Amid the sights and sounds of the Big Apple there’s a lively yoga community just waiting to be explored.
Everything is possible in New York City: you can do anything, be anyone and try it all. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere—that’s what they say. So it comes as no surprise to learn the practice of yoga has taken root in the Big Apple over the past 50 years, swirled and changed, grown and evolved, melded and mixed until a hundred different versions exist. If you want to go back to basics in a simple hatha yoga class on the Upper West Side, you’ll find it. If you want to work on your Downward Dog on a sunny rooftop in the Meatpacking District, you’ll find that, too. Power Yoga, hot yoga, couples yoga, Tantric Yoga, Aerial Yoga… heavens above, even naked yoga has a thriving practice here.
From the shiny, swishy gyms such as Equinox and Reebok Sports Club to the hippie enclaves in the West Village, yoga is celebrated here as a tonic for the mind, body and spirit. Perhaps it’s because New Yorkers are constant experience seekers, striving to self-actualise and maximise each day. It’s a democratic pursuit in a democratic city, attracting supermodels, taxi drivers, celeb chefs and the unemployed to yoga classes at all hours of the day and night. It translates to a thriving, euphoric energy and a sense of pure possibility that is at the heart of joy.
Integral Yoga Institute
So much more than a yoga studio, Integral Yoga Institute (IYI) in Greenwich Village is a true community. Established 44 years ago and retaining a proudly hippie vibe, teachers at IYI offer their instruction as volunteer service; as a result classes are priced from US$5, making it one of the most affordable yoga spaces in the city. There are more than 100 classes a week in six studios. Hundreds of workshops and events are held every year. A beautiful shop stocks spiritual and esoteric books, yoga props and clothing, incense and relaxation CDs. But somehow the sum is even greater than the parts, creating a mini village of like-minded, compassionate, questing souls in the heart of the once-bohemian Greenwich Village.
To walk into IYI off the street is to receive a big, warm hug to the psyche, such is the spirit and ambience of welcome. I tried out the one-hour lunchtime yoga class, a mixture of basic stretches and meditation. IYI also offers dedicated classes for prenatal and postnatal yoga, restorative yoga, meditation, advanced level, gentle yoga, yoga for the unemployed and so much more. I felt a connection with the energy of kindness in the room and found myself daydreaming of a year spent in leafy, eclectic Greenwich Village, attending IYI daily, opening my mind, body and soul to a new level of consciousness. I left with a big smile on my face. www.iyiny.org
Yoga to the People
I had read about this wonderful yoga collective in the pages of New York magazine. The mission and goal of Yoga to the People (YTTP) is to do just that—to make yoga available to everyone, to provide it as a service first and foremost. The guiding philosophy is clear and stated: there will be no correct clothes, no proper payment, no right answers, no glorified teachers, no ego, no script, no pedestals.
New Yorkers are constant experience seekers, striving to self-actualise.
Participants pay what they can: there’s a suggested class fee of US$8, but it’s not enforced and those who are truly unable to provide payment are still welcome. Others come along and pay more. There are four studios in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn. I went along to the 26th Street studio for a traditional hot yoga class. True to its ethos, there were participants of all ages, all fitness levels, all fashion styles. Some were immersed in YTTP’s teacher training, others appeared to be attending their first-ever yoga class. To me, the experience was a quintessential New York hour.
Jivamukti Yoga Centre
Jivamukti is the largest yoga centre in the US and many people say it’s the best. When they say it’s big, they mean it—a sprawling network of shops, a cafe, yoga studios and more demonstrate the popularity of Jivamukti and its gurus with the New York yoga-loving population.
Vigorous hatha yoga classes (from US$20) will work up a sweat, while regular meditation and chanting sessions and Sanskrit classes challenge and enlighten the mind. A full and vibrant roster of special events, talks and retreats draws attendees from all over the country.
A strong emphasis on spiritual gathering and some rather dogmatic views on veganism tend to divide those who love and loathe this centre.
I visited the Union Square studio to experience the Jivamukti way and while, yes, I did notice the signs and prominently displayed pro-vegan and anti-fur literature, it is all just information and surely up to participants to decide for themselves.
I wasn’t delighted with the large number of people in the class, as it meant the mats were spaced very close to each other and I was nervous about receiving a foot to the face during poses. All in all, it was an interesting class, but one word of warning for fragile egos: most of the attendees at Jivamukti are in exceedingly good shape, so try to leave your body anxieties at the door and just go with it.
The Jivamuktea Cafe is well worth a visit for its excellent tea, salads and vegan baked goods. Try the signature dish—mixed bean sprout salad—it’s healthy, nutritious and tasty. Take a wander around the Union Square neighbourhood after class. The New York University campus is nearby, so expect to see lots of students. The Union Square Greenmarket is one of the best outdoor markets in the city and a great place to shop for fresh food supplies. www.jivamuktiyoga.com
Unnata Aerial Yoga
Curious about Unnata Aerial Yoga, a combination of traditional yoga and the moves of aerial acrobats (unnata is Sanskrit for “elevated”), I signed up for a class (US$20) and went looking for my own physical and spiritual elevation. The main studio is on Bedford Ave, a trendy and popular street in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg (or “Billyburg” to locals). Hipster bars, quirky shops and exotic cafes line the avenue. My fellow classmates were mostly young New Yorkers and the atmosphere in the room was relaxed and supportive.
The Unnata style, developed five years ago, has been praised for its gentle, supportive form. Proper postural alignment is thought more easily achieved through relaxation rather than effort—with the body’s weight supported by the fabric sling attached to the ceiling, it’s easier to relax into deep backbends and stretches. For me, the first challenge was to overcome my anxiety and trust that the sling would hold me.
“There’s so much rigour in the city and you feel it at the start of class. Then everyone moves to a calmer place.”
I didn’t want to slip out of the silky harness and land on my head. Once the need to control the situation was released, I was able to relax into a deeply restorative stretching session. My favourite part was the breathing exercise at the end of the class. Supported entirely by the fabric sling, it felt like I was rocking, weightless, in a comfy cradle. I had half-expected Aerial Yoga to be gimmicky and not in the true spirit of yoga practice, but as it turned out, it was a rewarding experience. www.aerialyoga.com
Kristie Kellahan is a freelance travel writer and yoga student. She divides her time between Sydney, New York City and Chiang Mai.
Meet the Teacher
Johnny Anzalone has embraced the New York City lifestyle for more than 30 years. A certified instructor of hatha, vinyasa and Ashtanga yoga, meditation, Pilates and dance, Anzalone is a former Broadway and concert dancer. Based in NYC, he is a yoga and fitness instructor at some of the city’s finest gyms, including Equinox and Reebok Sports Club.
“Yoga in America and especially in New York City is as eclectic as you can imagine,” says Anzalone. “There are so many yoga places all over the city and it’s great because it’s bringing more yoga and more health to New Yorkers’ lives.”
With many hybrid versions of yoga evolving in NYC, Anzalone says most teachers diversify and teach at more than one studio. The city’s frenetic pace requires of them the discipline to direct the focus of the class. “There’s so much rigour in the city and you feel it at the start of class,” he says. “Then everyone moves to a calmer place; you look forward to that moment when there’s no subway or hordes of people. It becomes a temple or church when you experience that transformation.”
Anzalone also leads regular yoga retreats at Rosewood Little Dix Bay, a lavish Caribbean resort in the British Virgin Islands. The next retreat will be held in November, 2011. Visit www.littledixbay.com
Beyond the Mat
New York City offers so much more than great yoga classes—it’s also a wonderful destination for dining, shopping, socialising and learning.
Candle Cafe, an Upper East Side restaurant and juice bar, is known for its excellent organic vegan nosh, fresh from farm to table. Try the delicious homemade soups and salads. The cafe sells cookbooks, organic candles and more, plus delivery to hotels is available. www.candlecafe.com
Meet the locals:
Get to know real New Yorkers for friendship, conversations about yoga and, who knows, perhaps even romance, through the Meetup network. This popular NYC networking site is a forum for meeting like-minded people with similar interests; search the site for yoga groups. www.meetup.com
Dress the part:
Revamp your yoga wardrobe in the city where athletic gear is fashionable and abundant. Locals love Lululemon (www.lululemon.com) with locations throughout the city and Niketown New York (www.nike.com) on East 57th Street.
By the book: Expand your mind and soul with esoteric and spiritual reading material from Quest Bookshop in Midtown East. Known as a peaceful sanctuary in the hurly-burly of the city, the bookstore also holds events, lectures and classes throughout the year. www.questbookshop.com
Organic drycleaners, using environmentally friendly non-toxic processes, are all the rage in NYC. www.greenapplecleaners.com
The Green Spa & Wellness Center is serious about its mission as the first truly green luxury spa in NYC. Championing sustainability and clean, green practices, the tri-level spa in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is as luxe and indulgent as any spa you’ll find. Try the certified vegan spa manicure and pedicure. www.greenspany.com
Affinia Dumont, a boutique hotel in Midtown East, has a wellness focus: apples and filtered water in the lobby, in-room spa services and terrific fitness kits you can request ahead of time. The StayFit Kit features a yoga mat, weights, workout bands and more, while the Walking Tour Kit comes with a pre-loaded iPod Nano, pedometer and walking guide. The hotel even features fitness suites: deluxe accommodation with private gym rooms attached. And the wonderfully soft beds are just the thing to ease those yoga-sore muscles at the end of the day. www.affinia.com
If your budget is a little tighter, consider subletting an apartment or room through Craigslist (www.craigslist.org) or booking your hotel room through the Name Your Own Price function on Priceline (www.priceline.com). Substantial savings can be made this way by booking a “mystery” hotel based on location and star rating.
United Airlines operates daily services from both Sydney and Melbourne to New York via Los Angeles and San Francisco. See www.unitedairlines.com.au or call 131 777.