On Saturday morning, a line snakes around the corner of Virayoga’s entrance, like shoppers at a Barneys warehouse sale. But these well-groomed New Yorkers with their hair tied up and Hyde Pants rolled down aren’t clothes-horses. They’re waitlisted yogis patiently biding their time for a spot in class with Elena Brower.
The city’s yoga spotlight has landed on Brower of late. It’s partly due to a swelling interest in Anusara, a school of hatha yoga founded by Texas-based John Friend (and Brower’s teacher) that’s known for heart-opening poses and being famously fastidious about alignment.
More locally, credit is due to 39-year-old Brower, a former textile-fashion designer and children’s art teacher. In 2002, Brower founded Virayoga in SoHo, which has become the city’s flagship of Anusara. People flock here for the boundary-pushing classes and, moreover, for what even jaded New Yorkers call “Brower’s aura.” As a journalist used to keeping critical facilities intact, I left class feeling positive transference for Brower and bubbling over with self-love, like I’d had the most productive therapy session.
Although she’s entered public-figure-dom both as Flavorpill’s art-making accomplice in events like Yoga at the Great Lawn and as Adidas’s international yoga ambassador, Brower isn’t a celebrity or a guru. She’s more of a yoga intellectual—she cites several contemporary teachers Hugo Cory to Douglas Brooks—who radiates warmth and certainty.
What’s special for New Yorkers about Brower, I suspect, is that she has a self-revelatory side that she carefully casts out and reels back in as a teaching tool. “As a teacher, when I have a potent, transformational experience in my own life, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I can communicate it to someone else so it can be helpful. One of the things I’ve learned from my teachers is that if I’m experiencing something, it’s likely someone else is, too,” says Brower. And she’s not referring to nirvana and an awesome side crow. “I hope that sharing the horror of my own life will be useful to others and my students,” she says half jokingly, over a macro plate at Souen.
During classes at her 2,000-square-foot loft, Brower punctuates instructions for poses with exploratory questions, asking students to consider what they’re shoving out of their minds, for example. What’s not tolerable? Is it the lack of mastery over the pose, or a way we feel about ourselves that we don’t want to open ourselves to? Something we want to hide? Because Brower’s quarry is both the mind and body—and knowing your own heart—questions like these have a relevancy. They’re the Sutras of the encumbered self.
Brower almost never uses Sanskrit terms or yogic analogies during our interview. I wonder sometimes if we’re talking about yoga at all and not psychology. So how can a practice that prioritizes placement and poses that emphasize the heart improve your inner-life? “Anusara has this amazing alkanizing effect on the body—like a green drink,” she says wryly. “It’s also strengthening, it clears you, it aligns you, and teaches you what you’re capable of,” says Brower passionately. Which begs the question: If the poses reinforce the philosophy—greater self awareness and acceptance—is Anusara a healing modality? Brower nods vigorously. “It is without question. That’s probably why I’m still with it. I teach what I need to learn,” she says.
At ViraYoga I meet Rachael McCrary, who’s been coming to Elena’s classes for four years and by the looks of her standing split and jumpbacks has a strong practice. “I find Elena’s comments very real and applicable to everyday life. I doubt she knows it, but she’s taught me some life lessons,” McCrary says. “I’m hooked, and I’m grateful.”