The People’s Yoga

By Nicola Shepheard

At 7:00 p.m. on a damp Thursday, the stairway to the East Village Yoga to the People studios is busier than the nearest subway station. Soon, all four studios will be full, mats toe to fingertip. The third-storey studio where I find myself funneled has the feel of a student cafe: wooden floors, exposed brick walls, music, people chatting; except there are also people with their feet in the air. None of the hushed, solemn preparations you get in some studios. What is most striking, though, in this age of yoga mega-chains and couture yoga-wear, is there are no fees. Instead, official greeter Jessie Barr stands at the door with an empty tissue box, its mouth widened into a guileless smile. This is where you put your donation – the website yogatothepeople suggests $10 per class, but no one’s counting. Jessie cheerfully averts her eyes from the five-dollar bill I drop in.

Donation-based yoga feels almost subversive. Last decade’s yoga renaissance sun-saluted the ancient practice out of draughty church halls and onto the cover of Time magazine. In 2008, Americans spent $5.7 billion on classes and products, 87 percent more than in 2004, according to a study by Yoga Journal. Yoga now has celebrity teachers, international chains, and merchandise by Nike. Marc Jacobs makes a $400 yoga mat bag; model Christy Turlington has a line of yoga wear. Critics have pointed out that yoga’s ethos sits uneasily with inhibitive pricing, militant ascetism and vigorous, slick branding. Some fear a Starbucks-style standardization that will swallow up community studios and gut yoga of its spirituality. Donation-based yoga is, you could argue, the ultimate rearguard action.

When Yoga To The People founder Greg Gumucio started teaching in 1996, yoga was as rare and esoteric as quinoa. Then, it was enough to simply have a studio. As more studios opened, to compete he had to choose good locations. Later, the edge came from good teachers.

“The next evolution from that was you had to have a studio that was connected to more than the business of yoga, you had to have a yoga that was connected to the community and the people,” says Gumucia. He adopted the concept of donation-based yoga from a friend, Bryan Kest, who teaches power yoga in Santa Monica, California. The East Village studios were opened February 2006, followed by a Berkeley, California studio last year. Some 800 people a day now go to the East Village classes, which run year-round. Gumucio says a Brooklyn studio will open in coming months. He won’t divulge the average donation, but says the income is enough to keep the studios running.

Donation-based yoga sits within a mesh of cultural movements such as slow-food and simple living that emphasize community over pseudo-individualistic brand-identification, simplicity over complication, and frugality over excess. Canadian yoga writer and instructor Roseanne Harvey started teaching a donation-based yoga class at a local community mission in 2007. “I saw that yoga was presented with very little diversity: the predominant images were of white, fit women between the ages of 25 and 35. So I wanted to offer an alternative to the dominant cultural story.”

Harvey, who writes a yoga blog, says a second, pay-what-you-wish class attracts more students and artists. “I was just responding to something that I saw around me. I follow and am familiar with the slow food and simple living movements, though I’m more influenced by the anti-consumerism and DIY movements.”

Yoga To the People’s manifesto could come from the pages of anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters: “There will be no correct clothes There will be no correct payment…No glorified teachers No ego no script no pedestals No you’re not good enough or rich enough This yoga is for everyone.” Explains Gumucio, “Not making it about teachers is a big deal. You’ll find no profiles of teachers, no teacher schedules, the idea is to get people commited to their own practice.”

The class lives up to its anti-hype. The teacher coaxes and guides and coos us into our practice. Nick Drake and Paul Simon ease our minds. We’re told to close our eyes so we can’t compare ourselves to the person in front. We work hard, but softly.

Afterwards, I ask stage actor Carl Danielsen, 47, why he comes here. (He averages five times a week. “I’m insane about it! It’s a little obsessive.”)

He’s been to many other yoga classes, here and abroad, but this is unique, he says.

“It’s the energy, there’s a seriousness but at the same time it’s fun. During svanasana [hands and knees] today I heard someone say ‘fuck.’ That’s so great, I love that! Why are we getting all religious and sacrosanct and serious?”

Danielsen is reflecting another important facet of this nascent movement’s appeal. The demand for work to be fun and informal is often tagged to the Gen Y cohort, but it runs much wider than that – check out ads targeting Baby Boomer. Strip away the pricey pretentiousness and the faux-asceticism, and yoga becomes serious pleasure that anyone can enjoy.


Filed Under: Reflections


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  1. Sharyn Barclay says:

    Any comment requires a level of articulation at least equal to the writer’s ability as a wordsmith. Few could claim to such lofty coherency, however, giving due credit for being so fluent in their native tongue is owed for a fabulously smooth expose. Yoga, the subject of this reflection, has evolved as the writer’s textual skills have evolved, to become accessible and fun to the potential punter!

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