At 10:00 p.m. on Friday nights once a month, 85 New Yorkers wear their skimpiest, most sparkly outfits to a cramped space on the Lower East Side, where pink lights hang from the ceiling, DJs spin, glow sticks abound, and everyone dances. “It’s out of this world,” says Phat Buddha creator Alissa Benishai. “Everyone is dancing and happy in a really grounded way.”
Grounded because she’s not talking about a club, she’s talking about Nite Sweats, a nightlife alternative created by Bikram Yoga Lower East Side owner Tricia Donegan that raises funds for the Lower Eastside Girls Club. (The next one is tomorrow, May 2.) “The energy is electric and contagious,” says Donegan. “It’s about a feeling of love—we’re here to celebrate ourselves and each other and our community. We’re only in this if it’s good for everybody.”
Donegan, a petite, heavily tattooed woman with streaks of color popping out of her mess of short curls and a constant, knowing smile, is known to the wider world as “Lady Gaga’s yoga teacher.” But she’s also become a champion of community and charitable work, demonstrating her commitment to “yoga 24 hours a day”—which means constantly fostering connection, both on the mat and off. And by raising $85,000 for her neighborhood so far.
Her work has enabled the construction of a 30,000-square-foot facility that includes a planetarium, science lab, and math classes for young girls—and it’s inspiring downtown yogis on a daily basis.
Finding her footing—and her calling
An elite soccer player in college, Donegan says that when a friend “dragged” her to a yoga class it was “the hardest thing I’d ever done,” because she couldn’t simply draw on the strengths she already had. “I realized there was something physical I couldn’t just do with my physicality. I had to use my brain and concentrate at the same time.” Which also made it incredibly rewarding, a juxtaposition that would influence her insights and teaching style later.
At the time she discovered the practice, she’d opened a restaurant in Atlanta with money from a grant given by the Clinton administration to young entrepreneurs who could improve a neighborhood without displacing long-time community members. But she found her constant work hours exhausting. “I had—quote—the American dream. But I realized what I wanted was the so-called Indian dream: roots, consistency, tradition, and family.”
She sold the restaurant and moved to the Lower East Side, which ten years ago was going through its own gentrification growing pains. There she sent her six-year-old daughter to neighborhood schools and opened a yoga studio with sliding-scale pricing to ensure accessibility. Bikram Yoga LES was born.
Creating her own community through sweat
Donegan’s sense of caring for and elevating the people around her manifests itself first in the 105-degree classroom. It’s where sweat is pouring onto mats and, during the toughest poses, students feel like breathing and muscle control are impossible. She circles the room, sinewy muscles rippling, reminding them, in a million different ways, that making it through 90 minutes of poses is the easiest part of “yoga.”
“If you can make it in here, you can make it New York,” she’ll say. Or, “Be careful what you think about in here. Be careful because it will happen when you leave.”
And her students hang on every word, since they see them play out every day. “She practices what she preaches,” says Benishai, a long-time student who’s received tons of support from Donegan. “The reason why I like her studio is because she promotes community and the people who come in…that’s what attracted me to yoga in the first place.”
Off the mat and into the city
Originally, the Lower Eastside Girls Club sought out Donegan’s restaurant expertise when they wanted to open a café, but she quickly realized she could do more. “There aren’t a lot of brands people could believe in,” she says. “This is one they could.”
In addition to her fundraising with Nite Sweats, Donegan is now on the board and will be Grand Marshall of the club’s sixth annual Walk-a-Thon for Girls’ and Women’s Health on May 10. (Last year’s 5K walk included 350 walkers and raised $40,000.)
By the end of 2014, Donegan says, she’ll have handed over $100,000 to the organization. “That’s just from us understanding what we can actually do,” she says. “Just a little bit at a time. While we have fun.” And maybe while getting a little bit sweaty. —Ann Abel and Lisa Elaine Held
For more information, visit www.bikramyogales.com