Q&A with a NYC Yogi

Perfectly at home sitting cross-legged in the middle of Tompkins Square Park, Yoga to the People instructor Carl Danielsen is dressed in a simple cotton blue t-shirt, orange chino shorts, flip flops and a black cap. Despite running around New York City teaching both acting and yoga classes, Danielsen appears serene and speaks with a calm soft voice.

A donation based yoga studio that opened its doors on St. Marks Place in 2006, YTTP places emphasis on personal development rather than the star power of an instructor’s pose series. Instructors’ schedules are top secret and yoga-goers are encouraged to get as close to their neighbors as possible to maximize studio space. Instructors, like Danielsen, act as coaches that help every level of yogi perfect their yoga practice during hour long classes.

With multiple studios in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Chicago, California and Arizona, owner and founder Greg Gumucio’s vision of opening up yoga to everyone has seemingly come true. His donation based studios are thriving, and while the hot yoga studios in midtown Manhattan are $5 a class, Gumucios studios are doing significantly better than their $20 counterparts.

NYU Journalistic Inquiry: Yoga is becoming more and more popular today, why do you think your studios in particular are so popular?

Danielsen: It makes people feel good. They go in, they have an experience that’s fun, we play music, we do things differently from your normal yoga studio. We want first timers. We want them to feel comfortable, not alienated and not intimidated, so people leave feeling good and they tell their friends — and even bring their friends. We started with one studio on St. Marks and now we have four. Sometimes there will be 1,000 people in that building.

NYU Journalistic Inquiry: Are most of the people in your classes mostly students or of all ages?

Danielsen: We get people of all ages, I would say at St. Marks we 80% students but if you go out to Brooklyn its a whole different crowd, lots of young professionals. You get more working people at the 38th Street studio. I’ve taught in California and the San Francisco studios are incredible, and the yoga-goers there are not students. The one near Berkeley has a younger crowd, and I was just out at the Arizona studio and that’s a mix.

NYU Journalistic Inquiry: How are donations?

Danielsen: I don’t look in the box. We’re instructed, and I think it’s so wise, to scoop it out and put it in an envelope. So I have no idea. People come and don’t pay, and that’s what we want — we want it to be accessible to everyone.

NYU Journalistic Inquiry: What is it like from an instructor’s perspective to be in a YTTP class?

Danielsen: Especially in New York, where we’re Type A personalities always striving to get to the next thing, when someone encourages you to breathe, to close your eyes, and to take an hour for yourself, it’s extraordinary….I find that at many other yoga studios, it’s about what can I do, what can I show off, I’m in competition. At YTTP, there’s just very little of that.

NYU Journalistic Inquiry: How do you think mindfulness and meditation work? Together? Separate?

Danielsen: People think that meditation is clearing your mind. Well, that’s impossible, but it does slow it down, allows it to focus, the thoughts come and eventually we get less distracted. I think it is about being mindful — about listening to the breathe, calming the breathe and being present, which is so hard to do.

NYU Journalistic Inquiry: So it’s not about not thinking, its about awareness then.

Danielsen: Well it’s about slowing it all down….I think it’s about taking in what’s there. We all do this, we get so caught up with the conversations we have with our mothers and our lives, that we miss the leaves on the grass, this gorgeous park in New York City and all the little details in it. You know we eat with friends, and we don’t really taste the food. We don’t hear all the different sounds.

NYU Journalistic Inquiry: There was a picture of a girl doing a pose on a skyscraper that surfaced a last week in the news. Do you think that social media is devaluing the practice of yoga?

Danielsen: No, no. I certainly don’t want a photo of me in a yoga pose on Instagram, but if someone looks at that and thinks that’s cool, I don’t judge.

Carl Danielsen, yoga instructor at Yoga to the People on St. Marks Place in Manhatta, NY, shows off some of his favorite yoga poses.
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