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Archive for the ‘Yoga Rockstars’ Category

Last week, The Financial Times profiled Russell Simmons, hip hop pioneer and co-founder of Def Jam Records.  Simmons, an avid yoga practitioner, is currently promoting his new book Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All, and is apparently spreading the word by inviting unsuspecting journalists to yoga classes.  Enter FT journalist, Vanessa Friedman, who accompanied Simmons to a master class at Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York City:

Jivamukti, a form of yoga that began in New York in 1984, involves practice both physical (the positions) and spiritual (chanting and a dharma discussion). Simmons has been a devotee for more than 15 years. He will do almost any kind of yoga – Ashtanga, Hatha, Iyengar – though rarely Bikram (which involves extremely hot rooms and heart-rate-elevating speed) but Jivamukti is his favourite, because of the teaching and philosophy.

Simmons was introduced to yoga by “Bobby Shriver and his girlfriend, Emma Watts, who is now President of Fox movies and used to be my intern, because I wanted to see hot girls, and I knew I’d be in a class with 58 women and us two guys.” They went to Maha Yoga in Los Angeles, to a class taught by Steve Ross (who is known for using loud rap music) and Simmons came away amazed. “All this noise that was always in my head, and which I associated with my success – this anxiety that I thought fuelled my drive – had stopped; I was totally calm, but I also felt so relieved, and I realised that was what I needed.” He went back the next day, and never stopped.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” he says, of both the postures and the philosophy. “You just realise how much more you have to learn.”

Simmons credits his yoga practice with being the catalyst for his vegan diet, practice of transcendental meditation, becoming an animal rights activities, and running several charities.  For him a daily practice is key:

He meditates for about 25 minutes every morning, does yoga for at least an hour and a half every afternoon, and meditates again at night. It is, he says, the part of his day that is “non-negotiable”.

“They know,” he continues, talking about his staff, “that every day I have to do yoga. It’s the most important thing in my life.” It is, he says, the place where he gets all his ideas and inspiration, where he can “quiet his mind”. This despite the fact that he prefers to practise in a class, and the more crowded the better.

“I like being surrounded by people who are also dedicated to yoga,” he says, which is why he asked me to join him at the masterclass, a three-hour session taught by David Life (Jivamukti’s co-founder) to 250 students.

Simmons says most of his new book Super Rich was inspired by yogic philosophy:

“I wanted to do it, because the text is really derived from yoga, though most of the people here would probably think it was baby food,” says Simmons. A teacher, Ruth Lauer-Manenti, came up and he told her that she inspired him, and that he had put a story from one of her dharma talks in his book. She smiled and said thank you and then told me: “Russell comes and supports everyone; he attends class with all the newest teachers. He is so humble.” When we went into the ballroom, she took the mat next to his. Before the class, I had explained that, while I have done some yoga, I’m not that familiar with it, and he said, “Don’t copy me! Copy Ruth.” Then he told me not to worry, everyone just did the best they could. When Simmons talks about yoga he is very serious, and I asked him if he had ever thought about becoming a teacher himself.

“I live with a woman who has gone through the Jivamukti program, and did her apprenticeship, but I can’t remember my Sanskrit, and I forget half the names of the postures,” he says. (Simmons was divorced from Kimora, the mother of his two daughters, in 2009 but they are still friends.) Then he laughed, and knelt on his mat, and Life began to murmur instructions: “Downward-facing dog to plank; bend knees and chin; upward-facing dog to downward-facing dog; jump forward, straighten legs, prayer up, bend back, dive down, step back to downward-facing dog.” Trying to follow along, I looked over at Simmons, and he – who is responsible for 13 different businesses and foundations – had a face as clean and cloudless as a summer sky.

Gotta love Uncle Russ.

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In this February’s edition of Harpar’s Bazaar, two very famous yogis get it on in some hot and sexy poses…not of the yogic kind.  Yes, Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, grace the cover of the magazine and discuss the details of their romance  and sex life.  The article references that both Sting and Styler, who are 59 and 57, have a daily yoga practice.  Of course, Sting has extolled the virtues of yoga in many an interview, and Trudie has a yoga DVD out through Gaiam.

Good for them.

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A Yogi Faux Pas?  VOTE BELOW!!

Yesterday, I posted this little news item on Elephant Journal, and it got a huge response.  So I thought I’d share it here:

Picture yourself traveling home for the holidays.

You’ve no doubt trudged through horrible weather to get to the airport, and braved the long lines at airport security. You finally settle into your seat and peer out the window to see that a blizzard has arrived.  The pilot gets on the intercom and tells you that, unfortunately, you’ll be stranded on the tarmac for several hours until  conditions clear for take-off.

You wish you could just concentrate on reading your book, but another passenger decides that now would be the perfect time to practice yoga…Now…In the aisles…Of the stranded airplane.

This scenario was not just a figment of my imagination…this was reality for several hundred people aboard Virgin Atlantic from London to New York City this week.

The perpetrator of this bizarre performance?

Madonna.

Yes, the Material Girl decided that there was no better place and no better time for her to get in a little asana practice than on the tarmac, in the blizzard, and in the aisle of that airplane.

The other passengers of the flight were none too thrilled. Said one passenger:  “It was bad enough having to wait, but then she started doing her yoga in the aisles.”

Luckily the unwanted in-flight entertainment ceased when a bus came to collect Madonna and her entourage.  The other passengers? They had to wait an additional 2 hours for a bus to arrive to transport them out of the plane.

The comments so far have run the gamut, but mostly in Madge’s favor.  Here is just an idea of what readers at Elephant have been saying:

Team Madonna!

Linda-Sama: On a 17, 18 or 20 hr flight to India you bet your asana I’m doing yoga. For one thing, it’s dangerous to sit that long without moving around (Deep Vein Thrombosis.) While I’m not doing sun sals in the aisles, I am definitely moving and stretching and doing what is called tadasana vinyasa. Usually I go in the back where the attendants are, where there is more room, and do some lunges, Warr 1s, whatever my body needs. On more than one occasion, the flight attendants have joined in! As for disturbing other passengers, most are passed out asleep, watching a movie, or on their computers…I think yoga in the aisles is far less distracting than a screaming child kicking the back of your seat!

Dawna: Amen, sister, to Linda-Sama; I totally agree that on a long international flight, it is far better for people to feel free to stretch and move than worry about what others think about their asana practice. Not all yogis are as dramatic as Madonna, nor do we have entourages or private transportation. Since we’ve got to stick it out, we better be practicing yoga wherever we can for our health and safety. I had a pulmonary embolism at age 33 and was in the best shape of my life, never smoked and was uber healthy. Or so I thought. So I know first hand that we all must do our best to be compassionate to ourselves, our loved ones, and our fellow passengers in these situations, and I support passengers who for their own health and safety are getting into the aisles and doing yoga!

Manohar: Are you serious? Who’s bothered by YOGA? Maybe if she was blocking the way to the bathroom (or booze cart) that would cause a stir, but then surely it wouldn’t matter what she was doing in the aisle but just that she was blocking it!

Kimberley Rome: Birdie, I always do yoga on a long flight. I usually go back into the area where the attendants hang out, but I have done it in the isle if there’s too much congestion back there because of the restroom line. What’s the big deal about moving the lymph, blood, oxygen and muscles around in a cramped, not too healthy environment. Personally, my hit is that if it was such a big deal, it was probably more the fact that it was Madonna, than the fact that she was doing yoga. People love to snipe about celebrity. I’ve never gotten anything but a smile from folks, and it’s way less intrusive than some uncomfortable seat mate slumping asleep into my chair space. Quietly doing yoga, being present, and breathing — sounds like practice to me. Stranded on the tarmac? I think we would have a much happier and more compassionate planet if people whipped out a few asanas in every stressful situation. Think about if those folks complaining had focused on their breath, instead.

Lauren: i always encourage my students to practice yoga on a plane, and i myself practice during flights as well. it’s so important to move and get the circulation going. as long as you aren’t in anyone’s way, i’m 100% on board for yoga on a plane!!!

Tobye: Used to do the 12 hrs from London to Arizona a lot. Defo did yoga in the back of the 747. The laneway between the toilets is just right for squeezing into Prasarita padottanasana…A lot of the exercises they give you in the little handbook on those long-haul flights are all yoga poses…Most yogin would seek a private practice somehow…or at least be discreet. That said, peeps do strange things when they get stressed. Madonna was probably trying to control her anxiety at being delayed…

Kris R: Give me Madonna doing yoga over a screaming, kicking child or obnoxious drunk anyday.

Sarah Jessica: I routinely do yoga during long flights, but I usually go back by the loo and the emergency exit. Last time, on a flight from London to the US in September, the flight attendant chatted me up the whole time and we compared notes on our respective home studios and practices. I’m pretty sure I didn’t bother anyone. The aisles seem a bit tight to me, but meh, I don’t see why it would be a big deal. If you are stuck on a plane, its much more difficult to listen to a child scream or cry (for the child and the passengers) than to watch (or ignore) a yogi or two.

Beth: Seriously, people pay good money for that kind of show!

Team Birdie:

Allyson B: public masturbation…

yogadarla: def a faux pas! people are already close enough. i really dont want people sweating and exhaling all over. it’s travel. do your yoga in your seat. sheesh! (i am a yoga teacher i LIVE for sweat and breath but if you need to stretch on a plane- walk to the bathroom)

So, what do you guys think? Let’s put it to a vote:

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This weekend the first annual Iowa City Yoga Festival will be held at the Sheraton Hotel in beautiful downtown Iowa City. In anticipation of the festivities, the Des Moines Register profiled native Iowan (is that what people native to Iowa are called?), Sadie Nardini:

The rock star of yoga is from Iowa, which is a mind-bender for those who didn’t know there was one, or that Iowa could produce her.

Sadie Nardini travels nearly every weekend to yoga festivals, a recent trend.

“It’s like being in a rock band on tour,” said Nardini, appearing with other national yoga experts at the Iowa City Yoga Festival starting Friday. “They always say, ‘Sadie is the rock star of yoga.’ I live out of a suitcase. It’s not that sexy.”

This is Iowa’s first yoga festival, said James Miller, owner of Tree House Studio in Iowa City. Its 42 workshops are designed to share methods in a diverse group, outside the typical private or tribal yoga class experience.

Nardini’s rise in the burgeoning yoga field was a result of the modern daily double – a traumatic personal story and a YouTube video.

Nardini was diagnosed with leukemia at age 13 while in junior high in Iowa City and was told she had two weeks to two months to live.

“I was walking the hallways like a zombie, saying goodbye to the world,” she said.

It was a misdiagnosis. That didn’t stop the mystery illness, which she suspects was a nervous system virus, leaving her home bound with troubled breathing and limited movement.

“My mom practiced some yoga and she helped me do some light stretching and moving. It helped give me a sense of control over the illness,” Nardini said.

Her symptoms eventually waned after two years and Nardini’s family moved to Cedar Falls. She attended the University of Northern Iowa, then the University of Washington for journalism.

She charged forward with intense workouts and left yoga behind. Miller said that is common. We train for the outside look, not necessarily for overall health.

But one day Nardini spotted a yoga teacher who looked great and decided to pick up yoga again. By the late 1990s she was leading classes and attracting big crowds in Seattle.

“I refound yoga in a new way. I’m a rational Midwestern girl. I don’t fall for gimmicks,” she said. “It is not some guru experience for me. My yoga is not religious; it’s a personal path to improvement.”

After moving to New York City to do freelance writing and lead yoga classes, she had an idea.

“One day I woke up in my shoebox apartment and thought, hey, I want to make a video. I turned over a lamp for lighting, put my couch on end and put up a YouTube video,” she said.

“That started a huge online studio with 190 videos and 15,000 subscribers. The Yoga Journal called for me to do a conference and somehow it snowballed.”

She’s delighted to see Iowa City join the growing festival trend.

“Coming from Iowa, I didn’t think Iowa would be one of the first to have a regional conference,” she said.

At festivals, she said, people can experiment in various classes, from slow and gentle to hard core, and find what fits.

“Yoga hooked me on the level of the body. At first, I was like a rusty tin man on the Wizard of Oz. I couldn’t move at all,” she said. “It was also de-stressing. I was a nicer person if I did yoga. It’s really calming as an exercise.”

Sadie Nardini is one interesting lady. I first came across her when I was too broke to afford yoga classes.  Unfortunately, I was so broke that I couldn’t afford an internet connection to watch the YouTube videos at home online (I ended up with some Seane Corne DVDs instead).  When I first saw this girl posting videos online from her small apartment, I thought she had real chutzpa. She was really putting herself out there and sharing her knowledge with the world. And let me tell you yogis can be a surprisingly critical crew. To her credit, she kept at it. You can read a really fantastic interview posted on YogaDork, but written by the fabulous and talented Nancy Alder of FlyingYogini fame.

Anyone out there attending the Iowa City Yoga Festival? Tell us how it was!

Go Buckeyes! (…Buckeyes, right?)…

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Photo Courtesy of The Boston Globe

 

In tomorrow’s edition Home and Lifestyle section of The Boston Globe, journalist Linda Matchan tackles some huge issues in an article entitled “What Happened to Yoga”.  She does it by traveling to Down Under Yoga, a yoga studio in Newtonville, Massachusettes, where Aussie owner Justine Wiltshire Cohen has assembled some internationally recognized yoginis – Natasha Rizopoulos and Patricia Walden among them – to not only teach some in depth workshops, but to participate in a summit on the future of yoga in America.

To illustrate some of the problems with yoga in America today, Matchen interviewed none other than Stephanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. During the interview, Syman outlines the issues:

[Yoga is] recombined with dominant forms of the culture; it’s very malleable that way,’’ said Syman. There is yoga for every taste, energy level, and aspirant — hip-hop yoga, hot yoga, rock pop yoga, weight loss yoga, Christian yoga, even “Yoga Booty Ballet,’’ which bills itself as a dynamic fusion of yoga, booty sculpting, and cardio-dance. If there is any doubt that yoga has left the ashram and joined the mainstream, consider that yoga was part of this year’s Easter Egg Roll festivities on the White House lawn.

It’s also been “monetized,’’ Syman said. Practiced by celebrities, fitness buffs, and fashionistas, yoga is a $6 billion industry with some 16 million American followers. Many of those millions are pouring into the trendy lululemon yogawear stores — purveyor of $90 yoga mats, $25 yoga water bottles, $40 yoga towels, and other nonessential yoga accessories such as yoga thong underwear and an $88 “yoga mat carry system’’ with a “Helmet friendly design.’’ [So you won’t hit your head with your mat while riding your bike.]

The article also touches on the recent debacle, which I wrote about, regarding the sexualization and Westernization of yoga, which is obvious in many of the advertisements in the popular yoga magazine Yoga Journal:

Even the venerable magazine Yoga Journal, considered the bible for yoga practitioners, has evolved from a nonprofit publication founded in 1975 in a Berkeley basement to a glossy magazine with celebrities on the cover and sexy ads for pricey yoga gear, a trend that’s infuriated one of its founding editors.

“I feel sad because it seems that Yoga Journal has become just another voice for the status quo and not for elevating us to the higher values of yoga: spiritual integration, compassion and selfless service,’’ Judith Hanson Lasater wrote in a recent letter to the editor.

Yoga Journal’s editor in chief, Kaitlin Quistgaard, said she “completely respected’’ Lasater’s letter, “but we also need to run a commercial venture. . . . We are Americans and one thing Americans do is shop and like nice things. And one of the ways we identify ourselves is having a certain look. The yoga industry does support our desire to create self-identity through what we wear or what we purchase.’’

Cohen seems to set a new standard for taking yoga back:

Her website makes it clear where she stands on the question. “We believe that yoga studios should act in ways that are consistent with the teachings of yoga,’’ it says. “We will never sell plastic water bottles that go into landfills [becauseahimsa means ‘do no harm’]. We will never sell $150 yoga pants [because aparigraha means ‘identifying greed’]. We will never accept offers from companies to promote their gear in exchange for free publicity or products (because satya means “truthfulness’’). We will never brand, trademark, or pretend we’ve made up a new style of yoga.’’

The article is packed with the biggest issues facing yoga today.  Matchan even goes so far as to address what she calls the the “irksome” trend of Anusara yoga and yoga rockstar John Friend:

One brand, though not the only one, that seems particularly irksome is the growing Texas-based global empire of Anusara yoga, a relatively new hatha yoga system founded by John Friend, who teaches worldwide and sells clothing, jewelry, and music. He blogs, tweets, and characterizes himself on his website as “one of the most charismatic and highly respected hatha yoga teachers in the world.’’ Friend was recently featured in a New York Times magazine article, which he noted in a three-page rebuttal posted on his website was “the largest article on yoga ever published in a major newspaper. . . . For me, it is another clear sign that Grace supports Anusara.’’

“The minute yoga is packaged and branded, you’ve lost it,’’ Wiltshire Cohen contends.

You can visit Cohen’s website at www.downunderyoga.com, where she outlines her yoga manifesto.  You can also read the full text of the article here.  What say you, yogis?  These are some pretty huge issues.  I say at the very least, kudos to Cohen for tackling them.  Maybe we need some more summits like this one?


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Bikram Choudhury on his throne.

I’ve been reading a lot of news involving Bikram Yoga lately.  Last week alone, there were three very popular news items relating to celebrities practicing Bikram Yoga. Prince Harry, David Beckham, even Lady Gaga was caught in her skivvies practicing Bikram on Capitol Hill.  Not to mention the news item involving some  investment company that wants to make a “rockstar” out of Bikram Choudhury, the man who “invented” this practice of yoga.

So, I feel compelled to explore this topic for a moment.  For those of you [yes, you, my adoring readers … all 3 of you] who don’t know, Bikram is both a person and a thing.  Bikram Choudhury is a man who invented a style of yoga he modestly called Bikram Yoga, a series of 26 yoga postures and 2 breathing exercises which is practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees.  When you break it down, it seems pretty good in theory.  What I mean is, I love everything that makes Bikram what it is.  First, I love heat and I love a good schvitz fest.  I love it so much that I crave getting into a hot car on a brutal summer day and just sitting for, like, 5 minutes before turning on the AC.  I could sit in a sauna until my ass melts to the bench.  Second, I love yoga.  26 postures, 100 postures, 2 postures.  However many you want to give me, I’m game.   Third, I love — in theory — a kind of crazy whack funky guru guy who tells it like it is.  A guy with such audacity he copyrighted a series of ancient yoga postures.  A guy who during an interview with Mother Jones magazine proclaimed, “I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each.  Nobody f*cks with me.”  I mean, how is one not fascinated by a man like this?  The first time I read this quote, I was laughing for a week.  Wouldn’t you want to sit down and have a beer with this guy? Invite him over for Thanksgiving dinner? By the way, I’m so glad he clarified that he had TWO balls.

So, shockingly, I didn’t enjoy the Bikram yoga class.  Now, let me just say, that I didn’t walk into class with my nose in the air.  You see, when I lived in Chicago I knew this guy who lost 100 plus pounds after regularly practicing Bikram yoga.  Not only that, but he reversed several medical conditions — high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and adult onset diabetes — as a result of his practice.  And when I went to this Bikram class near my home in L.A., I was at the point in my life where my relationship with yoga was…well, let’s just say I was sleeping on the couch.  My point is, I approached the Bikram experience with an open mind.

Twenty minutes into class, I got yelled at by the instructor.  I should mention that when I am playing the role of “student”, I don’t really mess up.  In fact, in my whole life as a student, I have been yelled at exactly 4 times . . . which is pretty good when you consider that I endured 3 years of law school.  Moreover, the yogic offense that I committed was hardly one that fit the verbal beating delivered to me.  Apparently, this is an approach used quite frequently in Bikram classes as this is not the first I have heard of students being berated or downright insulted during class.  I have read articles describing Bikram himself sauntering up and down his classes wearing nothing but a banana hammock and a headband, lampooning his students for being too flabby.

The other thing I realized was that heating the room up to 105 degrees was entirely unnecessary.  Most of the time, I sweat a good deal during a yoga practice.  And I love it when a room crowded with people practicing yoga slowly heats up as our body temperatures increase during the course of the practice.  Walking into a 105 degree room felt a little unnatural.

As soon as the class ended and before we got out the door, I announced that I would never return.  Funny thing is, attending this class was just the thing I needed to make me realize how much I missed the “other” kind of yoga.   The kind of yoga Mr. Choudhury calls a “circus”.  Ultimately, while Bikram has been quoted as saying that “my” kind of yoga reminds him of a “Santa Monica sex shop”, it is thanks to him that I realized where I belong.

I’d love to hear your take on Bikram . . . the man, the myth, or the actual practice.  I’d especially love to hear from you if you have had good experiences.

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Yoga Studios Teachers Retailer

Last night, my friend and I attended the premiere of “Titans of Yoga” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.  The theatre was packed to the gills with all manner of yogis.  We had a few rockstar sightings, and by that I mean Shiva Rea and Vinnie Marino.  As we took our seats in the theatre, I breathed a sigh of relief when the gaggle of kundaloonies (I say that with love) did not take their seats in front of us.  I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have been able to see the screen over their head gear.  Prior to rolling tape, we settled in for an introduction by the director of the film, Johannes Fisslinger.  I would have liked for him to take that time to provide the audience with a context for the film.  Going into it, I wasn’t sure what aspect of yoga he was trying to explore, or what question he was trying to answer.

Quite frankly, I’m not sure I got an answer.  The film opened with a montage of images showing yogis yoga-ing around the world and proceeded into a collection of interviews where the subjects apparently answered a series of questions the practice of yoga.  The first question asked the 25 “titans” a simple yet immense question:  what is yoga?  The answers ranged from cringe-worthy, to thought-provoking, literal to esoteric, and straight-forward to baffling.   It was with the second question that provided, for me, the highlight of the film and the most vocal response from the audience:  how did you start yoga?  David Swenson regaled the audience in his typical easy-going and hilarious way. His anecdotes about practicing yoga with his brother in a park in Texas in the 60’s, which led to his near arrest for devil worship, filled the house with laughter.  Bryan Kest explained that it was an ultimatum from his father, then a youthful quest for vanity, and eventually a spiritual awakening.  David Life explained that yoga offered an escape from a punk rock lifestyle.  Lisa Walford’s story that it was initially an injury which ended her dancing career, followed by a startling diagnosis that she was HIV+, was one of the more poignant parts of the film.  Several interviewees acknowledged that it was, in fact, emotional unravel which led them to practice.  The remainder of the film was simply an amalgom of answers to why.  Why practice yoga?  The answers provided were seemingly so similar in nature that Mr. Fisslinger was able to divide them up into subtopics such as breathe deeply, be present, feel freely, etc.

Ultimately, “Titans of Yoga” left me scratching my head . . . which, I don’t think, was intended by the filmmaker.  Let’s start with the title of the film, which suggests that it would be more about the master practitioners of yoga rather than yoga as a practice.  This was the direction I hoped the film was headed when Swenson et al began to tell their personal stories.  When these stories ended rather abruptly, I was disappointed.  My second problem with the title was, well, really?  Are these the people generally considered to be the titans of yoga?  I don’t mean to say that these people don’t have commendable personal practices, or to devalue the fact that they’ve changed the lives of many others with their messages.  Sure, there were several obvious participants who likely belonged in such a film, but there were more than several individuals missing.  Like, some of the Indians?  Uh, Iyengar, anyone?  TKV Desikachar?  If the filmmaker was approaching this from the western perspective on yoga, he should have explained that in the film and discussed why.

The other obvious question the film left me pondering was, who was the audience Fisslinger intended for this film?  Was it for the school students benefitting from his Yoga Recess program (to which all proceeds of the film are being donated)?  If so, I can’t imagine that the likes of Gurmukh and Swami Kriyananda would stir up any sort of excitement for yoga in school-age children.  Was it for adults who have never practiced yoga?  In this case, the film’s only success was reminding us of the litany of reasons to practice yoga.  Or, was the film for people already practicing?  If so, it offered little in the way of new points of view and was essentially preaching to the choir.  In the end, if this film were a yoga practice, it was most certainly lacking in two important concepts: focus and intention.
Did you see the film?  I’d love to know your thoughts!

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