Sunday, December 04, 2005

From today's New York Times style section:

December 4, 2005
Yoga Assumes a Social Position

ON a recent Friday night Valentine Remusat om'd and saluted the sun and arched her back in the cobra posture at a yoga class, until she came into final resting pose 90 minutes later, lying on her back in shivasana.

But rather than roll up her mat and head out the door when the teacher brought class to a close, Ms. Remusat, a 30-year-old student at Parsons the New School for Design, spent the next two hours sitting on floor cushions with her fellow yoga students, sampling organic chocolate and Austrian and French red wines.

"It was great that you could stick around afterwards," she said of the Lift Your Spirits event at Yoga Works on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. "The energy completely changed. In class everybody was concentrating, but after that everybody started to speak and laugh. You didn't have to change your clothes immediately or take a cab home."

Yoga studios used to be a place to get away from it all, but these days more yoga centers are doubling as community centers for the stretchy set, offering everything from book parties and knitting circles to organic cooking workshops and cocktail parties. While many students, like Ms. Remusat, are happily taking advantage of the new offerings, others are reluctant to merge yoga with their social lives.

"Wine in a yoga studio is an oxymoron," said Donna Davidge, 50, who has been teaching yoga in Manhattan since 1985. "There's a whole commercialism of yoga, and people are getting away from its roots."

In part the new activities are a natural extension of the social bonding that already takes place in yoga centers. But, those who run studios say that with the number of yoga centers in New York growing so rapidly (248 versus 65 in 2000, according to the online yoga directory, the chatty extracurriculars are also a necessary way to compete for and retain students.

Rima Rabbath, a former marketer for Colgate-Palmolive who recently became a marketer for Jivamukti, which was founded in 1986 and is now one of the largest yoga centers in the city, said the studio has eight social events a month, double what it offered three years ago. She says yoga studios, are like drugstores now, with one on every corner. "The idea is," she said, "once they come in here, to retain them somehow."

And while studio owners confess that they are using these events in part to drum up business, they are certainly noting a need among their students. Dana Flynn, co-owner of Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in the Flatiron district, said the regular parties they throw for their students, which once drew only 30 people, now average 100. Some, she said, come to a party and decide to try out the yoga afterward.

Socializing is becoming a common reason for starting yoga in general, teachers and students say. Anne-Kerr Kennedy, who designs yoga clothing, said she found New York's nightlife to be "obnoxious" and started to attend yoga classes regularly largely for social reasons. "You go to yoga class, and people want to know who's dating whom," she says. "It's fun to know what the person on the mat is up to."

Satsang, or keeping good company with likeminded people, is a central tenet of yoga, but in some studios it seems to be eclipsing the physical nature of practice altogether. Centerpoint, a new studio on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, has a lounge area where people are encouraged to socialize. A jazz trio performs there weekly, and Sabina Stahl, a Ford model and "ayurvedic-inspired" chef, is on hand every night to serve things like sugar-free chia-seed pudding and pumpkin sage risotto with pomegranate.

"We're trying to blur the lines between coming in and taking a yoga class and other things," said an owner, Raj Singh, who used to work in the cosmetics industry. "It's casual and organic, like inviting friends over to watch TV or something."

For Cyndi Lee, the owner and founder of Om Yoga near Union Square, "your yoga family is really your family." Ms. Lee started a Friday night "Vinyasa and vino" event at a studio in East Hampton, N.Y., and in the winter she hosts a knitting circle at the Manhattan location. "We have wine at that too," she said. "Sometimes the knitting goes astray."

Usually the socializing precedes or follows the yoga, but sometimes there's no yoga at all. The Kula Yoga Project in TriBeCa recently invited its clientele to a Saturday night "epic clothing swap." About 40 women arrived with duffel bags of clothing to trade, but the first hour involved shooting the breeze and sitting on the floor, where snacks and a dozen bottles of wine and champagne were laid out.

Indie rock, courtesy of an iPod, blared from bookshelf speakers. Once the swapping started, some people dug enthusiastically through piles of clothing, while others drank and caught up with one another.

But for every student who enjoys the yoga scene's newfound clubbiness, there are those who are less flexible. For them the last thing yoga should be is another social totem pole.

"You just want to go and relax and instead you end up feeling bad about yourself," said Jessica Risling-Sholl, a 31-year-old dance music publicist, whose most recent yoga experience, at a studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, devolved into watching her fellow students hug and kiss and make plans for after-class drinks. "It was the same horrid nervous gut feeling of walking into the middle of the lunch hall not knowing anyone to sit with."

Jessica Metz, a yoga teacher at Hunter College and at Equinox, said that some students at her gym were turned off by the overly forward climate at their yoga studios. "It gets a little bit cliquey," she said. (Ms. Metz explained that since most studios pay teachers based on attendance, the teachers are bound to favor the students who show up regularly.)

Silvia Fernandez, who used to go to classes at Go Yoga, recalled an aggressive group of students who would set up their mats together and hang out to gossip afterward. "They made me feel like an outsider," said Ms. Fernandez, a 40-year-old technical writer. Now she practices either at the New York Sports Club or at home. "There's less likely to be any distraction and anxiety about what's going to happen after the class," she said. "It begins and ends when I want it to."

Some objections are less personal than philosophical. In ashrams, yogis do not eat meat or drink alcohol, and the idea of bringing wine, even if it's organic, into the studio does not sit well with everybody. "These are sacred spaces," said David Kelman, owner of Yoga Sutra in Midtown Manhattan. "That's not cool."

But Schuyler Grant, who owns the Kula Yoga Project, pointed out that separating the meditative components of yoga from the knottier problems that come with forced socializing might not be so easy.

"You go to class together, you get to know each other in a very intimate way," she said. "It's an organic transition to hang out together. If you come with any regularity, you get sucked into the community. You either get into it on that level or you don't stick around. Not to sound culty or anything."

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1 comment:

  1. Donna Davidge is correct, yoga is being destroyed by commercial interests, and some of the moneyed yoga people are following along like sheep, untill something better comes along.