Body & Soul

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

Barkan is preparing to teach a class in the singular style of yoga known as Bikram, named for its founder, the now-54-year-old Bikram Choudhury, who brought the practice to America in 1974. Today Yoga Colleges of India can be found throughout the world. Of the more than 100 in the United States, 20 have opened in the past year.

As Bikram's most senior teacher, Barkan is faithful to the iconoclastic master, whom he quotes frequently, and with whom he sometimes teaches. Barkan's classes are based on the 26 poses Bikram selected and refined. They are the same in every Yoga College of India, including Bikram's flagship studio in Beverly Hills. The most distinctive feature is the heat: Space heaters placed around the room heat it to about 100 degrees. Bikram says the heat simulates conditions in his native Calcutta, purging the body of toxins while enabling a deeper stretch. He likens it to forging steel.

He claims his program, practiced faithfully and "honestly," can cure almost any ailment. Hundreds of thousands of his students all over the world agree. With three South Florida schools and more than 400 active students in Fort Lauderdale alone, Bikram yoga is unparalleled in its popularity among the local sweat set.

Yogi Hari's students sit cross-legged or in lotus position while focusing on their breathing
Joshua Prezant
Yogi Hari's students sit cross-legged or in lotus position while focusing on their breathing
Yoga instructor Troy Mills practices the bow pose
Joshua Prezant
Yoga instructor Troy Mills practices the bow pose

Barkan proudly declares the style "the most mainstream of all forms of yoga." With its mirrored studio, space heaters, and wall of spandex for sale near the door, his Yoga College of India is arguably the antithesis of an ashram. On the hallway near the locker room is a bulletin board cluttered with business cards and ads for yoga portraits and cosmetic-surgery vacations in Mexico. On the opposite wall hang signed photos of Martin Sheen, Candace Bergen, and Blythe Danner.

Barkan points out some logo merchandise displayed near the front door. "Did you see that T-shirt?" he asks, pointing to one emblazoned with the words Some Like It Hot. "That is very cool."

Inside the kiln of a room, students face mirrored walls, the fluorescent panels overhead casting a bluish tint on their dewy skin. The women wear tight, strappy tank tops and unitards; the few men in attendance go shirtless in gym shorts or swim trunks.

After one class a fit, fortyish man ambles out in the evening air, which is weightless and cool compared to the sweltering room. He comes regularly, he says, buying his classes in the discounted multipacks. In fact Ron says he started going to Yoga College of India 11 years ago because he heard it would help his bad back. It has, he says, and that's that.

"It's just a workout," Ron says with a shrug. "Keeps my back in alignment." Although he's heard of the sacred yoga classes the school also offers, he's never tried one and doesn't plan to. Nor does he plan to try different forms of yoga. He's satisfied with Barkan's class. "I'm not interested in going anywhere else."

Many of Barkan's students eventually become teachers. Among the 20 or so Barkan has trained is Ronnie Dubinsky, who, with his wife, Nancy, runs Yoga College of Hollywood. Nancy Dubinsky avoids categorizing the style of yoga the couple teaches, preferring to call it simply "fitness yoga." Dubinsky claims no association with any form or school of yoga and eschews the idea of a guru. "We're not sitting and meditating," she says, adding that she herself has meditated for years, "but that's completely separate from my students."

In class, she says, "We're moving and focusing and looking right in the mirror. It's strictly a workout," she insists. "It's not like a mumbo-jumbo, Eastern-spirituality thing at all."

The flames of small votive candles flicker in front of two vases of fresh roses placed on either side of an eight-by-ten¯inch illustration of Swami Sivananda, who appears swathed in a golden robe, rays of light streaking out around him. The shrine rests on the raised part of Yogi Hari's living room, which functions as a makeshift stage. On a cushion at the left, Yogi Hari sits at a keyboard near the window above his sunken living room.

Beckoning his dark-haired disciple, Tara, to join him, he chants in Sanskrit, accompanying himself on his electronic keyboard.

The assembled class spent the afternoon stretching their bodies, softening their muscles, and opening their minds, at first through a series of alternate-nostril breathing and well-known asanas (sun salutations, downward dog, locust, the crow). All the while, they tried to avoid hitting the two cognac-color leather sofas clustered in one corner. Breathlessly they muttered polite apologies when they bumped into one another. Then they spent a few moments lying still in sivasana, or corpse pose, then sitting with their legs folded in lotus position. After standing in a circle and chanting the familiar Hare Krishna refrain, they enjoyed a buffet vegetarian lunch, then gathered to hear Yogi Hari's music, which he calls nada yoga.

He chants for a few minutes over the lilting melody he produces with his keyboard, then clears his throat and begins to speak, his terse sentences punctuated by laughter: "How many of you believe you have a soul?"

He frequently employs the Socratic method, and this is one of his favorite questions. Hari waits until nearly every hand has gone up, then responds in typically contrary fashion. "You do not have a soul," he says. "You are the soul. If you say you have a soul, who is having a soul?"

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