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Yoga, or Something Like It

Yoga hybrids such as Aqua Yoga and Disco Yoga have sprung up across the country. YJ editor Nora Isaacs heads to the epicenter of yoga experimentation, Manhattan, to see what is gained—and what is lost—as a result of yoga's diversification.

By Nora Isaacs

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.

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