Yoga’s New Wave-By Casey Kelbaugh
From the New York Times. Some food for thought: What is yoga? What is your yoga community? Does it reflect what you need? As a side note, Yoga for the People, based on Gumucio’s model, is now here in Vancouver.
ZEN is expensive. The flattering Groove pants, Lululemon’s answer to Spanx, may set Luluheads, the devoted followers of the yoga-apparel brand, back $108. Manduka yoga mats, favored for their slip resistance and thickness, can reach $100 for a limited-edition version. Drop-in classes at yoga studios in New York are edging beyond $20 a session, which quickly adds up, and the high-end Pure Yoga, a chain with two outposts in Manhattan, requires a $40 initiation fee, and costs $125 to $185 a month.
Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
You can even combine yoga with a vacation in the Caribbean, but it will cost you: in August, the luxurious Parrot Cay resort in Turks and Caicos has a six-night retreat with classes taught by the “yoga rock stars” (in the words of the press release) Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman. The cost? A cool $6,077. (In August!)
And is it surprising that yoga, like so much else in this age of celebrity, now has something of a star system, with yoga teachers now almost as recognizable as Oscar winners? The flowing locks of Rodney Yee. The do-rag bandanna worn by Baron Baptiste. The hyper perpetual calm exhibited by David Life and Sharon Gannon, who taught Sting, Madonna and Russell Simmons. The contortions (and Rolls-Royces) of Bikram Choudhury.
Yoga is definitely big business these days. A 2008 poll, commissioned by Yoga Journal, concluded that the number of people doing yoga had declined from 16.5 million in 2004 to 15.8 million almost four years later. But the poll also estimated that the actual spending on yoga classes and products had almost doubled in that same period, from $2.95 billion to $5.7 billion.
“The irony is that yoga, and spiritual ideals for which it stands, have become the ultimate commodity,” Mark Singleton, the author of “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice,” wrote in an e-mail message this week. “Spirituality is a style, and the ‘rock star’ yoga teachers are the style gurus.”
Well, maybe it is the recession, but some yogis are now saying “Peace out” to all that. There’s a brewing resistance to the expense, the cult of personality, the membership fees. At the forefront of the movement is Yoga to the People, which opened its first studio in 2006 in the East Village on St. Marks Place, with a contribution-only, pay-what-you-can fee structure. The manifesto is on the opening page of its Web site, yogatothepeople.com: “There will be no correct clothes, There will be no proper payment, There will be no right answers … No ego no script no pedestals.”
One more thing: There are no “glorified” teachers or star yogis. You can’t even find out who is teaching which class when, or reserve a spot with a specific instructor. And that’s exactly the way that Greg Gumucio wants it.
LATE on an overcast Saturday earlier this month, just a little before sundown, Mr. Gumucio, the founder of Yoga to the People, was sitting on the rooftop of his East Village studio, surprisingly refreshed after a birthday party downstairs for his son, who had just turned 5.
Propped on the ledge on a round pillow, his wavy, shoulder-length hair framed by the urban jungle backdrop of tar-covered roofs, Mr. Gumucio recounted his biography, and how it was linked with that of Bikram Choudhury, perhaps the most famous name in yoga today.
“The idea for Yoga for the People came to me because of Bikram,” Mr. Gumucio said, explaining that he worked for Mr. Choudhury for six years, from 1996 to 2002, sometimes running teacher training for Bikram Yoga in Los Angeles, commuting from Seattle, where he was living. He channels Mr. Choudhury, one suspects not for the first time, talking with a raspy, slightly accented voice: “Boss, do me a favor, take everybody’s class and tell me what you think.” Mr. Gumucio obliged, and when reporting back, mentioned one teacher whom he didn’t like. Mr. Choudhury was not sympathetic. Just the opposite, telling Mr. Gumucio to, in essence, suck it up and go back to the class — that the problem wasn’t with the instructor, but with Mr. Gumucio himself. “You are your own teacher,” Mr. Gumucio said he was told. “You are responsible for your own experience.”
It was a revelatory moment for Mr. Gumucio. If the student was more important than the teacher, why was there such an emphasis placed on the individual instructors? Too often, Mr. Gumucio saw students stop doing yoga because they couldn’t practice with a favorite teacher. Why not jettison that system? Why not just assign students to the next available teacher?
A second revelation occurred in class when he was struggling to keep his body in a difficult position. “I was sweating, my muscles shaking, in triangle pose, and Bikram was talking about how fast he was as a boy in Calcutta. How he could catch this dog.” The situation was almost more than Mr. Gumucio could bear. “In my mind,” he recalled, “I was thinking ‘What is wrong with you. Stop this stupid story!’ ”
Later, Mr. Choudhury again dismissed his complaints, telling Mr. Gumucio that distractions were everywhere: “Candle, incense, music, easy to meditate!” Mr. Gumucio recalls being told. “Try being calm and peaceful in your car when someone cuts you off.”
Message learned. Yoga isn’t about a pristine environment — yogis can work downward dog to downward dog, no matter where they are, even if in a crowded, unadorned studio. “Being able to do yoga with a foot in your face, that is a really powerful practice,” Mr. Gumucio said. He would take that no-frills philosophy with him when he left Bikram in 2002, and a few years later (after a stint as a mediator in small claims court), in 2006, moved to New York to open his own studio. “The first few months there were four or five people, but within three months, it really took off,” he said.
Today. Mr. Gumucio has three studios in New York (including two hot-yoga studios that charge $8 a class), one in San Francisco, one in Berkeley, Calif., and one to open later this year in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He has just signed a lease in Chelsea and is considering expanding to Austin, Chicago and Los Angeles. (But his philosophy of keeping a low profile seems to be working: a question to many students about what they think of Mr. Gumucio usually provokes little more than a blank stare and “Who?”)
High volume is the key to his business model — he says up to 900 people may go to a Yoga to the People studio in a single day, with perhaps half of them paying at least something in the form of a donation — as well as an important part of his overall philosophy. “I truly believe if more people were doing yoga, the world would be a better place,” he said.
LAST Sunday morning, the sun streamed through the windows of the clean airy loft on the second floor as the teacher, Haven Melynn, stood at the buzzer letting in students from the street. On a metal stand sat an empty tissue box. Some students dropped a donation into the box, others didn’t. The students fit in one studio, and at prime times, the teacher will send any overflow up to the studio above, and then the studio above that.
Mats are rolled out, a few inches apart, with no one under the illusion that it may be an empty class. The classroom holds about 60 students, and people are socializing, chatting about their late nights, where to get falafels, and upcoming art exhibitions. Music plays quietly in the background. No opening “Oms.” (“I like that there isn’t any chanting, or big spiritual message,” Layan Fuleihan, a college student, said afterward. “I like that you make the class what you want.”) Instead, Ms. Melynn started off with slow movements to warm up, sun salutations, then quickly picked up the pace. Jammed, yes, but the yogis stuck to their own mats, boundaries defined, during a sweat-producing vinyasa class, flowing and moving, as the teacher cajoled people to make cathartic exhales of HAA-sss — all to the sounds of a play list that includes Michael Jackson and the Dave Matthews Band.
Yoga to the People isn’t the only entity raging against the yoga machine. In New York, other studios are popping up, offering affordable, if not entirely donation-based, yoga. Do Yoga and Pilates, in TriBeCa, is donation-based; Tara Stiles, who has an iPhone app with Deepak Chopra, has opened Strala Yoga in NoHo, offering multiple class levels for $10 each. Yoga Vida NYC on University Place opened in January. Classes are small and it costs $10 drop in, $5 for students. “Our studio isn’t better or worse, it’s just different,” says Hilaria Thomas, yoga director of Yoga Vida NYC and a former instructor at Yoga to the People. “Different energies.”
Better-known rivals in the yoga world don’t seem to take offense at this back-to-basic movement. “I think the donation model is awesome,” says Baron Baptiste. “It’s a balancing act. If someone has the means for what I’ll call ‘high end yoga,’ like going on exotic retreats, they should enjoy it.” He adds, laughing, “I never know what the term rock star yoga teacher means. Someone like Iyengar, one of the most famous teachers in the world, is he a rock star? Is Iyengar the Bono of yoga?”
Mr. Gumucio knows his niche — “the ABC’s of yoga” — and that Yoga to the People has its critics. Its detractors say that classes are too big, that there isn’t a lot of advanced alignment breakdowns, that the exclamation HAA-sss isn’t the way you are supposed to breathe. He mimics a naysayer, sniffing: “Oh, that’s not yoga!” He laughs and shrugs, a wordless: Who’s to say what is yoga?