Is this the shape of things to come?

Jivamukti yoga promises sinews and spiritual enlightenment. Nicola Behrman discovers if it's worth stretching for
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

I have always wanted to be one of those perfect yoga people. You know the type - you see them walking around smugly, mats tucked neatly under their arms, gliding gracefully in exercise gear as you stumble over the kerb, spilling your coffee.

I have always wanted to be one of those perfect yoga people. You know the type - you see them walking around smugly, mats tucked neatly under their arms, gliding gracefully in exercise gear as you stumble over the kerb, spilling your coffee.

God knows, I've tried to find enlightenment, and I've tried many routes: Ashtanga yoga just didn't click; rooftop yoga, with the New York skyline in the background, gave me vertigo; I even tried hot yoga - in a sauna with your clothes on - but the only thing that stuck was my clothing. Four years on, my downward-facing dogs are still an embarrassment, my sun salutations better seen in the dark.

So when I first hear about Jivamukti, the latest new yoga discipline set to transfer from Manhattan to London, it is with a cynical ear. Offering a "more complete experience that stretches both your mind and your body" than its more established yoga rivals, Jivamukti already boasts a host of celebrity fans - from Christy Turlington and Willem Dafoe to chief yogi, Sting. But can it possibly offer anything to the yoga market that Ashtanga, Iyengar and Bikram don't? I head off to Woodstock to put Jivamukti to the test in a class organised by David Life and Sharon Gannon, the co-creators of Jivamukti.

The craze started in the mid-1980s in New York. Life was an artist and ran the Life Café (the café featured in the musical Rent). Gannon was a dancer who had back problems. She started going to yoga to ease her back pain. It worked. Life went to yoga because, on his own admission, he wanted to be next to Gannon. The rest is history. Practically and romantically.

Both were interested in mythology and philosophy, and were impressed by how yoga freed their minds, as well as their bodies. But they wanted more: a complete package, which would explain what a headstand had to do with world peace. So they went to India, studied with the greats and learnt Sanskrit. During that trip, Jivamukti yoga - meaning "enlightenment of the soul" - was born. How is it different? It's not just about the physical aspect of the poses, they stress. It's about using the asanas (poses) to clear your mind of all the clutter. It involves all the senses. It embraces the use of music, spoken word, philosophy, incense and aromatherapy.

Jivamukti students have access to Sanskrit classes, meditations and lectures. Half way through a pose, students are encouraged to think of someone who has made their lives really difficult and they're told to say: "Thank you". Another time, they're told to think of a friend who really needs help and to concentrate on them hard all through the pose.

It's a popular combination. Twenty years on, there are two centres in Manhattan and franchises in Munich, Toronto and Chicago. The first British centre opens in London in June. It's is being opened by Manizeh Rimer, who moved to London from New York four years ago because of her husband's job.

It's fair to say that Life and Gannon's base in Woodstock is a yogic idyll. There's a mat laid out in front of a roaring fire, with glass doors leading out to 67 acres of forest. But I'm a bundle of nerves. Sitting cross-legged in front of the yogi and the yogini, I'm convinced they'll see immediately that I'm not a yoga person. But Life and Gannon couldn't care less. To them, exercise and being fit are nothing more than happy by-products of yoga. "It's about learning to be compassionate, to be kind to the world," says Gannon as she helps me master the locust and the camel position. "I care about what's going on inside your mind. Because when you have difficulty with poses, when you find yourself getting embarrassed about a certain move, it often relates to other areas of your life."

It's a very liberating concept and, suddenly, I don't feel quite so self-conscious. All I can hear are Gannon's peaceful words: "Let go. Let go. Let go." And then a funny thing happens: I let go and manage to stretch quite a bit further. And it feels great.

Over lunch - a delicious if vegan affair - I ask my hosts why Jivamukti is so much better than your average yoga class? It's a subject on which they become almost irritatingly benign. "We're not going to judge big centres, because Jivamukti is about freeing your mind from habitual judging," they say. Which is all very beautiful, I say, but that sort of attitude won't wash with the Brits. We're cynics. "Situations are how you perceive them, how you expect them to be," they answer, almost in unison.

I'm reminded of what she has said the following week when I attend another class at their Downtown New York studio, and I am struck by just how unlike normal, stressed, high-maintenance Manhattanites the Jivamukti disciples seem.

"It's affected my whole life," says Jeannine Freed, 28, a convert for four years. "The people I choose to surround myself with, my job, everything. I don't get pissed off any more when someone cuts in line or shoves me on the subway." Am I really hearing this from a New Yorker? Person after person that I talk to - stockbrokers, dancers, architects, self-confessed corporate whores - seem to be saying the same thing: Jivamukti has made them happier. I have visions of people smiling at each other on the Tube, standing up for people on buses and striking up conversations randomly. It's not a likely scenario, I know, but as Life and Gannon say, situations are how you perceive them.

See www.jivamuktiyoga.com

Comments