Yoga for the People—All 500,000 of them
Yoga is getting bigger—literally. The quarterly conferences run by Yoga Journal have grown considerably over the last decade, with the more popular teachers leading packed classes in giant ballrooms. Now in its fourth year, yoga and music festival Wanderlust runs four sold-out summer weekends throughout the country, attracting tens of thousands of people to group classes led by Seane Corn, Rodney Yee, and others. A few weeks ago, 500,000 Manhattan yogis gathered to celebrate the summer solstice in the middle of Times Square. And coming up, the GLBL Yoga Project, set for August 16, will turn Central Park into a giant yoga studio, with 15,000 yogis practicing to live music.
There are great advantages to practicing yoga in a large group, says Devarshi Steven Hartman, Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga. “A yoga practice is called sangha, which means ‘community coming together,’” he says. “And there’s no doubt that our personal, spiritual, and individual growth is quickened when we have a community of like-minded souls reflecting back to us, with honesty, who we are.” Group experiences, says Devarshi—who recently returned from teaching at the Wanderlust Festival in Stratton, Vermont—can be especially conducive to forming an energy that’s much bigger than what we experience on our own. He points to the musician MC Yogi’s performances at Wanderlust. “His songs brought people together singing, screaming, moving,” he says. “It was so inspiring, I was sobbing.”
Yoga—and specifically group yoga—also represents a culture-wide shift from a religious focus to a spiritual one. Decades ago, Devarshi points out, when a family moved to a new neighborhood, the first thing they did was look for a church; that’s how they found their community. “My generation stopped doing that a little bit, and the next one has almost completely stopped,” he says. “Now when we move to a new area, the first thing many of us say is, ‘where’s my yoga studio?’” He likens group practice to church for the devout: Yoga among others allows us to be spiritual, and connected, if not necessarily religious. “And unlike a church, where you have a set tithe but you might not like the minister, in yoga if you find someone you want to learn from, you seek out that person’s class or workshop and you pay for it,” says Devarshi. “And it’s diverse: The mix of people within a yoga class represents the ultimate community movement.”
Of course, with 499,999 other people in class with you, how can a yogi reasonably expect to achieve the most ideal practicing conditions? You can’t, of course, but that doesn’t make the experience any less authentic. In fact, it might make it more so. “Group yoga doesn’t account for your age or physical limitations, whether your practice is in a group of six or 6,000,” says Devarshi. “But one of the many purposes of yoga is to increase awareness of our bodies and our breath. You should be caring for and listening to your own body, no matter whether your teacher is providing adjustments or modifications specific to you, or what the person next to you is doing.” You may have to pay more attention in huge group classes and festival-style yoga events—but that’s not a bad thing. Your efforts, says Devarshi, will be rewarded. “My god,” he says. “Have you ever heard 500 people chanting om in Kripalu’s Main Hall? It’s breathtaking.”