Body & Soul

More and more South Floridians have taken up yoga for exercise, but relatively few explore its spiritual underpinnings

Many would also argue that yoga defies translation as it has no real equivalent in Western culture. (See sidebar, "Yoga's Journey," below.) The Sanskrit translation, "yoke" or "union," helps, but giving meaning to the word invites paradox. To define yoga is to divide it from all other things, to limit it, and this, yogis contend, is impossible because yoga, like God and the universe, is infinite.

"What is the religion of earth, water, fire, air, the sun, moon, stars, and space?" writes Swami Brahamanda Srasavati. "They have no particular religion. They belong to everybody, to the religious and nonreligious alike.... Electricity belongs to everybody, because everyone can use it. In the same way, Yoga belongs to everybody."

A Bronx-born, leotard-clad Jew named Richard Hittleman brought yoga to the American mainstream in the 1950s through his public television shows and best-selling books. Hittleman died in 1991, and though his books and tapes continue to inspire millions, his former South Florida presence is all but forgotten by local yogis.

Jimmy Barkan practices in front of a space heater, a required accessory of Bikram yoga
Joshua Prezant
Jimmy Barkan practices in front of a space heater, a required accessory of Bikram yoga
A shrine to Swami Sivananda in Yogi Hari's house
Joshua Prezant
A shrine to Swami Sivananda in Yogi Hari's house

In 1957 Hittleman opened the American Academy of Yoga in Coral Gables, likely one of the first of its kind in the area. Hittleman's former school stood not far from the place where Dona Piza opened Prana Yoga a year and a half ago.

"We're pioneers here," the 29-year-old Piza blithely announces, adding that she's unaware of Hittleman's South Florida trailblazing. "I think I have one of his books," she offers. The disconnect is no surprise. Hittleman was an old-school, spiritual teacher; Prana, which served 5000 students last year, is a big, modern facility. Once relegated to the Spartan floors of the YMCA and the Unitarian Church, yoga now has luxurious homes of its own in specially built studios. Dozens of such schools can be found in South Florida. However, yoga's inclusion in health clubs remains a major factor in its continued growth.

Troy Mills, a wiry, effusive 30-year-old with wavy brown hair and a goatee, sees the problems and benefits of gym-based yoga classes. He took his first class at a Gold's Gym where he was a member. After completing Yogi Hari's teacher training in March, he began to add a facet other gym classes often omit: "The number one thing I did as soon as I left here [the ashram] was have all my classes chant "om.'"

Mills' emphasis on spirituality is often at odds with the goals of the beginning student. "When you teach at a gym, people are more focused on trying to get a workout. When you get into a gym like that with a lot of meathead guys, people think it's so easy, you sit around and hum. Or they think we sit around and contort our bodies, put our legs behind our heads."

Mills shuttles back and forth among Broward gyms and Boca Raton, where he teaches at the Athletic Club of Boca. The 20-mile drive is the gap between two worlds. In Boca his students are mostly women in their forties, and many of them are Jewish, a fact which has come up when Mills has instructed his class to chant. He says a few of them have balked, nervous that by saying "om" they'd be straying from their faith. Though Mills says he doesn't push the spiritual aspect on anyone, students usually come around in time and often enjoy the feeling the mantra elicits. "Their faces are radiant, and they say "I just "om"-ed for the first time!'"

Meanwhile the sleek black-and-chrome interior and body-beautiful aesthetic of Better Bodies gym are an odd match for the ancient tradition.

"The gym isn't really conducive to yoga," says Mills. "It's disco music, and it's pounding."

Nonetheless Mills says his superfit students, mostly men in their thirties, are increasingly curious about yoga's spiritual side, and it doesn't surprise him: "The spiritual aspect of it naturally follows automatically." In fact he sees yoga as the antidote for those who feel constrained by mainstream faith. "It's not a limiting spiritual practice," he says, "It's all-encompassing. It's very free. It's just all about whatever the divine means to you."

At ten minutes before 6 p.m., Jimmy Barkan takes off his pants. Despite his dishabille Barkan looks relaxed. His legs are the uniform tan of a man who spends a lot of time in a Speedo.

Forty-five years old and balding, Barkan has a ruddy, muscular face, strong jaw, and wire-rimmed glasses that soften him, creating a purposeful look. He is broad-shouldered and fit, with the good-natured bearing of an orthodontist or the high-school coach who also taught physics. As an aspiring Los Angeles actor, Barkan might've auditioned for any of these roles, except that in 1980 he met Bikram Choudhury.

Barkan's bare legs dangle beneath him as he perches on a tall swivel chair behind the counter at Yoga College of India. The name seems a bit grandiose; the school Barkan has owned and directed for 17 years is no more a college than an Arthur Murray Dance Studio is a university. It stands in an inconspicuous Federal Highway strip mall, wedged in a corner spot between a neon-lit cell phone shop and a vacant storefront. Though its curriculum has roots in India, the nondescript exterior of its Fort Lauderdale outpost is more evocative of Davie than Delhi.

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