Tuesday, May 3, 2011

No Holds Barred: Om sweet Om

Bikram Choudhury in 1977 and 2000.
by Blair Sabol

Thirty-eight years ago I found myself in a Beverly Hills office basement sweating on my torn bath towel and doing a triangle pose between Shirley MacLaine and Quincy Jones. It was the second month that Bikram Choudhury's Yoga College of India had been opened and his space was packed with all of us "civilians" and major movie stars.

There we all stood shoulder to shoulder melting into his 28 postured routine. No music, no fancy wood floor, no head setted microphone, no spandex outfits. Just his crappy floor heaters along the walls, the industrial carpeting, and most of us dressed in old cutoff shorts or ratty tights (no fashionable cargo pants or even glittered flip flops) wobbling on our skanky beach towels (no high-tech Manduka mats).
Bikram still going strong!
At that time Bikram was on the crest of his now infamous "hot yoga" wave. He often sat on a cushion in the front of the room eating Cheetos and drinking Fanta while pontificating about the joys of junk food. Looking like Paul Anka he soon became almost as rich and famous. Bikram immediately grabbed onto the title "Yoga Teacher to the Stars."

We all adored him because he would leapfrog onto our backs (he did a hand stand on mine) during a forward bend ... not to mention his mysterious connection with each and every one of us; criticizing our techniques and our hairstyles. Always funny and brutally honest he was a standup act none of us could resist.

PBS's Lilias Folan.
Raquel Welch doing Bikram's exact routine.
Sting and Trudy Styler doing their version.
At that time Bikram took yoga out of the esoteric ashrams and away from PBS's sad leotarded Lilias Folan and into Hollywood. For better or worse. That happened in 1974. What happened to yoga after that is something else entirely. Then again what happened to ALL of us is something else entirely. I do remember I went to him religiously for 18 months (along with Maggie Smith, Herb Alpert, Martin Sheen, Juliet Prowse, and Ricardo Montalban) twice a day!!! (Did we have lives?). We all met at 9am and again at 5pm in "Bik's" basement. It became a common ritual. Not a cult, but a "lifestyle."

He changed our lives. Or so we thought. Shirley MacLaine took him to Vegas during her run there to train her chorus boys and girls. Bikram had it made. After all, he was the only game in town at the time. Later came his marriages, his mansions, his 7 Rolls Royces. Eventually he branded himself and after that I lost him in that translation.

Over the years I would read about him and see more studios opening with his name on the marquee. Then his style of "hot yoga" morphed into its own technique and the rest of the story is Yoga Journal history. I even remember Raquel Welch doing a gorgeous and very successful yoga tape of herself in a revealing bathing suit doing Bikram's exact routine. I believe he tried to legally challenge her for ripping him off. After that the "yoga wars" began.

Nowadays yoga has become a very big business and an even bigger social scene. What with the current 57 varieties including Anasura, Flow, Ashtunga, and yes Rock 'n' Roll yoga ... you name it yoga has it covered. None of these styles is really as authentic or as meaningful as the original Hatha, Iyengar or even Tantra (and I don't mean the Sting and Trudy Styler's sexy interpretation) "schools." And none of them are very safe. I know a major orthopedic surgeon who told me he is currently operating on more torn hip labrums and rotator shoulder cuff injuries from yoga than from any other sport. Talk about the perils of overstretching. Yoga studios open and close overnight.

And you either live in a "good yoga city" or you don't. Santa Fe and Santa Clara are great yoga meccas (plenty of legitimate styles, huge integrity and clean spaces).

While Philadelphia and Phoenix (my town) are not. Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. are dicey at best. What's more is that the "Big Business of Yoga" has diluted the overall message of body-mind union. What with the current popularity of elaborate $25,000 a week yoga "retreats" in Maui or Parrot Cay to the $35,000 "teacher trainings."

In my town rarely do "graduates" of these expensive "yoga teacher trainings" actually teach. Most of them are middle aged divorcees (unemployed real estate agents) who all seem to be looking for something to fill their empty "inner spaces" in between rounds of plastic surgery.
Yoga in Central Park.
Yoga in Bryant Park.
Yoga in Times Square.
As for the actual crop of new yoga teachers most have little knowledge of the anatomy and as much body-mind connection as a gas station attendant (actually a gas station attendant has to know some inner mechanics). Sure they may "dazzle the room" with deafening soundtracks of Cool Play and Def Jam and complete 90-minute (too long as it is) "mat and standing series" formats. BUT ... their personal student body adjustments are often dangerous and their overall dedication and experience is extremely questionable.

Another kind of filthy yoga studio.
Not to mention the number of FILTHY yoga studios in existence. All of them have expensive "lobby" boutiques selling the typical peppermint candles, pricey mats, resin buddhas, and hideous crop pants and matching pricey racerback tops. In fact, it's the glitzy merchandise that keeps most of these studios afloat. However ... DIRT still rules. I heard from many New York City pals that rodents were seen running along the baseboards of two Upper East Side studios.

In my own Phoenix studio a student caught the deadly MRSA virus from the infectious diseased flooring. As of late almost every yoga studio I go to I am ready to call The Board of Health. The lack of simple hygiene is shocking (does it "cost " too much?): no "in between-sweaty-class" floor moppings, no cleaning of all the scatter lobby oriental rugs, and you can forget the bathrooms. Face it ... yoga studios (and most gyms) have become Petri dishes of questionable bodily fluids. No wonder most of my NYC friends do their yoga in the safety of their own homes. Or some have "privates" probably with the likes of Lucienne Vidah — a brilliant Iyengar teacher with the cleanest studio in the West Village I have ever seen.
Lucienne Vidah's immaculate Village Studio.
It has become my habit of late in most classes to roll my mat up in disgust within ten minutes of the opening moment. Particularly if I am standing next to a 300-pound guy (stripped to the waist) attempting his first of many shaky headstands. This has happened to me four different times and each time these giant perspiring Shreks have come tumbling down on top of me because no teacher was there to properly "spot" them, let alone instruct them. Or how about during a supposedly silent Shavasana (flat out "corpse" pose at a class finale).

The brilliant Iyengar teacher, Lucienne Vidah.
I always spot a noisy gossip exchanging lineup of torpedo erect boob jobs ready for launching on either side of me. Not to mention the number of "downward dogs" that have been done in my face by people sporting tattooed dragons exploding from their ass cracks. Many classes have become wall to wall "mat mania" (an inch a part from each other) with auctioneers for instructors.

All of them screaming poses over the latest rap hits with lyrics like "You Ho, you know you want it." The last time I did one of these "rock 'n' roll" classes I was the oldest person in the room. At the end of such an awful "survivor" ordeal the "dude 'n' dew wrapped" teacher came over to me to say how terrific it was that I "made it through and in such great condition." Really? I think not. It was a complete tsunami for me. I didn't feel "accomplished." I felt "at risk" and frankly "inappropriate."

I realized at 65 I no longer want to leave a class drenched in sweat. For me it wasn't "a cleansing," it was simply depleting. While everyone else left giddy and high from this ridiculous "workout" (since when is yoga suppose to be pure aerobics), I left disturbingly wired, nauseated, and with a vague sense of an LSD flashback. I also noticed that many of the students exited the studio slurping from cans of Red Bull and the rest were on their way to a local Starbucks for a "quad shotted" large Latte (interesting that many of the Los Angeles yoga studios are all above a Starbucks).
Yes, of course there are still "the yogier than thou" purists left on the scene. And they have their own list of insane behaviors like complicated chantings, pseudo Upanishad speech references, and rigorous detox breatharian diets. But it is the "Bravo TV-isation" of yoga today that is hard to take. We now have "Antigravity Yoga," "Zumba Yoga," "Yogalates," and even "Pole Dance Yoga."

Russell Simmons showing off his yoga moves.
Ali MacGraw's Yoga Mind & Body.
Six months ago a former teacher of mine contacted me about his "Yoga and Wine" retreat in Napa. I guess you start your day with a Russell Simmons cleansing Asana session and in the afternoon you can jump into a champagne filled hot tub and do some Pranayama with some "flutes of various whites and reds."

He also does "yoga and chocolate getaways." Recently I came across a quote about this current yoga philosophy: "a live Bruce Springsteen track, an In-N-Out burger, the scent of lavender gathered in the french Alps can all bring on the yoga high. All of it is the gate to divine bliss."

Can "Yoga and Hard Core Porn " be far behind? Sad to say yoga has now reached an insane hell realm that even Bikram might be questioning.

With all due respect I have found some people who have been truly remarkable "teachers" for me. Erich Schiffmann at Exhale in Venice California believes that you don't "own" yoga till you can do it for yourself in your own living room.

My dear friend Ali Macgraw (who did a sensational yoga tape WITH Shiffman and who I think is one of the greatest American "yoginis" alive) still attends daily rigorous Iyengar classes in her Santa Fe.

She has heard me rant about the state of yoga for too long and also suggests I develop an "at home" practice rather than risk injury to my body and high irritability to my mind. Barbara Simon ("Romancing Your Soul") does a gorgeous weekly "healing" yoga at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles.

It is a terrific "twofer" experience; you get Simon's 30-year expertise of basic conscious movement plus you get to view the latest photos and art from a shoulderstand or seated twist.
At One Yoga teacher Jennifer Chiarelli.
Jennifer Chiarelli and me in one of my Hard Tail yoga pants.
Then there is the "up and coming" Jennifer Chiarelli in my neighborhood of Scottsdale (At One Yoga /LifePower). Being an X professional dancer she knows and has great compassion for bodies in pain. She has taught me (and she has quite a following) the power of BREATHING (whatever happened to that?) through super slow and simple "present" (precise) movement. She tries to put "the soul" back into the various asanas while honoring all the silences in between. Obviously good teachers are a rare breed since the current crop of "super stars" have fallen off the authentic spiritual mountain into a heap of greedy branding and multiple sexual misconduct lawsuits.

A small closet assortment of Hard Tail yoga pants, my personal favorite.
And speaking of branding and merchandising, Lululemon may be the most fashionably conscious yoga clothier going with their giant freebie classes on 42nd street and in Central park and everywhere, but I find their designs debatable (too many "doubledecker" torsos squeezed into too many of their LOW cut pants and "sausage casing" tops).

I am not sure about their strange fabric "blends" (sweat wicking ... what does that mean?), not to mention their notoriously rude sales help who won't notice you if you are over the age of 50. Their shopping bags are "collectibles" and they can get away with a lot because next to other yoga design companies like Lucy and Be Present they are marketing geniuses.

Personally I prefer the "golden oldies" of Hard Tail. They design plain and simple COTTON belly covering "roll down" pants. Their main Santa Monica Hard Tail store has extremely accepting sales help and the company has been around the longest (originally they were a "biker" themed brand). Hard Tail and I have grown old together. I am one of many women who wears my Hard Tail pants to formal events as well as to sleep. It is my uniform. Sometimes I think I still do yoga just to keep my Hard Tail habit going.

The truth is my days of "downward dog" may be coming to an end. Perhaps not so much a "finale" as a shift. All I ask is ... don't show me the mantra or the money anymore. Merely get me back to basics and give me my own version of "Om sweet Om." Whatever that may look or feel like.
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