The Hollywood Yogis

They have to leave their shoes and their egos at the door for this age-old practice.


Madonna does it, Gwenyeth Paltrow does it, Sting does it – and just once, even Homer Simpson did it! We’re talking about the ancient practice of yoga, which seems to be the passion du jour for celebrities. Some do it to trim their bodies, others to save their souls.

All it takes is a few feet of space in any corner and a mat. Yes, ascetics in India have practiced yoga for 5,000 years. Now Hollywood celebrities with their mansions and jets and frenetic lifestyles can’t seem to get enough of that little mat and the mind-bogglingly simple asanas that can change your life and your lifestyle.

Jennifer Aniston credits yoga with helping her survive her earth-shaking split from Brad Pitt; Charlie Sheen lost his excess baggage thanks to yoga; and Russell Simmons has a new video out Yoga Live set to hip-hop music.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar uses yoga techniques in his basketball regimen. He says: “My friends and teammates think I made a deal with the devil. But it was yoga that made my training complete. There is no way I could have played as long as I did without yoga.”
The line of celebrity believers is long – and growing. The bold-name brigade is headed by Christy Turlington and Oprah Winfrey and includes Jane Fonda, Tina Turner, Jerry Seinfeld, Cameron Diaz, Melissa Joan Hart, Soleil Moon Frye and Angelina Jolie.
And yes, add in Sarah Jessica Parker and the Dixie Chicks!

Need some more names dropped? Shirley MacLaine, Candice Bergen, Raquel Welch, Tatum O’Neal, Olivia Newton-John, Connie Stevens, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeff Bridges, Bianca Jagger, Emilio Estavez, Barbara Streisand, Danny Clover, Nick Cage, and Cameron Diaz are just some of the stars that swear by yoga.

“These Type A strivers want to become Type B seekers, to lose their blues in an asana (pose), to graduate from distress to de-stress,” wrote Time magazine about celebrity yogis, estimating that over 15 million Americans practice some form of yoga, and a full 75 percent of all health clubs offer yoga.

“I’ve been practicing yoga for a while now, and it’s an incredibly powerful and positive force in my life,” said Madonna when she introduced Ray of Light some years ago. “I’ve also been studying Sanskrit, and really this song comes out of my spiritual search. As much as anything, what I wanted to express was pure joy.”

In The Next Best Thing Madonna played a yoga teacher who taught her students Ashtanga yoga. It was easy for her to merge into the role, as she was an ardent devotee in real life.

You have the yogis of Mathura and Haridwar, and you have the yogis of Beverly Hills and Manhattan.

Oprah is such an ardent believer that she has her staff doing yoga once a week! She’s devoted an entire segment on her show to yoga with celebrity teacher Rodney Kee and has the benefits of yoga listed on her website, along with testimonials from stars and ordinary people.

“I started yoga about five years ago. I will say, definitely, it changed my life. It made me calmer. It puts you right in the place of witness, which is great,” Meg Ryan relates on Oprah’s site. And Ricky Martin says: “I’m learning yoga. It’s fascinating. Once again, it’s all about getting to know your ‘self.’ Connecting your heart and your mind in order for you to not make compulsive or obsessive decisions in life. Simplicity is the medicine.”

Christy Turlington is perhaps the most consistently devoted to yoga, ayurveda and Vastu, lives her life according to those Eastern principles. Having studied religion and philosophy at New York University, Christy has managed to merge her beliefs with her fashion background. She has developed Nuala, a line of yoga wear, in collaboration with PUMA. Nuala is an acronym for Natural – Universal – Altruistic – Limitless – Authentic, and is often defined as “Meditation in Motion.” In keeping with the spirit of yoga, Christy teams up with fashion names for altruistic and social causes.

There are literally thousands of yoga centers in America and it is also taught in health clubs, senior centers and community centers. It’s become an American practice and yoga is a word that everyone is now familiar with in the country. New York City alone has scores of centers from the oldest, the Sivananda Center, to the Yoga Zone, where style gurus and stars like Marisa Tomei have come in for their daily dose.

Some of the major schools of yoga include Integral, Iyengar, Kripalu, Ashtanga, Bikram, Kundalini, Jivamukti, Sivananda and Viniyoga, and while some emphasize the spirituality, others the physical aspect of yoga. Some are relaxing while others are invigorating.

Bikram Yoga, launched by Bikram Choudhury of the Yoga College of India in California, is a set of 26 sequences practiced in a heated room. This intense, high-energy yoga has attracted many devotees, including John McEnroe, Madonna and Shirley Mclaine. The colorful Bikram has attracted celebrities to his brand of volatile yoga and has franchises of Bikram schools all over the country.

Iyengar yoga, started by B.K.S. Iyengar, has many devotees including The Queen Mother of Belgium, Mira Nair, Naseeruddin Shah, Antara Mali as well as many cricketers, including Sachin Tendulkar, Kumble and Dravid. The late Yehudi Menuhin was a follower, as were such iconic names as J.Krishnamurty and Aldous Huxley. In this form of yoga, the emphasis is on precision and alignment in all postures, and props such as gadgets, ropes and belts are used to assist in perfecting the postures.

Christy Turlington, Madonna, Uma Thurman, William Dafoe, Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, Diane Keaton, and Mike Diamond of the Beastie Boys have been some of the regulars at Jivamukti, which is run by yoga gurus Sharon Gannon and David Life, who spent many years in India and emphasize spirituality and education along with the physical aspect of yoga. The 9,000 sq. foot surreal yoga palace is located in downtown Manhattan and attracts a steady set of pilgrims from all over the country.

Jivamukti’s opening bash several years ago featured loads of celebrities and a performance by Sting and William Dafoe. Sting’s personal chef created vegetarian delicacies and yoga enthusiast Donna Karan donated DKNY socks for the barefoot guests.

Sting, an ardent yoga devotee, and his wife Trudi Styler visited India some years ago with David Life and Sharon Gannon. They stayed in dharamsalas with no running water or electricity. Sting ate his food on the floor, performed seva every day and ate prasad.
The couple visited the many small holy towns like Gokul, Mathura and Vrindaban, places far removed from American pop culture. In the temple, Sting was just another devotee and everybody would be rushing for darshan, going right past him. Says Gannon, “He loved that. That was the beginning of real yoga for him.”

As Sting wrote in a preface a book about Jivamukti, “David and Sharon have inspired and encouraged us to think of yoga not just as a system of exercises, but as a door to the infinite.”

Perhaps the once-Material Girl best describes the practice of yoga, which is a very non-Material act. “Yoga is a metaphor for life. You have to take it really slowly. You can’t rush. You can’t skip to the next position,” says Madonna. “You find yourself in very humiliating situations, but you can’t judge yourself. You just have to breathe, and let go. It is a workout for your mind, your body and your soul.”


Want to join in for a session of Naked Yoga, where participants practice the ancient art of yoga in the buff? Or how about Laughter Yoga, where you laugh like crazy as you do your asanas? Then there’s Ball Yoga where you tussle with a huge ball, or tai-chi yoga and yoga mixed with Pilates. And yes, there’s even Doga or yoga for dogs!

Yoga in America has morphed into something Hindu yogis would hardly recognize. Whereas the real yoga is about austerity and meditation and a simple mat in a corner of nowhere, in America’s avid consumer society it has become a multibillion-dollar mega-mall of name-brand yoga clothes and accessory lines, countless workout videos, music and classes. Every gym and spa teaches yoga and there are countless versions, some more outlandish than others. You can find the authentic meditative practices and serious practitioners as well as fitness experts in the garb of yogis, teaching yoga to a disco beat.

We turned to Golden Door, an exclusive spa and resort in California set on 377 acres on the rolling hills outside of San Diego, Calif., which has been frequented by countless celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Streisand, and Martha Stewart. It’s the ultimate in luxury with a ratio of four staff per guest. New York magazine wrote, “For bar-setting luxury mixed with body punishing workouts, only Golden Door in Escondido, Calif., is still the time-tested best.” There is an emphasis on body, mind and spirit and yoga is just one of the many activities here.

Nikyta Palmisani, yoga instructor at Golden Door, says they teach all the manifestations of yoga that are practiced in the west from stretch and restore to power yoga, derived from Ashtanga yoga, and everything in between from Active-Slow Yoga to Yoga Ball. “It’s really about the conceptual difference between yoga in America versus yoga in India,” she says. “There’s such a big difference when yoga is taken out of context and taken out of the Rajya yoga path where the third step of the asana is just to prepare the body to sit in stillness and to move toward meditation, toward withdrawal of the senses. But in America it’s been taken out of the spiritual sense that you’re trying to reach samadhi and so, many yoga practitioners here are simply concerned with the physical motion.”

Whereas traditional exercise classes emphasize stretching for the sake of stretching, in yoga you’re stretching in a mindful way and using your mind to control and have mastery over your body. It becomes a deeper and more meditative experience, which is important to Americans, who need it to combat the stresses of daily life.

“The consequence is that if you’re only taking the asana or the third step of yoga then you will find as many different ways to do yoga as there are different people and that is why we offer so many different yoga classes here, because we have such a wide range of population,” says Palmisani. Her clients range from an inactive 85-year-old woman who needs very gentle yoga, perhaps even in a chair, to very flexible and in-shape people in their early 20s, whose bodies need more intensity, more strength and more focus.

Has it become more like a game, mixing yoga with Pilates and tai-chi, and fad activities like balls? “If you take it out of the context that you’re preparing yourself for – meditation – well, of course, it becomes a physical activity, becomes calisthenics of India really,” she says. “The Japa chants and mantras are often replaced with other music and the spiritual context is totally done away with.”

She gives an interesting comparison: “It’s like if you took the rosary presentation out of context, and then it basically becomes a game. How many ‘Hail Mary’s” can you say going around your rosary? Can you say it on one leg? If it’s not in the deeper, spiritual context of Catholicism, simply saying the rosary is not going to do the same thing.”
The real practice of yoga is far removed from the daily lives of most Americans who, many being Judaic or Christian, may not be comfortable with the religious connotations of yoga. While yoga is not a religion it does have its roots in Hinduism, but it is interpreted here just as a path to self-improvement. The asanas make American bodies feel great and so those are adopted. At the same time, many Americans take yoga in its entirety very seriously, researching and practicing it and even traveling to India. Yoga in America exists at many different levels.

So yoga has taken on a life of its own in America and changed into quite something else? “Absolutely. Americans have done what they do with everything. They’ve pioneered, they’ve innovated and even added their propensity for fads. Yoga has changed drastically since it came to America since the turn of the century,” says Palmisani.

While many of the fad forms of yoga may not be kosher to the serious practitioners of yoga, they still help people achieve better health, becoming more aware of their bodies and their stress levels that are often the cause of so many diseases. They find a huge benefit to be able to de-stress naturally without having to take pills.
“There are many paths to the same mountain and it depends what people want from learning yoga, whether it’s union with the supreme or merely a firmer body,” says Palmisani. “Classical yoga is 5000 years old for a reason. I think the balls and fads and games will come and go and lose their faddish appeal, but yoga will remain. Why? Because it has! It’s a system that’s been around so long because it serves deep needs and it works.” 

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