Flex Appeal

“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.

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.

“So yoga, man,” he says, sprinting up some escalator stairs. “You read the propaganda? The Bhagavad Gita, all that shit? I love that shit. I read it to my kid.”

He settles into a leather couch in his stupendous office. “I went to yoga initially because there were so many fine girls there, it’s true,” says Simmons. He started out with Steve Ross, former guitarist for Men at Work and now an L.A.-based yoga teacher with a show on Oxygen. “Back before I got seriously into yoga, I was into all sorts of stuff!” Simmons continues. “I used to say if I couldn’t get a taxi in New York, I’d have a Bentley. And I did.”

But now his interests lie elsewhere. “The power of now,” he says, nodding slowly. “Ever taken a tab of ecstasy? Like that. People rob banks for that now! They bungee-jump! To live in the present is the most beautiful thing in the world. You don’t need anything except for what you have right now.”

He cocks his head. “Except, you know, I just moved to this big house in Saddle River,” he continues. “That house! It’s ridiculous! All I wanted was a meditation room, somewhere I could put my tapes and spiritual books and sit still for 30 minutes every morning. All I wanted was that room. But the last two mornings, I woke up and went downstairs to my gym, which is bigger than – I mean, it’s a big, big gym – and I watched TV on the Stairmaster, and then I jumped into my pool, which is right next to my gym, and I went into my sauna, which has these big cushions – I didn’t even know that saunas had cushions – and I sat down there and read a chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi. Then I jumped in my pool again, and took a shower in my bathroom, which is right next to my movie theater, which is the size of Radio City – all this just downstairs!”

He laughs. “The point I’m making is, I don’t need all that. But it doesn’t suck.”

“How can you possibly think that you can make a change in the world,” asks Kelly, “if you can’t even commit to your Downward-Facing Dog?”

In yoga’s twenty-first-century incarnation, just because you’re not supposed to aspire to the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz doesn’t mean you need to wear sackcloth and ashes. Take Mr. Hedge Fund. At the end of the summer, he invited about 50 guests over to lunch at his house in Southampton, a perfect clapboard six-bedroom set on a pond. Everyone lounged about his spacious deck as his maid poured white wine and a chef grilled tuna and vegetables.

Settling into a pristine white couch underneath a huge abstract painting, he explained his devotion to a type of yoga called Ashtanga, considered by many to be the purest form of yoga. The studio where Mr. Hedge Fund practices is owned by Madonna’s teacher and kept so secret it doesn’t even hang a shingle outside. Part of what makes Ashtanga so difficult is that instead of following the teacher’s lead, each student practices on his own. There’s a whole hierarchy of exercises, and students identify themselves as primary, intermediate, and advanced – but only Ashtanga’s guru, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois from Mysore, India, has ever completed the most difficult series.

Mr. Hedge Fund has a nickname for Jivamukti: Jive-Ass Monkey.

“Jivamukti is all BS,” he said. “Non-attachment is something that some 25-year-old girl made up, some girl who spends half her day thinking, Oh, should I take class with Ginger or Shakti today? Ginger’s teaching at three, but I love Shakti. Oh, what am I going to do?” said Mr. Hedge Fund, adopting a tinny female voice. “None of that comes into play in Ashtanga. It is not about preaching: It is a daily practice, and if you do the practice, all will come.”

Mr. Hedge Fund went to Mysore a few times; he had his secretary fax him daily reports. “And the fund was up 8 percent the month I was there,” he told me. “A whole month with the guru! My shit is so on right now!”

“You’re just amazing,” exclaims his friend, a real-estate developer named Mitchell Marks, taking a seat on the divan. “There is no one with as serious a practice as this guy,” he said, jerking a thumb his way. “But I like to balance out Ashtanga with Kundalini.”

Kundalini can be some far-out stuff: It includes a lot of very subtle hand and leg movements, with each student told to silently repeat the mantra “Sat nam” (“Truth is my name”) as he goes. But Marks, who looks like a handsome version of Judge Reinhold, likes it so much that he’s even decided to open a new yoga center in one of his Gramercy Park buildings: It’s called Ravi Yoga and Spa (Ravi is Ravi Singh, the former partner of Golden Bridge’s Gurmukh, L.A.’s most famous guru). He’s planning to have it open 24 hours a day. “And we’re going to have facials and massages and all sorts of private classes, where Ravi will make a special program just for you,” Marks said excitedly. “We’re going to show everyone that yoga isn’t just a cult on East 4th Street and Lafayette – it’s about changing your whole life!”

Construction on the life-changing center was finished about a week later, and the place was beautiful, all green-tile mosaics on the walls, dark hardwood floors, with two large studios and ten massage rooms downstairs. A gorgeous black woman was shuffling papers behind the limestone counter. “A couple of years ago, I had this amazing career as a video commissioner for MTV,” she said, introducing herself only as Simran. “We all went out one night to Bowery Bar, and I was there with Tricky and a couple other people, late, after closing, around 5 a.m. The door was locked, but these two kids in hoodies somehow got in.” They pulled out guns and made everyone lie down on the floor while they stole the night’s take. “That was it for me,” she said. “That was when I gave myself to yoga.”

It was about a year and a half into practicing at Jivamukti that I started to freak out. I started to wonder if I should have something else to wake up for in the morning, and worried that perhaps I shouldn’t have alienated so many of my friends, who by this point thought I had joined a cult. After months of my feeling love for everyone around me, the pendulum swung back violently, and I started to loathe everyone at Jivamukti – the career girls with tattoos and bindis, the celebrities with their faux-proletarian modesty, the hordes of wobbling newbies who messed up my concentration in Eagle pose. I went to one of Life’s classes and heard him say what he always says – he didn’t want us to come to Jivamukti and give him our money, and he hoped that once we reached enlightenment we would leave – and I thought: But isn’t reaching enlightenment supposed to take a lifetime?

The lowest point came on Martin Luther King’s birthday. I was in Kelly’s class, and she was playing the tape of King’s speech while exhorting all of us to find a way to live a life like his. “Commitment!” she shouted. “It’s about commitment!”

“Sing it, sister,” yelled out Simmons.

“Rus-sell,” snapped Kelly. “Now: Are you committed to the pose you’re in right now? How can you possibly think that you can make any change in the world if you can’t even commit to your Downward-Facing Dog? Are you willing to die for it?”

I rolled up my mat and left. What was this? I had joined a tribe of self-absorbed people who flattered themselves by thinking that by plunking down $18 for a yoga class plus $1 for a rental mat and $2 for a towel, they were becoming better people, and because they were better, the world would somehow be a better place. I thought about how Life warned me before our official interview that there were three topics he and Gannon absolutely would not discuss: financials, personnel, and injuries. Is that the statement of someone who believes all humans are open and loving beings?

Soon I knew something about injuries as well. About a month after my crisis of faith, I got hurt. I don’t want to say it was yoga. But it was the day after I got a very rough “adjustment” (an assist in the pose, like sitting on someone’s back to loosen up muscles) that I woke up doubled over with excruciating, sharp stabs in my back, eventually diagnosed as a sprained lumbar muscle.

I knocked myself out with medication for a month and was bedridden for nearly two. I hobbled over to Jivamukti one day in search of Kelly but couldn’t find her, so I asked another teacher what to do. “Your back is your ego,” she said, somewhat disaffectedly. “As soon as you get rid of it, you’ll be fine.”

Why, exactly, did I want to get rid of my ego again?

So I swore off yoga. It didn’t make that much difference in my life, really, but things were a little duller and lonelier. I missed the feeling of belonging, the high you get after a really good class. After drinking too much one night and waking up sorrowful, I ended up back at Jivamukti: Masochistic or not, I just couldn’t stay away. I stopped my five-days-a-week practice, however, and began dropping in a few times a month. My body returned to a size 8. Then, a couple weeks ago, I asked Kelly out to dinner.

She ordered two salads, saying that she’d spent the night before with a “new guy” and they’d gone out for a breakfast of pancakes and eggs, so she was now trying to skimp. She sipped a glass of white wine and looked as gorgeous as usual in a pair of cork platform sandals and a tight black dress. She told me a story about a designer who wanted to trade clothes for yoga classes, and how some teachers at Jivamukti had faulted her for taking him up on it. “I said to them, ‘If you can’t see God in a pair of Manolo Blahniks, then you either haven’t looked hard enough or you can’t afford them,’ ” she said, laughing.

But when we began to talk more seriously, and Kelly was no longer acting so cool, she became docile and wise, which I have no question is her true nature. “You know, some students want to be friends – they project so much of their own goodness onto you, and it’s like in order to have a relationship with that side of themselves, they seek a relationship with you,” she said, circling the rim of her wine with her finger. “But I have so many more shortcomings than most of my students! You might not see it in class: I’m flying in there. But when it’s over, I’m back to the same struggle. Yes. The same struggle.”

It was then that I accepted her as my teacher.

Flex Appeal