Yoga, or Something Like It


By Nora Isaacs  |  

I am standing in Warrior II in a hardwood-floored studio surrounded by mirrors, alternately reaching my arms and torso from one side to the other while listening to highlights from the Flashdance soundtrack. Suzi Teitelman, the instructor of this "Disco Yoga" class, taps her feet to the beat. She sings along when not guiding us through visualizations ("Imagine that you are on a lit-up dance floor"). We move into Tree Pose, but instead of bringing our palms to our chests, we make swerving motions with them while moving our shoulders from side to side.

"Disco brought us love and freedom; that’s what you want to find within your pose," says Teitelman, who wears a flowing yellow bandanna around her head, a tiny tank top, and shiny pants. Perhaps she is trying to justify her use of the word "yoga," or perhaps she really believes that making this connection will somehow inspire us. The link seems tenuous, but I want to stay open-minded. The class continues to move as Teitelman, a certified Laughing Lotus yoga instructor, deftly demonstrates poses to the room of mostly beginning yoga students. We practice standing poses, twists, and forward bends, moving to the beat of the music, with Teitelman as our guide. At the end of class, we lay in Savasana, and she leaves us wishing all beings happiness and freedom.

Ever since a friend alerted me to the existence of Disco Yoga at Manhattan’s Crunch Gym, I’ve been noticing other "yoga hybrids"—including Yoganetics, Medieval Yoga, and Yogilates. I am eager to know whether this proliferation of yoga-related classes is the result of savvy marketing or a natural evolution of the practice in the West. My curiosity leads me on an exhausting week of exploration in Manhattan, during which I find myself balancing in Vasisthasana (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Vasistha) under club lights and house music, floating in Half Lotus on a piece of Styrofoam in a pool, and incorporating a martial arts kicking sequence into my standing series. And each time, I ask myself, "Is this really yoga?"

Fusion or Confusion?
At one point in the class, Teitelman tries talking over the upbeat soundtrack, but she can’t be heard. "I hate it when they want me to pump the music up. I can’t speak over it," she says after turning the volume down. "They" are the powers-that-be at Crunch Gym, and her comment highlights the tension between management, which wants to create a buzz, and Teitelman, who wants to be left alone to teach. In a city always looking for The Next Big Thing, the Crunch staff pride themselves on the fact that their mix-and-match-style workouts—with such titles as "Abs, Thighs, and Gossip," "Urban Rebounding," and "Candlelight Stretch"—attract new members and the press. And notice the media certainly do: After class, Teitelman tells me that heavyweights from New York magazine to NBC News have mentioned the Disco Yoga class.

Dana Flynn, former "creative director" of yoga programs at Crunch, has waist-length red hair, intense green eyes, a tendency to touch you while talking, and a contagious enthusiasm. Her inventiveness doesn’t stop at the offbeat combination of yoga and disco. In fact, she could be crowned the Queen of Hybrids: She also created such classes as "The Yoga of Self-Defense," "Tribal Yoga," "Sunset Rooftop Yoga," and "The Yoga of Walking." (She says her tongue was planted firmly in her cheek when she named the disco class, but the name stuck.) Flynn loves the idea of getting a little silly with yoga; she named her West Village studio Laughing Lotus Yoga Center to reflect the sense of joy she finds in the practice.

"Yoga is a creative process that has to match the times," Flynn insists. "There is a baton being passed, and we need to run with it. These poses should be ecstatic, not static—the tradition is a living, breathing one." Flynn says that when she plays the music of Aretha Franklin during class, she feels a soulful connection with a creative power and with others in the room. I understand her intellectually, but my experience in the Disco Yoga class just didn’t live up to Flynn’s vision. The room full of beginners moved very tentatively, and rather than feeling a sense of play, the students seemed awfully self-conscious. I felt silly, not playful. Those who weren’t familiar with the poses were trying hard to grasp the technique while also rocking to the beat, and Teitelman’s quips trying to connect yoga and disco—like the one comparing the freedom found through yoga with the "freedom" found in the disco era—seemed forced. I even thought some parts of the class dangerous, as when we went up into a tripod headstand with very little instruction. And as Teitelman herself said, the music was only a distraction.

Yoga in Disguise
As I walk through the posh halls of the Upper East Side’s L.A. Sports Club on the way to "Yogilates" class, I keep thinking of what Yogilates founder Jonathan Urla had told me on the phone earlier. "It was so different from traditional forms of hatha yoga that I had to call it something else," he said when I asked him about the trademarked name. The idea came to Urla, a certified Pilates instructor with 17 years of teaching experience, after he found that the two disciplines complement each other: Pilates adds core strengthening and warm-ups to yoga, while yoga adds a spiritual dimension to Pilates. He trademarked the name in 1997 and now sells videos, mats, books, and blocks, conducts teacher trainings, and wrote the new book Yogilates: Integrating Yoga and Pilates for Complete Fitness, Strength, and Flexibility (HarperResource, 2002).

The spacious room fills with a few dozen students—all women—who scatter about and place yoga mats over standard-issue, blue gym mats. Class begins with our listening to soothing music, breathing, and a short meditation. We then move through some stretching and abdominal exercises on the floor. Next, Urla teaches Kapalabhati Pranayama (Skull Shining Breath), and then we continue with a few basic hatha poses: Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Legged Forward Bend), Balasana (Child’s Pose), and Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). I’m waiting eagerly for something: I think, Maybe he’ll drag out one of those machines I’ve heard about or lead us in a grueling workout that will penetrate the deep abdominal muscles my yoga practice usually doesn’t reach. As the class continues, Urla talks about alignment and bringing awareness back to the breath. We stand up and move through Suryanamaskar. We end with Savasana and a seated meditation. Urla’s voice is soothing, his instruction clear, and I feel calm and centered leaving the class. I feel, in fact, as though I’ve just attended one of any number of hatha yoga classes taught by any number of instructors who throw in a few core-strengthening moves, change the sequence around, and go lightly on the spiritual intonations.

Urla is earnest, hardworking, and, after all, only trying to make a living doing what he loves in a market filled with personal trainers and yoga instructors. In July, he attended his first yoga teacher-training, with vinyasa teacher Shiva Rea. "It will take me a while to win respect in the yoga community," he concedes. Clearly, in today’s highly saturated market, teachers like Urla are forced to carve out a niche in order to distinguish themselves from the yoga herd.

"No Yoga Gods, No Intimidation"
Sheri Radel, who works in advertising, sits next to me as we wait for a "Sonic Flow" class at a new studio in Hell’s Kitchen called Sonic Yoga. (The studio’s literature claims it brings "the club to the ashram.") "Have you been here before?" Radel asks nervously. I haven’t; we both have read about the classes through an aggressive advertising campaign (which offers the first class free) and in a recent story in Time Out New York. We watch together as the instructor lugs in massive speakers from another room. "I thought it would be a nice way to combine cardio with toning and stretching," says Radel. "I wasn’t looking for a spiritual experience. I’ve fallen victim to Ôtrendercise’ in the past—boxing, kickboxing, spinning—so I thought this could be fun. Plus, I like loud music."

Entering the studio, we see red and orange lights dangling from the walls, illuminating the room with an eerie glow. Jonathan Fields, a muscular, dark-haired guy wearing a baseball hat, walks in and begins a rigorous, powerful vinyasa session accompanied by music—Engima, a Swedish band called Sigur R—s, Loreena McKennitt, some Afro-Cuban beats—blaring so loudly that I can barely hear his instructions as we move from intense Sun Salutations to standing poses and then down to the floor. Like Urla, Fields has a gimmick: In Sonic Yoga, the beat of the music matches that of the vinyasa, "breath by breath."Each month, Fields puts together a mix that coincides with an asana sequence. Tonight, however, he is experiencing technical problems with his prepared mix, which sounds like it’s been dunked in water. So we just wait until he finds a backup and move to it the best we can. By the end of class, we pour with sweat.

According to its owners, plenty of Manhattan studios provide spiritual enlightenment, and Sonic prides itself on making yoga accessible for those who are intimidated by traditional classes. A blurb on the Web site declares: "No yoga gods, no intimidation, no showing off stuff that’ll send you to the emergency room!" Tell that to Radel, who offered this assessment after the sweaty, sonic workout: "I found the class a bit too strenuous for my taste. It just did not feel good after a while, and I felt like I was going to keel over." My new friend’s comments will surely disappoint the studio, which prides itself on its populist approach to yoga. "They [traditional classes] scare the vast majority of people even before starting," says Fields. "It’s like learning piano; you can’t start with Chopin—most people would run away. Piano teachers start with a single note." Adds his business partner, Lauren Hanna: "People are intimidated by the whole yoga, Sanskrit, Hindu thing. We bring them in a lighthearted way to a very spiritual place, without bringing in a lot of the traditional Hindu doctrine."

Accessibility seems to be the rallying cry for hybrid classes, many of which are meant to counter the intimidation, seriousness, and dogmatism of traditional classes. "These fusion classes are really good in terms of bringing such a traditional practice into modern-day life," says Jorge Manahan, a 29-year-old multimedia designer from Brooklyn, who took the Disco Yoga class with me. "Most of the people who do Disco Yoga are more on the beginner level; it opens the door to people who may not go to a Kundalini or an Ashtanga class." On the other coast, a new Los Angeles studio called YAZ features hip-hop yoga, where Sun Salutations are done to the music of Destiny’s Child. "We’re still practicing yoga, but we have to modernize it," says YAZ owner Kimberley Fowler. "We don’t live in India, and you need to bring it to the society that it’s supposed to be benefiting."

According to the owners of Sonic Yoga, the music provides a focal point for New Yorkers who can’t slow down enough to sit quietly. "In New York, there is a lot of stimulation all day," says Hanna. "Some students have a hard time letting go of distractions in class, and the music allows them to clear their head." But across town at the Integral Yoga Institute, President Swami Ramananda gets a chuckle out of the idea that New Yorkers need loud music to clear their heads. "There are New Yorkers who crave that quieting down and come here every day to get it," he says. "My concern is that this could be a way of adapting yoga to our own conditioning, rather than using yoga to unlearn our conditioning."

Type A Yoga
Behind an inconspicuous green door on the Lower East Side is Shiva Yoga Shala, a studio that offers a class called "Yogic Arts," a blend of martial arts and yoga. "We are more grounded in yoga philosophy than other hybrids," says teacher Duncan Wong, who has studied the martial art of Kuk Sool since he was 10 and has practiced yoga since age 17. A boyish-looking 34 years old, Wong has studied with Richard Freeman, Rodney Yee, and Jivamukti’s Sharon Gannon and David Life (as well as their teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) and travels to California every year to study with his Kuk Sool masters, Kwahn Jang Nym and Suh Sung Jin. I have to agree with his assessment: Instead of unsettling sounds, Wong’s studio plays soft ancient yogic mantras, and the words "Om Namah Shivaya" adorn the main altar.

The room fills with a fit-looking bunch, and after class begins I know why. Although Wong told me he’d take it easy because I am new, the class is incredibly strenuous. The form, studied by Madonna and Sting, develops tremendous strength, agility, and balance. Wong, who is also a Thai Yoga bodyworker, periodically gives aggressive adjustments. The fusion comes when Wong introduces the martial art technique of grounding your body by bending both knees into a "horse stance" between poses. We return repeatedly to this stance, alternating it with a series of difficult moves, kicks, and twists. During a lunging sequence, when my thighs begin to burn, Wong talks about ahimsa, not harming yourself or others. (I guess the nonharming didn’t apply to my thighs.)

If wide-ranging appeal is important to some other yoga hybrids, it is clearly not a priority here. In fact, the class seems almost inaccessible: Anyone not hip enough to find the downtown, low-profile entrance, or in good enough shape to keep up with Wong’s intensive workout, is out of luck. During the class, I kept recalling Swami Ramananda’s words about certain forms of yoga reinforcing our Western conditioning. The people in class were working with ambition, drive, and the desire to push beyond limits—qualities inherent in many New Yorkers. "These people want to be told what to do," marvels a friend who accompanied me, as we left the studio. "They want to be pushed."

Fulfilling Yoga’s Promise
"I can move my shoulders so much more now," Laura Weber tells me as we climb into the pool at the New York Sports Club in Ramsey, New Jersey. The 68-year-old retired schoolteacher suffers from arthritis and muscle tears in her shoulders, but now, she says, "My balance is improving; I’m more flexible. I used to be unable to wash under my arms, but now I can do it, pain-free." Weber’s testimonial extols the virtues not of some new miracle drug but of Barbara Kennedy’s Aqua Yoga class, which brings together about 15 women (average age: 55) every Tuesday morning at 9:30 sharp. Kennedy, a graceful instructor with a background in professional dance, aerobics, and personal training, hasn’t received any formal yoga teacher training—nor does she have such aspirations. She sees her class as the starting point for people who can’t practice yoga on land because of injuries, intimidation, or physical limitations; her hope is that after they experience yoga in the water, if they are physically capable, they will gravitate toward the studio. "Water allows them the freedom to go at their own pace," she says. "You can fall over in Tree Pose and the water catches you. By working in the water, you can achieve the physical benefits of yoga and decrease the amount of weight bearing on the joints."

Kennedy, who notes that water has 12 times the resistance of air, has developed a class that builds strength, increases flexibility, and focuses on diaphragmatic breathing with modified yoga poses. Kennedy begins class by reading a Buddhist prayer from Dang Jian Wei. "I try to make sure my students are nourishing not just their bodies but also their souls," she tells me later.

We start with some cardiovascular work, warming up the body and getting the heart rate going. Soon Kennedy gets creative: We do a floating Half Lotus supported by a Styrofoam "noodle," do Triangle Pose with our cheeks skimming the water’s edge, and walk on the Styrofoam board; balancing on the noodle helps increase trunk stability and improve balance. We end class floating in Corpse Pose, noodles supporting us under the knees and neck.

I was skeptical about Aqua Yoga, and probably would wait another 30 years or so to go back, but I can see the benefits of the practice, which is very therapeutic. Kaplan’s use of the Buddhist prayer, the gentle warmth of the water, and the class’s accessibility to those physically unable to take traditional classes make this hybrid unusually worthwhile.

Evolution or Devolution?
As has happened with everything from Buddhism to classical dance, when a practice or teaching crosses a border, it interacts with the existing culture and inevitably evolves. "I am happy to see asana practice proliferate and get creative," says Integral Yoga’s Swami Ramananda. "If someone finds physical benefits through practicing with music or strobe lights or in the water, that’s fine with me. However, that approach leads to a limited benefit—and has a limited goal."

The modern world increasingly defines "yoga" as asana—a misperception that brings with it the risk of missing the deeper aims and meaning of the practice. "If you take that one limb of the eight and you focus on that, play with that, get creative with that, you are really practicing something out of context," says Ramananda. "It’s important to retain a distinction between yoga in its classical sense and the practice of asana, which, in many people’s minds, yoga is reduced to."

Indeed, the one thing all the hybrids I visited had in common was the physical poses. In each class we did some variation of a Sun Salutation, standing poses like Warrior, and backbends. But that’s where the connection ended. I didn’t find myself experiencing a sense of union, quieting my mind, or situated anywhere near the road to samadhi. These are high standards—ones not always met by the "traditional" yoga classes I’ve taken. But when I leave those classes, more often than not I feel that the work I’ve just done has created space in my body and mind that could allow some kind of transformation, however small, to occur. By contrast, classes that acknowledge the yoga tradition only enough to sprinkle in a prayer at the end or offhandedly throw in some kind of watered-down philosophy mid-pose seem to miss the point entirely. Without a context within which to practice the asanas, I can’t make the connection between yoga’s essence—finding the stira (steadiness) and sukha (ease) in each pose—and what I’m doing.

People’s yoga history certainly affect their experiences with hybrid forms. "Disco Yoga is good if you’ve been doing too many hard classes and you want to practice, but you don’t want to hurt yourself," says Jorge Manahan, who has practiced yoga for three years. "It’s a relaxing way of doing it while you listen to disco music." Sheri Radel, who has practiced for only six months, adds, "I can imagine the Sonic class being great for somebody with more advanced yoga training, though there is not much of a spiritual element involved. Overall, the whole idea of yoga being trendy does not really work for me; I think I’ll stick with a more traditional approach—and get my cardio workout in the gym."

When a practice gets interpreted cross-culturally, the teachers transmitting the form have the subtly difficult task of preserving the essence of the practice. I had snickered a bit about Aqua Yoga beforehand, but after taking the class I felt its teacher, Barbara Kennedy, to be the most authentic of all the hybrid teachers I studied with, in terms of her genuine desire to cultivate awareness, breath, and a sense of abiding calm within her students. Other hybrids that retain the essence of the practice do exist: Manhattan’s Elliott Goldberg has molded the original form of "Yogic Weight Lifting" from K. V. Iyer, who developed it in India in the 1920s, to introduce his own discipline. This more meditative form of weight lifting seeks self-liberation through the mindful movements of the joints against resistance. "Many yoga practitioners want to try weight lifting but are put off by the muscle-head attitude commonly found in gyms, from the mindless propelling of dumbbells to the obsessing over body image," he says. "People come to a gym to change their bodies as a way to change their life, but what I see is a continuation of that life—hurried, agitated, distracted, aggressive, self-absorbed, and nonrhythmic."

Preserving Yoga’s Soul
"Until you experience what a teacher is doing, I think it’s unfair to throw everything that’s not part of the pure stream into the incinerator," Shiva Rea says. "It’s a natural process for a tradition to become authentic with the culture that it’s integrating with." To be sure, some yoga hybrids occupy an important place in our cultural landscape: They incorporate a sense of play, crack the door open for a more serious practice, and give wonderful physical benefits. But others reinforce the conditioning we would do better to transcend, lack adequately trained instructors, or are really aerobic classes with good PR.

In the end, the intention a teacher brings to his or her class is what allows the essence of yoga to shine through—or not. AquaYoga seems perfectly valid because it solves a real problem: how to make yoga accessible for students with physical limitations. In its clear aim of serving a legitimate need, it shows that the diversification of yoga can create the opportunity to make yoga truly accessible, not only for fit students who want to vary their gym workout and don’t want "the spiritual stuff" but also for older students, students with disabilities, and children with learning disorders.

As is typical in a capitalist society, we are confronted with a choice—in this case, how we perceive and define our practice. But faced with this ever-growing array of forms, how do we choose? In my six years of practice, I’ve learned that recognizing classes that are right for me stems from how I feel—the space created in my body and mind, the free flow of prana, my breath moving my body rather than the other way around. Hybrids (and, these days, some asana classes) that don’t connect with yoga philosophy in any way don’t add enduring value to my practice, nor do they allow for the potential of that spacious feeling that brings me to my mat each day. "A tendency to focus on other things during practice can inhibit the ability to experience the deeper goal, the essence of what yoga can be, which is a beautiful and powerful way to remove the conditioning in the mind," says Swami Ramananda. Yoga is inherently designed to open the door to our inner Self and leave behind our stubborn conditioning, ambition and judgment, self-consciousness and constriction. If a hybrid can lead me there, sign me up.

Nora Isaacs is YJ’s managing editor.