Yoga: It's a Guy Thing

Article excerpt

lifestyle

Stretch your mind, body and spirit with this ancient exercise / by Alan Pell Crawford

You wouldn't guess it from the placid-sounding name, but Unity Woods is on the top floor of a highrise building in bumper-to-bumper Bethesda, Maryland, just up noisy Wisconsin Avenue from Washington, DC. Sixteen stories below, as rush-hour traffic backs up and horns blare, chic restaurants and high-end home-furnishings shops compete for dinner-hour customers with fast-food joints. Misconception No. 1 is that Unity Woods Yoga Center would be in some idyllic setting from a Thomas Kinkade painting.

Misconception No. 2 is about to be toppled when, up in the Unity Woods penthouse, introductory yoga class begins. Instructor John Schumacher, who founded Unity Woods, is 57 but doesn't look it. If it weren't for the silver hair, Schumacher could pass for 40. His movements suggest not so much youth, which can be gawky and awkward, but quiet, well-controlled strength. His manner is good humored and patient, but the regimen he is putting this class of novices through is not for sissies. Which brings us to Misconception No. 3: Yoga is gentle and undemanding. Not true. Yoga is difficult. When you've torqued your pelvis to the right in the posture known as Virabhadrasana II (it's Sanskrit-don't ask) and extended your trembling right arm as far as it can go without detaching itself from your shoulder, you might just want to scream.

Yoga, you soon find out, is full of surprises-most more pleasant than others but all of them discoveries you're glad you made. If some longtime practitioners have an eerie air of smug knowingness about the eyes, it may be because they really do know things you don't. Also, they're fashionably buff. Yoga, by all clinical and anecdotal evidence, works. You can tell just by looking, which must be one hugely important reason it has become so popular-not just for meeting stressed-out Westerners' spiritual needs. Yoga is increasingly looked to for results we have until recently expected from weight training or aerobics. As Julia Roberts said in In Style magazine recently, "I don't want it to change my life, just my butt." Finally, the studios don't reek of sweaty gym socks and athlete's foot spray. Even though yoga is done in bare feet, it just feels-and smells-cleaner.

As Mainstream as Tofu

No wonder yoga is now as mainstream as tofu, and increasingly popular with men as well as women. A Roper poll found in 1994 that 6 million Americans practiced some form of yoga. Yoga Journal in January/February 2000 said there may be 12 million, but Business 2.0 in its September 3, 2002 issue put the number at 18 million. Major companies offer it to their employees. Insurance companies cover it. Gwyneth Paltrow attributes her skinny upper arms-a concern of millions of other American women-to this 5,000-year-old spiritual practice, developed in India to help people meditate. But more and more fitness-conscious men-who would rather not have vermicelli-like, Paltrowesque biceps-are adding yoga to their conditioning programs or abandoning other forms of exercise in favor of a yoga-only regimen.

"In the ancient tradition, physical fitness was considered a prerequisite of spiritual enlightenment because you can't meditate if you are in pain," says Schumacher, who studied yoga in India with the legendary yogi B.K.S. Iyengar, who developed his own style by combining classical hatha yoga and modern Western knowledge of human anatomy. Schumacher, who is as lean and well muscled as an Olympic swimmer, says he has achieved these results without any other form of exercise than yoga.

The yogis of old clearly had a different notion of physical fitness than we do, though their calmer approach is gaining ground in the hard-charging West. "Western fitness has tended to emphasize strength and stamina, the way bodybuilders think of it," Schumacher says. "The exceptions are gymnasts and swimmers, whose sports require flexibility and balance, which yoga develops but weight training does not. …