I started this project in hopes of finding a studio that meets my ideals as a student that strikes the right balance between successful business and upholding yogic principles, and to experience a different style of yoga. After looking around a bit, Down Under Yoga seemed to fit the bill. Down Under is a self-proclaimed School of Yoga with locations in Newton and Brookline. The studios themselves are fairly new, but the core team of teachers and management are practitioners who've been delivering yoga to Boston, the US, and abroad for many years. I chose this venue for several reasons. Since moving to Boston in May, I've been asking almost anyone I see with a yoga mat where they practice and why. Down Under's name was mentioned many times and usually associated with explanations that I identify with as far as what I'm looking for in a studio. Despite being in the market, I hadn't made it over to try a class yet, so this midterm seemed like the perfect opportunity. When we got our midterm assignments however, I started second guessing my choice and feeling like I wanted to try something more exotic than just another yoga studio. It didn't take much digging to realize that Down Under could be more than just another yoga studio. Down Under is home to many big-name teachers in the U.S. who apparently banded together to take the business of yoga into their own hands. I was very interested to find out what that means in theory and experience it in practice. Finally, one of the big names who calls Down Under home is Patricia Walden. Walden is one of the foremost Iyengar style teachers in the United States. Since completing my own Yoga Teacher Training, I've wanted to study Iyengar in an effort to fill what I feel are gaps in my knowledge of alignment and back-to-basics yoga.
So what am I looking for in a studio and why? My earliest yoga experiences were taking classes with my mom in our small home town. Our teacher was excellent (especially considering the location) and trained primarily in Anusara. Despite Anusara's current reputation, I got spoiled by the style of her classes. She always began with a short reading from whatever she was currently studying related to yoga, she then used that information as a theme for class and encouraged us to form intentions that integrated the material for us. This was my first introduction into yogic philosophy and my earliest whisperings of spirituality. This is also what first encouraged me to begin taking yoga "off the mat." It's become important for me that at least some philosophy is used to contextualize the physical work. B.K.S. Iyengar explains that "we must bring our philosophy into day-to-day life, so that life with its hardships and joys can be informed by philosophy...that is practical philosophy" (9). I am looking for a studio that supports and exemplifies that practical philosophy. It's actually hard to find. Thus far in my experience, groups that really focus on philosophy and/or spirituality have this lofty, exclusive air that doesn't fit into "real life." Conversely, many studios focus so entirely on the physical practice that I feel I may as well go to the gym. I realize, reading back over those sentences that I made a leap from teacher to studio. So much of a student's experience and learning in a yoga class depends on the teacher and much less on the studio as a whole. That being said, I was extra excited to start reading about Down Under and find out it was founded by teachers steeped in lineage, promoting practical philosophy, and sharing in ideals. Under the "About Us" tab on the Down Under website there is a good read about the philosophy of the studio and its teachers. One of the highlights is "As students and teachers of yoga, we are the stewards of this ancient practice, so the way we act off the mat is as important as what we do on it" (np). If this statement only related to how the core faculty believed they should conduct themselves as individuals, it would've been enough to send me running to class. But as I read on and continued to research Down Under's role in the Boston and Yoga communities, it became clear that this simple philosophy extends into how they conduct the business of yoga.
The business of yoga is something that has interested me since before looking at it critically for this class. Many could argue that turning Yoga into business is the root of its massive transformation and commercialization over recent years. Indeed, long trusted yoga providers are changing their business practice tune from "Yogic" to aggressively capitalist. An example, as sited in an article on the topic from Boston.com, is the Yoga Journal. Originally a magazine touting "the higher values of yoga: spiritual integration, compassion and selfless service," the current editor describes the magazine and it's readers as "a commercial venture. . . . We are Americans and one thing Americans do is shop and like nice things. And one of the ways we identify ourselves is having a certain look. The yoga industry does support our desire to create self-identity through what we wear or what we purchase" (np). I was honesty shocked by this statement. It is so brazen! Shouldn't they at least be pretending to be yogic? They must be making enough money at this point not to bother. To me, this kind of attitude in other practitioners, studios, and now major Yoga publications is cause for major concern. This is also the "yoga" that is making it into media and so what many people first experience. It is no wonder that large successful studios seem to operate with this attitude and sell all kinds of products that promote it. This is exactly the kind of thing that I don't want in a studio, and something I feared would be pervasive at Down Under. I feared this before doing my research because surely a place with almost every teacher on staff having graced the cover of Yoga Journal in the past ten years would be extremely expensive and filled with cute blonde butts (not that mine doesn't qualify) in designer yoga wear. Surely big American yogis and yoginis would be behind this new and powerful yoga machine. In the case of Down Under (it seems), not so.
As I continued my research I came across a quote from Justine Wiltshire Cohen, Down Under founder, about the business of yoga at her studio "“We believe that yoga studios should act in ways that are consistent with the teachings of yoga. We will never sell plastic water bottles that go into landfills [because ahimsa means ‘do no harm’]. We will never sell $150 yoga pants [because aparigraha means ‘identifying greed’]. We will never accept offers from companies to promote their gear in exchange for free publicity or products (because satya means “truthfulness’’). We will never brand, trademark, or pretend we’ve made up a new style of yoga...The minute yoga is packaged and branded, you’ve lost it’’ (Boston.com, np). I'm thrilled by this statement and at this point was totally sold on Down Under being my location for this project. This quote is a few years old and I was anxious to see if they were still walking their talk.
I went to the Brookline studio for a Monday night class with Iyengar teacher Jarvis Chen. I prepaid online and was pleasantly surprised by the low-average $16 drop in fee. The Brookline studio is fairly unassuming from the outside...and gorgeous as soon as you walk in. Big windows, sleek wood floors, narrow, artsy benches, and a formidable front desk greet you along with Theresa (the manager) and a spritely assistant in hot pink leggings. Theresa is middle aged, professional, and welcoming. The assistant was my age, had some yogi name she probably made up, and a little too nice. This juxtaposition was a little confusing at first and left me unsure what to expect next. What came next was practically concierge service! My coat was hung, a locker provided, and pleasant directions for my studio experience. Everything is complimentary, a rarity in big, nice studios these days. My class was in the "Earth" studio (downstairs). You walk down the staircase facing an impressive, one story high, live bamboo forest. The props are outside the studio and beautifully organized. Everything is simple, elegant, and in it's place. I walked into the class (Level 1) to find a surprisingly diverse group setting up their mats. Ages ranged from early twenties to I'd guess 70's. Everyone was dressed fairly modestly (for a yoga class) and in anything from a t-shirt as old as me to the full Athleta get-up. An assistant was circling the room ensuring everyone had sufficient props and there was plenty of space in the room despite 20+ students.
When Jarvis entered the room I was shocked! He's...well, rather fat! Not to mention wearing alarmingly small shorts. I'd read his bio which helped me decide on his class for this project. He's a well known and sought-after Iyengar teacher who's worked closely with Patricia Walden for many years. He is also a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health. How can this person be fat?! I quickly recognized that I had to let go of this hang up to fully appreciate his class...though I'm still a little baffled. This class was my first Iyengar experience. I chose that style because I'm very interested in learning alignment, modifications, and the fundamentals of asana. Jarvis's class definitely delivered. We started with brief centering breath work (though not specific pranayama). The class centered on opening the groin in preparation for Warrior II. There were no sun salutes or major "warming" exercises. We moved through seemingly disjointed poses greatly supported by the use of props until ending up at the wall for Warrior II. In working that culminating pose, everything came together. I've done Vira II thousands of times, but never like that. This is exactly what I'm looking for from an Iyengar class. I want it to take every pose I think I 'know' and turn it inside out and upside down for me from the bottom up. I had more "aha" moments in that hour than I have in the last 6 months of my own practice. I was also very impressed by Jarvis's ability to lead the class and simultaneously give individual correction. Even without the help of his assistant I'm quite certain he provided everyone in the room with at least one personal correction. He also worked closely with several students who were obviously his regulars, yet I never felt neglected or excluded. We finished class with a brief Savasana and no meditation. I definitely missed the philosophical/ spiritual guidance I look for in classes, but the depth of knowledge provided for the Asana alone is sufficient for me. Jarvis also stayed after class answering questions and continuing to help students individually.
Before leaving, I spent time reading the "Wall of Fame" where famous publications featuring faculty and the studio hang in glossy frames. Sure enough, not a single piece of merchandise is on sale in the lobby, nor is there a single piece of promotional material. I also talked extensively with Theresa about their pricing, class packages, and student discounts. Afterwards I did some research comparing Down Under's pricing with other local studios; they are comparable if not less expensive. I will be dropping $30 for 30 days of unlimited yoga before probably forking over the monthly student rate. Between the faculty, three different styles of yoga, philosophy discussion groups, continuing ed trainings, and community outreach work this studio does I feel like it may be what I've been looking for. B.K.S. Iyengar says that "Yoga is firstly for individual growth, but through individual growth, society and community can develop" (9). It is encouraging to have found a studio through this project that (at least on first impression) can facilitate my individual growth through the study of yoga while upholding yogic ideals for building a community through their business.
Iyengar, B., & Moore, D. (1989). The tree of yoga: Yoga vṛkṣa. Boston: Shambhala.