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America Is Up in Arms, Legs and Torsos Waiting for Lilias Folan to Bring Yoga Back to TV

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The scene in the new movie Being There is brief but memorable. Distracted from a phone conversation by the TV set, Peter Sellers is transfixed by a program on yoga. The film is fiction; the TV show isn’t. Conducted by Lilias Folan of Cincinnati, it is titled Lilias, Yoga and You, and its ability to hypnotize Peter Sellers was a reflection of its popularity on PBS for five years.

Then last fall, the show was canceled for budget reasons. The response was immediate: Furious letters and phone calls began pouring into stations all over the U.S. At WETA in Washington, D.C., station president Ward Chamberlin admits, “The program had a big audience that cared about it desperately. People are very frustrated.”

Among them is Lilias herself, a 44-year-old wife and mother who persuaded some 10 million viewers that even breathing “can be an exciting exploration of your body.” Hoping to see the series revived, she has been writing her second book, Lilias, Yoga and Your Life, and staging workshops for companies like Monsanto, which believes yoga improves the efficiency of deskbound employees. Folan carefully claims no access to mystical wisdom. “I’m not a guru,” she insists. “I’m only here to share my experiences.”

Originally from Pound Ridge, N.Y., Folan was born Lilias Antoinette Moon and known thereafter as “Muffin” (“Can you see Muffin, Yoga and You?” she asks with a giggle). Her parents divorced when Lilias was 2, and her mother remarried several times, sending her daughter off to boarding school at the age of 9. Lilias later spent two years at Bennington, continued her art studies in Italy and returned home to an early marriage and postpartum depression.

“I had everything,” she says. “A successful husband, two children, a lovely home and a boat in Long Island Sound. But there was a longing in me that just wasn’t filled up. I had the blahs.” A doctor prescribed exercise, and Lilias spent three years in psychotherapy. Then she discovered yoga. “From the beginning I felt better as a person and a woman,” she says. “Also, no one was into yoga then, and part of me liked being a little weird. If anyone asked me at parties, I’d get my leotard and do a headstand. It wasn’t until I crashed into a coffee table that I saw how ridiculous it was.”

When her husband, Bob Folan, now president of his own transport company, was transferred to Cincinnati in 1967, Lilias went along and taught yoga. “The anxiety and depression had begun to lift,” she recalls, “and I needed a broader, deeper vision. Slowly I began to feel a call.” In 1970 she began a series of instructional shows for the local PBS affiliate. By last fall she was carried in 193 cities, pulled in 150 letters a week and boasted converts to yoga like Alan Arkin and Carol Burnett.

Her newfound spirituality, however, occasionally made her marriage a battleground. “Bob was very rigid,” she says. “He married a little girl and didn’t want to see her change.” “It’s been a learning experience,” admits her husband with a sigh. “Lilias is 18 people and all the same woman. She does everything with feeling; I do it all with my head.” Things are more tranquil now, says Lilias; there has always been a “spiritual cord” that kept her and Bob from going their separate ways. “He is my earth, my balance,” she declares. “I’m volatile and creative and sometimes I explode, but I’ve learned through yoga to put distance between myself and the anger.”

When her show was on the air, she says, she found only 45 minutes a day for her own meditation. “It was hard to keep it joyful,” she confesses. “I love this huge national family, but sometimes the responsibility is frightening because people put you on a pedestal. You have to get off it by sharing yourself and proving you’re a human being. Spiritual growth isn’t sitting on a Himalayan mountaintop staring at your navel. It’s right here with your husband and family.”