Manhattan Yoga Mania: Celebrity Mat Spreads As Jivamukti Opens

Crabby? Unsatisfied careerwise? Knees hurty? Spiritually angsty? Love life askew? Well, then, why haven’t you tried yoga?

Who dares voice complaint to a friend these days? Instead of a sympathetic ear, you’ll just get a gift certificate to a beginner’s class.

All over New York City, hordes of slippery yoga evangelists prescribe the magic tonic of sun salutations for any ailment, any at all. Come on, just take one class, it’s fun! they say. If that doesn’t work, they sell by a crasser tactic: My teacher is cute—oh my God, it’s so adorable when he’s upside down and his shirt rides up!

Whether they intend to be or not, these recruiters are the worker ants of an immensely successful yoga nest. With last week’s opening of the gigantic Jivamukti center in Union Square, heralded with a celebrity- and vegan-filled gala event, the yoga proselytizers have taken over a neighborhood—and they’re coming for you. To help you heal.

“Walk around Broadway anywhere between Union Square and Astor Place, you’ll see a hundred people in the course of an hour—between 5 and 6—carrying a yoga mat,” said Matthew Kenney, the raw-food king behind Pure Food and Wine on Irving Place.

The entreaties made by these mat-toting hordes are almost impossible to refuse. It seems so harmless: 90 minutes with scantily clad and suggestively bendy youngsters! (Well, there is a greater threat: that of 23-year-old post-post-feminist Smith grads reading aloud, in full poetry voice, from the works of Mother Teresa, or worse—being told, while in a squatting position, to “imagine sucking up a grape with your anus,” as one teacher recently commanded her class.)

Don’t bother fearing Scientology or the Kabbalists—brainwashing would be fine, but the yoga hawkers won’t stop until they get you to expose your athlete’s foot, and to shove your flabby body in a unitard. But it’s so hard to say no to Iyengar enthusiasts like Diane von Furstenberg. Yes, she recruits too. “I recommend yoga to everyone,” she e-mailed. “It is the best thing you can do for yourself.”

Outside the new 12,000-square-foot Jivamukti center on the sunny afternoon of May 23, neophytes and adepts came and went. Jillian Fracassi, 28, is an occasional student at Jivamukti who says her friend, a “super yoga freak,” turned her onto the practice. “Definitely there’s the yoginis,” she said. “They are very clique-ish. The people that do yoga are very loyal.”

“Oh yeah, I try to recruit,” said Rachael Levine, 34, who works in the film industry and has been doing yoga for a decade. “You take it out into your life, making the environment better, or your relationship better, or yourself a happier person, the world a better place—if you can be so bold as to claim that,” she said.

Out in L.A., she said, “I even worked on one set—we were on a little shoot—where we did yoga before …. ”

One of us! One of us!

THE WEEK PREVIOUS, ON MAY 18, that Jivamukti mega-center, starship cult central for the Recruit All Complainers campaign, saw a line outside for its grand gala. There they were, twisty ladies in multicolored saris, turbans, tunics of varying lengths and, least importantly, comfortable flat shoes.

Least important because they would soon be discarded in the child-size cubby holes that are furnished in every room of Jivamukti.

“Look at me, I’m 75 and I look great,” said Sting—actually 54—as he finished a round of smiling and hugging for the cameras. “I’m just very good friends with Sharon and David, been a member of Jivamukti since God knows when.”

As celebrities filed into the room for their own place at the Welcome Table, they greeted Jivamukti’s owners, Sharon Gannon and David Life, by bowing their heads and bringing their palms together at chest level.

Russell Simmons, a longtime “big supporter” of Jivamukti, excitedly spoke about his induction in the cult of yoga when Bobby Shriver had taken him to a class. “Years ago, he took me—there were so many hot girls I couldn’t stop going, I got addicted to it. Anyway, that’s how it started out,” he said, counting the rosary beads in his right hand.

Elizabeth Berkley swam into the room, her shimmering bright pink wrap dress accentuating her gold-toned skin. (She had clearly left her inhibitions at the door.) Ms. Berkley began doing yoga around the time of her Showgirls debut as a Las Vegas dancer.

“I think a lot of people see so many people who get so much out of it and how it transforms their lives,” she said of yoga’s recruitment-friendly nature. “And so I think people see that it’s not just a trendy thing: It’s a forever thing.”

A group of musicians took the stage and began chanting “ Om,” which progressed into the power mantra “ Om nama shivaya.” As the accompanying music became louder and faster, most of the crowd seated themselves on the rubber floor—Russell and Kimora Lee Simmons swayed to the chant. Beastie Boy Mike D., with a diamond-studded left ear, skeptically watched a yogini contort her body.

Uma Thurman, whose brother Dechen is a teacher at the studio, arrived, protected by bodyguards, in a silky white dress ruffled perfectly around her shoulders, wisps of blond hair framing her face.

Royal Ms. Thurman sat with her brother and spent the evening tapping away on her cell phone’s keypad.

DAYS BEFORE THE GRAND OPENING, co-owner Sharon Gannon, a petite brunette with a thin voice, was explaining how the retail area in the new space was set up. Gabby Karan de Felice—Donna Karan’s daughter—had been there the night before to rearrange it all.

A flock of large papier-mâché herons surrounded a wicker chair. “Gabby said that they had these people in Colombia, South America, make these, and then they sold them to raise money for this group of artists in Colombia. So Donna Karan, of course, bought some of them. And these are Donna’s,” she said.

(“They called us with a fashion emergency,” Ms. Karan de Felice recalled. “I was able to get a hold of the DKNY visual team—it’s like that house-makeover show! We’re trying to make it more like a marketplace, more like shopping around the world.”)

On Ms. Gannon’s long-sleeved brown T-shirt was printed a Sanskrit word, Svaha. Ms. Gannon briskly swept her hands to the sky: “It means ‘to offer it up to God.’” Then she pointed out a bamboo wrap sweater and the organic cotton Jivamukti logo T-shirts.

The new space has allowed the Jivamukti gang to develop further what their publicist called the “yoga lifestyle.” At the center of this lifestyle is the concept of “spiritual activation.”

“Gandhi had that beautiful quote: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,’” said Ms. Gannon.

At the heart of the new Jivamukti is an airy vegan café with a view of the Strand bookstore. “As you can see, our sandwiches are ‘reality sandwiches,’ our salads are ‘salvation salads.’ That means they help you plug into reality, connect,” said Ms. Gannon, who carries a little of the librarian in her, with her low bun and prim manner, a holdover from a previous career.

“It is a vegan café, so that means we’re not causing the suffering of any animals. And definitely, when you look out for the happiness of somebody else, in return you’re going to be happier yourself—so actually it does work that way,” she said.

Gandhi also said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with yoga itself. It’s just that evangelists have always been motivated by their own—and never your—rewards.

ERICA JONG’S FIRST YOGA LESSONS were 25 years ago, from a guru who came recommended by a California screenwriter friend.

“His answering machine used to say, ‘I am Majumdar. Please leave a message,’” Ms. Jong said. “He used to say things like ‘What is The New York Times, after all, but an unholy alliance of Temple Emmanuel and Wall Street?’”

Now Ms. Jong takes a private class with three women friends near her country house in Connecticut.

“It’s become entirely too popular and too Americanized …. In our frantic New York way, we’ve made yoga into a competitive New York sport. That’s unfortunate—it’s supposed to be an inward thing, where you do the postures to bring body and soul together,” she said.

“It has been swept into a trend, and I think it’s corrupted yoga and made it something it’s not. It’s all about the equipment: Do you have the right mat, and did you buy your clothes at Nuala?” (Nuala is Christy Turlington’s designer yoga-wear line.)

Clearly, business is booming. “I think its spreading, yes,” said Russell Simmons. “This block alone …. ” A few floors up from the new Jivamukti is a Bikram studio, the heated yoga for sweaty masochists. And within two blocks are two other, smaller studios, the Shala and Om.

“Some places, it’s become a business thing, a way of people making money,” said Durga Devi, an ornately pierced Jivamukti instructor. “But meanwhile, back in the day, people taught for free.”

SO WHEN YOUR OFFICE GAL-PALS incessantly recruit you to yoga class, what exactly are they selling?

“Only God can change your heart—then it will reflect it physically, outside. I think they are trying to find God through that,” said a fellow named Juan. He is 59, and is the security guard for the Integral Yoga Institute. He pointed to the calming reddish-pink façade of its New York headquarters. Forty years ago, when Integral Yoga opened in New York, “few Americans knew about or practiced yoga,” reads their brochure.

“Swami Satchidananda’s mission—to make Yoga accessible to everyone—has been fulfilled, as evidenced by the widespread popularity of Yoga and its acceptance as a vital tool in healing and stress management,” the brochure continues.

Integral is in the West Village, just down 13th Street from Jivamukti.

The building features a bookstore, an organic market and juice bar, and across the street a vitamin shop is housed for overflow. There are two stories of classrooms.

“I’ve had conversations with people who definitely are using it for physical reasons rather than spiritual as well as physical, and then reflecting upon that with other yogis. Optimally, you know, they would be seeing the spiritual and the physical combination of the yoga practice. Ultimately, they are gaining from whatever yoga that they are doing,” said Shannon, 33, a hairdresser who practices almost everyday at a variety of yoga studios, including Integral.

Outside Integral, Chris, 27, a personal assistant to wealthy New Yorkers of the organic stripe, lounged on the bench adjacent to Integral Yoga’s entrance. He tried yoga a few times, he said, but didn’t like it, or the people. “They are looking to fill a void or something,” he said.

He had just returned from purchasing a very green organic beverage from the juice bar.

Then there’s the popular “Fuck Yoga” T-shirt. Barnaby Harris created it, originally as a gag birthday gift for his ex-wife, a frequent yoga-goer.

Is Mr. Harris the vanguard of the Yoga Resistance? Well …. “I am somebody who, quite ironically, does yoga every day. As my body started to deteriorate from boxing, it was the only thing left. It saved my back and knees. But I do not live the yoga lifestyle. I do not do that,” he said.

“They’re totally embracing the corporate side of it, and not, at the same time,” he said. “They’re trying to embrace the singular message of yoga in your life, and at the same time they would open a Jivamukti like Starbucks if they could.”

Even Ms. von Furstenberg’s teacher, Bobby Clennell, sees the black storm cloud created by the hot air of yoga meeting with the cold, materialistic nature of New York City.

“On the one hand, there’s a boom because people are ready for it and people need it. I just hold on to my center and my integrity,” she said. (But does she grasp it like a grape?)

“I’m so philosophical about the boom and the commercialism, it’s hard for me to get upset about it,” she said. “I don’t have to be a part of it—but on the other hand, in this environment, I can earn a living. It’s a double-edged sword.”

“Eventually, if people are persevering, they’ll get to the truth,” Ms. Clennell said. “Yoga is going to survive this. You see yoga and people getting exploited—but I just think yoga is bigger than that, so I’m not worried.”

—with additional reporting by Anna Schneider-Mayerson

Loyalties

Baseball star Carlos Delgado is keeping his mouth shut nowadays. Once an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, since joining the Mets in late 2005 he has mostly maintained, at their request, a public silence on the subject.

At the Perry Ellis party on Thompson Street Monday night, where the first baseman was the guest of honor, Paul Rosengard, the premium-brands group president of Perry Ellis, opined that Mr. Delgado is well paid, so if Mets management wants him to shut up, he should shut up: “He’s an employee.” But an employee 24 hours a day? “And if he played for the Yankees, he’d have to shave off his mustache and beard,” said Mr. Rosengard with conviction. “Those are their rules.”

Pablo de Echevarria, Mr. Rosengard’s senior V.P. of marketing, laughed coquettishly when asked about the limits of his employee loyalty. Would he ever criticize Perry Ellis clothing in private? He looked at Mr. Rosengard. “Did you see the line stretching around the corner today?” Mr. De Echevarria said, referring to Mr. Delgado’s signing at Macy’s earlier. “We completely covered up Claiborne!”

Mr. Rosengard’s views on loyalty were very clear. So was Mr. Delgado sporting Perry Ellis that night? “Absolutely. Check his belt,” he said.

Mr. Delgado, an imposing figure, was standing on the other side of the room with his beautiful new wife, Betzy. He had a different story. “I was wearing it earlier today,” he said, shifting on his feet. “I changed.”

“You’d know if it was Perry Ellis,” announced a curly-haired sales representative for Travel+Leisure, wrinkling her nose in distaste. Mr. Delgado cut in on her attack. “Don’t say anything, don’t say anything—you’re a professional,” Mr. Delgado said. The lady, undeterred, continued to cast aspersions on Perry Ellis clothing: “I mean, I’ve said it to Pablo …. He admits it!”

The brand-bashing came to a halt as Mr. Rosengard approached and pressed his icy glass against The Transom’s upper arm. He quizzed Mr. Delgado on obscure sports statistics and brandished a 1994 baseball card emblazoned with his image. “I played for a week, at camp.” Mr. Delgado was gracious about this short-lived career: “I’ve known people who left the cab running.”

A sandy-haired minion brought Mr. Rosengard a glossy photograph of Mr. Delgado, to be autographed “for my ex-wife, would you believe,” said Mr. Rosengard. The first baseman obliged, but a misunderstanding led to “Amy” being spelt with an extra M. “I thought you said … ,” Mr. Delgado said. “Well, I’m going to call my son and tell him I did my bit,” Mr. Rosengard said, with cheer. “You can tell her it was my fault,” said Mr. Delgado.

Mr. Delgado left the party for “a date with my wife.” Mr. Rosengard undertook efforts to make The Transom his “wife No. 2.” Resisting, The Transom asked Mr. Rosengard for his own views on baseball. He lifted his fists up to his chest, exposing several inches of shirtsleeve and two Boston Red Sox cufflinks.

—Lidija Haas