Sonia Jones, lithe blonde wife of hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, has partnered with the family of the late Ashtanga-yoga master Krishna Pattabhi Jois to launch a chain of yoga studios and boutiques. That’s got many of Jois’s devotees in a distinctly un-yogic twist. .
Right off Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich, Connecticut, there’s an old, dilapidated building with a leaky roof that once housed a radio station. The building is an odd sight because Greenwich Avenue isn’t your average Main Street: lined with exorbitantly expensive stores, it’s the center of this famously moneyed enclave for New York’s financial elite. But the old radio station is being completely renovated, no expense spared, and in April it will open its doors as a modern yoga studio—and not the kind with stinky incense and smelly bodies, but rather with space, light, and a stylish boutique. The studio will bear the name Jois Yoga, in honor of Sri Krishna Pattabhi Jois, an eminent yoga teacher whose many students called him Guruji, and whose death on May 18, 2009, occasioned lengthy obituaries in such important newspapers as The New York Times and London’s Guardian.
The money behind the new studio comes from Sonia Tudor Jones, whose husband, 57-year-old Paul Tudor Jones II, runs the multi-billion-dollar hedge-fund empire Tudor Investment Corp. Tudor is one of the oldest and most respected hedge funds—its flagship fund, Tudor BVI Global, has averaged annual gains of 21 percent over its 25-year history, according to The Wall Street Journal—and while very little about it is public, Forbes has estimated Paul Tudor Jones’s net worth at $3.2 billion.
Jones is also a noted philanthropist, the founder of the Robin Hood Foundation, the oh-so-stylish charity for the hedge-fund set. The Joneses live in Greenwich. This will be his wife’s fourth Jois studio, or “shala” in yoga lingo, and that’s only part of her far-flung project. In partnership with Pattabhi Jois’s daughter and grandson and a friend, San Diego-based entrepreneur Salima Ruffin, she’s also launched a Jois line of yoga clothes, and she is setting up charities to bring yoga to everyone, from charter schools in Florida to villages in Africa. Ruffin likes to say that Sonia is the “Mother Teresa of yoga.”
Sonia Jones, as she likes to be called, is devoted to yoga not for the reason most American devotees are—the attainment of physical perfection, with maybe a little spiritual bliss tossed in—but because she thinks it restored her to health.
In 1986, Sonia moved to New York from Australia to further her modeling career. After a short time on the scene, she met Paul Jones—who was just coming to prominence after making $100 million during the 1987 stock-market crash—and they married in 1988. They have four children, all delivered by cesarean section, and by the time her son, Jack, was born, in 1999, she had a blown disk in her back and was numb from the waist down. “I wish I had photos!” Salima Ruffin said when we three were having coffee at Le Pain Quotidien on Greenwich Avenue. “You were so thin and frail.”
Through Paul’s friendship with self-help master Tony Robbins, the Joneses met Pete Egoscue, who is basically the guru of back pain. Pete’s wife, Troi, practiced yoga in Encinitas, California, with one of Pattabhi Jois’s best-known students, Tim Miller. Troi told Sonia that to get well she too had to practice the kind of yoga Jois taught, which is widely known as Ashtanga. In today’s yoga-mad America, Ashtanga can be a rubric for a lot of things, but Troi insisted that Sonia had to practice in the very specific manner Jois taught, and with a teacher he had approved. After the Egoscues interviewed teachers on her behalf, Sonia began working with an ashtangi named Maria Rubinate. “It was a huge turning point in my life,” recalls Sonia.
Ashtanga as Jois taught it is not a yoga where anything comes easily. John Friend, the creator of another popular form of yoga, called Anusara, likes to say that Anusara is the “yoga of yes.” Tim Miller tells me, only half-jokingly, that Ashtanga is the “yoga of no.” It is an unvarying sequence of physically demanding poses, called asanas, combined with flowing movements, or vinyasas, and deep, rhythmic breathing. You’re supposed to practice six days a week, ideally at dawn, and it is a solitary practice, even in a group setting: you do your set sequence of moves at your own pace, while the teacher offers “adjustments” to perfect the poses. There are six sequences of poses, called series, but the poses are so difficult and require so much flexibility and strength that few students make it past the first or second series, which are called primary and intermediate. (The physical poses are supposed to be merely a stepping stone to spiritual transformation.)
There’s an addictive quality to it, though, at least for certain personality types, and Ashtanga has had plenty of high-profile devotees. Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna both practiced at a Manhattan studio run by a dedicated Guruji student named Eddie Stern; Madonna even wrote herself a role as an Ashtanga teacher in The Next Best Thing. Other celebrities, from Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, to Beastie Boys drummer Mike D and fashion designer Donna Karan, are also ashtangis. Not surprisingly, Ashtanga is popular among financial types, such as Bill Gross, the head of the bond fund Goliath Pimco. Hedge-fund manager Adam Sender, who took up Ashtanga after years of hunching in front of his computer had made him so sore he could barely function, says of the practice, “It saved my life from countless back surgeries.”
These days, Sonia Jones, at 44, is a walking advertisement for the physical benefits of Ashtanga. She’s slim, but in a toned way rather than an annoyingly skinny one. Blonde and tan, she is warm and ebullient, more earthy Australian than uptight Greenwich grande dame. Every morning, she does her practice in a sunny studio—decorated with pictures of Jois and his family—in her Greenwich house, overlooking Long Island Sound. She’s so committed to Ashtanga that, if you’re in her life, you have to do it, too. (Ruffin, who runs a high-end travel service and first met Sonia in the late 1990s, is an exception: she’s unapologetic about liking spinning, and tells me that Guruji used to call her “bad lady.”) All of Sonia’s children practice—from Chrissy, who is a student at Stanford, to Caroline, who is a singer-songwriter attending New York University, to Dorothy, who’s in high school, to Jack. (Sonia admits that she has to bargain with 15-year-old Jack by telling him that if he does his practice he doesn’t have to read.) Paul does Ashtanga, too, although he gets to take the summers off. Sonia says that, after meeting Guruji, Paul concluded, “He’s the happiest person I know, and he’s not on drugs,” so, he thought, there had to be something to his system.
Sonia feels that yoga has given her not just her health, but her life. “I got married so young and didn’t have my own life,” she says. “Now I’m coming into my own.”
But Sonia’s involvement with Guruji’s heirs and their attempt to codify his teachings into something called Jois Yoga has created a current of unease and distress in the close-knit community of Ashtanga teachers, although few are expressing this openly, whether out of loyalty to Guruji’s memory, fear of the future, or hope that it will just go away. “People are talking about it quietly, but quietly loudly,” as one teacher puts it. Many Ashtanga teachers have not just their livelihoods but their very existence tied up in the practice, and Jois Yoga, which from the outside can seem like one part Lululemon (the hugely successful line of high-end yoga clothing) and one part Yogaworks (the California-based chain of yoga studios), is a challenge to all of that. It feels like a commercial enterprise—or worse. “I believe it’s about power, and I don’t want to be part of it,” says Lino Miele, a senior teacher, about Jois.
‘Guruji used to say, ‘Look at a wall and see God,’ ” says Zoe Slatoff, a teacher in Manhattan, “which to me means we need to look with compassion at what’s happening.” But there’s a lack of clarity about Sonia’s goals and about how Pattabhi Jois’s daughter and grandson, who are also founders, fit in. Maybe there is jealousy. “A lot of old-school teachers resent Sonia because they perceive that she’s getting in the way of their special relationship with the Jois family,” says Russell Case, a teacher who is now working for Jois Yoga. And there’s also a feeling that Jois Yoga founders haven’t always acted in a very respectful way.
Follow me on Twitter or subscribe at: ClaudiaYoga.com