New York Times

Yogi, Take Me to a Higher Place

AS PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES

When Raquel Prieto moved from Northampton, Mass., to Boston in January, there was one thing she sought as urgently as an affordable living situation and a job: an advanced yoga class.

As a dedicated yogi, she wanted to work on meditation and on poses, or asanas, requiring a lot of strength and flexibility and a deep mental focus.

Even after spending $700 and two months trying out studios, she still hadn’t found a place she could build on the advanced practice she developed in a Northampton studio. So she patched together a combination of home practice, classes at a nearby yoga center, visits to a meditation center and trips back to Northampton.

“I’m not thrilled,” said Ms. Prieto, 23. “It’s hit or miss.” Her search for satisfaction, she said, “was a huge emotional thing. I got depressed.”

With a yoga studio seemingly on every corner, it might appear counterintuitive for any yoga class to be in short supply. But Ms. Prieto’s experience is not unique; many seasoned practitioners report having a hard time finding challenging classes.

The reason is simple. Yoga has evolved from a passion for the few into a mainstream pursuit. There are 15.8 million adults practicing yoga, according to Yoga Journal’s recent “Yoga in America” study, with almost one third of them practicing for a year or less. The study also found that the number of people interested in trying yoga tripled from 2004 to 2008 to an estimated 18.3 million.

Since catering to the legions of more novice practitioners makes the most business sense, most of the classes at yoga centers are geared toward the basic and intermediate levels.

“Things have swayed backward from very advanced asana practice,” said Jasmine Tarkeshi, a director of Laughing Lotus Yoga Center, which has studios in New York and San Francisco.

Prime-time offerings must cater to the largest group of students, she added. “We have to make it accessible for everyone, especially those evening slots when most people can come.” Smaller advanced classes are typically relegated to less-desirable midday slots.

Part of the problem, say many teachers and practitioners, is a scarcity of instructors capable of guiding students into a more-advanced practice. These days, they say, many master teachers travel around the world giving workshops, another result of the profitable explosion in yoga’s popularity. Americans spend $5.7 billion a year on yoga classes, products, equipment, clothing and media, up 87 percent from 2004, the Yoga Journal study found.

While it is hard to accurately tell how many people have advanced practices, especially given the range of what constitutes “advanced,” a survey by the chain Yoga Works this year showed that 10 percent of its students self-identified as advanced. Further, the Yoga Journal study estimated that almost 12 percent of those practicing yoga have been doing so for 10 years or more, which at least demonstrates a strong commitment.

There are some generally accepted markers for what makes a student advanced. Barring injury, they are comfortable holding a headstand (considered an advanced beginner’s pose) for several minutes or more. They work on free-standing handstands, and attempt deep backbends, forward bends, twists and other arm balances. If they’re truly advanced, they don’t radiate smugness as they practice difficult postures.

“Lots of young strong people want crazy tricks, and that’s fun and part of it, but in my view that’s not advanced at all,” said Annie Carpenter, 50, a senior teacher at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, Calif.

Advanced yogis work on breathing techniques and focus, since mental acuity eventually helps them transition into meditation, considered the ultimate goal of yoga. Even if advanced students can’t find the fullest expression of a pose, they will try it with concentration and a sense of humor.

“You go to advanced to have that same feeling you had as a beginner, that sense of wonder that no one would believe what you did today,” said Liz Buehler, 34, a director of the new Yoga High studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Cyndi Lee, the founder and director of OM Yoga Center in Manhattan, said that just the notion of an advanced class can scare some people off, but that her studio emphasizes the process, not the end point. “Advanced does not mean you are already advanced,” said Ms. Lee, 54. “It means you are ready to learn and practice advanced asanas.”

OM recently added advanced-level classes to prime-time spots on the schedule after students began requesting more of them.

Many students who are determined to keep progressing have enough knowledge to practice on their own. But they are also looking for skilled guidance and a community of like-minded practitioners. Others might work privately with a teacher, but the cost (from $75 to $150 an hour) can be prohibitive over time. Many take extra workshops, including teacher-training programs, to satisfy the craving for more knowledge and the chance to practice deeper poses.

NO BEGINNERS HERE  Aarona Pichinson performing a move at the Kula Yoga Project in TriBeCa during a two-hour advanced yoga class.  Credit: Christian Hansen for The New York Times

NO BEGINNERS HERE Aarona Pichinson performing a move at the Kula Yoga Project in TriBeCa during a two-hour advanced yoga class. Credit: Christian Hansen for The New York Times

Things weren’t always so arduous. Alan Brown of Manhattan began practicing yoga in the 1990s, when classes were smaller and there were fewer inexperienced teachers. Yoga enthusiasts were a small group striving to see what they could do next. “The classes were very advanced,” Mr. Brown said, and the people were devoted.

Though he has managed to find classes that he looks forward to, Mr. Brown, a film director and writer, believes that over time he has slid backward to a more intermediate-level practice. “We talk about it,” he said of his classmates from years past. “How great classes are so much harder to find now.”

Jamie Bishton, 47, who recently returned to his native Los Angeles after more than 20 years in New York, has felt a similar frustration. “I ended up going to general, open-level classes and always doing the same 14 poses,” Mr. Bishton said.

He enrolled in a teacher-training program without intending to teach. Once he graduated, he found that he knew more than many teachers leading open-level classes.

Mr. Bishton, who had a dance career in New York and is now an executive in his family’s auto business, cobbles together a practice from classes at several Los Angeles studios. But with commuting time a concern, he often ends up at Century City Equinox, the gym near his house. He has been lucky: the gym is fairly new and allowed him to design a yoga class advanced enough for his needs.

Ultimately, for those who want to learn difficult poses, breathing techniques, and subtle work with body energies, a senior teacher is an important guide. “If you’re going to do really challenging postures that ask a lot of your body, you need someone you trust to take you there,” said Kino MacGregor, who, at 30, is one of the youngest certified teachers in the demanding Ashtanga yoga tradition.

Ms. Buehler of Yoga High cautions that it its not just advanced students who will suffer from a lack of higher-level classes. “If people who were beginners five years ago continue to practice,” said Ms. Buehler, who teaches a weekly two-hour master class, “we will need to be able to offer them something more than just a midlevel challenge.”

Seeking a deeper yoga practice? Here are a range of advanced classes that are favorites among high-level students.

NEW YORK Kula Yoga Project, 28 Warren Street, Fourth Floor (212) 945-4460 http://www.kulayoga.com

Advanced flow yoga by Schuyler Grant, Fridays at 4:15 p.m.

Ms. Grant teaches several creative Vinyasa classes in TriBeCa. Emphasis is on strength, stamina and breath work.

CALIFORNIA Yoga Works, 2215 Main Street, Santa Monica (310) 664-6470

www.anniecarpenter.com. Level 2-3 class with Annie Carpenter, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays at 10:45 a.m.

Known as a teacher’s teacher, Ms. Carpenter uses a style that blends asana with exploration of subtle muscular and skeletal movements, breath work (pranayama) within movements and meditation.

MASSACHUSETTS BKS Iyengar Yogamala of Cambridge,

St. Mary’s Church, 8 Inman Street, Cambridge, (781) 648-3455

www.yoganow.net

Level 5 with Patricia Walden, Wednesdays at 1:30, by permission.

Ms. Walden, a highly accredited Iyengar yoga instructor, teaches a Level 5 class, the highest in the Iyengar system. Emphasis is on alignment, poses, healing and discovering one’s true nature.

FLORIDA Miami Life Center,

736 Sixth Street, Miami Beach

(305) 534-8988

www.miamilifecenter.com

Mysore-style Ashtanga with Kino MacGregor, Monday to Friday at 10 a.m.

Meysore Ashtanga Yoga Kino MacGregor.jpg

Ms. MacGregor leads Mysore, or traditional-style practice, up to the fourth series. The highest level in Ashtanga is the sixth series. Many people don’t make it to the second series.

ILLINOIS Yoga View, 2211 North Elston Avenue, Suite 200, Chicago

(773) 342-9642

www.jimbennitt.com Level 3 with Jim Bennitt, Mondays at 12:30 p.m.

Mr. Bennitt, a former clerk at the Chicago Board Options Exchange, teaches at Yoga View and two other studios.

This class, the highest level he teaches, weaves breathing and meditation techniques into a demanding physical practice.


Between Poses, a Barrage of Pickup Lines

STRETCH AND FLIRT  Many women are familiar with the seedy character in the “Inappropriate Yoga Guy” video, above.

STRETCH AND FLIRT Many women are familiar with the seedy character in the “Inappropriate Yoga Guy” video, above.

The Phenomenon of Inappropriate Yoga Guy

THE words “Do you come here often?” are not sweet nothings when you are going into final relaxation during a yoga class. Nor do most yoga practitioners welcome someone who flirts shamelessly as mats are positioned during the lull before the teacher arrives.

Now, a popular online video starring a lech named Ogden has the yoga community chuckling in recognition and talking about the problem of men who come to studios in search of phone numbers rather than enlightenment.

The comedy sketch, aptly named “Inappropriate Yoga Guy,” has racked up nearly 1.8 million views since its debut on YouTube in June — no doubt the biggest hit to date for GoPotato.tv, an online comedy network in Los Angeles, which produced the video starring Avi Rothman.

Wearing a goofy headband, Ogden “Oms” far too loudly, brags about the retreats he has attended in Nepal and Mexico, and makes eyes at Kimberly, a buxom long-haired beauty, during class. He even grabs her hips to perform an adjustment (a correction usually done discreetly by a teacher).



Hilarious as it is, “Inappropriate Yoga Guy” raises a delicate issue that the video now has people discussing openly: that while the majority of yogis are respectful and friendly, a handful of interlopers use classes to hit on a succession of lithe, toned regulars. More than a dozen students and teachers and six studio owners interviewed for this article said they knew an Ogden-type character.

“There’s always a guy who wants to put his mat next to the hot girl,” said Hillary Raphael, 31, a writer based in Washington. Ms. Raphael, in her 20 years of practice, has found inappropriate yoga guys so prevalent in studios that she wove them into her novel, “Backpacker,” to be published next month by Creation Books.

Yoga regulars aren’t prudes; rather most of them abide by some unspoken rules (such as no talking or no looking around) that some newcomers unwittingly break in pursuit of comely dates.

Ms. Raphael described an experience she had during a vinyasa class she used to attend at Sal Anthony’s Movement Salon in Manhattan. “All you could hear was people’s steady breathing,” she said. “Yet this guy next to me was trying to strike up a conversation the whole time.

”The man, who was in his early 40s, used a loud stage whisper to ask about Ms. Raphael’s hobbies. “You could hear people’s breath sagging and stopping,” she said. “They couldn’t believe it.”

Other men are even bolder. Stephanie King, 40, a jewelry designer who practices yoga five times a week in Los Angeles, said she has had cringe-worthy encounters during her 20 years of practice. In one instance, a fellow regular Ms. King had met in passing approached her after a power yoga class and asked if she had enjoyed her practice. She had. Then, apropos of nothing, he asked if she wanted to be his lover.

Ms. King calmly told the man she would think about it. After a particularly intense practice, it can take a moment to regroup and get your social bearings. But once at her car, she called him and said, “I just want to let you know that I’m going to pass on being your lover.”

Her politeness masked annoyance. “I was put out because he just ruined my blissful feeling after class,” she said.Another time, an attractive man stretched his hand out during a floor twist until it rested on Ms. King’s breast; he removed his hand when asked.

“If you’re going to a yoga studio to pick up girls, or boys for that matter, you’re not doing yoga,” said Lama Sumati Marut, 54, president of the Yoga Studies Institute in Tucson.

Yoga, done seriously, is a discipline designed to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, he said.

Needless to say, not everyone who drops into a yoga class is on a spiritual path. Consider the women at Yoga Works in Midtown Manhattan who can’t help flirting with Steve Eisenberg, much to his delight. “It’s a very social environment,” said Mr. Eisenberg, 38, a consultant who helps companies create digital media.

“They’ll say, ‘I’ve seen you around,’ and start chatting,” added Mr. Eisenberg, who is single and said he enjoys the attention.

The question is: What responsibility does a studio or a teacher have if one student is making another uncomfortable?

Some instructors like Kelly McGonigal, 29, who teaches at Stanford University and at the Avalon Art and Yoga Center in Palo Alto, Calif., take matters into their own hands.

“I had a popular class that some of the regulars stopped showing up to because a guy was relentlessly hitting on them,” said Dr. McGonigal, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and edits the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She confronted the overeager student in question, and he backed off, saying it was all a misunderstanding.

“He didn’t realize that he was perceived as hitting on people when he invited them out to dinner or to parties,” she said.

Teachers, who are most likely to notice misbehavior, are the ones who should aim to make their classes safe havens free of distractions, said Judith Hanson Lasater, president of the California Yoga Teachers Association.

But in Dr. McGonigal’s case, that was not possible. “It was happening outside of the classroom,” she said.

It was only after a chance encounter on the street with two of her students that Dr. McGonigal found out “they had stopped coming because they didn’t want to see that guy.”

Having an outlet for complaints would help, said Dr. Lasater, who has a Ph.D. in East-West psychology.

Most studio staff agree that teachers dating their students is a difficult situation at best, and exploitative at worst. But there is little consensus about student come-ons. After all, is asking for a phone number in a yoga studio any different than swapping digits across treadmills?

Some say yes. Trolling for dates at yoga studios strikes a lot of regulars as tacky and reprehensible — even to some bachelors.

“Why would I stare down a girl in yoga class?” said Christopher Porzio, 36, a photographer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who practices at least four times a week. “People are coming to help themselves, to get more comfortable. Why rob them of their comfort?”

For others, it is a gray area. Fred Busch, 32, the owner of Miami Yogashala, knows that some male and female members actively scope out dates at his center. He is uncomfortable with it but, he said, “there’s no law against talking to someone.”

To confuse matters, some centers foster dating. For instance, the Joy Yoga Center in Houston offers singles classes once a week, an hourlong vinyasa practice followed by snacks and socializing. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, two-thirds of the participants are men.

The Flow Yoga Center in Washington already has a class on Thursday night nicknamed “social flow,” after which students go for cocktails, and has plans for speed dating in its tea lounge.

But the downside is that one student glomming on to another can dampen a studio’s atmosphere. That is what happened at the Dallas Yoga Center in Texas, when a 40-something man’s overtures disturbed some female students. As soon as studio staff noticed the man’s unsettling behavior, the director, David Sunshine, took the man aside for a heart-to-heart. “We don’t mingle the dating scene with yoga,” Mr. Sunshine said. “We focus on quality yoga teaching.”

Plenty of singles don’t mind having another yogi propose dinner. Elana Wertkin, 31 of Park Slope, Brooklyn, went a few dates with a cute guy she met in a neighborhood class.

“We walked out at the same time and he said ‘Let’s go for a smoothie,’ ” said Ms. Wertkin, a documentary film producer.

But her interest in him was soon cut short. On their third date, he confessed that part of the reason he loved yoga class was watching women lie on their backs, legs spread.

“I had to stop going to that studio for a long time after that,” Ms. Wertkin said.