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Beyond the Mat: Yoga Stretches Out

'Fusion' Makes the Lotus Position Passe

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page A01

It sounds like a yoga class. "And, forward fold. Lift the arms to the sky. Take three breaths. . . . Lift, bend and extend. Now downward dog."

Except a disco beat is playing.

Yoga never went mainstream, says Beth Shaw, here leading stretching exercises during the DCAC conference. "That's why we've invented things that are fun." (Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)

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It looks like a yoga class. Thirty students move in slow motion as they kneel on foam mats in a dimly lit ballroom.

Except they are each squeezing a grapefruit-size blue rubber ball between their thighs.

What we have here is not yoga but YogaButt. And it's just one of many yoga classes-with-a-twist at the recent DCAC 2004 International Fitness and Personal Trainer Conference in Reston, where 1,200 fitness instructors and exercise enthusiasts have gathered to flex their ideas as much as their muscles.

Inside another ballroom, more than 100 students lie on yoga mats, legs propped on 29-inch silver exercise balls. This is Louisville instructor Lauren Eirk's Yoga-Pilates-Resist-a-Ball session.

There's also YogaBar for weightlifters; Water Art Yo-Tai Pilates, combining submerged yoga with tai chi and Pilates; Hot Yoga, done in a 105-degree room; and Body Bar Buddha Bar, described as body sculpting meets Cirque du Soleil.

Ripped biceps and steely abs are almost passe at this body-conscious convention. The buzz is about the growing array of yoga-inspired workouts that are reincarnating the ancient Hindu discipline into the rage of the fitness world.

What used to be the domain of the granola-and-Birkenstock fringe has turned into a hypercommercialized industry for the masses. The lotus position has given way to an explosion of fusion classes that hyphenate yoga with every imaginable exercise and body part. The rolled-up mat of the old days has morphed into a multibillion-dollar market of clothing lines, books, videos, music, lessons, props and accessories. It's yogis gone wild at the gym.

Traditional yoga just never went mainstream, says Beth Shaw, inventor of YogaButt -- and YogaAbs, YogaBack, YogaStrength, pre- and postnatal yoga, yoga for seniors and yoga for kids. "It's off-putting to a lot of people, it's strange, it's weird, a lot of people can't grasp it. And, quite frankly, not too many people want to sit around on a floor and meditate and do one pose and then rest for five minutes and then do another pose. That's why we've invented things that are fun."

Down the hallway, Lawrence Biscontini leads 75 students in his Yo-Chi Glow session in a dark ballroom. They wear glow wristlets so yoga positions blend with sweeping tai chi movements to become a sinuous light show.

"The blend justifies the means," says Biscontini, fitness director at the Golden Door spa in San Juan, Puerto Rico, who also is introducing Yo-Cycle, Yog-Opera and Yo-Step at the conference. "I call it cafeteria fitness."

"Fitness" and "yoga" were rarely mentioned in the same breath in 1893 when Calcutta-born yoga scholar Swami Vivekananda addressed a world religions conference in Chicago and yoga gained its first following in America.

Other masters from India visited over the ensuing century. But yoga never grew in popularity until the Vietnam War era, when the counterculture of the '60s embraced Eastern influences, from Beat writer Jack Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums" to the Beatles' flirtation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Transcendental Meditation. Suddenly, yin-and-yang symbols were everywhere, sitar music filled the air and yoga was cool among the rebellious.

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