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Everything’s Not Zen 

As yoga’s popularity explodes, a battle rages for its heart and soul

Thursday, Nov 4 2004
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Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

The door to the roof of Larchmont’s Center for Yoga bears the stark warning: RADIO FREQUENCY FIELDS BEYOND THIS POINT MAY EXCEED THE PUBLIC EXPOSURE LIMIT.

Beyond looms the new Cingular tower — a simple, seemingly innocuous three-sided white fort. Then you notice the unpleasant hum and the glut of wires running across the tarpaper, each the thickness of a child’s arm.

Installed in late 2003, the cell-phone tower has become an unhappy symbol for the Center for Yoga’s recent surrender to the corporatization of the trend it helped to create. Founded by yoga luminary Ganga White in 1967, the center is the oldest studio in Los Angeles, a major training school and among the first global pioneers of an independent, eclectic approach. In addition to bringing multiple branches of yoga under one roof, it hybridized them, taking rigorous practices like Ashtanga and Iyengar and blending them into a Western smoothie called “Flow.”

But the center’s rich blossoming carried the seeds of its own demise. Flow has been co-opted by gyms and studios to become one of the most popular styles of yoga nationwide. Numerous center graduates have opened their own successful operations in Los Angeles, and the institution’s renowned teacher training is no longer an exclusive commodity. Crippled by debt and its failure to react to the rapidly changing business climate, in late April the Center for Yoga sold out to Yoga Works, a chain that in one year has spread from two locations in Santa Monica to 11 studios in Los Angeles and Orange County and five around the country — and counting.

At the center, the fallout from the sale to Yoga Works — considered the new Starbucks of yoga in some devotees’ eyes — was fast and furious. Teachers made warning announcements in classes, staffers quit, notes sprouted on bathroom walls, and rumors flew: When it takes over an existing studio, Yoga Works lowers many salaries (true). Yoga Works asks that its teachers sign a non-compete contract (true). Yoga Works is now fronted by two Internet entrepreneurs who have told teachers to jump aboard now because “soon, students will have to choose between us and Bally’s,” and it intends to spread nationwide (true, true, true).

Also true: Yoga Works has one of the best teacher trainings in the country, a devoted student following, and gorgeous locations — and the last three owners to sell to Yoga Works did so almost gratefully.

“Yoga is confrontational,” said instructor Christine Burke as she strode across the center’s golden floor during one of her last classes there in July. “Because it’s peaceful, people think it’s passive, but yoga is one of the most confrontational practices there is.” The balance between confrontation and peacefulness weighed heavily on Burke’s mind as she and her husband, Gary McCleery, departed the center this summer to open their own studio on La Brea. A fine-boned, freckly brunette who lifts her chin when she speaks with conviction, Burke spent six years on staff at the center, McCleery nine, and following a tumultuous spring, they moved on.

After class, a line of Burke’s fans trailed back through the center’s retail area. Pastel Yoga Works fliers now clutter the wall near a rainbow of new apparel, the few visible signs of the shift in ownership. But the real changes at the center have to do with how the former independent is now positioned in the yoga world. As Burke thumped out into the street in heavy sandals, confiding in hushed tones about modifications to her new studio’s schedule, Yoga Works people were meeting in New York to discuss a merger with Alan Finger’s BeYoga chain, which has four locations in Manhattan.

The differences in scale are what frighten local independents and their constituencies. “The smaller studios have a right to be paying close attention to what Yoga Works is doing right now,” comments editor of L.A. Yoga Julie Deife. “It’s never been done.”

 

Yoga may be confrontational as Burke said, but it has also been a bit oedipal in Los Angeles. Back in the 1980s, an Israeli yoga teacher named Maty Ezraty was living at the Center for Yoga when Alan Finger invited her to move across town and open Yoga Works in Santa Monica.

Under Ezraty’s and later her partner Chuck Miller’s keen business eye, Yoga Works developed two popular studios and a flock of star teachers.

Then, just as yoga’s taut-bellied bodies began to seduce mainstream audiences, several stars left on negative terms. Some departed because their teaching styles conflicted with Yoga Works, others over compensation, and one because he was forbidden to have a romantic relationship with the general manager. They launched their own operations — Sacred Movement, Maha Yoga, Forrest Yoga Circle, L.A. Yoga Center and others — each settling in painfully close proximity to Yoga Works.

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