There's no doubt that the human experience of yoga is universal, and yet it's easy to forget that the practice reaches well beyond the confines of your neighborhood studio or even history-steeped India. If you were to close your eyes and put your finger on a map, in all likelihood you'd land on a city that has yoga studios, well-known teachers, and maybe even a big annual yoga conference. What does this mean for yoga? Is the practice drastically different in Tokyo and in Paris? How does each place embrace and assimilate the ancient spiritual practice within its culture?
The four yoga studio owners profiled here have put their passion, business savvy, and perseverance on full throttle to build yoga communities in their cities—sometimes from the ground up. We asked them to share their journeys and to describe the ripple effect yoga is having on their cities.
Studio: Cihangir Yoga
After opening a studio in 2001, Zeynep Aksoy swore she wouldn't do it again. The studio was successful and continues under different ownership, while her self-produced DVD sold more than 100,000 copies, but she suffered from burnout. She decided to return to her studies, becoming a student of European teacher Godfrey Devereux and delving into meditation in India. While studying with Devereux in Spain, she met her husband, David Cornwell, who convinced her to open another studio, Cihangir Yoga. (They have two business partners, teachers Zeynep Uras and Rebekka Haas Cetin.)
The second time around, Aksoy is focusing on living the philosophy that's been taught by her teachers. "I've found that the path is not about becoming something you're not; it's about becoming more of who you are," she says. "I'd call it being more selfish—not in a bad way, but I take care of myself." With Cihangir Yoga studios in two locations and an average of 2,000 students coming through each week, Aksoy's surrendered approach seems to be the secret to her success.
On the Witness: Aksoy describes her personal philosophy and vision as the "pure advaita message. We want the [students] to feel their body and to feel what's going on in the moment as it is. You release the effort and come into a space where you're only a witness, instead of struggling through life and blaming and feeling guilt."
On the Climate of Yoga: When Aksoy opened her second studio in Istanbul, she dropped her prices, and the studio doubled its customers. "We changed the climate of yoga. It was an elite thing in Turkey, and [then] everyone started doing [yoga] once we made it accessible." With the motto "Yoga for Everyone," Cihangir offers different classes at a variety of prices, with the least expensive priced at around three dollars. "We really want to make sure that everyone—even the taxi driver—can do yoga in our studio," she says. "There's a lot of classism in Turkey that you don't get in America. We wanted to break that barrier."
On a Scientific Approach: Aksoy describes a great schism in Turkey between citizens who want to maintain the separation between church and state and those who oppose such secularization. Both Cihangir studios are located in Westernized neighborhoods; most of the students who come are Westernized and are suspicious of any religious practice. Because of this, Aksoy says, they are "so not bhakti" (devotional). Her students favor a more scientific approach.
On Lightness of Being: "There's no alternative community in Turkey. In America, there are people who have alternative lifestyles. But in Turkey, it's all the same; it's homogenous—there's not really a big mix of races. And the atmosphere in Turkey is heavy. People smoke. There's a lot of pressure on women to sort of act like men so as not to call attention to themselves. You can't wear miniskirts on the street. But I notice that the students who have been with us for many years—they've stopped smoking. They smile more. It's like lifting a cloud off of people. We've brought lightness and potential happiness to people.
Lighting Up Japan
Chama Mamoru Aizawa has always been ahead of his time. As an escape from his strict military high school in the early 1980s, Mamoru Aizawa took up surfing and spent hours each day meditating in silence. And eight years ago, he opened his first Ashtanga Yoga studio in Tokyo's neon-plastered shopping district of Shibuya. At the time, many people were wary of yoga. The country had been terrorized by the Aum Shinrikyo cult—a group that claimed yoga as part of its beliefs and was responsible for the sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subways in 1995. But Mamoru Aizawa believed in his mission to spread yoga in Japan.
Now, at age 45, he owns four successful yoga studios in Tokyo and Osaka. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan's coast last March, Ma-moru Aizawa used Twitter and Facebook to gauge interest in mobilizing yoga-inspired relief efforts. He's received both praise and criticism; some have labeled it a publicity stunt, but he is pressing on with his vision to bring yoga to victims in the affected areas.
On Reggae: Mamoru Aizawa dreamed of being a musician. At 20 years old, he began running a club. He owned it for five years, and during his last two years at the club, he changed its focus to reggae music. He still feels that his management style is influenced by the peaceful, easygoing music genre.
On Independence: Mamoru Aizawa points out that, while the emphasis on maintaining harmony and hierarchy within yoga culture has its benefits, it also makes it difficult for people to think and act independently. He sees yoga as a powerful tool for taking people inward so that they can get to know themselves better. "I think Japanese people may not be as strong as individuals, but [they] are strong as a group. It's a positive trait with the national soccer team, but on the other hand, it can cause tragedies such as Aum Shinrikyo," he says. "I think yoga can help people who live in a group mentality to become stronger, to live by themselves, and to have peace within themselves."
On the Tsunami: The day after the earthquake, Mamoru Aizawa opened the doors to his studio. He deliberated over the decision, knowing that aftershocks were still happening and train lines were still unstable, which could make it difficult for students to get home (and could ultimately make him responsible for their safety). His staff urged him to open, reminding him that this was the exact time when his students needed the studio the most.
After the opening chant, the studio owner recalls feeling a heaviness permeate the room. Instead of moving into their usual routine, the students stood still, some crying, some shaking. Mamoru Aizawa held the space, and after a while the students started naturally practicing together. Afterward, the students shared how grateful they were for being able to practice together that day.
On Healing: In October of 2011, Mamoru Aizawa took a group of volunteers to Kesennuma, a town in the northeast of Japan that was hit hard by the tsunami. Forty-five yoga students and teachers offered a weekend of classes, bodywork, food, and live music to 700 people who were living in temporary housing. The initial reception was lukewarm—especially among the younger residents of the town.
But Mamoru Aizawa's drive is undeterred. He hopes to have two large events per year and to send small groups of volunteers to the area regularly throughout the year. Eventually, he wants to open a retreat center in the area. A true Ashtangi, Mamoru Aizawa believes that consistency and regular yoga practice are key to the experience of healing.
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