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Studio City

Today's yoga studios offer more than just asana. Within the walls of these burgeoning spiritual villages you can do your practice, hit the tea lounge, watch a spiritual film, or even become an activist for ahimsa.

By Janelle Brown

At Golden Bridge in Hollywood, California, you can practice asanas— Kundalini or flow, your choice—and meditate in one of five classrooms tucked inside the enormous brick-and-wood atrium. You can also belly dance, hula hoop, or practice the martial art Budokon; receive a massage, foot reflexology, acupuncture, or Ayurvedic treatment at the Amrit Davaa Wellness Center; have your stars read by the resident astrologer; ponder the modernist paintings in the upstairs art gallery; or drink custom healing elixirs at Ron Teeguarden's Dragon Herbs counter.

You might, after class, eat your dinner at the Nite Moon Café downstairs, washing down your mung beans and rice with a fair trade latte. You might browse the boutique and buy Pema Chödrön's latest book, a Shanti CD, or a new pair of vegan sandals. And if you're still looking for something to do, there's Golden Bridge's calendar of evening activities—ranging from lectures on transcendental meditation and "celestial healing" to gospel singing and trance-dancing with DJ Cheb i Sabbah—or weekend service events like food drives for the homeless community.

This is not your average yoga studio. The year-old center—all 18,000 square feet of it, housed in a converted auto showroom hung with prayer flags—offers nearly 100 classes a week and claims 5,000 students. And Golden Bridge, which was founded years ago by legendary Kundalini teacher Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa and her husband Gurushabd in a much smaller space, now calls itself—without exaggeration—A Spiritual Village.

Of course, yoga's getting "bigger" all over the country. Neighborhood yoga studios have become almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks, and 86 percent of the nation's gyms now offer some sort of yoga class, according to IDEA Health & Fitness Association. The industry is crowded and competitive, and as any studio owner will tell you, the profit margins are slim: Who hasn't sat in a half-empty yoga class or watched studios only blocks apart battle over the same neighborhood students?

In response, a handful of high-profile studios have decided it's time to reinvent themselves: These are not just places where you can practice poses, but outsize full-service yoga centers. Centers like Jivamukti in New York City and Yogaphoria in Pennsylvania have cafés, tea lounges, bookstores, aromatherapy, and specialized classes and workshops. They are not only physically enormous but seem to be modeled on the notion of a hip health club where, besides taking classes, yogis will want to spend their free time relaxing, socializing, and shopping.

It Takes a Spiritual Village

These megastudios aren't just interested in differentiating themselves from the smaller competition: Their motivation is also—some say primarily—spiritual. The new centers, typically opened by high-profile yoga teachers, are designed to help householders (that's folks like you and me, who live in the conventional world) understand yoga's philosophy and integrate it into their everyday lives, whether that's by learning about vegetarianism or eco-friendly practices or selfless service (known as seva). The vision bears a closer resemblance, says Golden Bridge's Gurmukh, to an ashram or a temple than to a traditional yoga classroom.

"People who have never been here say, 'How is your studio going?' and I think, 'It's not quite a studio,'" Gurmukh says with a laugh. "We are a bridge of information...Students use this as their home to learn everything, not just yoga."

The Bold and the Beautiful

On a Saturday afternoon at the nine-month-old Jivamukti Yoga School in downtown Manhattan, the vegan café is buzzing: A dozen students, still in a post-yoga glow, sip Chakra Smoothies under stained-glass windows while young hipsters behind the counter loudly debate the merits of various brands of seitan. Other diners, wearing street clothes and carrying laptops, have popped in for a healthful meal. The Michael Franti soundtrack almost drowns out the noise of the street traffic below in Union Square, and on the counters sit reminders about the weekly open mic night, held every Thursday and almost guaranteed to make conservatives gnash their teeth.

"This place feels like home," says Sri Devi, 34, a Jivamukti student who spends her Mondays laundering yoga mats (using eco-friendly detergent and energy-saving machines) at the center in exchange for free classes. "There's a level of spiritual activism here. It's not just what you do on the mat. You're surrounded by it the second you walk in the door, and it's infectious."

This is exactly what David Life and Sharon Gannon, the founders of Jivamukti, intended when they opened their latest endeavor. Since starting their first studio in 1986, they've opened a half-dozen others—in Germany, England, Canada, and uptown New York—but none on this scope or scale. The new center is 13,000 square feet; it has a vegan café, an eco-friendly boutique, and a massage center. At its opening, guests included not just celebrity clientele like Sting and Uma Thurman but also speakers like PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk and environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill.

Life calls the center a reaction to the "doldrums" he's seen in yoga in America in recent years. "Our motivation was, OK, now what? We have, like, a billion yoga students and a billion yoga teachers and a billion yoga centers—but what change has it made in the world?" he says. "Yoga studios have to seek out broader affiliations, become political action centers, information sources for ecology, so many things. What a yoga community really represents is a force for change in the world—but not if it stays with an old model."

Life and Gannon, avid animal rights activists, wanted their new center to be a model of the yogic principle of ahimsa (nonviolence)—from the vegan café to PETA posters on the wall (in which their own staff of yoga teachers poses nude) to no-animal-testing face lotions in the boutiques. Their hope is that students will come in to practice, but then stay to eat and shop, learning a bit about the merits of green living and veganism. "We are always looking for ways to enrich people's lives and unleash the relevance of yoga," Life says.

In other words, these centers are a response to the recent trend toward the mainstreaming (some might say dilution) of yoga—which, when taken to extremes, suggests that spiritual enlightenment is a nice by-product but the goal is really a yoga butt. They remind students that yoga is about more than what takes place in class—that it can influence all kinds of decisions, from the jeans you wear to the food you eat. As Gannon puts it, "It's like the Gandhi quote: Be the change you want to see in the world."

And that, in turn, seems to require a physical space that offers more than a wood floor and a Ganesh statue—hence, the huge and homey centers that dwarf the average studio. "I think a room and a desk isn't necessarily enough to experience the full capacity of what yoga really means," says Melanie Smith, owner of the ambitious year-old Yogaphoria, in New Hope, Pennsylvania. "It means more than asana."

In her roomy 5,000-square-foot space, Smith has installed two classrooms, an eco-friendly boutique and an organic-tea lounge; spacious window seats with Indian silk pillows stretch along two walls, and an antique iron pot fills the front room with the smell of burning incense. Here, students loiter after class, sipping oolong and perusing issues of Natural Health, Real Simple, and, yes, Yoga Journal in an environment so comfortable that some drive from other states to practice there; Yogaphoria was even voted Best Yoga Studio in Philly by Philadelphia magazine, although New Hope is an hour away.

Smith has trademarked the space as an "Inner Health Club." She offers yoga classes and teacher training programs but also workshops in aromatherapy and even spiritual ways of watching a movie. To encourage community service, she organizes donations to local schools. "We're not here to teach only yoga," she says. "We educate people in a broader sense."

This is a common refrain at the new centers. At Golden Bridge, workshops cover everything from meditation to dance, pregnancy preparation to women's issues. The fliers papering Jivamukti's counters advertise events like Yoga for Peace demonstrations and beseech members to volunteer at animal shelters. Workshops at the megastudio West Hartford Yoga, in Connecticut, teach students to heal allergies with acupressure or healthful eating habits. Every few weeks, the studio organizes a group hike in the local state parks in order to "help their students get in touch with mother earth."

Even the buildings themselves are educational and are typically designed to be eco-friendly. Jivamukti, Yogaphoria, and Golden Bridge all boast floors of bamboo or recycled wood, furniture made from sustainable materials, radiant heat, energy-efficient lighting, and natural ventilation. At Jivamukti, the spongy black classroom floors are made from recycled car tires.

The Arkansas Yoga Center is an entirely eco-friendly building in Fayetteville—3,800 square feet with recycled aluminum siding, recycled oak flooring, and recycled newspaper insulation—that stands as a beacon of environmentalism in a region known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. The garden sanctuary with a koi pond is so inviting that students have started dropping by to eat lunch there. "I'm using the building as an example of the lifestyle for this community," says owner Andrea Fournet. "This is sacred space. When people walk in the doors, they have to feel like who they are is shifting."

Empires for Inner Health

The evolution of yoga studios into something larger, more ambitious, and more all-encompassing may be a natural transition: After all, the same thing happened to gyms over the last decade, as franchises like Crunch and Sports Club/LA grew from simple fitness centers with treadmills and showers into full-service health clubs with juice bars, cafés, boutiques, nutritionists, salons, and spas.

"Health clubs," Life explains, "are becoming places that offer a lot of support to their students. Yoga centers have got to do that too. Because that's what people would like to have." Life points to Asia, where yoga has grown so popular that studios in cities like Taipei, Beijing, Bangkok, and Hong Kong have become multistoried and megasized: 35,000 square feet and up. ("I was at a center in Singapore that had 30 showers. Thirty showers!" he marvels.)

For yoga to grow as a movement, says Life, the practice needs an iconic center, which he hopes Jivamukti will be: something as large as yoga's ambitions. "There's nothing wrong with mom-and-pop yoga," Life says. "But Jivamukti has to be large enough in the psyche of the community—and the world—that people will feel it's substantial, that it's a parade worth getting behind." Unlike the Wal-Mart model, in which a megacenter bleeds its smaller competitors dry, Life imagines the giant Jivamukti center triggering a yoga district: "We have found that our presence tends to feed the small centers around us, not bleed them of students."

For the spiritual side of the model, Gurmukh prefers to look toward the ashram, retreat centers where hundreds of students can immerse themselves in their practice. "When we first started teaching yoga, in 1970, there were no such things as yoga centers," Gurmukh says. "So we taught in ashrams, where people came, and afterwards they ate. It was a whole lifestyle: We were living as yogis, not just coming to a yoga class." The goal with Golden Bridge, she says, is to bring the retreat way of life to the harried day-to-day life of the city.

But these kinds of ambitions don't come cheap. The megacenters, with their sweeping vision and ample square footage, require equally expansive budgets. Golden Bridge and Jivamukti each cost around $1.5 million to build. Yogaphoria was paid for out of Melanie Smith's own coffers—which she filled during her 18 years as an actress, with stints on Seinfeld and other TV shows. "It's amazing how expensive this is," Smith says. "If you don't have a lot of money, don't do this—it will ruin your life!"

With these price tags, diversifying the offerings at a studio isn't just spiritual, or a way of standing out from the crowd, but a financial necessity. "Diversifying is essential," Life says. "The yoga classes alone won't support a yoga center—on a small scale they can, but not when your rent is $25,000 a month. You need other basic sources of income."

Similarly, Golden Bridge needs to bring in about $4,000 a day to stay in business, says Gurushabd, Golden Bridge's chief financial officer—somewhere between 250 and 400 students a day, a daunting number when you consider that many classes lure only a handful of students. But despite offering amenities similar to those of health clubs, these yoga centers aren't charging exorbitant health club memberships or unreasonable class prices (prices at Jivamukti range from $8 to $19 per class, depending on how many you buy, or $250 a month for an unlimited number of classes; at Golden Bridge, prices are about $15 per class and $150 a month). Not surprisingly, then, yoga is only 30 percent of Golden Bridge's income. The rest comes from retail, the restaurant, and renting space to vendors like the elixir bar.

Unity in Community

Whether the students who show up at Golden Bridge, Jivamukti, and Yogaphoria are more spiritually fulfilled than those who practice at your average "mom-and-pop" yoga studio is difficult to measure, but certainly they exhibit a seriousness of intention—whether by their white Sikh head coverings or the focus with which they read the works of B.K.S. Iyengar while they eat their seitan sandwiches. More important, students don't finish their classes and leave—they often linger for a cup of tea or a chat in the lounge or a vegan meal.

In other words, these spaces foment community—which is, perhaps, the best way to get any yoga student to consider the bigger context of a practice. "In my old studio we'd find that people would just stay and hang out in the lobby," says Sue Elkind, a teacher at Yogaphoria. "As people get deeper into their practice, they want to make connections to people who share their beliefs. And if you can make your space open and welcoming, it's really going to benefit the whole."

There is only anecdotal evidence so far, but center owners swear that students are visiting more often and spending more time when they do. "They come, plant themselves here, take a class or two, get a massage and an acupuncture treatment or get their pulse and tongue read at Dragon Herbs, eat lunch, and then take another class," Gurmukh says.

And certainly, on an average Thursday at Golden Bridge, it seems that this is the case. Upstairs, the electronica band Gus Gus is on the CD player as a hatha class winds down, while downstairs from the Kundalini meditation room a chorus of voices lifts the song "May the Long Time Sun Shine upon You" up to the rafters. In the café, a nest of four-year-olds awaiting their Mommy and Me class are being read a children's book called "What Is Beautiful?" from the bookstore.

"There is a sense of peace and calm here. I totally feel like I'm a part of a community," says Rachel Robinson, 33, a Kundalini devotee who visits the new center every day, eats her meals there, shops there, and even spent New Year's dancing there with 200 other yogis. "Golden Bridge has done a magical thing."

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Reader Comments

Amy Champ

An excellent next step for yoga's evolution in the US. But I'm surprised this is painted as "something new." Many retreat centers have operated in this holistic way for years...

Mary

In my small town many fitness clubs stopped offering Yoga because of the small class size. That may be due to too much competion and the lack of truely qualified instructors. So, my thought is if a center like this could pull all the yogis together to experience yoga and its philosophy in true form that would be great.

may

So Julie you forgot to mention the real purpose of yoga. Please share with all the mom and pop's peoples.

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