Hip & Healthy: Paying for Yoga? Consider Donation-Based Studio

I’m a non-committal yogi. I mainly stick to running or the gym, and simply take up yoga when the mood strikes, usually following a stressful week or a particularly brutal workout that’s left my muscles sore.

Since moving to New York City, I’ve taken over 100 classes in more than a dozen different studios. I started with the yoga classes at my gym, but never found them to my liking. I find that if a gym uses the same space for yoga, rebounding and kickboxing, it often can't replicate the calming aura a real yoga studio provides. Same for yoga videos.

I’ve loved my experience with fancy yoga meccas, but none of them are close to where I live. And given my low-commitment flow, I don’t want to shell out another big monthly fee for yoga studios on top of my gym membership. So I resigned myself to putting down $20 a class here and there – until recently, when I heard about a donation-based yoga studio called Yoga to the People.

At first I was skeptical. Free yoga?  What would the conditions be like? Was it a workout?  Were the instructors certified?  Would it be a sticky, smelly hippie fest?

I had my reservations, but both the location and the schedule of Yoga to the People were unbeatably convenient. I had nothing to lose but a suggested donation, so I gave it a try.

Demanding but adaptable
Walking in for my first class, I was surprised that there were actually three studios holding class at the same time. Each was a huge apartment studio replete with exposed brick walls, hardwood floors, and a refrigerator. The huge windows in the front of the room were flanked with plants, and a Buddha statue reminded me that I hadn’t just walked into a random house party. 

I set my mat down, but was quickly asked to make room for a few more people to squeeze into an already-crowded row. The studio was quite large, but boy did it fill up! Nevertheless, I settled in with just an inch or so to spare on all sides of my mat. The class was made up mainly of young yogis who seemed pretty serious about their practice.

The class started with quick reading from the instructor and a couple of full breaths (I was thrilled that there wasn’t any chanting or excessive nose breathing). Then we began a vigorous vinyasa flow.  The class was a physically demanding flow of fast-paced sun salutations mixed with series of held chair poses, binds, and intense chattarangas. During my first class, I was surprised (and relieved) that there were no inversions at Yoga to the People, probably due to space limitations.

Personally, I’m more than happy to pass on the headstands, but some yogis may not be. Perhaps to make up for the lack of headstands, some students moved into crow poses and more demanding postures to add some challenge. The instructors at Yoga to the People didn’t seem to mind students taking the practice into their own hands. But they also didn’t spend much time postures and correcting form, either, which could be frustrating for beginners.

I dove in, sweated it out and centered myself.  By the end of the power hour, I was ready for a few minutes of restoration in savassanah.  Then I packed up my mat and left a few dollars in the donation box on my way out.

Unbeatably convenient for casual yogi
In many ways, Yoga to the People is the perfect yoga studio for me.  It offers a convenient schedule and location, which are often the most important elements of a workout for me. The walk in-only policy suits my dabbling practice of yoga, and I love never having to commit to a package or to sign up ahead of time.

I am happy to pass on chanting and inversions, but I love that I get a great workout and stretch during each class I attend. It’s a bit shorter than most classes at just an hour, but I never feel like I am zoning out or losing interest.

Not for everyone
But Yoga to the People may not be for everyone. If you’re a beginner, this is not a great place to learn the fundamentals. You’re better off getting the basics down in a more formal beginner’s class before heading to Yoga to the People, where there is little emphasis on form and correction. And I’m not into yoga for the spiritual experience, but if you are, you might not be satisfied with the short readings at the beginning of class. 

Also, the no-frills, borderline cramped studios are not exactly Zen-like. I was able block out neighbors to my right and my left as long as I could full extend my limbs, but if you really value your space and scenery, you might seek inner peace elsewhere. The tight space also limits your ability to do inversions, so think twice before rocking the headstand, unless you are seriously confident.

Still, the class is donation-based, so you have little to lose by giving it a shot.

If you’re interested in trying out donation-based yoga, Yoga to the People is not your only option. There are several donation-based studios and many fee-based studios that offer a daily or weekly donation, or “community” classes, often taught by new instructors. Here are a few to check out:

It’s yoga on the cheap, in a city where almost nothing comes free. Now that’s a calming thought.

Melissa is a NYC resident and workout junkie. She keeps motivated to stay fit and active by trying out new workout classes, signing up for races, and keeping an eye out for a fun fitness challenge. She hopes to complete the New York City Marathon for the second time in 2011. Read more about her healthy adventures in New York City at her blog fitnessnyc.wordpress.com.

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