In the Om Stretch
Published: May 2009
By Christine Shea
Yoga isn't just for hard-core ascetics anymore.
Here, 42 classes, studios, and retreats around the world to help you strike a balance between living well and being well.
Ask any resident of your local ashram, and he or she will be happy to explain: There's Yoga, and then there's yoga. Capital-Y Yoga means vegetarianism, pilgrimages to India, and extreme self-discipline. Lowercase-y yoga allows participants to wear $200 pants to class and dine on beef carpaccio (protein-rich, no carbs) without remorse. Old-school Yogis (big Y) have chosen their spiritual path in order to live harmoniously and peacefully. Young-blood yogis (little y) are proud of the stress in their lives but devote their free time—including hard-earned vacations—to eradicating it.
Luckily, yoga is a pack-your-mat-and-go pursuit. It requires minimal equipment—the mat, a foam block for support, a couple of blankets—and has few special needs other than a space large enough to accommodate its participants with arms outstretched. These bare necessities are all that's offered on traditional yoga retreats, such as those led by Boston-based power yogi Baron Baptiste in Costa Rica, Maui, and Mexico.
But it takes a dedicated person to travel to yoga camp for days of intense, backbreaking poses rewarded by sleep in spare, dormitory-style quarters. (Sometimes disciples are asked to bring their own linens!) Though the monastic life may offer spiritual rewards, it's far from fun. Last year, I practiced yoga at Rancho La Puerta, the rustic spa in Tecate, Mexico. Even with daily massages, it felt too much like camping to me. The instructors were skillful, inspiring, and patient, but the mostly vegetarian meals, the ban on carbonated drinks, and the howling coyotes that kept me gripping the sheets half the night were about as much "roughing it" as I could take.
The luxury yoga retreat—with room service and a delicious, never-ending supply of fluffy towels—is more enticing, at least for this lowercase yogini. In recent years, this alternative has sprung from the desire of uncompromising urbanites to balance living well and being well. That's where Yoga and yoga collide.
Consider the pursuits of yoga's most public advocates: Madonna, Gwyneth, Sting, Christy. All have lifestyles that appear to be more aesthetic than ascetic. Yoga's newest practitioners have taken a cue from those celebrities and perform Ashtanga, Bikram, or Iyengar to become spiritually grounded and self-aware—and get abs of steel. A recent four-day Inward Bound Adventures yoga trip to Round Hill, the Montego Bay, Jamaica, resort where Ralph Lauren spends family vacations, was far better suited to my tastes. Each day was pretty much the same: two hours of yoga and meditation, beginning at 7:30; breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs, or banana pancakes; reading on the beach; snorkeling; a light lunch with a Red Stripe; a Swedish or Thai massage at Bunty's Cottage spa; an hour of Pilates, restorative yoga, and meditation at sunset; grilled snapper at the seaside restaurant; a final swim; and blissful sleep in a four-poster bed in an air-conditioned villa.
Known for old-fashioned formality and cocktails on the terrace, Round Hill seems an unlikely spiritual destination. But the trip my friend Whitney and I took is a prototype for the new kind of yoga retreat, one that mixes self-discipline and self-indulgence. For the groups of 8 to 10 yoga travelers who head here twice a year, it is far more gratifying than baking on a beach.
On a shady terrace overlooking the lush Round Hill grounds and the Caribbean Sea, Jane Fryer, the owner and founder of Inward Bound, led a group of 10 students in a series of poses. At first it was a struggle to keep my focus inward—on whether my pelvic floor was engaged, for example—when my surroundings were infinitely more interesting. But as the pace quickened and the poses became more challenging, my attention snapped back to my contorted, twisted center.
Fryer, a fiftyish woman with Barbie-like proportions who is partial to jaunty sarongs and piles of gold jewelry, has been practicing yoga since the seventies, first at Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts, and then in Washington, D.C. Every yoga teacher has an individual style, usually an amalgam of various schools—in Fryer's case, a version of Anusara that is informed by a traditional mix of Ashtanga, Kripalu, and Iyengar. But given that gurus are prone to dropping nuggets of insight and inspiration along with posture suggestions, your teacher's personality is as essential to your experience as his or her brand of yoga. Throughout her class, Fryer spoke with straight-faced conviction about "harvesting the fire energy" of Jamaica (a volcanic island) and "juicing the kidneys." "We are cosmic earthlings," she said as my eyes wandered to a tiny green gecko scurrying along the deck.
About half the participants were members of the "Jane Gang"—a pack of well-off, older women and men who hung on her every word. They'd traveled with Fryer before, to Locanda del Gallo in Umbria (included: an excursion to the Prada outlet) and to Domaines des Courmettes in Provence (with a day trip to the pool at the Grand Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat). They sang her praises.
I, however, was a bit more skeptical. The reason I took up yoga in the first place was to confront my distrust of "woo-woo" spirituality and the type of people who encourage you to picture a snake coiled around your tailbone. That, and a burning desire to possess a perfect yoga butt (not there yet). I bristled when a former instructor told me that the reason I couldn't do the wheel, better known in playground circles as a backbend, was that my "heart wasn't open," and not simply that my spine didn't go that way. During the second class at Round Hill, as I breathed in the scent of hibiscus and felt the warm, humid air on my skin, Fryer's comment about the female energy that should be resonating in my hips made me revert to eye-rolling mode. But by the end of my third class, with a little help from Barbara Sampson, the perky-but-never-irritating Pilates instructor, my spine did comply, and I dared to call my single, wobbly wheel progress.
Of course, the members of the Jane Gang were having a blast, pushing themselves to master new poses and laughing if they couldn't quite get them. Why shouldn't it be fun?The pineapple body scrubs, the calypso music, Fryer's invigorating sun salutations, and Sampson's great mat classes were worth the trip. There was sufficient "bonding time" with others in the group, though it's not a requirement, and private time between classes is encouraged. It was a perfect getaway for sisters who wanted to catch up, reconnecting mothers and daughters, or friends who'd left their spouses at home—like Whitney and me. The two of us managed a little harmless mischief: skipping a group dinner for a hilariously raucous evening with candlelit room service and a bottle of rum, then missing Pilates class to extend a nap the next afternoon.
Several days later, in the taxi on the way home from the airport, we felt relaxed and restored. Should the credit go to the yoga, that morning's ocean swim, or the hours spent getting massages at Bunty's Cottage?Whitney promised to share the pancake recipe the chef had given her; I could still feel the grains of sand in my shoes. The next time I start to grumble during a chakra chat or complain about the well-used mat at my sweaty Bikram studio, I'll think of Round Hill, channel my inner cosmic earthling, and remember how those asanas smelled a little bit sweeter in Jamaica.
More: A yoga glossary, celebrity gurus, the best yoga hotels and resorts, authentic ashrams, and the most yoga-friendly cities in the U.S.A.
Asanas: The physical poses of yoga.
Ashtanga: A yoga technique based on asanas that flow from one to the next and are always done in the same order.
Bikram: An athletic form of yoga always performed in a heated room.
Flow Yoga: An aerobic combination of Iyengar (see below) and Ashtanga.
Hatha: The physical practice of yoga.
Iyengar: A yoga style that corrects the body's alignment; poses are held for extended periods with the aid of straps.
Jivamukti: A type of yoga meant to be physically rigorous and intellectually stimulating.
Kundalini: A practice centered on releasing spiritual energy in order to control the functions of the body; each session focuses on one area.
Om: A sacred syllable used as a mantra, meant to mimic the vibration of the universe.
Om Yoga: A fluid technique that emphasizes proper alignment and incorporates Buddhist meditation.
Restorative Yoga: A slow, relaxing kind of yoga used to release stress.
Sivananda: Yoga that integrates movement, breathing, and meditation.
Vinyasa: The fluid movement from one asana to another.
Yogi: A man who practices yoga.
Yogini: A woman who practices yoga.
Name a celebrity with washboard abs and perfectly toned arms and it's likely that he or she has both feet planted on a yoga mat. Here, a list of star-tested-and-approved yoga gurus.
Steve Ross As the owner of L.A.'s Maha Yoga (famous for its blaring pop music and hard-body clientele), Ross has instructed Meg Ryan, Woody Harrelson, and Dennis Quaid in a form of flow yoga. 13050 San Vicente Blvd.; 310/899-0047; $15 per class.
Ganga White Sting taught his first yoga class at the Center for Yoga in Los Angeles, founded by White in the sixties. Now he and Trudie Styler make regular trips to the White Lotus Foundation, their longtime friend's yoga retreat in Santa Barbara. 2500 San Marcos Pass, Santa Barbara; 805/964-1944; from $375 per weekend.
Gurmukh Courtney Love, Madonna, Cindy Crawford, and Rosanna Arquette frequent Gurmukh's Golden Bridge yoga in Los Angeles for kundalini. But Gurmukh, often referred to as Hollywood's celebrity guru, hasn't let it go to her head: she still invites Sunday-evening students back to her house for dinner. 5901 W. Third St.; 323/936-4172; $15 per class.
David Life and Sharon Gannon Gwyneth Paltrow, Christy Turlington, Uma Thurman, Penelope Cruz, Molly Shannon, Russell Simmons, John Cusack, and the Beastie Boys have all practiced yoga at Life and Gannon's Jivamukti, New York's most famous studio. 404 Lafayette St.; 212/353-0214; $17 per class.
Christine Grimaldi A self-proclaimed "untraditional yogi," Grimaldi has worked with Jimmy Buffett, the Spielbergs, Barbara Walters, and Sean Connery—in between leading restorative sessions for cancer patients and teaching classes at her uptown Manhattan studio Yoga Plus. 20 E. 67th St.; 212/327-0159; $20 per class.
Cyndi Lee Lee's Buddhist approach has lured Parker Posey, Marisa Tomei, Gretchen Mol, and Gina Gershon to her New York studio Om Yoga and the retreats she holds around the world. 135 W. 14th St., second floor; 212/229-0267; $15 per class.
Bikram Choudhury When Candice Bergen, Rachel Weisz, Ashley Judd, or Brooke Shields want to turn up the heat—classes are warmed up to 100 degrees—they go to the Yoga College of India in L.A. 1862 S. La Cienega Blvd.; 310/854-5800; $20 per class.
Best Yoga For Hotel Guests
Personalized classes or studio space for yogis-on-the-go has become a necessity for hotels catering to the modern business traveler. Here are a few of our favorites.
Four Seasons Hotel Joseph Jester, the head concierge, will arrange for an instructor from Yogatime in Beverly Hills (from $100 per hour) or Bikram Choudhury's Yoga College of India (from $60 per hour) to guide you through poses in the fitness center, your hotel room, or a poolside cabana. 300 S. Doheny Dr.; 310/273-2222, fax 310/385-4927; doubles from $350.
W New York Times Square Yoga at the W's brand-new location is made possible by the "whatever, whenever" concierges, who can arrange for in-room yoga classes ($125 per hour) with Jivamukti instructors. 1567 Broadway; 212/930-7400, fax 212/930-7500; doubles from $299.
Venetian Resort The hotel's 65,000- square-foot Canyon Ranch Spa Club has a distinctly Vegas spin. At least two yoga classes are offered daily to hotel guests, taught by one of 12 instructors. 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/283-6423 or 702/414-1000, fax 702/414-4805; doubles from $149.
Sanderson Three times a week, the Agua Bathhouse pulls back its 40-foot white silk curtains to open up the spa studio for Ashtanga yoga class. A "bubbling bucket" that emits blue, yellow, and green light sets the mood. Private sessions ($86 per hour) can be arranged with one of the three teachers. 50 Berners St.; 44-207/300-1400; doubles from $453.
No need to sacrifice seclusion to advance your yoga practice. Avoid the spa pack and escape to a luxury resort instead.
Amangani Privacy is key at this 40-suite Wyoming hideaway. Shasti, the resident instructor, guides guests through a series of flowing poses focused on cardiovascular fitness and flexibility. Inspired by the Zen setting, beginners can learn yoga fundamentals, or experienced yogis can enhance their practice with a 60-minute session in their own rooms or in the mind-body studio overlooking the infinity pool and the Grand Tetons. Jackson, Wyo.; 307/734-7333; www.amanresorts.com; doubles from $675; private instruction from $90.
Caneel Bay The new Self Centre emphasizes self-awareness and inner discovery. Daily classes range from partner yoga to yoga play (for kids and parents) to desktop yoga and meditation. Private sessions, which focus on stress relief, and more-challenging Ashtanga classes are also available. St. John, U.S.V.I.; 888/767-3966 or 340/776-6111; www.caneelbay.com; doubles from $450; group sessions from $25, private instruction from $90.
Shambhala Spa at Parrot Cay Private instruction in all levels of Ashtanga and Iyengar attracts seasoned students to this mind-body haven. Yoga retreats are scheduled with world-renowned instructors: Rodney Yee in March, Cyndi Lee in April, David Life and Sharon Gannon in May, Donna Farhi in July, Iyengar legend Ramanand Patel in August. Turks and Caicos; 877/754-0726 or 649/946-7788; www.parrot-cay.com; doubles from $530; private instruction from $120, six-night all-inclusive yoga retreats from $5,310.
Ananda in the Himalayas Trek to the birthplace of yoga for a dose of the real thing mixed with pampering luxury. The palace resort's extensive program includes group classes given in a glass pavilion, a great hall, and a winter garden; individualized yoga sessions; and trips to nearby ashrams (one is that of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, made famous by the Beatles' visit in 1967). Palace Estate, Narendra Nagar, India; 91-1378/27500, fax 91-1378/27550; www.anandaspa.com; doubles from $350; group sessions free, private instruction from $30.
Best Value: Back-to-Basics Yoga
Yoga hasn't lost touch with its grass roots completely. Purists escape to these authentic ashrams and retreats for a dose of the real thing—yurts and all.
MONTANA: Feathered Pipe Foundation Helena; 406/442-8196; www.featheredpipe.com; from $995 per week, including classes, meals, and a shared room in the lodge or (weather permitting) a yurt. The yoga style practiced here varies according to visiting instructors.
COLORADO: Shoshoni Yoga Retreat Rollinsville; 303/642-0116; www.shoshoni.org; from $80 per night, including classes, meals, and shared cabins (tent space $50). This hermitage of yogis (residential ashram) has its own brand of kundalini-influenced yoga, prenatal classes, and teacher-certification programs. Casual weekend visitors are also welcome.
MASSACHUSETTS: Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health Lenox; 413/448-3400; www.kripalu.org; from $113 per night, including classes and meals. Guests at this center, which occupies a former Jesuit seminary in the Berkshires, practice Kripalu yoga, a gentler, inward-focused form of yoga.
MAINE: Sewall House Island Falls; 888/235-2395 or 207/463-3428; www.sewallhouse.com; from $111 per night, including classes and meals. Donna Amrita Davidge has been teaching kundalini at this retreat in northern Maine for the past six years.
BAHAMAS: Sivananda Ashram Yoga retreat Paradise Island, Nassau; 242/363-2902; www.sivananda.org; from $59 per night, including classes, meals, and shared rooms (tents $50). Participation in spiritual lessons, daily meditation, and yoga on the beach are mandatory.
JAMAICA: Negril Yoga Centre Negril; 876/957-4397; www.negrilyoga.com; from $33 per night, including classes and shared rooms (meals not included, but a chef who prepares traditional West Indian and vegetarian meals is on call). Director Raquel Austin teaches Iyengar-influenced classes daily, and visiting instructors offer various yoga philosophies.
Some options for expanding your horizons along with your chi:
Inward Bound Adventures 202/944-9642; www.inwardboundadventures.com; from $1,295 for five nights, all-inclusive. In addition to Round Hill, Jane Fryer and other instructors will conduct retreats in France, Italy, Peru, and Sedona this year.
Baptiste Power Yoga Institute 617/441-2144; www.baronbaptiste.com; $1,285 for eight days, all-inclusive. This Boston-based guru's boot camps are legendary—eight days of meditation, hiking, swimming, a "cleansing diet," and his specialty, an intensely athletic hybrid called Power Vinyasa Yoga. Don't expect piña coladas here.
Yoga in Mexico 52-376/60068; www.yogainmexico.com; from $700 for six days, all-inclusive. Anusara yogini Barbara Luboff invites yoga travelers to remote areas of Mexico for customized retreats, including one on the beaches of Mar de Jade in Nayarit near Puerto Vallarta and another in the Yucatan.
Whole Journeys 877/745-4648; 303/449-3462; www.wholejourneys.com; from $1,595 for six days, all-inclusive. The founders of the Gaiam catalogue (Gaiam is to yogis what J. Crew is to college students) have created a yoga travel agency that organizes trips to Santa Fe, Costa Rica, the Inca Trail, and Nepal for groups of up to 16 yogis.
Laughing Duck Tours no phone; fax 62-361/976-582; www.laughingducktours.com; from $1,780 for two weeks, all-inclusive. William and Jean Ingram have been running yoga trips to Bali for more than a decade; they work with instructors such as Rodney Yee to create programs combining cultural tourism and yoga.
The Most Yoga-Friendly Cities In The U.S.A.
SAN FRANCISCO AREA: Dot-com entrepreneurs seeking solace are grateful, no doubt, for the San Francisco area's other claim to fame—yoga. There are more than 30 studios in San Francisco, including Mindful Body (2876 California St.; 415/931-2639; $12 per class), called a "Zen playpen" by its fans because of the variety of classes and the on-site hot tub, and Bikram's Yoga Haven (3305 Buchanan St.; 415/ 775-9642; $12 per class), in the trendy Marina District. There are still more studios in Marin County's Mill Valley, such as Yoga Studio Mill Valley (650 E. Blithedale Ave.; 415/380-8800; $17 per class), a favorite for its sweeping views of mountains and wetlands.
OJAI, CALIF.: Suza Francina, the former mayor of Ojai, is the director of the Ojai Yoga Center (511 W. Eucalyptus St.; 805/646-4673; $20 per class); she's been a certified Iyengar instructor for more than 30 years. Two of the country's most yoga-focused spas, the Oaks at Ojai Health Spa (122 E. Ojai Ave.; 800/753-6257 or 805/646-5573) and the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa (905 Country Club Rd.; 888/772-6524 or 805/640-2000) are also here. And listed on the community calendar are citywide equinox celebrations that include yoga instruction and an organic-food fair. Need we say more?
LOS ANGELES: In L.A., the type of yoga you practice says as much about your personality as the car you drive. Hundreds of students a day visit the two locations of Yoga Works studios in Santa Monica (1426 Montana Ave., 2215 Main St.; 310/393-5150; $15 per class). Ask about Shiva Rea's yoga-and-rock-climbing expeditions to Joshua Tree National Park. Other options around town: Yogatime in Beverly Hills (324 Beverly Dr.; 310/553-4223; $15 per class), and the Inner Power Yoga Studio (22233 Mulholland Hwy.; 818/591-2639; $13 per class).
AUSTIN: With at least 75 yoga teachers and studios listed (according to www.texasyoga.com), the Austin area has more yoga programs than Dallas and Houston combined. Yoga Yoga's four studios (one is at 2167 Anderson Lane; 512/380-9800; $13 per class) offer kundalini, Ashtanga, and prenatal yoga classes. Clear Spring Yoga Studio (3918C Far West Blvd.; 512/231-9644; from $12 per class) specializes in Iyengar and offers introductory seminars.
CHICAGO: Log on to www.yogachicago.com for a list of more than 150 classes and independent instructors in the area, including large studios like the Body Mind Connection (4740 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773/728-7175; $10 per class), which offers mom-baby yoga and everything in between.
NEW YORK CITY: In Manhattan, there's a Gap, a diner, and a yoga studio on virtually every corner. Early-morning and lunchtime classes at Yoga Zone's squeaky-clean midtown and lower Fifth Avenue studios (160 E. 56th St. and 138 Fifth Ave.; 212/935-9642 and 212/647-9642; $20 per class) are perfect for, er, working stiffs. Sweat it out at one of the four locations of Bikram Yoga (208 W. 72nd St., 797 Eighth Ave., 182 Fifth Ave., 150 Spring St.; 212/245-2525; $18 per class). New studios seem to open weekly, like the Lower East Side's Shiva Shala (1 Rivington St.; 212/ 254-6602; $20 per class), teaching Madonna's favorite, Yogic Arts, a mix of martial arts and yoga. And quirky options like the glitter-friendly—free sparkly stuff for students—Laughing Lotus (55 Christopher St.; 212/414- 2903; $14 per class), which offers kundalini classes with live music, have that only— in— New York attitude. (To get studio listings nationwide, go to www.yogaalliance.com.)