FORT WASHINGTON, Md. -- It's Saturday, and the party's getting started, so everybody hits the floor -- flat on the floor.
Sunlight streams through tall windows while candles flicker in the fireplace, and incense floats on a slight breeze. It's quiet, except for the hypnotic Native American flutes on the stereo and the soothing voice of the "yoga lady."
"Inhale and exhale," Jana Long intones. "Lift your legs up slowly," as dozens of pedicured toes point skyward. "Now lower them, slowly, almost to the floor, and lift again. Uh-oh, I can hear feet hitting the floor," Long sings out as the women around her stifle giggles.
OK, so a yoga party is an unusual way to make merry, but it just might be the next big thing for those who want a healthy alternative to the typical hung-over-the-next morning kind of party.
"I've done yoga birthday parties, yoga cocktail parties, yoga bridal parties, yoga book-club parties," says Long, a Baltimore yoga instructor. "What I teach are relaxation techniques and ways to use yoga to manage the everyday stresses in your life."
Long is part of a yoga "trendlet" appearing in places such as New York and Los Angeles. Matthew Solan, senior editor at Yoga Journa l magazine, says yoga parties are yet another manifestation of yoga's growing popularity. "After Sept. 11 especially, I think people are looking for more in stress reduction and maybe something that will touch their spirituality, allow them to look inward a bit," Solan says.
There's no doubt that yoga -- an ancient system of breathing and stretching exercises that also embraces philosophy, spirituality and mental discipline -- is flourishing in the USA. Thanks in part to celebrity devotees such as Madonna, Sting and Oprah, three quarters of health-and-fitness clubs now offer yoga, more than double the percentage in the mid-'90s. It's been introduced in prisons and public schools. Yoga teachers held open sessions in Central Park after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. You can even buy yoga stuff at Target.
"All you need to do is show up in comfortable clothes, and I bring everything else -- the music, candles, incense, mats," says Long, who has been practicing yoga since she was in high school and teaching it for more than 25 years through her Power of One yoga business. "Sometimes the hostess has a masseuse there or someone to do spa treatments. We do an hour of basic yoga, then a meal."
Long started doing yoga parties in October, inspired by the trauma of Sept. 11 to spread the word about the calming benefits of yoga. She's especially keen to promote yoga among African-Americans. "Diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity are the three most prevalent chronic conditions among African-Americans, and all can be better managed with stress reduction through yoga," Long says.
The women, most of whom met at college years ago, have sampled myriad activities at their monthly parties, including in-line skating, cooking, pottery-making, even self-defense, but this is the first time most have done yoga. They are both relaxed and exhilarated after their session, tucking into salad, cold cuts and fruit with gusto.
"It was wonderful -- a big success," says Daria Davis-Gaffney, 33, of Washington. Hostess Demetra Mason 35, says she's thinking of starting her three kids in yoga. Co-hostess Kristie Tyler, 30, of Accokeek, Md., can't believe Long is really 50; it must be the yoga, they joke. But they also recognize the potential benefits. "I'm so high energy, I need this to really relax me, and it might help with my insomnia," says Lisa Bradford, 35, of Washington.
Although yoga's roots are in the Hindu religion, it is not a religion, and teachers like Long mostly emphasize the physical aspects rather than the chanting, meditation and the complicated philosophical underpinnings intrinsic to yoga. Still, Long can't help but evangelize. "You can use it in your daily life to help you become more aware, more creative -- it really is miraculous."
In New York, companies throw yoga parties for their employees at the Ravi Yoga and Spa near Gramercy Park. At $400 per party, people receive an hour of yoga, spa treatments and a vegetarian meal. They can even get champagne. "The reason yoga has lasted more than 1,000 years is that it works," says owner Ravi Singh, 40, who started the yoga parties in October. "People are disillusioned with regular exercise, because it only takes you so far, but yoga satisfies an inner longing, and that's why people come back to it."
On the left coast, where yoga has been popular with Hollywood types for years, the Lifestyle Renaissance Yoga Studio in Sherman Oaks, run by Ulla Annelie and fiancé Scott Alsop, organizes yoga parties for non-Hollywood types on the Malibu beach near the Pier View restaurant. After two hours of yoga -- at $25 per person -- the party goes inside for a vegetarian meal. The Finnish-born Annelie, 58, who has been teaching yoga for 25 years, also does private parties; her latest concept is the "couples yoga" party, in which spouses help each other with the stretching, allowing for more flexibility.
"We call (the parties) 'yoga to go' -- they pay us an hourly fee, and they can have as many people as they like," Alsop says. "After a yoga party, people have so much energy, and they communicate with each other at a totally different level," Annelie adds.
In Lake Geneva, Wis., a resort town popular with Chicagoans, Tiffany Powell, 31, and Tina Parchment, 46, have just added yoga sessions to the massage-and-spa parties they hold in the homes of vacationing city dwellers. "Yoga incorporates so many things. It balances out your thought processes," Powell says. "It's great for all the stresses people have to live with every day."