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Where America Practices

Get out of the city and visit these 10 fantastically yoga-friendly towns.

By Amy Wolf and Charity Ferreira

New Orleans, Louisiana

The Scene: The symbol of the lotus flower as a thing of beauty that emerges out of the mud has a special resonance for the yoga community in New Orleans. Sean Johnson, whose Wild Lotus studio was one of the first to reopen in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina, says that he's seen the city's interest in yoga blossom in the wake of the devastation. "In 2005, there were five or six studios here. Now, there are 22 studios in the city, across a full range of traditions,"says Johnson, the lead singer of the kirtan group Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band. "So many people lost the things they relied on for stability in their lives, and turned to yoga for sustenance. Many people have told us they don't know how they would have survived in those first few years after the storm without yoga."

Cat McCarthy, owner of Nola Yoga, attributes the increasing vitality of the New Orleans yoga community to the practice's ability to help people feel at home in difficult circumstances. "After Katrina, this city needed such healing, and then there was the oil spill,"she says, referring to the 205.8 million gallons of oil spilled in the Deepwater Horizon accident of 2010. "I really think that's why people have embraced yoga the way they have. Yoga is about learning to respond more skillfully to the things that happen."

The 55,000-square-foot New Orleans Healing Center, which will house myriad health and wellness services, is scheduled to open downtown at press time. It will include an offshoot of Wild Lotus Yoga, a co-op grocery store, and affordable holistic wellness services. "The idea was to bring the yoga lifestyle to the people who need it the most,"says Johnson.

In a city famous for street music, Mardi Gras parades, and Jazz Fest, it makes sense that people would embrace yoga as another way to celebrate life. A number of yoga-related live-music events take place throughout the year.

 

Fun Fact: Yoga is part of the curriculum at some New Orleans charter schools, including Pride College Prep, as the city seeks to rebuild and reform a school system devastated by Katrina.

Shout Out: "It's such a sensual place,"says Geoffrey Roniger, owner of Freret Street Yoga. "The climate is so conducive to the practice—your pores are open, your muscles feel easy to move. Yoga here is so natural, so easy."

Portland, Oregon

The Scene: The conscientiousness that makes Portlanders so acutely aware of how their actions affect one another as well as the planet may have inspired the TV parody Portlandia, but it's also the reason for the city's evolved ideas about sustainable living and community welfare. Based here are Street Yoga and Living Yoga, two nonprofits that bring yoga and compassionate communication skills to homeless youth, prisons, shelters, and rehabilitation centers. Studios all over town get involved in community outreach efforts. At The People's Yoga, drop-in costs are low to make classes available to a wider range of students. And in the summer of 2010, the citywide Yogathon, in which more than 20 yoga studios participated, raised $21,000 for Living Yoga's programs.

"I think there's been a wave of realization that, 'Oh, wait, this isn't supposed to be just for me,"says Lisa Mae Osborn, co-owner of the Bhakti-shop, a studio that recently reduced prices to make classes more accessible. "A huge part of our mission is to enable people who normally couldn't practice regularly at a studio," she says. "More and more studios here are starting to recognize what a service that is, whether it's offering classes for $5 or a practice once a month where you can bring a friend for free."

The city is notoriously welcoming to creative types—writers, artists, musicians, and free thinkers of all stripes. It all adds up to a diverse and open-minded yoga culture—one that's not about pretension, but about inclusion. "On a good day in Portland, you can participate in Kundalini sadhana, Sufi chanting, Tibetan Buddhist meditation, ecstatic dance, and Jewish kirtan," says J.D. Kleinke, a local yoga practitioner.

Shout Out: "People in Portland are really interested in living a creative and passionate life," says Sarahjoy Marsh, the founder and director of Living Yoga. "Yoga becomes a way to express and sustain that."

Fun Fact: The local foods movement here goes far beyond farmers' markets. The nonprofit GrowingGardens helps residents build organic gardens in urban backyards and school yards, while Oregon Tilth educates gardeners, farmers, legislators, and the general public about sustainable growing practices.

 

Salt Lake City, Utah

The Scene: One of the country's -fastest-growing cities, Salt Lake City has a booming yoga scene to match. Founded by Mormon pioneers fleeing religious persecution, the city—with its majestic mountains, canyons, and Salt Lake itself—today draws people from all over the country, who come for the skiing, climbing, and biking, and find themselves staying. The result is a yoga community that's stalwart in both body and spirit. "The students here are strong, and they're very open-minded," says Sarah Tomson Beyer, who believes she was able to develop her Flowmotion style of yoga here in part because her students were so willing and able to stretch the boundaries of their practice.

From the number of alternative healers and holistic therapies to the daily classes in the Indian martial art kalari-payattu, the area is full of surprises. Each March, some 30,000 people gather at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork for a two-day celebration of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, filling the air with clouds of colored chalk and the sounds of music and mantra.

Salt Lake City and nearby Park City, home to Baron Baptiste, draw traveling teachers like Simon Park and Sianna Sherman, and there is no shortage of great local instruction. Longtime local teachers include Iyengar teacher Charlotte Bell and D'ana Baptiste, the owner of Centered City Yoga. The Shiva Centre offers Ayurvedic consultations and workshops in addition to a full schedule of yoga classes. And Prana Flow, a nearly 5,000-square-foot yoga studio with eco-friendly spa services and a vegan café, is scheduled to open at press time in a renovated streetcar station in Trolley Square.

Shout Out: "The city is steeped in the history of the Mormon Church, but a lot of people are seeking something beyond what they grew up with," says Jodi Mardesich, a local yoga teacher. "There is a palpable yearning here for a connected, more beautiful life, and yoga enables that."

Fun Fact: The company Hugger Mugger got its start here in 1986, when Sara Chambers took an Iyengar Yoga workshop and was inspired to create better tools for the practice, including one of the country's first sticky mats.

Washington, DC

The Scene: In our dynamic capital city, you'll find members of Congress and staffers from various government institutions unfurling their mats at packed classes from early morning to late evening, seeking a peaceful (and often sweaty) respite from conducting the nation's business. Some of these political movers and shakers are working to bring yoga to public schools around the country and military bases around the world. But even local events in this town can have a national impact, thanks to the press coverage of events like yoga classes on the White House lawn during the annual Easter Egg Roll.

Thousands gather to practice yoga on the National Mall twice each spring: during the Cherry Blossom Festival and at the end of DC Yoga Week, a collaborative undertaking by the city's studios to increase awareness of yoga's benefits and to offer free and inexpensive classes to the city's residents. Setting an example for partisan politicians, the many branches of the yoga community pull together for occasions like the DC Global Mala, a one-day annual event to raise money for global charities.

On less eventful days, you can choose from dozens of studios around the city and environs. Metropolitan DC boasts strong Anusara, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Prana Flow, and vinyasa communities, to name a few. Iyengar teacher John Schumacher's Unity Woods Yoga Center has been a fixture in the area since 1979, with two locations in the city. At Ashtanga Yoga Center, students can choose from a variety of classes or practice Mysore-style. Other popular studios include Boundless Yoga, Down Dog Yoga, and Flow Yoga Center. And on sunny Sundays, locals gather in Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, for drumming, yoga, and a respite from the city's frenetic weekday pace.

Shout Out: "So many people come to DC because they want to change the world they live in,"says Shawn Parell, yoga teacher and director of programs for the nonprofit Anahata Grace, which provides yoga and wellness services to vulnerable populations. "Whether they're working inside Capitol Hill or protesting outside, so many people here are driven by a deep sense of dharma, whether they call it by that name or not."

Fun Fact: High-stakes atmosphere aside, a Gallup Poll recently named DC the happiest big city in the country, based on factors like health, work environment, and general well-being.

Woodstock, New York

The Scene: Just over 100 miles from Manhattan, this peace-loving town in the Hudson Valley has been known as a haven for the arts since long before the iconic music festival that appropriated its name. A popular destination for New Yorkers looking for a quiet retreat, Woodstock has also become known as an epicenter of yoga and kirtan (devotional chanting). In fact, the stretch of New York State from Albany (home of Mantralogy Records) to Woodstock bears the nickname "The Bhajan Belt" after the Sanskrit word for singing God's praises.

Unsurprisingly in a region that both Krishna Das and the group SRI Kirtan call home, something is always happening here for devotional-music fans. Weekly kirtan nights at YogaMonkey studio are led by a rotating cast of some 10 local kirtan leaders. Shyamdas, a Sanskrit scholar and kirtan wallah who divides his time between India and Woodstock, sponsors a twice-yearly event known as the Bhajan Boat, in which 100 people board a barge and chant as they sail up the Hudson River, with proceeds supporting children in the Vrindavan area of India.

Woodstock is known for nurturing seekers, spiritual and otherwise. There are half a dozen places to practice yoga in town, including the Jivamukti-influenced Euphoria Yoga; Bliss Yoga, which offers a range of classes including some influenced by Buddhism; and Shakti Yoga, which offers a variety of yoga classes and Ayurveda workshops.

The area is also home to monasteries, ashrams, and retreat centers, including David Life and Sharon Gannon's Wild Woodstock Jivamukti Ashram, a 76-acre retreat and wildlife preserve where Jivamukti teacher trainings are often held. A half hour away, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies offers year-round workshops, retreats, and trainings in holistic living as well as an annual ecstatic-chant weekend in September.

Fun Fact: Woodstock isn't just a haven for humans—it's also the home of the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary (pictured above), which is open to the public and shelters rescued cows, pigs, goats, and other factory-farm refugees.

Shout Out: Sruti Ram, who has lived in Woodstock since 1979 and who, with Ishwari, makes up the kirtan group SRI Kirtan, echoes the feelings of many when he says the intense energy here is conducive to meditation and spirituality. "The local Indian tribes considered this area to be a very sacred place for growing things. They would come down from the hills to farm here," he says. "That's how we feel about Woodstock—spiritually—it's a sacred place to grow."

The former travel editor of Sunset magazine, Amy Wolf has unrolled her yoga mat in cities and towns all across the West.
Charity Ferreira is Executive Editor at Yoga Journal.

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August 2011

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Reader Comments

Ellen

If only DC weren't so expensive! There are so many wonderful studios, but as a poor graduate student, I can't afford to pay for a membership.

Pat

I live in Boulder and yoga here is a joke. Classes are all about competition and showing off.

I have spina bifida and enjoy a gentle home practice. More than one studio here has treated me like a pariah because I don't have the perfect body.

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