Oxygen's yoga bully.

What you're watching.
Jan. 7 2003 11:54 AM

The Sun Salutation King

Oxygen's yoga bully.

Inhale: A white-hot pain in the butt
Inhale: A white-hot pain in the butt

In 1976, I joined a children's class called Creative Movement, taught by a free-spirit potter-woman in western Vermont. About 20 of us marched around and then did yoga. We reached up to touch the sky, then lay on our backs and pretended we were floating downstream on a raft.

My memories of yoga are fond—but, unfortunately, yoga is not about reaching and floating anymore. For the past few years, the creative movers have been calling for handstands and crow poses, to say nothing of the painful parivrtta trikonasana and the fearsome kukkutasana. As honest exercisers must admit to themselves, the experience of a yoga class these days can seem like open war, as those of us with intractably Western values can't help but look around to determine who is the most centered, relaxed, and noncompetitive. The New York yoga classes I attend make me long for the spirit of '76. So for the past week, I have been following Steve Ross' Inhale (Oxygen, mornings at 6 ET)—and struggling, in the privacy of my own home, to actually get relaxed.

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I picked the wrong class. Ross, reportedly a legend in Los Angeles, is bald, good-looking, and groovy, even though, inexplicably, he's never seen outside of genie pants. His Web site implies that he has special access to bliss; in class, he has the swagger of a gigolo. He chuckles to himself at the room's incompetence, drawling, "Don't beat yourself up about it if you can't do it well. I'll be happy to beat you up." Then, when he's not mocking the weak and the inflexible, he's issuing instructions in irritating accents like "Come on down, mon," or "Come all ze way down."

Ross' students work out to light rock, reggae, Motown, and obvious, overplayed singles from other genres. The students—in their 20s and 30s, widely pierced, dressed in earth tones that roughly match—dutifully heed him, though he offers next to no explanation of the poses. Some of the participants, including one whom Ross called Andrew, seem especially talented. And they are unflappable. Push the butt back until you feel a screaming, white-hot sensation that you might know as pain. Frequently this week, when Ross said that kind of thing, I stopped, sat back on my heels in the I-hate-you asana, and watched in awe as the good students felt the white pain.

The first half of the workout is a long series of sun salutations, most of which rely on the shift from the familiar poses that Ross calls "up dog" to "down dog." These are feasible, but Ross also requires some one-leg and one-arm balancing that I find difficult. He then proceeds through a variety of more esoteric poses—it's hatha yoga he's doing, the kind about "flow"—often concentrating on "opening the pelvis."

Other people might understandably be bothered by Oxygen's commercial breaks, which do little to further the hatha mood, but I was grateful to get away from Ross. I would hang upside-down and tell myself, "He's cool, he's himself, he knows about bliss, he's fine." But then Ross would reappear, and I'd swear he seemed angrier than before. "For something more advanced, you can do what Andrew's doing," he said once, quickly sneering, "Though I wouldn't call him 'advanced.' "

That did it. Andrew, I thought, flee from this phonily supportive world! You're advanced, you're relaxed, you're great—it's Ross and the yoga bullies who are out of line. In fact, yoga's gone far enough; I think it's high time we all pick up a form of exercise with more forgiving coaches, like tennis or football.

Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.

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