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Thursday, May 21, 2009

who needs bikram when we have vinnie?

yes, i live in LA. and yes, this is the town where being a celeb -- or knowing even just a few select ones -- can't hurt.

we have our share of yoga rock stars whose names are familiar to the yoga community around the world. shiva rea. bryan kest. erich schiffman. gurmukh. steve ross.

but unless you're a die-hard yogi here in LA, you probably haven't heard about the yoga teacher who packs in each and every of his classes with students who are there to prove to themselves -- as well as to everyone they know -- that they have what it takes to survive his class.

his name? vinnie marino.

and yes, i'm just as guilty as the rest of them.

just the other day, after feeling like i had been slacking off in the intensity of my yoga practice, i biked over to the yogaworks studio on main street. since i had arrived late (that is, less than ten minutes before the start of class), i was worried that the class would already be full and i'd be turned away. but they let me in the room. lucky me.

the yoga mats of the 70 students in the classroom were so closely laid out on the floor that there were only about three inches of bare floor separating us from our neighbors. but as far as vinnie's classes go, that wasn't even considered that crowded at all; usually, he can jam in as many as 85 students into the same room, with only about an inch between mats.

with a room that packed, it can get really cramped. and hot. and intimidating. and in my case, scary, only because there was a pregnant woman who was three weeks from her due date beside me. and she was right there, doing balance poses with the rest of us. god forbid i lost my balance and fell on her! but i didn't. whew!

anyway, the new york times decided to publish an article about him in yesterday's paper. here are some excerpts from that article. click on the title to read the entire article...

He Rocks, They Flock: The Yoga King
Published: May 20, 2009

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The yogis arrived toting their mats and towels and SIGG water bottles. Some had waited a half hour before being allowed to claim tiny plots of floor just inches from one another. They jostled and chatted while setting up their spaces, some kicking up into handstands to loosen up.

It was 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday. The decibel level rose to that of a rowdy cocktail party. The crowd was a mix of Type-A careerists and tattooed freelancers who mold their work schedules around their yoga practice — or professionally accessorize their Lululemon outfits with heavy engagement rings. Today everyone seemed relatively calm; in the past, eruptions of mat rage have led to tears.

And then the teacher walked in. He had a gray crew cut, a message-free tank top and shorts, without a Buddhist bead or Sanskrit phrase visible anywhere.

“Come on people, let’s get started,” he said in a New York accent, as if leading a conference call.

Then he cranked up “Misty Mountain Hop” by Led Zeppelin and led the students through a warm-up of sun salutations. Soon he had them stretching into a difficult split pose.

“Didn’t you see the torture memos this week?” called out Jane Harman, a 63-year-old devoted student in the front row, who also happens to be the United States Representative for the South Bay region of Los Angeles County.

The teacher responded, “That’s why I’m doing this.”

His name is Vinnie Marino and he is the unlikely Yoga King of Los Angeles. A few other yoga teachers pack their classes, but Mr. Marino elicits a special kind of loyalty from his students and rewards them with some very tough love. The 50-year-old recovering drug addict says being from the other side of the country is one of his strengths.

“Coming from New York City, I have really good boundaries,” Mr. Marino said. “I know when to let people in and I know when to back off.”

Mr. Marino leads challenging classes of nearly 90 people, six days a week, twice a day, at the Yoga Works studios. His class fuses different types of yoga that incorporate flowing from one pose to another (vinyasa and Ashtanga) and holding certain poses for a long time while focusing on alignment (Iyengar). The sweat alone makes it seem closer to a high-impact aerobics class than a discipline with a meditational aspect.

More than a grueling workout, Mr. Marino’s class is a community, maybe even a benign cult. Students go almost daily to keep fit, as well as for the social life. They bond at his retreats. Some have gotten married.

STAR sightings rival those at Chateau Marmont: students include Heather Graham, Kate Hudson, David Duchovny, Jeremy Piven and Adrien Brody. (Mr. Marino teaches Robert Downey Jr. in the privacy of his home.)

“It hurts so good and I feel euphoric after,” said Ms. Graham, who drives an hour to take Mr. Marino’s class. She finds it a safe space for celebrities. “Yoga people on a whole are super cool and everyone is there to work on their own thing,” she said. “I don’t find any creepy people in his class.”

It would be hard for a gawker to fit in. “That class is torture if you’re not really good at yoga,” said Ms. Graham, who dragged her boyfriend, the filmmaker Yaniv Raz, to class on her birthday last year.

“It nearly destroyed me,” Mr. Raz said.

Mr. Marino, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in New Hyde Park, N.Y. He took yoga in gym class in high school and studied Transcendental Meditation on his own time. But that wasn’t all he did. By 13, he was drinking and smoking pot, he said, and he soon moved on to psychedelics and pills. He shot up cocaine and heroin until age 26, when he went to rehab. (He has been sober for more than two decades.)

After moving to Los Angeles in the early ’90s, Mr. Marino discovered vinyasa yoga. At the time, he was waiting tables and working as a massage therapist and as an assistant to Grace Slick, the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane. She convinced him to become a yoga teacher, even paying for his first teacher training program.

“I felt very lost in my life,” Mr. Marino recalled. “Grace told me to do what I love and the money will come, but she’s not New Agey. She’s a hard-core rock ’n’ roller. I believed her because she was so successful. Also, she said something like, ‘I’d rather take yoga from you than some weird dude in a robe.’ ”

Mr. Marino talks about his past while he teaches, making jokes about how it’s miraculous that he is alive. He says he thinks his life experiences make him a better teacher. There are parallels between an addict, or an extreme seeker, he says, and a passionate yoga student.

“The intensity of a drug addict to find peace is a similar thing to someone getting involved with a spiritual practice,” he said. “I think my drug history lets people know that we’ve all been through some heavy stuff and change is possible.”

Popular as he is, Mr. Marino’s teaching style is not for everyone. A 33-year-old producer who had practiced yoga for a decade tried Mr. Marino’s class after hearing friends boast about it. She said she will not go back.

“I’m not sure if it was the insane heat of the room or because there were too many people for Vinnie to make adjustments or if it was an off day for my body, but I did something to my lower back that I’ve never done before,” said the producer, who asked not to be named. (It’s not good karma to criticize yogis.) “It was pinched and cramped and was blindingly painful. The pain persisted for the next few days.”

Mr. Marino does offer easier variations of advanced poses and looks out for beginners. “I’m an alignment freak and I make sure, even in crowded room, that I’m always helping people keep their bodies safe in the poses,” he said.

For (another of Vinnie's students), just dealing with the stress of taking Mr. Marino’s class — errant flop sweat, securing a spot amid the stampede, the occasional outburst of mat rage — helps her take life in stride. “I will be on the crowded subway in New York, freaking out,” she said. “All of the sudden, I’ll find my breath. It will make me happy. That balance is a direct benefit from Vinnie’s class.”

Other instructors in Los Angeles teach advanced yoga classes to crowds of devoted followers, including Steve Ross of Maha Yoga in Brentwood, and Steven Earth Metz of Earth’s Power Yoga in West Hollywood. But Mr. Marino teaches about twice as many classes as those competitors.

Bryan Kest of Santa Monica Power Yoga, another star teacher, is often on tour; he will be traveling most of the summer. At Yoga Works, Sara Ivanhoe is another popular teacher, but her class is more spiritual, with traditional Indian chanting and music.

After the Saturday morning class, sweaty students streamed out of the studio, an intimidating sight for the next class waiting for the room to be mopped dry. Ms. Harman, the congresswoman, paused on a bench to catch her breath before heading back into the sunny day.

“I’m feeling very thin,” she said, grinning.