'I Don't Have a Problem Representing Yoga'

  • Share
  • Read Later
Christy Turlington is a serious student of yoga in all its physical, spiritual and intellectual aspects. She practices at home three mornings a week (hard to do, she says, since she's not a morning person), and tries to take at least two classes a week.

When she's in New York, where she lives in a lovely, tasteful townhouse in the West Village, she goes to the celebrity-studded Jivamukti Yoga Center. Owners Sharon Gannon and David Life teach an eclectic style of yoga, described on the center's web site as "a vigorous physical practice with equally strong foundation in the ancient Yogic texts."

Turlington, now 32, took up yoga at the age of 18. A friend in San Francisco took her to a Kundalini yoga class, where she was impressed with the discipline the practice required. Within a year, she attended the annual Kundalini summer solstice celebration in New Mexico.

Because modeling demanded constant travel and kept her from getting into a routine, she only dabbled for the next eight years. Also, she smoked until she was 26 — not exactly a purifying habit.

Once she hunkered down to become more serious, she was grateful for yoga's help through some very tough times in her late 20s. She was in school as an older, much-watched student; she'd stopped the intensive modeling schedule she'd had for 11 years; and her father (in California, where she grew up) was diagnosed with lung cancer and had only six months to live.

"I was so thankful for the reprieve it gave me from all the things I was dealing with in my life," she says. "Going to school full time and being involved with the care of my father, halfway across the country. He was only sick for six months, but I flew back and forth every week.

"I was interested in cleaning my body on a deeper level. Yoga really purifies your organs and blood. You feel that. You feel that circulation of energy. But the real lesson yoga gives you is learning how to be present."

Even though Turlington studies all six branches of yoga (and views her charity work and anti-smoking activism as seva — "service," an aspect of Karma Yoga), she's not critical of the popular exercise-oriented yoga boom, other than to worry some about the lack of standardization among teachers.

"Gym yoga isn't always the healthiest thing. I talk to so many people who say they've hurt themselves in a class and will never go back.

"I have friends who simply want to have a yoga butt. And there is such a thing. They're just interested in the kind of body they're going to have, although not everybody's going to have a Madonna body. I've been to lots of yoga classes, and there are a lot of different kinds of yoga bodies. I'm amazed at the strength and suppleness I see that some people have underneath very voluptuous shells."

Turlington doesn't dispute yoga's physical benefits. She's done weight training, but found it boring and also that it prompted a different result. "Yoga's a different kind of strength, because everything is about elongating and strengthening from the core out."

Her favorite position these days is the headstand. "If you get up in the morning and do a headstand right away, you definitely get the juices flowing.

"Everyone likes what comes to them naturally, and I'm really flexible in my back, so I can do twists."

About two and a half years ago, she joined with the German company Puma to start up a line of clothing for what she calls "mind/body sports," like yoga, tai chi and chi gong. She's now at work on the fourth collection of the series, called Nuala. The clothes are mostly cotton, though some are microfibers, and are produced in muted, earthy colors such as gray, black, ivory and burnt pumpkin. Some you'd wear in class, some you'd wear to and from.

"When I was finishing my degree, I was thinking about what to do next. I even thought for a while about becoming a yoga teacher. People were advising me to go into business, but the only way I could think about going into business was in an organic way: What do I need?

"Clothing was a natural. I thought about what's practical and what works. And there was really a need. There was definitely a yoga style — very "Flashdance." Lots of ripped shirts and women wearing men's underwear. I really wanted to step outside of gym rat mode. So much of what was out there was really revealing, lots of cut-off tops, and I definitely didn't want logos on everything.

Her clothes have simple lines: loose pants, slip-on shoes, and tank tops and T-shirts that don't restrict movement. "And everything is really, really soft," she says. It's also pretty high-end, for sale at yoga centers but also at such tony boutiques as Bendel's in NY, Harvey Nichols in London, and Barneys Co-op in Chicago. "I don't want to market it as athletic clothing; it really is lifestyle."

Does she have any concerns about trading on her fame in order to profit from spirituality?

"The celebrity thing is tricky," Turlington acknowledges. "Seva is a big part of my daily yoga practices, and I wouldn't be able to communicate with as many people if I weren't in the public eye. But I definitely worried at first with Nuala if this was a sacred, spiritual thing that I'm exploiting.

"But yoga is really about participating in and becoming part of a community. To earn money form Nuala is not really my interest. Yoga ties in with my antismoking work — which is all about raising consciousness and awareness. And I've had to represent so many things in my life, " says the Maybelline spokesperson and the face of Calvin Klein's Eternity perfume. "I don't have a problem representing yoga."

Turlington has also signed on as an editor at large for Yoga Journal magazine, and has a contract with Hyperion to write a book about being a student of yoga — "kind of a 'Why Yoga'," she says — focused on all aspects of yoga, not just the hatha (physical) branch.

Still a frequent traveler, Turlington has figured out how to get yoga instruction on the road, usually in the Ashtanga style. "I find teachers wherever I go," she says, including when she was on trips last summer to Japan and Australia. She'll either go to a class, like at Brentwood's Maha Yoga when she's in L.A. (where the Ashtanga style is melded with popular music), or she'll arrange to have a teacher come to her hotel room.

Turlington was reluctant to go to Jivamukti classes at first, in part because she's so frequently recognized. "It was fear, really," she says. "I didn't want to stand out." But celebrities are so common there, Turlington found, that she wasn't the object of undue attention, and that in fact, yoga teachings challenged that fear. "In yoga, you need to get beyond yourself. So I just went to the front row. It was the same thing when I went to NYU. I sat in the front row, very visible. And it was fine."

When Turlington can only manage private tutors, she feels like she's missing out. "I miss that getting lost in a collective experience. And I like the lesson David teaches at the beginning of class. You always learn something from it. No matter what's going on in your life at the time, there's something you can apply it to. I'm a practicing Catholic, and it's the same thing at mass. I always learn something at Jivamukti; they really educate the students. Other places I've gone to are really Yoga Lite. They don't pay attention to the other branches of yoga at all."