Turbaned gurus, sing-song mantras and bodily contortions . . . the promise of true enlightenment and omphaloskepsis (contemplation of the naval) completes the cliche. But don't knock yoga till you've tried it, and then only with respect.
"Yoga" means "to bind together" -- variously joining sun and moon, left and right, male and female, and any number of yins and yangs -- through ascetic techniques of meditation and exericise. The goal is physical and mental balance.
Indian "Hatha' yoga is best known to Westerners. Double-jointedness isn't a prerequisite, but the classic lotus position, cross-legged on the floor, soles-up on the inner thigh, either comes naturally or doesn't.
Then there are more magical/mystical varieties of yoga for which people quit jobs and polite society and retreat to the Himalayas. But not everyone follows a spiritual guide beyond the Beltway; they'd rather take up the discipline at a local ashram or the Y.
"Yoga is not for the glutton or for one who fasts too much. It is not for the sleepheavy or the sleepless," according to the Bhagavad Gita. "Yoga destroys despair; it is only for the moderate in eating and resting, in sleeping and working."
Committed practitioners claim yoga leads to intuitive awareness, spiritual harmony, perfect concentration. Others use it to lose weight or quit smoking. Somejust like the lift they get from yoga asanas (positions) better than breaking into a sweat with pushups. In any case, it can't hurt, if done in moderation and with proper guidance.
During a recent Friday evening women's Kundalini yoga class at the 3HO (that's healthy, happy, holy) Center for Holistic Living at 1704 Q Street NW, 11 women with various degrees of experience and ability sat lotus-style, fingers interlaced and arms extended overhead. A framed Guru Gobindsing benevolently watched over the "Breath of Fire" -- rapid inhalation/exhalation from the diaphragm, through the nose, verging on hyperventilation.
Silently, they repeat the mantra "satnam," meaning perfect truth. "Inhale on the 'sat,' exhale on the 'nam,"' says instructer Nirankar Kaur Carpien. Clad in tight white pants (chirides) and turban, she like most of the 3HO instructors, is a member of the Sikh Dharma religion, which locals know mostly for its Golden Temple restaurant.
Carpien showed up at a similar yoga session nine years ago, overweight, out of shape, fond of Big Mac's and ignorant of the ways of the Guru. Now she hopes to enjoy many more meatless, meditative years.
Carpien says Kundalini yoga is more active and achieves results faster than Hatha yoga. "Hatha tries to relax and unify the body, and what can be bad about that?" she says. "But Kundalini tries to bring the inner energies into focus so that they can be used during heavy times. And heavy times can be just around the corner."
But Swami Sivadas disagrees. An instructor of Hatha yoga at Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center (1705 N Street NW), he thinks Kundalini is too powerful for most Westerners. "A friend of mine did it and felt tremendous energy in her body for three hours, then it was like coming down off of whites. Hatha yoga aims to calm and still the mind, we emphasize control and self-discipline, while they (Kundalinis) tend to correct a situation forcibly.
"We also have a beef -- pardon the expression -- with Transcendental Meditation, because they sell mantras which are all written in Indiant texts," Sivadas adds.
Snorting loudly through flared nostrils, the 3HO class cogitates, per instructions. "Breathe in positive energy, good health and happiness," Nirankar says. "Breathe out negative, weak, hateful feelings. Goodbye, who needs you?" Some students wear sweatpants and turtle necks, some are in dance leotards, one sports a Van Halen T-shirt.
"Now rock back and forth on your back, knees brought up to your ears, focusing energies on the naval. You'll find this massages the ovaries, aligns the vertebrae and stretches the back muscles," Nirankar says from her raised platform, demonstrating the moves. Behind her is a circular curtained area, reminicent of the booth occupied by the Wizard of Oz. (It held the sect's scriptures until they moved to a commune in Herndon.)
One first-timer said she felt enveloped by music in waves of chimes, bells and drums during the session's deep relaxation exercise. When she opened her eyes and sat up, she realized she'd been hearing Nirankar rhythmically striking a gong. According to Nirankar, "lots of people have astral experiences during that particular exercise."
And lots of people don't. High-strung free-lance writer Alan Green studied yoga at a YMCA intensively for two years. Did he ever attain an altered state of conciousness?
"I wouldn't go that far," Green says, "but after the first year I could touch my toes."