It’s 2 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, and 12 of New York’s top yogis are watching Jared McCann fold his body into a triangle. He is perched in a particularly backbreaking variation of a full locust pose, which is like a chin-stand done with an arched back and bent knees, so that his feet end up resting on top of his head.
“Jared, do you breathe when you do that?” asks a long-limbed blonde named Julia Zirinsky.
“All I feel is my throat ripping apart,” Mr. McCann replies as he unfurls, and everyone laughs. “Yoga—rip and crush your throat at the same time!” he adds cheerfully.
We are in Yoga to the People’s Chelsea studio, where Mr. McCann, the two-time National Yoga Champion, is teaching a secret advanced class attended mostly by his close friends. The room, heated to 95 degrees, reeks of sweat. All of the students are fellow yoga teachers. Decked out in brightly colored sports bras and/or booty shorts, the dozen yogis contort themselves expertly as Mr. McCann leads them through a safari’s worth of poses: peacock, camel, double pigeon. While it borrows elements from many different styles—Yoga to the People no longer offers pure Bikram classes following a copyright lawsuit last year—this particular class is Mr. McCann’s creation, his own unique choreography.
Watching the yogis practice, it’s not immediately evident that Mr. McCann is the one in charge. They all help one another, adjusting each other’s postures and offering tips and positive reinforcement. The room echoes frequently with laughter, and this levity is unusual considering the earnest seriousness with which yoga is usually practiced. “I love a democratic yoga class,” Mr. McCann explains.
While his teaching style may appear laissez-faire, the 32-year-old party boy-turned-national champ is a man on a larger mission. Sitting on a bench in the lobby after the class has ended, almost naked save for mini-shorts and two white towels draped over his impeccably sculpted torso, Mr. McCann elaborates on his plans to liberate yoga from the autocrats and the scolds. “I want to take over the whole yoga world,” he says.
Handsome, with penetrating green eyes and a boyish grin, Mr. McCann seems totally at home in this state of undress. This summer, after more than eight years practicing yoga, Mr. McCann will be opening his own yoga studio, to be titled The New York Asana Center. In doing so, he hopes to transmit the focus he brings to yoga competitions into the realm of the classroom. While Mr. McCann advocates for a less cliquish and more democratic yoga environment—one that replaces the dictatorial demands of a healthy lifestyle with the directive of listening to your body—he is also passionate about improving the quality of teaching in a system that he feels has become ragged with incompetence. In this way, Mr. McCann could be the poster child for a more enlightened yoga practice. “I just want the quality to be better,” he says.
Something had to give
Mr. McCann comes to yoga from an unusual perspective, to say the least. He spent most of his early twenties indulging feverishly in food, booze and drugs with his Wall Street boyfriend. “I was doing cocaine and I was doing heroin,” says Mr. McCann, “I had no purpose.”
Raised in Texas and Hawaii, one of four sons of wealthy, emotionally aloof parents, he remembers being an unusually disciplined and self-motivated child, who would practice the piano for five hours a day. “I’m obsessive,” he says. “I’m an obsessive perfectionist.” But after finishing a degree in Japanese at the University of Texas, Mr. McCann decided to follow some friends to New York, where his musical ambitions were quickly subsumed by the pleasures of Manhattan nightlife.
One morning, Mr. McCann remembers waking up and feeling like something had to give. “I needed help,” he says. So, like many New Yorkers, he sought spiritual refuge at the sanctuary most geographically proximate to his house: in this case, a hot yoga studio. “I hated it, but I felt better when I was done with that class,” he says. “So I just continued to go every day.”
Tricia Donegan, the owner of Bikram Yoga Lower East Side who also works as Lady Gaga’s private yoga instructor, remembers the day in 2005 when Mr. McCann first came into her studio. “I felt the person he was as soon as he walked in, and that person was someone who was working under his potential,” says Ms. Donegan, who would ultimately urge Mr. McCann to compete in his first yoga championship. “I could immediately sense that he was ready to do something he didn’t think he could.”
As he began to increase his focus on yoga, gradually, Jared began to party less and turn his gaze inward. “A lot of the work for me has been sitting with my loneliness and facing that,” he says. He remembers his mid-twenties as a particularly difficult time. “I got really into meditation at this time too because I basically had nothing else to do,” he explains. “So I stayed home and I meditated and I played the piano and I wrote music. It was a very lonely three years.”
Nowadays, there is hardly a trace of that rootless twenty-something meditating alone in his apartment. In the third-floor elevator lobby of Yoga to the People Chelsea, friends are sprawled out on the floor, listening to Mr. McCann narrate his life story and chiming in with jokes and observations. Among them is Tony Lupinacci, his boyfriend of over five years and a fellow yogi. “We both made that transition together, really, out of the dark into the light,” says Mr. McCann.
While his days of clubbing and cocaine are long behind him, he is anything but a drudge, say his admirers in the yoga world. “Does he go out to crazy parties anymore? No,” says Julia Zirinsky, another close friend and fellow yoga instructor. “But Jared’s a lot of fun when you’re hanging out with him. He’s kind of like a party himself.”
“The reason why he’s the best champion is because he’s a balanced human being,” suggests close friend and colleague Ben Sears, whose company LUXYOGA holds yoga retreats at his villa in the South of France. “He’s all-terrain. He’s as comfortable in a yoga room as he would be in an opera or the White House.”
While Mr. McCann certainly lives what most would consider a supremely healthy lifestyle, he has no interest in preaching the gospel of veganism and Vitamix. In his view, yoga should be more about the poses than about the cult-like spiritual and dietary demands that often seem to go along with it. “I’m very interested in listening to my body,” says Mr. McCann, who is a meat eater, chocolate lover and occasional wine drinker. He doesn’t believe in one-size-fits-all yoga; he believes that the first commandment should always be to listen to yourself. “I want a place where there’s no judgment,” he says. “You can eat or do whatever you want to do as long as that thing feels good to you. As long as that thing vibes with your spirit.”
Why do you think they call it Warrior Pose?
While meditation and spirituality are certainly a component of yoga, for Mr. McCann the competitions represent another, equally important side of the craft, grounded firmly in the physical body. “There’s this spiritual idea that’s kind of pervaded our yoga culture of, oh, just say your prayers and be compassionate and everything will work out great,” he explains. “But actually, if you want to pay your rent in New York City, you have to hustle and you have to do the work. You have to put in the effort.” In this regard, the competitions are a manifestation of the hard work and daily dedication that are just as much a part of yoga as the Oms and the Namastes.
The annual National Yoga Asana Championship is held by the USA Yoga Federation, which was founded by Rajashree Choudhury, the wife of Bikram Choudhury, whose eponymous style of hot yoga has won millions of converts worldwide. While competitions may seem antithetical to yoga, they have in fact been taking place in India for hundreds of years. Participants are required to complete seven poses in three minutes, and are scored on criteria such as balance, strength, timing and flexibility. Recently, Jared was crowned U.S. National Yoga Champion for the second consecutive year, scoring 58.4 out of a possible 70. This summer, he will be competing in the international yoga championship, and hopes to improve on his third-place standing from last year.
Within the competitions, the five mandatory postures come from the Bikram lineage, and most of the competitors are trained primarily in Bikram. Mr. McCann, on the other hand, is what you might call a Renaissance yogi. He has trained with an eclectic roster of teachers in a variety of styles, blending them to create his own unique form. “I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just creating my own style of yoga based on a lot of lineages that are already out there,” he says. While Mr. McCann currently teaches these hybrid classes to his friends, he plans to offer them widely at the upcoming studio. “We’re going to bring the best together in one place,” says Mr. McCann, who is in the process of shopping around for a location.
Mr. McCann’s main goal with his new studio is to create a serious training program for yoga teachers. The recent yoga boom has spawned a proliferation of teacher training programs churning out unqualified instructors, he says, which has led to a rise in yoga injuries. “It’s like nine days and you’re a yoga teacher and you’ve never even done yoga before,” he says of some of the programs offered. “It’s dangerous.” He hopes that by opening his own center, he’ll be able to make space for his friends who have been shuttled through the system from studio to studio, and to raise the bar when it comes to teaching and training. And while his studio is being enabled via a generous investment from a venture capitalist friend, he doesn’t mince words about the financial straits of his profession. “I would like to actually make yoga teaching a serious job and not this thing where you have to be part yoga teacher, part prostitute to pay the rent,” he says.
Looking back at the lost boy who walked into her studio eight years ago, Tricia Donegan now sees a man who has transformed into an exemplary role model for his peers. “What I have seen emerge in the past two years as he gets more comfortable in his own skin is him helping other competitors and being supportive of them,” says Ms. Donegan. “I think yoga was a tool to find out that he could have a better life, that he could do things that he didn’t think he could. And now it has become his tool for the world.”
With a new business on the horizon and a major competition awaiting him this summer, Mr. McCann has certainly been making good use of the tool that was given to him. While he may have attained the spiritual calm that was lacking in his partying days, that doesn’t mean he’s traded in pleasure for Puritanism. “I would like to take this spiritual passiveness out of yoga culture,” he says. “Because I am a body. I’m Jared. Maybe that would be nice to go back to God and forget about everything, but actually, no, I like it here. I’m having fun.”
And inner repose is certainly not akin to loss of ego—as evidenced by his advice for those who have yet to jump on the yoga bandwagon. “Stop thinking about it and just go!” he says, grinning. “Actually, I wouldn’t say just go. I’d say: come to my studio.”