"As I think about the future of yoga my heartfelt wish is that the time people spend on their mats becomes less like the time they spend off their mats. In other words, it sometimes seems as if practitioners are bringing their daily habits (devices, distractions, a fast-and-furious approach) into the yoga room. Our mats should be a respite from the hectic patterns that seem to govern so much of life, not yet another iteration of those patterns. Patanjali defines practice as ‘effort towards steadiness of mind.’ At its best asana is a vehicle for cultivating this quality, but it’s not a guarantee. Just because one is on a yoga mat does not mean one is actually practicing yoga. In an increasingly frantic world, my hope for the future is that as a community we nurture ways of practicing that remind us of our calmer selves."
This was one of the more authentic yoga experiences we’ve had. The studio staff is zen, the students are zen, and the space is zen (ie very strict on the no cell phone policy, but enforced in the most yogi way). Expect to feel relaxed, centered, and stretched.
When Lynne Begier began offering hip hop yoga classes a decade ago, the concept seemed crazy.
“I ended up with people semi-interested, maybe 10 or 15 people coming to class,” remembers the former owner of Back Bay Yoga and Sweat and Soul Yoga, who sold her studios to YogaWorks in 2015. “It was no overnight success.”
But Begier’s baby, which is still taught at YogaWorks and attracts throngs of students multiple times a week, seems downright tame next to the out-there specialty classes flooding into the Boston area these days. There’s goat yoga. There’s Harry Potter yoga. There’s marijuana yoga. There’s even mermaid yoga. These niche classes just keep coming and coming and coming, and they’ve become so popular, it sometimes feels as though “regular” yoga is becoming a thing of the past. (Remember vinyasa?)
Yes, these classes are fun. (In full disclosure, I frequent YogaWorks’ hip hop classes myself, and I’ve tried blacklight yoga, aerial yoga, and more for this website.) But there’s a point at which they begin to feel like a caricature of themselves. Another funky class? Another crazy combination? The whole thing can get kind of tiring—and, depending on who you ask, problematic.
“I am appalled at the proliferation of gimmicky, faddish, niche classes which serve to dumb down and dress up yoga,” says Justine Wiltshire Cohen, the owner of Down Under School of Yoga. “What is an abomination is commercially driven, faddish yoga classes which actually turn yoga into the very distraction it is meant to be an antidote for.”
Yoga, Cohen says, should be about quieting the mind and freeing yourself from the distractions of daily life. So classes that add distractions—the kind that has you “hanging a disco ball and playing loud music while smoking a joint and patting a goat,” Cohen jokes—can’t and shouldn’t really be called yoga, as she sees it.
She’s quick to point out, however, that not all so-called specialty classes are bad. There’s a valuable place for classes like yoga for back pain, or yoga for depression. Offerings only wade into problem territory when they’re driven by the bottom line, rather than a specific anatomical or philosophical goal. “The type of class that is an abomination is the type of class in which some clever marketing exec comes up with an idea of something that, when combined with yoga, could be a good [idea],” she says.
Begier, whose hip hop classes arguably birthed the specialty genre in Boston, makes a similar point, but she’s a bit more accepting of the category, arguing that nobody should judge any class before experiencing it, and adding that all Westernized yoga strays from the practice’s ancient roots.
“If you’re passionate about it and you feel like this is something that you benefit from and your students can benefit from and its healing and it’s helpful, then go out and get your message out there,” Begier says. “But if you’re just doing it for marketing or numbers or money or fame, then I would question it.”
Jenny Ravikumar, who hosted the aforementioned Harry Potter yoga class at Middleton’s Barefoot Yoga Shala, says she has her own qualms about specialty classes, but feels it’s possible to lead them in a thoughtful way. Her Harry Potter workshop, for example, incorporated themes of darkness and light that could be tied back directly to the practice, a consideration she calls “crucial.”
And while she admits that some classes go too far, Ravikumar feels that there’s little harm in the ever-wackier incarnations of yoga. “It’s kind of a nice way to draw people in. It’s almost this sense of belonging,” she says. “If goat yoga or beer yoga is going to get you closer to being connected to your mind and your body, go for it. If that’s your gateway drug, go right ahead.”
Cohen—who stresses that she’s not calling out any one class or studio—doesn’t buy that argument.
“You really want to make yoga accessible? Offer different levels. Don’t fall back on the idea that it has to be some bastardization of popular culture, which is already frenetic,” she says. “I believe that rationale is actually being used to justify what is just shameless commerce, and commercially driven, desperate grabs at getting numbers.”
It’s no surprise that studios are pushing the envelope, though. One recent analysis estimated that Boston has an incredible 204 places to practice yoga, breeding competition and forcing studios to get creative in order to survive. Even Cohen, who says Down Under’s strict programming standards have been costly at times but well worth it in the long run, laments how difficult this market is, asking, “Do you know how hard it is to pay the bills?”
It’s hard to blame studios for mixing it up and ushering new students through their doors, even if some efforts are worthy of a hearty eyeroll. Begier’s hip hop classes prove that pushing beyond the traditional boundaries of yoga sometimes works. And, Begier says, classes that aren’t up to snuff won’t make it in this market, anyway.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” she says. “If somebody has an offering that is authentic and connects to people, it will thrive and succeed. The ones that are mediocre or gimmicky probably won’t last. That’s the beauty of it. They’ll weed themselves out.”
In the meantime? Grab a beer, a joint, or a goat, and say namaste.
This morning I sat on Justine Cohen’s bright yellow Victorian couch, my shoes off and laptop in hand. She’s the founder of Down Under School of Yoga in Boston and as she sits in front of me, I’m thinking we are worlds apart. She’s a former lawyer, owner of one of the most popular yoga studios in the city, and her parents taught English to monks in Tibet. But when she begins to speak about her experience with panic attacks, we are instantly connected.
Residents gathered at Cypress Field on June 20, for a peaceful evening of yoga in honor of the International Day of Yoga. This was the second year that Brookline has held the free annual event. Led by instructors from Down Under School of Yoga, Coolidge Corner Yoga and Healthworks Fitness Center for Women, the yoga session attracted participants of all ages.
“The reason most yoga teachers are independent contractors is because they’re being exploited,” says Justine Wiltshire Cohen, director of Down Under, which has three locations in the Boston area. “If you teach one class for me you are an employee, and the only benefit that is tied to the number of classes you teach is health care.”
Wiltshire Cohen argues that the current American paradigm of hiring most yoga teachers as independent contractors is antithetical to the principles of yoga.
“Yoga’s dirty little secret is the vast majority of yoga studios are still calling employees independent contractors, so they don’t have to give security and benefits,” she says. “It is almost impossible to make a living as a yoga teacher this way. The practice is meant to cultivate single focus, but 99 percent of teachers are traveling all over the city (from studio to studio). Very few have weekends, let alone two days off in a row.”
Walden is one of only two North American instructors to hold an advanced senior certificate in Iyengar yoga, a slow, methodical style that emphasizes proper alignment. If you think you have the chops to join her intensive weekly class series, you’ll need to be patient. Each one of her exclusive workshops is currently sold out, and existing students get first dibs when new sessions begin. Word to the wise: Get on the waiting list now.
Sensing stress in their student body, the management and faculty at Down Under School of Yoga brainstormed ways they could acknowledge the current political climate while maintaining the principles of yoga. On Friday, they hosted “Down Under Unites: Yoga Stands Up” to strike a balance between yoga and fundraising.
Boston was asked to vote for the fitness teachers that move them most and Kate made the list. In Kate’s classes, you can expect precise instructions to create dynamic postures that will work together to not only bring more strength and suppleness to the body, but also to bring the body, mind, and spirit into the present moment.
In 1996, while hiking the northern section of the Hollywood Hills, Natasha Rizopoulos had a “moment.” In that reflection, in the balm of Beachwood Canyon, she experienced a bit of a homecoming. After years of professional roaming, the moment was a bow to the ever-present voice that had been long dimmed by the “shoulds” that can mute a life.
Yes, entering the world of motherhood is beautiful, but it's also overwhelming and at times, isolating. Finding places to connect with your mom community is imperative to a happy first year and beyond. Whether you meet up for a cup of coffee at the library or strike up conversation while getting your sweat on at the gym, surrounding yourself with moms who are going through a similar experience will only help make parenthood more enjoyable.
LOCAL INSTRUCTORS ARE PUSHING FOR A MORE INCLUSIVE AND DIVERSE YOGA COMMUNITY.
In studios, community centers, churches, and schools around Boston, yoga is changing.
A small but determined group of local teachers are challenging ideas of who a yoga student is, and what a yoga body looks like. They’re guiding yoga away from stereotypes, and toward a future of acceptance, inclusivity, and diversity—toward some of the ideals preached by the practice itself.