No Proper Clothes, No Proper Payment: An Interview With Yoga To The People Instructor, Carl Danielsen
The eastern practice known as Yoga has certainly become a powerful movement across the world, attracting more and more followers with benefits like stress reduction and posture improvement. This combination of physical, mental and spiritual practice is not only responsible for the increasing number of health-conscious, roll-up-mat-bearing “Yogis” around us, but also the spread of a positive message that proudly announces: “This power is for everyone.”
Yoga to the People started in 2005, when founder Greg Gumicio opened the first studio in St. Marks, located in the East Village. Known for its donation-based classes, YTTP has stood out among the many yoga studios and their membership fees, and currently operates studios in 10 locations around New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Berkley. “Its about making yoga more accessible,” says Carl Danielsen, a dancer, acting coach, and yoga instructor at YTTP. The NYU Journalistic Inquiry class met with the native Yogi one morning at New York City’s Tompkins Square Park to hear about his experience with yoga and YTTP.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: How did you get into yoga?
CARL DANIELSEN: I had tried Yoga many times when I was younger and back in the old days, when I was growing up, it wasn’t accessible… I would go and sit there and cry because they’d ask me to be in some position that was torturous to me. It just wasn’t fun. And then… I started with Bikram yoga… that helped open things up. Then I found Yoga to the people, which is more about accessibility.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: What’s your favorite yoga position?
CARL DANIELSEN: It depends on the day. Well, there’s this thing you do called “wheel.” You’re laying down, and you put your hands behind your head and bring your hips up to the sky.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: How did you discover YTTP?
CARL DANIELSEN: There were articles in the paper, and what I would do to make a living in between acting jobs in NYC was coach actors. And I would always 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 what yoga is. It’s mostly the concentration that is really good for young people that you develop in the room. It sounded like hell to me, the thought of all those people, no room between the mats. I thought, ‘Oh my god! That’s my worst nightmare!’ And I was out in California and I tried all the yoga studios in that particular area, and I thought, “well, I should at least give this a shot.” So I tried the one in Berkley, and it was just open and it was great. I thought, “wow, this is really a smart way to teach yoga.” The crowd sounds intimidating, but it’s actually part of the beauty of it because the energy in those rooms with all those people working their stuff out, sweating, working hard, taking a break, it’s kind of magical, and I’ve never experienced anything like that anywhere else.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: Did you get your training through YTTP?
CARL DANIELSEN: Yes. I traveled around the country for 20 years, So I studied yoga at incredible places all over the country, but then I found YTTP, and I watched [people] come to the studio kind of lost. In a couple cases, addiction problems, or other reasons. And I watched them become yogis, and then I watched them do the teacher training, and then I watched them become master-teachers and you see people kind of blossom under this whole thing. I’ve seen the teacher-training programs at other places that are excellent, but it was less about the personal growth. I wanted that transformative quality. And also, the people that work at YTTP are so cool, I just kind of wanted to hang out with them and get to know them a little better.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: What is YTTP’s message, and how is it important to you?
CARL DANIELSEN: If you want the mission statement, it’s that poem, and it’s everywhere. It’s on the website, and every Yoga to the people studio. Its about making it accessible to everyone. There will be no proper clothes, there will be no proper payment. That is the mission. [Greg] had a vision of how this could impact the world because it’s so good for everybody.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: Why do you think yoga has gotten so popular? Why Yoga?
CARL DANIELSEN: A, it makes me feel good. I think people tell their friends. They go in, they have an experience that’s fun. We do different things than the normal yoga studio. We want people who are first timers, we want them to feel comfortable, not alienated, not intimidated. And so people leave feeling good. And they tell their friends and bring their friends. It’s an amazing thing. Its one of those things when you talk about how this all came to be, it seems too good to be true, and yet it happens and the doors miraculously stay open. It started with one studio in St Marks, and now we have four studios. Sometimes there will be a thousand people in that building in a day.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: How do you get the funding to open up a place like this?
CARL DANIELSEN: Greg had some kind of yoga following mostly from the west coast. And he started with one studio, and he did all the teaching. It’s the same format wherever they go; they start with a couple classes. Arizona just had their first teacher-training program, and it’s a unique program. It’s not about creating gurus or the master yoga teacher; it’s about teaching people to teach themselves, which is another big YTTP philosophy. It’s not: “how can we get you into the perfect, deepest pose,” its: “how can you teach yourself helpfully to do the poses that are beneficial for your body.”
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: What are the donations like in class?
CARL DANIELSEN: I don’t look in the box. We’re instructed — and I think it’s so wise — to just scoop it out. People come in and don’t pay, and that’s cool, because that’s what we want because it is available to everybody.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: Are the people in your classes mostly students?
CARL DANIELSEN: We get all ages. I would say in St. Marks, 80% of the clients are students, but it depends. If you go out to Brooklyn, it’s a whole different field. Slightly older crowd, still in their 20s. But I think those are young professionals. You get more working people at the 38th street studio, I’ve taught in California. The San Francisco studio is incredible. The one near Berkley has a younger crowd. And on the mission statement it talks about grandmas coming in and sweating.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: How does it do financially?
CARL DANIELSEN: I don’t think anyone is sitting around and making a lot of money. They’re expanding… [and] it’s expensive, but I think if there is an overflow it goes to starting another studio and spreading the word.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: Do you teach full-time? If not, what do you do outside of teaching?
CARL DANIELSEN: Very few of our teachers make a living out of it. There are a few, and those are the ones if you come to the studio, you’ll see all the time. And they work so hard. They become amazing yoga teachers, but they’re teaching four classes a day, 100 classes a month. That’s a lot, and I never went into this for that. Everyone is paid the same and it’s a very modest sum for each class. At the end of the month it’s a little extra change and it’s nice. I took a teaching job at the New York Film Academy, I teach Shakespeare [acting] down there. And I also have my private coaching practice, so between those three things I manage to carve out an income. I know it’s the hippy artist thing… but I’ve made it work for all these years!
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: Have you experienced health benefits from yoga?
CARL DANIELSEN: Oh, God! Yes! The health benefits, it’s crazy. I don’t even know where to start, I’ve been doing yoga for so long. I did it 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, and I said, “Ok. It’s possible. I want some of that.” So that’s why I went. I’m more flexible, [but] I wish it was accessible to me when I was younger.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: Could you talk a little bit more about that energy in the room?
CARL DANIELSEN: Part of our training is, we get to observe a class, and I remember the first time I sat in the back of a class. What I saw was the broken bodies. I saw the bodies that needed attention, the bodies that were tight, sore, and uncomfortable. And then I watch that transformation. Especially in New York [where] we’re type A, and we’re striving to get to the next thing. The fact that someone encourages you to breath and close your eyes and have an hour for yourself is extraordinary, and people take that in at whatever place they are in their lives. They do the best they can and laugh, maybe cry during the hour. But they leave their stuff behind.
NYU’s JOURNALISTIC INQUIRY: What advice would you give to a new yogi?
CARL DANIELSEN: It’s all about alignment. If you find the alignment for a posture, and we’re giving you everything you need to know… you breath, and you start to open up. And it starts to happen; forget about the final product. It’s all stuff that’s true in life. And the other thing is not to get too serious about it. It’s all about being playful. Breath, have a good time.