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Spiritual yoga classes: During economic uncertainty, attendance is up

Forward Baddhakonasana (photos on Brooklyn Bridge by Ricky Zehavi)


On July 26, as Congress fought over the debt ceiling, 200 people crowded into Yogamaya’s temple-like studio on 20th Street to hear Radhanath Swami discuss how he lives without a bank account, eats but once a day, and sleeps on a mat on the floor.

Could this bring solace to a city full of worriers? So it seems.

As economists debate a double-dip recession, and the rest of us wonder what it means for our livelihoods and savings, yoga studios with a more spiritual bent like Yogamaya are crowded with new practitioners.

Radhanath Swami. Yogamaya focuses on yoga’s spiritual aspects—think asana, plus ascension.

Yogamaya co-founders Stacey Brass and Bryn Chrisman are noticing an uptick of interest in their year-old studio’s kirtan sessions and Sutra readings. Brass explains, “Right now, people want something to hook into, they want clarity of purpose. Even though we have to make money and provide for our families and live in the world, we organically crave a way to simplify everything and understand our existence through a higher connection.”

A crisis of this kind inspired Arielle (a psyeudonym), a 36-year-old media exec, who says, “My yoga practice correlates pretty directly with instability in the world and my life.” She first took up yoga in the wake of 9/11; during the second Bush administration she practiced more regularly. Then, in the midst of the Great Recession, she became a serious Ashtanga practitioner, and signed up for a yoga retreat when half her office was laid off.

Author Siobhan O’Connor regularly practices yoga at Jivamukti, arguably the city’s most devout studio. O’Connor notes that some teachers emphasize the spiritual practice more than others. “This time last year, I would wager those spiritual teacher’s classes were a lot less crowded than they are now, and I chalked that up to people not really liking the messages, or wanting a workout more than a sermon,” she says.

But last year’s sermon seems to be this year’s sanity lifeline. With the unprecedented downgrading of U.S. Treasuries, the crisis in Europe, and riots from Egypt to London, yoga is proving a good coping strategy for many. “I have to suppose people are, like me, looking for a lot more than a workout from their yoga.” —Alexia Brue