If you’re looking for yoga, you’re in luck: It’s everywhere these days. You can find it in small, candlelit garrets with wall-high murals of blue-skinned gods. You can find it in airy, sun-flooded studios with flower-filled altars, and in yurts, barns, storefronts, and living rooms. The 5,000-year-old practice, imported from India, has infiltrated the nation. According to a 2008 poll by Yoga Journal magazine, spending on yoga classes and products in the U.S. mushroomed from $2.95 billion in 2004 to $5.7 billion a mere four years later. Even in these lean economic times we’ve seen a rise in “high end” yoga, with superstar instructors, designer activewear, exotic retreats, and $6,000 teacher-training programs.
Yet quietly, a countermovement has been stirring. Think of it as yoga’s answer to the new economy. Community classes, offered at about one third the price of regular classes (say, $5 instead of $15), have been proliferating at yoga studios throughout the Hudson Valley and beyond. I happen to teach one of these classes, and I’d like to share with you what this is all about.
The very word “community” is an invitation, suggesting an openness to students of all income levels and from all walks of life. It is also an offering—one that has been embraced by experienced and novice practitioners alike. “We’ve strayed from the idea of community as our society puts so much emphasis on individuation,” says Lea Garnier of Sage Center for the Healing Arts in Woodstock, who has been teaching a community class at Bliss Yoga Center (in the same building as Sage) for two years. “The group energy can be very healing. You don’t even have to say anything. With yoga, it just happens. You feel not so alone, less depressed. No one should be turned away from healing on any level.”
On a recent Thursday night at Euphoria Yoga in Woodstock, I watched my community-class students come through the door with rolled-up mats and $5 bills in hand. Tara is an artist, Josh is a teacher, Amanda is looking for work. They are young and old, tattooed and conservative, diehard yogis and eager newbies. They are weekend dads, pierced twenty-somethings, multitasking mothers who get this one evening to themselves. Some have told me they wouldn’t be able to come without the community rate; others attend regular-priced classes too but appreciate getting a financial break one night a week. What we all have in common is a passion for this practice—for the chance to move and awaken, to sit in stillness, to discover our potential and sweat our prayers on an autumn night as the sun sets over the Catskills.
Ask 10 yogis what yoga is and you will probably get 10 different answers. Not just a physical discipline that builds strength and flexibility, yoga can also be a spiritual path—a way to connect to our innate joy and sense of divinity. Some people first start coming to classes in hopes of getting a “yoga butt,” yet what they find in time is that yoga has done something more important—it has opened their consciousness and made them more mindful, less reactive. It has taught them how to breathe better and worry less. It has made them feel at home in their bodies, and also in the cosmos.
Yoga is not a religion, though it comes with a dose of venerable philosophy. Most yoga teachers weave a bit of this wisdom into their instruction of the physical poses, or asanas, drawing upon ancient teachings that offer a blueprint for living a life of self-realization. At its etymological root, yoga means “union,” referring to a feeling of connection with all that is. We may have caught glimpses of this feeling of samadhi, or bliss—yet with disciplined attention the sensation can become more accessible and attainable than most of us dare to imagine.
Community classes are in some ways just like any other yoga classes, offering a sequence of asanas, body-alignment cues, breath instruction, and perhaps chanting and meditation. But in unspoken ways, the purity of the intention behind yoga comes into full relief in a community class. Key aspects of yoga philosophy flourish in this environment, such as the Sanskrit or Pali concepts of seva (selfless service), sangha (community), kula (family), and satsang (a gathering of likeminded seekers). Hovering in the sweat-moistened air is a sense of inclusiveness that naturally jives with the yogic ideals of unity and oneness with all beings. Ultimately, it’s about connection. Community classes allow us to reach more people—and more people doing yoga can only be a good thing.