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July 1999
A Yogic Odyssey: Exercising Spirit and Body in Gothem

By Mia MacDonald


I am a yoga devotee—someone who loves, needs and seeks out yoga. For the past eight years, I have sought out places to practice yoga and people to practice with. My search has been successful in many cities I visited for work or pleasure, including Boulder, CO, Sedona, AZ, San Francisco, Boston, Bombay, Costa Rica and most recently, Bozeman, MT. In New York, where I live, seeking has become something of an urban walkabout that has taken me to many centers in two boroughs, searching for physical and spiritual engagement. What follows is a short, highly idiosyncratic guide to yoga centers in New York, based on my own experiences—good, ecstatic, off-putting, or somewhere in between. It is written in the hope of encouraging you to undertake your own search for yogic harmony. The rewards, I assure you, are many; bliss is attainable.

Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center. Sivananda seems like the grandparent of New York-based yoga centers. Its founder, Swami Sivananda, was among the first group of yogis from India to teach in the West. Today, Sivananda centers exist in many American cities and several countries, including ashrams in India, Canada, the Bahamas and upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains. Sivananda teaches hatha yoga in classes at its center in Manhattan, a pleasant townhouse on W. 24th Street, and at its ashram upstate. The yoga is classic, challenging and rigorous, if somewhat austere (as grandparents of a certain age can be). That austerity comes from the repetition of the series of 12 basic postures or asanas in the same order every class, with little or no variation. These include: surya namaskara (salutation to the sun) along with the headstand, shoulder stand, seated spinal twist and more, topped off by a long deep relaxation period, pranayama (breathing practice) and chanting. Sivananda also offers classes in meditation and breathing, espouses a vegetarian diet as one of its five principles, and serves only vegetarian meals in all its centers.
243 West 24th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues), Manhattan. Phone: 212-255-4560. $7-$10 per class.

Integral Yoga Institute. Integral Yoga is my old standby, no disrespect intended. What makes Integral so welcoming is its approximation of serenity, which envelops students like a dewy, many-petaled lotus flower. The registrars on the ground floor are unflappable, even when dealing with large numbers of eager yogis. Class rooms are named for colors—lavender, gold—with carpets and walls hued accordingly. And, the main center, in a rose-colored townhouse on W. 13th Street, houses a terrific bookstore with books on spirituality, health, environment, compassionate living and vegetarian cooking. It is next door to Integral Yoga Foods, a comprehensive natural foods market that is fully vegetarian, and across the street is the well-stocked Integral Yoga Natural Vitamins. Hatha classes are classic in form, bookended by a series of chants and almost always satisfying. While classes generally follow a set format, with similar or the same postures done in each, in recent visits I have noticed new postures have been added and some postures modified or dropped. Teachers vary: some are highly interactive; others seem to be engaged in walking meditation. Integral Yoga also offers courses on meditation, breathing, nutrition, healing, food preparation and periodically, vegetarianism.
Main center: 227 West 13th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues), Manhattan. Phone: 212-929-0585. Integral Yoga Uptown Center: 200 West 72nd Street. Phone: 212-721-4000. Classes are also held at the Interfaith League of Devotees, 25 First Avenue (between 1st & 2nd Street), Manhattan. Phone: 212-473-0370. $10 per class.

Yoga Zone. Yoga Zone is part of a relatively new genre in the New York yoga scene—what I might term “beautiful people” yoga. Even before Madonna went for the yamas and niyamas (see sidebar and the article by Amy Priest in this issue), tall, thin women (and a few men) had decided that worship of the body can take place through asanas, without worrying too much about the mind or spirit. At Yoga Zone, the studio is whitewashed, spare and bright. Teachers are paragons of beauty and fitness and all seem to be tall, long-legged and dressed in chic white, tight yoga “gear”. Classes are challenging, with an emphasis on strength—holding postures for many breaths—flow from posture to posture, and exercising a range of muscles in the legs, arms and abdomenYoga Zone is an experience, one that improved for me with distance—a fair amount. However, I may be tempted to try again soon, since one of my favorite teachers of all time has been certified to teach at Yoga Zone and she is emphatically not tall or long-legged.
Downtown: 138 5th Avenue (at 19th Street). Phone: 212-647-9642. Midtown: 160 East 56th Street (between Lexington and Third Avenues). Phone: 212-935-9642. $17 per class.

Jivamukti Yoga Center. Often accused of being the über beautiful people yoga center, Jivamukti—with its pioneering of a new form of yoga, astanga, in which asanas flow into each other, often through jumps, push up-like poses and other innovations intended to exercise the heart, muscles and mind—does attract a pretty celestial clientele (Sting, Willem DeFoe, Christy Turlington, Madonna, Donna Karan and others). Despite the hype, I have never seen anyone recognizably “famous” in class, plus Jivamukti is a seriously spiritual place, not just a palace of and for beauty. Chanting begins and ends each class (giving students time to prepare for the rigors ahead), teachers read passages from the Vedas or other spiritual texts as students move into and out of asanas, a short meditation ends class and the whole center is assertively animal rights-supporting and vegan. Indeed, animal rights videos often play in the waiting room and human treatment of animals was one of the themes—new ones are chosen monthly—that teachers discussed in class. One piece of hype is true: classes are physically challenging. Relaxation sessions at the end are long and needed. And, while Jivamukti teachers are fit, they are not universally supermodel-like in looks and demeanor (although they do undergo a very rigorous training before becoming certified to teach). People often describe floating out of Jivamukti, a feeling I have shared. Of course, some may be merely floating downstairs, to über gym Crunch, but I have never stopped my personal float to care.
404 Lafayette Street (between East 4th Street and Astor Place), 3rd Floor, Manhattan. Phone: 212-353-0214. Web site: $15 per class.

Dharma Mittra Yoga Asana Center. The Yoga Asana Center provides, within one of the most “yogic” spaces I know, a near-perfect balance of physically challenging yoga practice and spirituality. It also has some of the most caring and skilled teachers around: Arlene, Andrea, Eva and Dharma Mittra, the inscrutable but highly dedicated founder/director. Classes follow a classic hatha format, covering a range of asanas—basic postures, variations, and postures that go beyond the standard set (like the crow, where knees are balanced on elbows)—which challenge both body and mind. Classes are vigorous, but not out of reach for beginners. Each class also includes healthy doses of meditation (particularly Dharma’s classes), chanting and pranayama practice. Some teachers teach a chakra breathing sequence that makes me feel like I have left my body and with it all stress and even the most minute of worries. True bliss does seem within reach at the Yoga Asana Center, particularly on a rainy day when the drops fall audibly on the Center’s skylight, or a summer afternoon when the light slants through the windows above Third Avenue. I painted my bedroom purple to approximate the Center and hung a poster of Dharma Mittra demonstrating nearly 1,000 asanas—a staple on yoga center walls—to keep the feeling going. It has worked (even though the Center is now white, repainted after an electrical fire); still, there is nothing like the real thing.
297 Third Avenue (at 23rd Street), Manhattan. Phone: 212-889-8160. $12-$15 per class.

The Energy Center. This is my “local”. The Energy Center is walking distance from my apartment and where I often spend weekday evenings. It’s unpretentious, smallish and welcoming, and teachers do a good job of learning students’ names. Beginner classes focus on classical hatha postures, while intermediate level sessions incorporate more elements of astanga yoga (like posture flows). Teachers at the Energy Center come from a range of disciplines and schools of yoga—including Jivamukti, Kripalu and Iyengar—and infuse classes with their own personalities and preferences. This makes practice interesting; I almost never feel that I’ve done a class in exactly the form before, even though common elements remain, like the sun salutation, a set of warrior asanas, forward and backward bending poses, pranayama and chanting. Classes generally end with a short meditation. Because the Energy Center is on a residential street, and the main yoga room faces the back, it is wonderfully quiet, as well as bright. In the warm weather, doors and windows are open and the gurgle from a small fountain just outside drifts in—great for deep relaxation and meditation.
53 Wyckoff Street (between Court and Smith Streets), Brooklyn. Phone: 718-243-1285. $13 per class.

World Yoga Center. World Yoga Center teachers specialize in Iyengar yoga, a form of hatha yoga which focuses on getting the structure of the asana right to maximize benefits, curtail bad posture habits, and make the body not just flexible but also strong. The asanas practiced in Iyengar are the same, but getting into, out of, and simply being in them can feel quite different—often more intense. More muscle groups seem to be working (and at times hurting), and after an hour and a half’s practice, I feel like I’ve lifted weights, power walked, stretched—and focused on my body intensely. Surprisingly, this can make the body even more ready to relax and the mind even more receptive to meditation. Earlier this year, I joined World Yoga Center co-director Rama Patella for five days of yoga in Costa Rica, where we practiced in an outdoor pavilion with a view of the Pacific Ocean and resident howler monkeys. Despite the paradise surrounding us, I found the first few classes hard: my muscles ached and I felt like a beginner all over again—why, I wondered, was my warrior pose being corrected after I’d practiced it for years? I mentally resisted, but physically engaged, feeling—and seeing—my body grow stronger and more supple. It’s true that World Yoga Center’s studio on West 72nd Street is not a Costa Rican coastal village, but the rigor and the dedication of Rama’s teaching, along with those of her colleagues, is readily available without getting on a plane.
265 West 72nd Street (at the corner of WestEnd Avenue), Manhattan. Phone: 212-787-4908. $13 per class.

Getting started:

This is just a small slice of the New York yoga world, and a very personal one. I hope that you will now get out and try yoga yourself. I strongly suggest taking classes at several centers before you settle on one or a few to attend regularly. Here are a few tips when beginning a yoga practice:

  • wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothing to class and bring a towel or cloth with you to lie on (some places provide yoga mats, while others charge extra for a towel or cloth; check before heading out to class)
  • try not to eat for at least two hours before class
  • be sure to inform the teacher before class of any injuries or sensitive areas you may have
  • don't feel obliged to do absolutely everything, or to imitate the seemingly perfect posture of your fellow students. As teachers say over and over again, “Yoga is not about competition.”
  • rest during class if you feel like it (even if everyone else is doing the headstand), stop if you feel a bad pain (as opposed to a “good” pain—a challenge to your muscles or strength), and ask the teacher what’s going on or for a modified posture
  • drink water after practice and if it's very hot, during class. Don't get dehydrated.
  • try to keep your mind focused on the practice, not on your "to do" list
  • don't be turned off by chanting or meditation. They may not do anything for you initially, but they are powerful practices that you may learn to really enjoy.

Mia MacDonald is a writer and animal and environmental activist who lives in Brooklyn. She practices at least some yoga nearly every day, and feels her equilibrium vanishing when she doesn’t.

  1. Hatha yoga
    Hatha yoga is physical practice of yoga, and is comprised of asanas or specific postures and pranayama or breathing practice; in some traditions, meditation is also part of hatha yoga.

    Asana involves positioning the body in ways that stretch and strengthen major muscle groups, along with deeper muscles that maintain the health of the joints and the spine. Asanas also stimulate the internal organs and glands. Asanas are often named for animals, birds and insects that the body resembles when in the posture (e.g., the peacock, cobra, fish, and locust, among thousands of others).

    Pranayama is control of the prana or life force, and therefore the mind, through control of the breath. In pranayama practice, each breath has three parts: inhalation, retention and exhalation. Among the most common pranayamas practiced in hatha classes are kapalabhati or “skull-shining” breath, anuloma viloma or alternate nostril breathing, and the yogic or three-part breath in which air is inhaled and exhaled in sequence into and out of the abdomen, ribs and chest.

  2. Raja Yoga
    Hatha yoga falls under the broader category of raja yoga, often called the “royal road.” Traditionally one of the four main paths of yoga, raja yoga is concerned with (or is the science of) physical and mental control. The goal of raja yoga is to control waves of thought (that ever-active mind) by transforming mental and physical energy into spiritual energy. To achieve this, raja yoga has eight powerful limbs—progressive steps designed to purify the body and mind and lead, eventually, to enlightenment. These eight steps of practice are:
    • yamas: five moral injunctions or precepts—non-violence, truthfulness in word, thought and deed, non-stealing, moderation in all things, and non-possessiveness
    • niyamas: five observances to foster positive qualities—purity, contentment, austerity, study of sacred texts, and living with a constant awareness of the divine
    • asanas: yoga postures
    • pranayama: regulation of the breath. Asanas and pranayama together create hatha yoga
    • pratyahara: the act of drawing the senses inward to still the mind in preparation for dharana
    • dharana: concentration, which leads to dhyana
    • dhyana: meditation, which culminates in samadhi
    • samadhi: the ultimate—superconsciousness or enlightenment

Adapted from The Book of Yoga and the Sivananda Companion to Yoga, both produced by the Sivananda Yoga Center, and the Sivananda Web site (


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