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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

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."

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