involves 2,000 hours of training. Nevertheless, Yoga’s safety problems today, says pioneering yogameister Mark Becker, who started out with Serenity in 1975 (perhaps best remembered for the nude, co-ed sauna), lie in the absence of a certification process. “I certified only 10 percent of all the people who wanted to teach,” says Becker. “It’s great that there’s more and more people teaching it these days, but I see more and more injuries.”

Having built a 36-year reputation fronting the most beginner-friendly schools around, Alan Finger recognizes the dangers, too. “You can hurt yourself very much from yoga,” says Finger, who sits on an advisory board at Oxford Health Plans, a health-maintenance organization that will subsidize some of the cost of yoga work with accredited schools and teachers. “We’re more concerned with the individual’s growth than with putting you through a gymnastic class.”

Having never taken a yoga class in my life, I recently attended an advanced-intermediate gathering at Yoga Zone’s Fifth Avenue studio. First I signed a release form absolving the place from responsibility for any injuries I might sustain (a convention of most centers and gyms). The instructor, Charles, introduced himself to the class of twenty, most of whom would not have looked out of place at Jivamukti. Unlike the Jivamukti leaders, he actually demonstrated the postures himself and, in between some of the more challenging ones, he made us run around, loosen up, and “get silly.”

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.

Yoga’s Big Stretch