NAPLES, Florida. January 14, 2005 (Naples Daily News)

They sit on the edge of their seats. Back straight. Eyes closed. Hands in a relaxed position, thumb and index finger touching. Now, slowly, effortlessly, they begin silently repeating the mantra. If they do this for 30 minutes, twice a day, they will, if the ancient sages are correct, transform themselves into more centered and peaceful people.

Which is the beneficial outcome. If you can block out other useless thoughts, like if you’re doing it right or what you’re going to eat for lunch.

The students are reminded: Meditation is a practice, not a result. It works its magic slowly, by the doing of it, not by any goal-driven attitude.

At least that’s what Leonard Perlmutter, a yoga teacher, tells them. The seven participants were attending a three-hour workshop called “The Art of Joyful Living” at the Unity Church of Naples, overlooking a lush landscape of pine trees and a tranquil aqua pond.

There is a lot of talk about an overlooked aspect of yoga, one that deals with how to discipline the mind. The fundamental keystone of this practical science, as Perlmutter calls it, is meditation. Each person chooses a mantra — a word such as Jesus, or Allah, or some other spiritual phrase — and by repeating the mantra during meditation, you derive certain attributes: energy, willpower, creativity.

Perlmutter looks the part of a guru. He has a thick, black-to-graying beard that carpets his face, hiding his ears and neck, and he wears white with matching tennis shoes. Energy seems to buzz out of him even when he’s perfectly still.

Perlmutter and his wife, Jenness Cortez Perlmutter, run the American Meditation Institute in upstate New York, and for the past four years, they’ve migrated to Naples during the winter. She’s a painter whose work has been reviewed by The New York Times; it can now be seen at Naples’ DeBruyne Fine Art. And they partner to teach a part of yoga not widely taught at local gyms or studios; it’s an aspect that puts special emphasis on disciplining the mind.

After graduating from American University and George Washington School of Law, Perlmutter founded a weekly newspaper, the “Washington Park Spirit,” where from 1971 to ’75 he tried to foster community movements in Albany, N.Y. That’s where the couple met and then married in 1977, beginning their spiritual quest in earnest.

“Our direction went from the outside to inside,” Perlmutter says. “We centered on our own practice for what felt right for us.”

Discipline and awareness

“The ancient sages came to the conclusion, if we can access the mind in the here and now, then our inner wisdom will tell us what outer action … to take that will always lead to our highest and greatest good,” Perlmutter tells the group. “When our thoughts, words and actions are in harmony with our inner wisdom … we experience freedom from worry and fear.”

This notion especially appeals to Peggy Price, who has homes in Naples and Lexington, Ky., because many of her friends are now dying, some from Alzheimer’s.

“Say that again because that’s a big one for me, fear,” she says.

The workshop has drawn people ranging in age from 20 to 70. It includes some who are seeking a more joyful life, some who want relief from chronic worrying and depression, and others who have come because they are intrigued by Perlmutter himself.

He explains it’s all a matter of discipline and awareness.

“Every thought is merely a suggestion, not an imperial command,” he says. “You have to be willing to give up your attachment. … Honor and witness that fearful thought. Is this leading me for my highest and greatest good or should I sacrifice it? … It’s in giving that we receive. Every time we sacrifice by following our inner wisdom, we gain in energy, willpower and creativity.”

He explains that yoga bridges each person’s inner wisdom to the word, thought or action that leads to the greatest good in each moment. And because these are ageless truths, people of every age have realized the freedom of enlightenment without ever using the word yoga, or knowing anything about the 5,000-year-old Eastern philosophy.

Perlmutter says he believes that America’s founding fathers aspired to this universal wisdom during the rebellion of 1776 — based on the noble truth that all people have the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“This noble truth is not only the ideal upon which our republic was founded, but is also the heart of yoga science,” he says.

Yoga mats everywhere

Yoga is one of the fastest-growing trends in America, at the forefront of the mind-body-spirit exercise movement. A Harris poll commissioned last year by Yoga Journal magazine suggests that there are 15 million enthusiasts, all flocking to yoga mats to perform one of the eight yoga steps — the asanas or physical postures — leading to samadhi, ecstatic union or enlightenment.

The word yoga originates from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning union. It’s based on practices that encourage the union of body, mind, emotions and intellect.

It gained its first following in America in 1893 when Calcutta-born yoga scholar Swami Vivekananda addressed a world religions conference in Chicago. Other masters from India visited over the ensuing century.

But yoga did not grow in popularity until the Vietnam War era, when the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s embraced Eastern influences, from Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums” to the Beatles’ flirtation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation. Suddenly, yin-and-yang symbols were everywhere, sitar music filled the air and yoga was cool among the rebellious.

After that, fitness evolved from running to the high-impact aerobics of the ’80s, and to the low-impact aerobics and walking of the ’90s. As hippies aged and transformed into workaholic, stressed-out yuppies, they began to seek self-improvement, and yoga started to make inroads again.

Approaching the new millennium, the emphasis was on stretching, flexibility, balance and relaxation. And certain mind-body practices became popular, such as tai chi, Pilates and yoga.

Then yoga went Hollywood. In 1998, Madonna released “Ray of Light,” which included a Sanskrit chant, touting her devotion to yoga. Supermodel Christy Turlington appeared in Vogue to introduce her sexy line of yoga clothing. And now yoga becomes a regular mention in celebrity interviews, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Metallica.

The eight steps

Perlmutter wants to teach what he calls the entire yoga philosophy and science, not just the popular aspect of it, dealing with physical postures. And during the workshop, he highlighted the foundation of meditation, which leads to a disciplined mind.

He explains the eight steps of yoga science are usually described in reverse order, since the spiritual seeker starts at the ground level and ascends the ladder, culminating in union or enlightenment.

8. Samadhi: absorption into the superconscious state, or Godhead; also known as Self-realization

7. Dhyana: meditation

6. Dharana: concentration (one-pointed attention)

5. Pratyahara: control of the senses

4. Pranayama: control of breath and vital energy known as prana

3. Asana: physical postures

2. Niyamas: constructive observances designed to organize one’s personal daily lives. These are saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-study) and Ishvara pranidhana (self-surrender).

1. Yamas: disciplines and restraints regulating relationships with other people, and one’s own body, senses and energy. These are ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), astaya (non-stealing), bramacharya (conservation and moderation of energy) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness).

During the workshop, Perlmutter explains that the primary yama is ahimsa or non-violence, and truthfulness must be in harmony with it. He tells the story of two boys, one Christian and the other Jewish, growing up in Germany during the Nazi era. There’s a knock on the Christian’s door, the Nazi soldier asks if there are any Jews in the house, and the boy replies no, even though he is hiding his Jewish friend.

“To say yes, it would be injurious to the Jew, the Christian and ultimately the SS officer,” Perlmutter explains. “It’s a fact (that there’s a Jew in the house) but not the truth. In yoga, only the truth is to be served — and the truth must be non-injurious.”

This notion appeals to workshop participant Tracy Ingram, a Bonita Springs resident who works in the computer industry. “I’ve always tried to live a joyous life and tried to bring it to others,” he says. “But sometimes you can talk about facts that can hurt, and this puts it in a new perspective, that non-harming is more truthful.”

Perlmutter explains the primary tool for accessing each person’s inner wisdom — what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven in Christian belief— involves dhyana or meditation. Perlmutter says the basic instruction for meditation can be found in Psalms: “Be still and know that I am God.” In yoga, this stillness is learned through meditation.

But it’s not so easy. The sitting, no problem. The eyes closing, check. But then, just when your supposed to be wordlessly reciting your mantra and emptying the mind, thoughts flood in, something like this:

Mantra. Mantra. Mantra. Mantras are interesting, from Sanskirt words or more modern ones like Jesus or other religious traditions and Sanskrit is a kinda weird language, really old but no one really uses it anymore except to explain yoga terms … well, maybe they use it in India and Indian food is really spicy and … Get back to mantra, stop thinking. OK. OK. Mantra. Mantra. Mantra. Man….tra…..Ma….n…..tra.

Perlmutter says this is OK. People can fall asleep and that’s OK, at first, because the body needs sleep. Another experience involves the mind racing with thoughts. He explains the trick involves determination: I want to do it, I’m going to do it, I will do it.