BY JOHN CAPOUYA
Slowly, deliberately, the slender man raises his arms overhead, stretching high for a Salute to the Sun. Concentrating intently, he moves to the rhythm of his breath, now tilting his upper body forward, parallel to the floor, while balancing on one leg. Minutes later the 59-year-old performs a difficult backward bend called the Wheel. Feet and hands planted on the mat, he presses his belly skyward for 30 seconds before gently lowering himself to the floor.
Then he goes back to trading bonds.
This is no ashram; it's a Marriott workout room in Newport Beach, Calif. And this yogi is no Eastern mystic or a New Age seeker. He's Bill Gross, chief investment officer of the Pacific Investment Management Co., or PIMCO. The "Bond King" is hypercompetitive and ultrasuccessful--and he does yoga to keep himself that way. "To me, yoga is great physical training, not something spiritual or religious," Gross says. "I want to be as effective as I can in my job. It's results-driven. And the results have been remarkable."
Lots of lower-paid guys would agree. American men are now flocking to the yoga mats where once, it seemed, only women dared to tread. A new Harris poll commissioned by Yoga Journal suggests that men now make up 23 percent of America's 15 million enthusiasts. "Two to three years ago I think the number would have been 10 to 15 percent," says Kathryn Arnold, the magazine's editorial director. At Town Sports International's 130 East Coast sports clubs, yoga classes now draw three times as many men as they did three years ago. And in Nashville, Tenn., yoga teacher Hilary Lindsay says her early-morning classes are often two-thirds to three-quarters male. "They're businessmen, entrepreneurs, real-estate guys," she says. "And almost all of my private clients are men."
Yoga scriptures, or sutras, describe an eightfold path to samadhi, ecstatic union and enlightenment. But most American yogis (the title refers to any male practitioner) would just as soon leave the samadhi to... samadhi else. They're in it for the exercise and the physical benefits--hold the chanting and the New Age vibes. "Men tend to favor the more athletic, fast-moving styles such as Vin-yasa and Ashtanga [sometimes called power yoga]," notes Michael Lechonczak, who teaches at New York's Equinox gyms. And many use yoga as complementary cross-training. Lower-body stretches like the Downward Dog loosen hamstrings winched tight from running, for example, while upper-body openers like the Cobra help unlock chests and shoulders stiffened by bench-pressing.
Unlike the routine stretching exercises that men find so boring, yoga offers both variety and athletic challenge. Even a 90-minute class passes quickly when you're switching constantly from one pose to another, and the toughest workout animals are sometimes shocked at how strenuous yoga can be. They discover that holding the most intense asanas, or positions, builds strength--not the brute strength of a power lifter but the tensile strength of a martial-arts master. "It's an endurance thing," says Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George.
George, who has practiced with Lindsay in Nashville for five years, is one of a growing cadre of pro athletes going yoga. "As a running back, you're basically using your body as a battering ram," the Heisman Trophy winner explains. "And I end up pinned in some really awkward positions. I thought if my muscles were more flexible and had experienced some of those stresses beforehand in yoga, I'd be less likely to get hurt." The strategy is working for George: he hasn't missed a game due to injury in his seven seasons. Other top yoga jocks include Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, Oakland A's pitching ace Barry Zito, NBA superstar Kevin Garnett and PGA standouts Ty Tryon and David Duval. Golf pros say yoga-flexing gives them greater range of motion in the hip and shoulder joints, which generates extra power and distance.
Pros aren't the only ones with something to gain. Weekend warriors often back into yoga--they take it up because their backs are killing them. Nashville real-estate broker Rick French, 49, used to see a chiropractor "at least a couple of times a week," but the lumbar pain he had endured since a college skiing injury always returned. The misery ended when he turned to yoga to stretch and align his back. He now survives tennis games and five-mile runs without a hint of pain. No matter what draws them into yoga, recent converts marvel at how energized they feel on the way out of a session. Bob Eriksen, 52, who works in real-estate development in Capitola, Calif., is up to five or six morning classes a week. "I get a glow that lasts all the way to the evening," he says. "I feel like my body's waking up, that my circulation is better. It's like you've finally found out how your body should feel."
How do we know yoga really works? Research, much of it done in India, suggests a wide variety of health-positive effects--for arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, coronary-artery disease and asthma, among other things--but many of the studies are limited. In a U.S. study involving 287 students (both sexes), researchers at Ball State University found that 15 weeks of yoga training brought a 10 percent improvement in lung capacity, but no control group was used. Dr. Dean Ornish has found evidence that yoga can help fight cardiovascular disease, but his protocols have included other lifestyle changes, such as a low-fat diet. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, is currently supporting research on yoga, including its use for insomnia and chronic lower-back pain.
Beyond all the body work, there's a yoga bonus: the way it sharpens your mental game. Athletes like Zito and Garnett say the meditative breathing calms their nerves and hones their focus on the job. Gross gets a mental boost, too--both in bond trading and on the golf course. "At this year's AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach," he says, "I had a six-foot putt on the final day. My partner and I were near the lead and this putt had to go in or we had no chance. I told myself, 'Step back for a moment. Breathe deeply. Focus and relax, like you've learned to do in yoga.' So I did that, and the putt rolled in."
On the eightfold path--or the eighteenfold path--that's nirvana.