Yoga has long had a stronghold in major metropolises like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, where vibrant yoga scenes feed off a smorgasbord of studios and styles, great instruction from master teachers, contemporary innovations like AcroYoga, and energizing classes where the collective enthusiasm of a hundred students can make for a radically uplifting practice. But yoga is also flourishing in smaller cities and towns across the nation, each of which has its own unique yoga scene to offer. In Manitou Springs, Colorado, you can drop in to the town's city hall for a donation-based yoga class. In Sun City, Arizona, you can join the more than 200 retirees whose yoga club practices six times a week. Bozeman, Montana, boasts more yoga studios (eight) than gates at the local airport (five). In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hundreds of people join local kirtan wallah Ragani for a monthly kirtan night, a tradition celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It's inspiring to see how the country's many yoga communities embrace the practice and adapt it to suit their local style. To celebrate the variety and uniqueness of yoga in the United States, we put together a list of 10 towns where your practice (and your life) can be shaped by that magic combination of ingredients that nurtures a thriving yoga community: Gorgeous studios and world-class yoga instruction. Beautiful scenery and proximity to nature. A culture of healthful living. Like-minded people who value service, giving back, and balance. And above all, a sense that your community and surroundings are a source of support and inspiration.
1. Asheville, North Carolina
The Scene: There can't be very many towns in the United States where you can take a yoga class just about any time of the day, listen to one of six local kirtan bands, get your harmonium repaired, and undergo the supervised Ayurvedic cleansing program known as panchakarma. But for yoga practitioners in Asheville, that's only the beginning of what makes their community great. In a telling indicator of the cooperative vibe among the studios here, students can find the entire town's offerings at a glance on the website of the Greater Asheville Yoga Association. Visiting yoga greats include Doug Keller, Kino MacGregor, Rod Stryker, and David Swenson. But Asheville residents have plenty of local instructors to choose from, too, at studios like Asheville Community Yoga, which offers all of its classes by donation; Lighten Up, the town's first Iyengar studio; West Asheville Yoga, host to regular kirtan events; and Asheville Yoga Center, which has a full schedule of classes and workshops. The town is also a hub of alternative healing, with three Ayurvedic centers, including the Blue Lotus Ayurveda and Panchakarma Clinic and Day Spa. In the spring of 2011, the local Laughing Waters Retreat Center hosted A Day of Yoga and Healing, during which more than 15 local yoga teachers offered classes in different styles as well as workshops on Ayurveda and meditation. Some claim that nearby Mount Mitchell is a vortex and repository of spiritual teachings. Regardless of your faith in vortexes, the town's proximity to the forests and trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains makes Asheville a great place to hike, bike, and otherwise enjoy the outdoors. Fun Fact: Asheville has been named the "most vegetarian-friendly" small city in America by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Shout Out: "People in Asheville are really in tune with how we're connected with the web of life," says Jackie Dobrinska, a yoga teacher who co-founded the Greater Asheville Yoga Association. "We're always thinking about how we can be mindful of that connection."
2. Austin, Texas
The Scene: The city that proudly bears the slogan "Keep Austin Weird" boasts an exuberance and a largeness of spirit that are the hallmarks of the town's yoga community. Maybe because of Austin's eclectic nature—a thriving live-music scene, combined with the intellectual richness that comes from being a university town as well as the state capital—yoga manifests itself in all kinds of ways, on and off the mat. Renowned Ashtanga teacher David Swenson calls Austin home. Ashtanga, Anusara, and Baptiste Power Yoga thrive here, as do many other styles (hiking yoga, paddleboard yoga, or MP3 power yoga, anyone?). On Austin's annual Free Day of Yoga in September, studios all over town offer free classes to attract beginners and give others a chance to try a new style. And every October, Lululemon Athletica sponsors Yogasm, a free festival of art, music, and yoga featuring artists like MC Yogi and Govinda that attracts more than 1,000 people to Republic Square Park. Jyl Kutsche, who co-founded Community Yoga Austin, a nonprofit studio that offers donation-based classes whose proceeds help bring yoga to students, prisoners, and the elderly, says the open-minded culture is the reason new ideas catch on so quickly in Austin. "There's no idea you could throw at people here that they'd think is too crazy. It's more like, 'OK, let's do it. Yoga on paddleboards? Bring it on!'" That might explain why Austin is the birthplace of MedMob, a movement of meditation meet-ups across the country, spread virally through Facebook and other social media. Founded by a group of local yoga teachers, including the owner of donation-based Black Swan Yoga, the group's goal is to expose more people to meditation and show how simple acts create major shifts. Fun Fact: Lance Armstrong, one of Austin's most famous residents, tweets about his yoga practice, and restorative yoga classes for cyclists are offered regularly at his bike shop, Mellow Johnny's. Shout Out: "Austin has so many events that tie in music, yoga, and community,"says yoga teacher Malia Scott. "The scene is really alive here—so exuberant, diverse, and fun!"
3. Boulder, Colorado
The Scene: There's no getting around it: A city with a reputation for being one of the healthiest, happiest, most livable places in the country, Boulder has an unbeatable yoga scene, too. Richard Freeman, the master Ashtanga Yoga teacher in the tradition of K. Pattabhi Jois, has taught at his studio here, Yoga Workshop, for more than two decades. Master teachers of all styles—everyone from Nicki Doane to Rod Stryker to the kirtan wallah Girish—offer workshops at Om Time yoga, located smack downtown. Other popular studios include the Iyengar Yoga Center of Boulder; CorePower Yoga, which has three locations in town; and Studio Be Yoga, which offers classes in styles from Anusara to Yin. Just a half hour away is Shoshoni Yoga Retreat, where you can immerse yourself in yoga and meditation. High-caliber athletes are drawn to Boulder for its combination of high-altitude air, nearly year-round sunshine, and wide open spaces (which are so loved that residents voted for higher taxes to maintain them). "It's such a pleasure to teach here because people are so incredibly fit," says Anusara Yoga teacher Amy Ippoliti, who lives just outside of town. "But that intense athleticism is somehow balanced by a spaciousness of spirit that you can't help but feel when you see all that open prairie leading up to the vast mountains." A similar balance is evident in Boulder's equal embrace of the entrepreneurial and the contemplative. The town, which has been called the Silicon Valley of the Rockies, is home to TechStars—a mentorship and seed-money program for startups—as well as the University of Colorado, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Naropa University, a liberal arts school founded by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche that emphasizes meditation and compassion along with traditional Western academics. "People here are über-positive and über-creative, and that gets reflected in their practice," Ippoliti says. Fun Fact: The yoga lifestyle is big business here, and not just for studio owners. The Boulder area is the birthplace of the organic yoga clothing and product companies Prana and Gaiam, the spiritual book and audio publisher Sounds True, the pharmacy chain Pharmaca, and the yoga music recording label White Swan Records, to name a few. Shout Out: "In big cities, people do yoga to stay sane," says Valerie D'Ambrosio, who organized Boulder's Hanuman Festival, a four-day yoga and music event. "In Boulder, people do yoga to come back to what matters. It's more about a craving for connection to Self and to community and to the Divine."
4. Encinitas, California
The Scene: Some of the biggest yoga movements in the country got their start in this laid-back coastal town. Paramahansa Yogananda completed his Autobiography of a Yogi on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean here in 1945, giving birth to a spiritual legacy that continues to thrive through the Self-Realization Fellowship. And in 1975, David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff brought Sri K. Pattabhi Jois to this beach town in San Diego County on his first trip to the United States, essentially anointing Encinitas as the birthplace of Ashtanga in America. Jois returned many times over the course of two decades and called Encinitas his American home. Opportunities to find sanctuary here are many. Tim Miller, the first American to be certified by Jois, runs the Ashtanga Yoga Center in neighboring Carlsbad, where students can choose from a variety of classes or do an independent Mysore-style practice. This year, the Jois family opened Jois Yoga, a studio that aims to become the Western counterpart of the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore. Just down the highway is the internationally known Chopra Center for Wellbeing, which offers workshops on meditation and holistic health. Fun Fact: There's a surfing spot in Encinitas known to surfers around the world as "Swami's," after Paramahansa Yogananda, whose Self-Realization Fellowship Temple sits on the cliff above. Shout Out: "There's a very special energy here," says Lynn Alley, a longtime yoga teacher at the Chopra Center. "The closeness to nature that you feel here, to the ocean, to history—it expresses itself in so many ways."
5. Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Scene: The adaptive yoga workshop at the nonprofit Mind Body Solutions, which draws participants from all over the world to the Minneapolis area, is a teacher training program like no other. Its creator, Iyengar Yoga teacher Matthew Sanford, developed the training based on his own experience of living with paralysis from the chest down. Sanford's studio, Mind Body Solutions, located in nearby Minnetonka, offers classes for traditional students and adaptive yoga classes for those with mobility issues, who are assisted into postures as a way of deepening the connection between mind and body—a connection Sanford says is available to everyone. Since 2009, Sanford's adaptive yoga training program has trained more than 100 yogis to teach students with disabilities. "I want to be a resource for other teachers and students, to get as many teachers as possible in the Twin Cities teaching a wide range of abilities and disabilities," Sanford says. Yoga is truly for everyone in Minneapolis. The city has a long tradition of supporting philanthropy and volunteer work, and that same spirit thrives in the yoga community. The nonprofit studio One Yoga partners with a variety of other local nonprofit groups to bring on-site yoga classes to those in need. The studio's instructors have taught yoga at the bedsides of people with life-threatening illnesses, to teen mothers, and to Spanish-speaking immigrants enrolled in English-language courses. Yoga is also the impetus behind monthly community fundraising events organized by the Gorilla Yogis, who use social media to draw up to 300 yogis to a designated spot—whether it's a baseball field, an art gallery, a music venue, or the banks of the Mississippi. Local instructors offer classes for a suggested donation, with proceeds benefiting a different local nonprofit each month. Fun Fact: The City of Lakes is also a city of parks: It has more than 180 parks and 6,732 acres of parkland and water, including some 50 miles of trails for walking, running, and biking year-round. Shout Out: "We have a lot of yoga here, but there's also this spark of energy you can feel, that people are craving more than just the physical aspects," says Jessica Rosenberg, co-creator of the Gorilla Yogis. "How do you combine breath and movement to become whole, and then carry that energy off the mat?"
6. 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."
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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.