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The ashram of the imagination is solitary as a mountain summit, riddled with secrets, inhabited by gaunt, ascetic bodies swaddled in monastic robes, wrapped in turbans, shrouded in mystery.
Yogi Hari's ashram, or retreat for yoga practitioners, belies this idealized image, except for the fact that it is a bit hard to find. The numbered streets of his middle-class neighborhood in Wilton Manors don't help much; crisscrossed by canals, they are lined with late 1970s¯style ranch homes that repeat, one after another, like a mantra.
As it turns out, the yogi teaches from his family home, a two-story structure of natural stained wood. It is located, inauspiciously, on a dead-end street. The oak-and-glass front door is unremarkable save for the shoes, which are lined up outside, two by two, like Old Testament animals awaiting entry to the vehicle of their salvation: leopard-print ballet flats; high-heeled mules from Bloomingdale's; a pair of blindingly white Avia running shoes; a couple pairs of Birkenstocks; beaded, teenagerish flip-flops. Some retain the heat of recently removed feet, palimpsests of the wearer.
Inside, standing among and yet apart from his guests in front of a sliding glass door that leads to a small kidney-shape pool at the edge of a canal, is an elfin man with a ZZ Top¯style beard. His name is Yogi Hari, and though he is often called upon to speak, perform music, and instruct at yoga conferences and ashrams all over the world, he only occasionally opens his home for all-day seminars like this one. About 40 people have shelled out $45 apiece for the program, which includes a class of asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing) and a vegetarian lunch followed by music, chanting, and a lecture.
Backlighted by glare, Hari's head-to-toe white garb seems to glow. Though he's internationally famous, he keeps a low profile locally. He sold more instructional videotapes in Germany alone last year than in all of the U.S., a fact which Hari attributes to dilettantism on the part of the American yoga student. "Here people tend to dabble," he says. "[In Europe] they want to go deep."
Yogis are generally circumspect, slow to anger, and hesitant to disparage others, but on this sunny Sunday afternoon, Yogi Hari has uncharacteristically strong words for a culture that embraces yoga's asanas yet eschews its spiritual roots.
"Stupid Madonna come and tell you, "I know,'" he lectures, scornfully referring to the Material Girl's professed devotion to yoga. "You very easily follow. O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, these have become our idols. Because the only thing they teach you is external. Not about the source."
The source is a source of consternation for Hari. In America in general, and particularly in South Florida fitness circles, yoga is equated with exercise. Most local instructors and their students focus primarily -- if not entirely-- on the physical benefits of the practice. Hari, on the other hand, is a traditionalist who sees yoga for what it is and has been for thousands of years: a conduit to the divine. It irks him when would-be students call him to find out what "kind" of yoga he practices -- meaning what sorts of poses.
"There has been a lot of effort to popularize yoga in the West. This is mainly the asana aspect. The majority of people only relate to the asana aspect. But if you are only stuck on the very surface of the practice, it's just the surface. People need to know there's more than that. There's so much more."
Asana is in fact just one of eight "limbs" of yoga. Together asana, the third branch, and pranayama, the fourth branch, combine to form hatha yoga. But hatha yoga is still only part of the story, the physical aspect of a system intended to bring about enlightenment through self-realization. Initially used in India to prepare for meditation, hatha yoga has long been prized as a sacred tool that does not exalt the ego but rather obliterates it, auguring enlightenment, a joyful union with the universe. Today, however, hatha yoga is perhaps best known as the source of Madonna's sinewy, sculpted arms and Courtney Love's exquisitely toned abs.
Looking around at the lithe and limber bodies stretched out across beige wall-to-wall carpet, it's tough to see the harm in asana alone. Hari suggests one: "If you are obsessed with just one [aspect of yoga], then you might find it will lead to an imbalance. You are not just a physical being. Asana as calisthenics, without awareness, is not yoga."
Hari's statements are a hard sell. His call to return to the spiritual roots of yoga contradicts its current incarnation as a fitness craze. Moreover, his students, who have been sitting on the floor for more than an hour, are now especially beholden to their bodies. One gets up to use the restroom; others are struggling not to slump. In the back, leaning against a pillar, a young man has dozed off. They have come to learn about yoga, and Yogi Hari is going on about God.
Although it is sometimes equated with religion or spiritualism (it has been influenced by both Hinduism and Buddhism) yoga is neither of these things. The easiest way to explain yoga as a concept is to say what it is not. It is not a religion, a set of beliefs, or a value system, per se, though it encompasses all of these elements. Yoga is not a philosophy, a doctrine, or a discipline.