Yoga at Any Price

When Lily Cushman told us she and her partner were opening a pay-by-donation yoga studio, our eyebrows went up an inch. Usually studios can afford to offer one or two classes a week where you pay what you wish. But every single class? In a prime Park Slope space on Sixth Ave. at St. Marks? Was she crazy? (And secretly rich?)

Yes and no. “It might seem crazy, but on the West coast this is a more common model,” says the 30-year-old yoga instructor, who was inspired to follow suit after hearing from so many people that they couldn’t afford yoga classes. “There’s a handful of studios in the Bay Area and L.A. that do this, and you go there and it’s 100 people in a class.”

The capacity won’t reach those levels when Dharma Yoga Brooklyn opens next week–the second-floor studio can only accommodate 25. But factor into the equation a below-market deal on rent, fundraising, and financial help from the Dharma Yoga Center in Gramercy, where she was a manager, helped run the teacher training program, and assisted the center’s namesake, Sri Dharma Mittra, and the business model makes more sense. Also key: Belief that it will just work.

“It’s very much a leap of faith, and people have responded extraordinarily,” says Cushman. One friend traveled across the country to do a week of construction for free; others without much money donated sums like $500.

At Dharma Yoga Brooklyn, which Cushman will run jointly with her partner Jeremy Frindel (that’s them in Pigeon pose), the style of yoga is classical in its truest sense. It’s based upon the teachings of Sri Dharma Mittra, a 70-year-old Yogi who helped popularize yoga in New York before it was a scene. He still teaches daily at his Gramercy center, and by Cushman’s accounts, teaches “the hardest class in the city.” But even those unfamiliar with his name may recognize his Master Yoga Chart of 908 Postures, a common sight in yoga centers and ashrams.

Classes at Dharma Yoga Brooklyn begin next Tuesday and will be offered every day, along with a few workshops, meditation, relaxation and chanting sessions mixed in. There’s no suggested donation for any of them, not even for the mats and towels. “The beauty of letting the student decide the price, is that they can really consider the value themselves,” Cushman says. Already, she’s seen “a ripple effect” since she and Frindel announced they were opening the studio. One major center in Manhattan, Strala Yoga, recently dropped its price to $10 per class–a bargain compared to the $15-$18 most pay everywhere else (even Brooklyn).

The grand opening this Saturday will be Dharma Yoga Brooklyn’s final fundraiser and silent auction of items serious practioners will appreciate, like a 19th century Hindu deity print and the complete Krishna Das CD collection. Sri Dharma Mittra himself will make an appearance at noon, and there will be all-day chanting. (“We’re going to be taking breaks,” clarifies Cushman.) Also being auctioned off are class cards at a few other Brooklyn yoga studios.

“We just want people to practice. If they don’t click in with what we’re doing, they can go to the Bikram place around the corner. It’s not about us, it’s not about me or mine, it’s about everybody…It’s cool. It’ll all work out.”

Sent by Nicole. Photos courtesy of Lily Cushman.

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