Meet three local yogis whose unique practices will be showcased this weekend.
Students dressed in comfortable yoga gear line the walls of DIG YOGA in South Philadelphia, waiting for their teacher to arrive. Sunshine pours through the skylight ceiling as Mariel Freeman enters, all grace and confidence. The first thing you notice, as she takes a seat in front of a golden statue of a dancing Shiva, is her bright smile and deep-set dimples.
Class begins, and her soothing voice floats across the room, encouraging students to fall into a meditation that challenges them to open their hearts to the power, beauty and possibility that exists in every moment.
“I’m in a breakbeat stage,” she admits before moving the class from meditation to asana with a classic Eric B. and Rakim track. In no time, the rhythm hits ‘em, and Freeman’s charges forget about the burning in their quads and the tension in their shoulders, floating to the sound of her voice, riding the wave of energy that begins to fill the room.
Everyone comes to their mat with a different story. For Freeman, her interest in yoga peaked while at studying holistic health and healing at the University of Massachusetts.
“I was carrying around a lot of negative feelings,” she says today. “I was feeling energetically dark and heavy and confused. Then I started taking classes with Deb Neubauer at Smith College. It felt like she showed me where the light switch was and taught me how to consistently make it lighter and brighter so that I could learn to see more clearly. That is what made me fall in love with yoga.”
For some, yoga is purely exercise, a way to tone the legs and thighs, lift the buttocks and attain that relaxed glow. For others, it goes beyond sport—it’s an inquiry into the deepest parts of one’s inner soul, a journey of self-exploration that tightens the mind, spirit and body. No matter where you fall on the spectrum—or if you’re even on the spectrum at all—it’s hard to deny that the practice of yoga has become more than a trend.
Every day, both locally and across the nation, men and women pour into studios and surrender to the power of this ancient wellness system with roots in Hindu philosophy. In 2012, a study by Yoga Journal estimated that approximately 20.4 million Americans participate in some form of yoga, and the community is continuing to grow. This May, claiming our denizens are 42 percent more likely to engage in the practice than the overall population, Forbes magazine named Philadelphia one of the top five most yoga-friendly cities in the country.
The word “yoga,” which means “to yoke” in Sanskrit, has become a generic term for the physical part of an entire system of living recorded in the Yoga Sutra by the ancient sage Patanjali. Within the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lays out an eight-step process toward living a blissful life. Yoga asana, the physical yoga practiced in the west, is just one step on the path toward enlightenment.
Yoga asana has had a profound effect on millions of Americas, says Jeff Krasno, cofounder of the traveling Wanderlust Festival, an annual yoga gathering held in lush outdoor settings, complete with hikes, farm-to-table meals, lectures and films.
“Yoga studios are like bars for the sober,” Krasno tells PW. “People are discovering and cultivating new communities through the practice. Studios are becoming community centers; a place where you can go to be around like-minded people and find some level of commonality in a world that is so disconnected.” From the traditional to the experimental, such centers are popping up around the city faster than you can learn how to pronounce your sun-salutation in Sanskrit.
Wanderlust Festivals are usually four-day events held in off-the-grid mountain resorts and exotic locations—among them, Turtle Bay in Oahu, Hawaii’s North Shore and Squaw Valley in North Lake Tahoe, CA—but this Saturday, Wanderlust will make its way into Philadelphia for a one-day “Yoga Block Party” event at the Piazza at Schmidt’s. Expect live DJs, breakdancers and good local food paired with free yoga classes and informational sessions on reducing your carbon footprint, the importance of buying local and how you can help stop our looming ecological crisis.
It’s no surprise that yoga in America has grown over the last decade. With constant access to Facebook, e-mail, cellphones, on-demand television, et al, many people find themselves caught in a cycle of endless, empty connectivity. Its popularity may be partially due to the fact that it allows its partakers a moment to center, focus and disengage from this virtual reality we find ourselves living in, Krasno says.
“To learn to live outside of 160 characters is incredibly important right now,” he said. “Yoga gives people centeredness and depth to make better decisions in life. Making decisions and choices from a place of presence can only be better for the planet in the long run.”
“Yoga is an engine that is going to be hard to slow down. In an era that is experiencing record levels of diabetes, the extinction of plants and animals, a healthcare crisis … there is still a hopeful part of the world, a hopeful segment of America, that seems to be moving toward living a conscious life.”
Wanderlust began in 2009, when Krasno, his wife, Schuyler Grant, founder of New York City’s Kula Yoga Project, and their friend, Sean Hoess, decided to offer the yoga community-at-large an opportunity to come together for some environmentally responsible fun.
“The block party idea is a little bit of an experiment for us; it’s free, it’s urban,” says Krasno. “The goal for us was to create a community around mindful living, but we also want to make sure we can reach everyone. The more people we reach, the more diverse our core, the better planet we can begin to build together.”
Part of the Piazza event’s appeal is how it encourages change on a local and communal level. As Philadelphia becomes the new epicenter for budding yoga practitioners, a new league of teachers—including Freeman, Alexandra Holmes and Simon Park, who’ll be teaching at Wanderlust’s opening and closing sessions on Saturday—is sharing their unique styles with students across the city.
Freeman started leading classes in 2004 after her first 200-hour Anusara teacher training with Todd Norian. But she didn’t stop there. Instead of heading to the nearest studio to lead classes, she decided to immerse herself in learning to be an instructor.
“The (Anusara) training was profoundly life-changing, but I did not feel prepared to actually teach,” she says. “There was so much more to learn, and I needed to practice teaching, so I continued to do teacher trainings every year. After a while, I transitioned from a student in training to an assistant to a teacher trainer.”