An Inside Look: Yoga to the People with Carl Danielsen
By Maggie Yang
Yoga to the People is the only yoga studio in New York City that offers free yoga. Founded in 2005 by Greg Gumucio, Yoga to the People offers classes at studios in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Phoenix. Although the sessions are free, the organization runs on donations with a suggested amount of $10 per class. In New York alone, there are five studios. After busy days in the city of lights, New Yorkers find time to meditate, relax, and breathe in these studios around the city. Dancer and acting coach Carl Danielsen has been a yoga instructor at various Yoga to the People locations around the nation, teaching classes with members of all different ages. The NYU Journalistic Inquiry class sat down with Carl Danielsen one afternoon to talk about Yoga to the People’s mission and Danielsen’s own experiences teaching yoga.
NYU’s Journalistic Inquiry: What is Yoga to the People’s mission, and how important is it to you?
Danielsen: The mission statement is on the website and at every Yoga to the People studio. It’s about making it accessible to everyone. There will be no proper clothes, and no proper payment. It’s about teaching people to teach themselves. It’s not about how to get you into the perfect pose, but rather how we teach you to do the poses that are more beneficial for your body. That is the mission.
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: How do the donations work? Do people usually pay the suggested price or do they take advantage of the free yoga?
Danielsen: I have no idea. I don’t look in the box. No one looks in the box. At the end of the day we just scoop it out. People come and don’t pay, and that’s great. That’s what we want. Where there are more young professionals, like in Brooklyn, I think people are giving the ten dollars suggested donation which is half of what it is at any place else.
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: How did you discover YTTP?
Danielsen: I read articles in the paper about YTTP. I was coaching young actors at the time, and I would tell people go do yoga. It’s great for the body, but it also develops concentration. The physical practice is only a small part of yoga. It’s mostly the concentration that you develop in the room that is good for young people. At first, [YTTP] sounded like hell to me! The thought of all those people, and no room between the mats. I thought, “Oh my god! That’s my worst nightmare!” I was out in California at the time, and I tried all the yoga studios in a particular area, and I thought I should at least give this a shot. It was just great and wonderful. The crowd sounds intimidating, but it’s actually part of the beauty of it because the energy in the room with all those people sweating, working hard, taking a break, it’s kind of magical.
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: Did you get your training at YTTP? Why did you join YTTP?
Danielsen: No, I actually studied yoga at all different incredible places all over the country. Then I found YTTP, and I watched some of our now master teachers. I watched them come to the studio kind of lost, in a couple cases addiction problems. I watched them become yogis. I watched them do the teacher training, and then I watched them become master teachers. You see people blossom through this whole thing. I’ve seen teacher training programs at other places that are excellent but it was less about the personal growth. I wanted that transformative quality that YTTP had, and the people who work at YTTP are so cool I just kind of wanted to hang out with them!
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: Is teaching at YTTP your full time job? What do you do for a living?
Danielsen: Very few of our teachers make a living out of only teaching at YTTP. There are a few, and if you come to the studio you will see them. They work so hard, and they become amazing yoga teachers who teach four or five classes a day. Then there are a few of us who teach around three or four classes a week. We all get paid the same for each class. At the end of the month, it’s a little extra change, and it’s nice! I teach Shakespeare down at The New York Film Academy, and I also have my own coaching practice. Between those three things I manage to carve out an income, and I know it’s the hippy artist thing, but I’ve made it work for all these years!
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: Are the people who attend your classes mostly students?
Danielsen: We get all ages. At St. Mark’s about 80 percent of the clientele are students, but it depends [on the location]. In Brooklyn, it’s a whole different feel, a slightly older crowd but still in their twenties. I think most there are young professionals. There are more working people at the 38th street studio. I’ve taught in California. The San Francisco studio is incredible. Most are not students there, although the one near Berkeley does have a younger crowd. Everything’s a mix.
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: What is the energy like in the room during a session?
Danielsen: I remember the first time I sat in the back of a class during my training. What I saw was the broken bodies. The bodies that needed attention, the ones that were tight, sore, or uncomfortable. Then I watch for that transformation. Especially in New York when we’re all type A, and we’re striving to get to the next thing. We’re going to get there. The fact that someone encourages you to breath and close your eyes and have an hour for yourself is extraordinary. People take that in at whatever place they are in their lives, and they do the best they can and laugh. They leave their stuff behind.
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: Why do you think yoga has gotten more popular? How are YTTP sessions different than those of other yoga studios?
Danielsen: It makes people feel good. We play music and do different things than your normal yoga studio. We want first-timers. We want them to feel comfortable and not alienated or intimidated so people leave feeling good, and they tell and bring their friends. It’s an amazing thing. It seems too good to be true, but it happens, and the doors miraculously stay open. It started with one studio in St. Mark’s.
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: What is the most difficult position, and what is your favorite?
Danielsen: Oh it depends on the day! There’s this thing you do that is called “wheel.” You put your legs down, your hands behind your head and you bring your head up to the sky. My shoulders and hips are tight so that one is hard for me. I enjoy standing forehead and knees, dancer pose. It depends on the day. It depends how your body is feeling on any given day.
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: How often do injuries happen, and have you every had a yoga injury?
Danielsen: What usually causes injuries is misalignment. That is what teacher training is all about. There are a lot of injuries caused by yoga because people come in and push themselves too hard. It’s knees. It’s wrists. I personally have never had a yoga injury, but I also come from a dance background where teachers were very strict about alignment. Injury is something to be careful of, and we are well aware of it at YTTP. We talk to people about it all the time.
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: Have you experienced any health benefits doing yoga?
Danielsen: Oh my goodness! Yes! The health benefits, it’s crazy! I don’t even know where to start on this. I’ve been doing yoga for so long. I started because I was dancing in my 40’s, and it was starting to hurt. There is a movie of Astaire when he’s dancing at 59, and he looks 35. I said, “Ok. It’s possible, and I want some of that.” So I started yoga, and I’m more flexible. I wish it was more accessible to me when I was younger.
NYU Journalistic Inquiry: What advice would you give to people new to yoga?
Danielsen: It’s all about alignment. Focus on what you are doing, breathe, and you’ll start to open up. Forget about the final product. Another thing, don’t get too serious about it. YTTP is all about making it a fun and light experience. Breathe, have a good time, make sure your alignment is there.