Yoga

Tara Stiles’ Brand of Rebel Yoga Draws Claims of Heresy | NY Times

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Check out this article about Tara Stiles, owner of Strala Yoga in NYC from the NY Times:

Tara Stiles’ Brand of Rebel Yoga Draws Claims of Heresy

TARA Stiles does not talk about sacred Hindu texts, personal intentions or chakras. She does not ask her yoga classes to chant. Her language is plainly Main Street: chaturangas are push-ups, the “sacrum” the lower back. She dismisses the ubiquitous yoga teacher-training certificates as rubber stamps, preferring to observe job candidates in action.

In her classes, videos and how-to book, “Slim Calm Sexy,” Ms. Stiles, a 29-year-old former model with skyscraper limbs and a goofball sensibility, focuses on the physical and health aspects of yoga, not the spiritual or the philosophical. For traditionalists, this is heresy, reducing what they see as a way of life to just another gym class.

But if she has deviated from the conventional path, it has not slowed her down. Ms. Stiles, a native of rural Illinois who owns Strala Yoga in NoHo, has built a powerful yoga brand, with no less than Jane Fonda and Deepak Chopraamong her devotees.

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Critics abound. Jennilyn Carson, the blogger known asYogadork, cites “deep practitioners who feel it is a disrespect to what the practice is” for Ms. Stiles to pitch yoga as another quickie weight-loss regimen. “It’s not a few minutes a day, it’s not fitness, it’s a lifestyle,” Ms. Carson said.

Another detractor, who is known as Linda Sama, described “Slim Calm Sexy” and its marketing campaign as “a complete sellout for the almighty dollar.”

“Don’t even try to sell me on the ‘yoga for the masses’ excuse; it’s pathetic, and, frankly, she should be ashamed for allowing herself to be talked into shilling for this trash,” she wrote on her blog, Linda’s Yoga Journey. “That is, if any convincing was really necessary — somehow I doubt it. But if asked about it, I am sure we would hear the typical higher-lighter-brighter-peace-love-dove-I’m-just-bringing-yoga-to-the-people crap.”

A third yoga devotee, speaking anonymously to protect her job in the industry, added: “I don’t care what Tara Stiles says yoga is; it’s not about making your body beautiful.”

What Tara Stiles says — with a shrug and a smile — is “Who made these rules?”

In the decade since she came to New York, Ms. Stiles has built a business out of breaking those rules. She rejected the city’s yoga scene as exclusive and elitist — it reminded her of the mean girls in high school, only with incense and bare feet. She refused to pledge allegiance to one teacher, one studio or even one style of yoga. She charges $10 a class, a bargain in Manhattan. And her short online videos have catchy, user-friendly titles like “Yoga for a Hangover” and “Couch Yoga.”

“I feel like I’m standing up for yoga,” Ms. Stiles said. “People need yoga, not another religious leader. Quite often in New York, they want to be religious leaders, and it’s not useful.

“Here, people want to sit and talk about yoga; it’s very heady. It’s very stuck, very serious,” she continued. “I was never invited to the party anyway — so I started my own party.”

Besides running the studio — which draws about 150 people to 40 classes a week that are called simply “Strong,” “Relax” and “Stralax,” a combination — Ms. Stiles posts a short video most weeks to YouTube. There, she has a channel with nearly 200 videos that have drawn about four million views. She stars in the yoga DVD that was part of the fitness set that Ms. Fonda issued in December (it sold out in Target, where it was first introduced). And “Slim Calm Sexy,” published last summer, was the No. 1 yoga book on Amazon.com until recently, she said.

None of this has made Ms. Stiles rich, but it has led to a certain celebrity. Last summer, Ms. Stiles released an iPhone app, “Authentic Yoga,” with Mr. Chopra, and the two recently completed a video in Joshua Tree National Park that will be released this year.

We are both nonconformists who have incurred the wrath of traditional yogis,” Mr. Chopra said of Ms. Stiles, whom he now considers his personal instructor. “A lot of the criticism is resentment of her rapid success. I have been doing yoga for 30 years. I have had teachers of all kinds. Taking lessons from her has been more useful to me than taking yoga from anyone else.

“She is not a showoff,” he added. “She is ambitious, but there is a lack of ego.”

ALL too often, Ms. Stiles said, people on the outside view yoga as something “Jennifer Aniston does.”

With her black gym socks and her down-home sensibility, Ms. Stiles is not trying to appeal to the yoga elite or to the purist. She is going for the firefighter from Long Island who feels intimidated by “oms” and New Age music. The African-American 30-something from Brooklyn who is looking for a little diversity on the mat. Or the cashier from Morris, Ill. — the river town of 14,000 where she grew up — who drives to McDonald’s for dinner several times a week.

“One of the things I like about her is her ability to make yoga accessible to people who might be scared of it or think it might be too esoteric,” Ms. Fonda said of Ms. Stiles.

The unorthodox approach has deep roots. Ms. Stiles described her parents as “straight-edged hippies,” independent thinkers who designed their solar-power house long before it was fashionable and who seldom, if ever, touched the peach schnapps, the lone bottle of liquor in the cabinet. Dad worked at a nearby nuclear plant.

Enamored of ballet and tutus, a 4-year-old Tara announced to her mother, who mostly managed the household, that she wanted to move to New York. As a preteenager, she meditated in the forest. In high school, she sidestepped boyfriends and the prom despite her cheerleader looks. “I’m a nerd, always,” she said.

Cliques were not her style. She preferred to hang out with everyone but was best friends with no one, holding to the credo: “You should be nice to people.” “It’s a pretty simple thing,” she said.

AFTER high school, Ms. Stiles moved to Chicago to study ballet and was introduced to yoga by a ballet teacher. At a dance performance, she was spotted by someone who steered her to the Ford Modeling Agency in Chicago.

Despite modest success in print advertisements for yoga-related products and commercials for Pepsi and Verizon, among others, she decided that modeling was not her passion; her peers were aghast when she arrived at photo shoots on a skateboard wearing a plain T-shirt. She wore makeup only when paid. Ms. Stiles may photograph sexy, but in person, she is the cut-up sidekick, the one most likely to guffaw rather than to sashay her way across a room.

It was modeling, though, that let her fulfill her dream of moving to New York, at 19. And it was modeling that catapulted her more firmly into the yogasphere. In 2006, Ford asked her to make snappy yoga videos as a promotion for the agency and to post them on YouTube before YouTube was a household name.

An Internet devotee, Ms. Stiles began using social media and other Web tools to lure people to yoga, an innovative move at the time. The YouTube videos and her modeling connections led to a yoga DVD with the model Brooklyn Decker that has also sold well at Target, and to her own DVD, “Yoga Anywhere: The New York Session.” Ms. Stiles blogged for Women’s Health magazine and for The Huffington Posta platform that brought her more eyeballs; one of her 2009 posts, about Facebook addiction, is still among the site’s most-viewed, with nearly 1.2 million hits. And her iTunes podcast has even bested Oprah’s in the health category.

In 2007, Ms. Stiles left Ford and focused on teaching yoga. Parlaying her Facebook habit into something useful, she promoted the free classes that she offered in her tiny apartment on Bleecker Street and in her boyfriend’s place in the Flatiron district. At first, a trickle of people showed up. Eventually, she was packing 22 people into the living room and a couple more in the entryway and bathroom. She also taught private sessions, eventually charging up to $200 an hour.

Going private brought her into contact with a Page Six clientele. “In New York, you know, some women have their nanny, their cook and their yoga teachers,” Ms. Stiles said. “I realized it was a status symbol.”

It led to the opening of Strala — a word she said she and her husband made up, but it turns out to be Swedish for “radiates light” — in 2008, in a smaller space than she has now. Frugal and practical to the core, Ms. Stiles did not want to overextend; now, the studio is profitable enough that she is considering opening a second branch.

That year, she also met Michael Taylor — an Exeter-Harvard-Oxford man with perpetually mussed hair who runs a social media Web site, Odyl — on an ashram in upstate New York, where she had sneaked in M&M’s. The two married at City Hall, then traveled with her extended family to Negril, in Jamaica, where she persuaded her uncles, both farmers, to do yoga by the sea. The couple share a cramped loft around the corner from Strala that is bedecked year-round with Christmas lights.

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