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Welfare Yoga

Underemployed gurus redemocratize downward dog.

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Illustration by Martin Ansin  

Obscured though it may be by $100 Lululemon pants, celebrity instructors, and Eat Pray Love, there’s always been a current of altruism in the yoga subculture. Teachers are schooled in “karma yoga,” or the yoga of service to others. And an increase in trained instructors (there were around 70,000 nationwide the last time one trade group counted) means there are ever more of those teachers competing for paying gigs. The result is a lot of enlightened, and underworked, people looking for a way to put their $3,500 certifications to use, and a boomlet in what might be called welfare yoga.

Alex Odell is among those contributing to the karma surplus, in her case by teaching free yoga classes in Central Park and the Central Presbyterian Church gym. “I understand not being able to drop $20 four times a week,” she says. “But for some people, yoga is the only place they can find peace and rest, so I’m committed to making it available to everyone.” Kami Evans, another city yoga teacher, says she donates half her time to leading gratis classes for community-based programs like Above the Rim and NYC Stay at Home Dads. In Connecticut and Washington, D.C., volunteer instructors put students through their moves at local library branches.

Such community programs, of course, offer a new teacher client exposure that can in turn lead to paying gigs—sort of like the Huffington Post model of yoga teaching. Instructor Lara Land offers free classes at the Morningside Park Farmers’ Market because, she says, “I get great joy in doing so.” But it’s not for nothing that she also has a nearby fledgling studio, Land Yoga, to promote. Land notes that while a lot of the students at her free summer classes were college students or otherwise of limited means, a number were comfortably well-off yogis fresh from the farmers’ market and just looking for a good deal. (Here, an economist might warn the well-intentioned instructor of the risks of the free-rider problem.)

As payment-optional classes become common (Do Yoga Do Pilates in Tribeca and Chelsea’s Breathing Project are two studios that have offered them), welfare yoga is gaining a foothold in actual policy-making. San Francisco and Chicago have made free and subsidized yoga available to their respective citizenries in a bid to bring down health-care costs, and now Mayor Bloomberg is adding to the momentum, too: The prospectus for his Young Men’s Initiative, which is meant to alleviate minority poverty rates, includes yoga classes as a potential prescription for participants struggling with anger and impulse control. Not so long ago, personal bliss bought with public funds would have been seen as politically problematic frippery. But today, Bloomberg can move forward feeling confident that there will be plenty of willing, and cheap, labor available to demonstrate mountain pose to the masses.

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