August 20, 2010

Yoga for the Peeps.

Rusty Wells is keeping it real in San Francisco.

I met Rusty Wells many years ago when I was heavily involved in the yoga scene in San Francisco and beyond. At the time, I had just started working with a master yoga teacher who we’ll call “Walter,” who fashions himself a guru for the new age and traipses around the Western hemisphere preaching his gospel of appropriated platitudes while getting people to sweat so much they aren’t even really listening.

I traveled with Walter to many a yoga “bootcamp,” “Personal Revolution Weekend,” and Yoga Journal Conferences. I met a lot of other yoga superstars just like Walter, and their devoted followers. I lived in the culty muck of it for ten years. I saw it all, really. I also ran one of San Francisco’s bigger yoga studios for a while, and sat in on meeting after meeting with upper management about how we could get people to spend more money on classes, workshops, retreats, apparel, and spiritual yoga paraphernalia. $90 soy Buddha candle, anyone? The yoga business is left-brained and ruthless, just like any other.

But Rusty seemed different from the moment I slipped into my first class with him at Yoga Tree Valencia way back in the 90s. There were masses of people waiting to get into class; I was sitting in a corner patiently reading a book, when this hunky sweetheart of a guy came up to me and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Rusty.” How very nice of him, I thought.

Rusty had heart, but he also had vision.

His vision, for many years, was to open a donation-based yoga studio in San Francisco. A studio that anyone could come to, but also, a studio that everyone would want to come to. And he finally did it: in January 2010 he opened Urban Flow, a beautiful converted warehouse space on Mission Street, squeezed nicely into the very center of the city, utterly convenient to public transportation—important to a donation-based studio because it’s not truly democratic if people can’t get to it easily.

Rusty’s Bhakti Flow classes are challenging, and sweaty, and intense. He is veeeeeery popular in San Francisco. His studio is, therefore, big. And it’s quite beautiful, with reclaimed hardwood floors, brick-painted-white walls, and huge industrial windows that, when frosted over with the steam from a sweaty evening class, give the studio an almost ethereal atmosphere. But it’s not as serious as all that. There’s a disco ball sparkling from the high ceiling, and, of course, there’s the spirited vibe of the rhythmic, energized classes.

Urban Flow is really a simple affair.

There’s no yoga fashion boutique, no fancy soy candles for sale. The few things they sell are fairly utilitarian in nature.  You bring your own bottle of water (preferably in a reusable container… there is a filtered water dispenser installed.) It’s all about the yoga. You pay what you can. As Rusty says, “If you got no money, you come in.” Simple as that.

Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t pay. It means you pay what you can. They suggest a donation. They have parameters. But you’ll never get turned away for lack of funds. And on top of that, Urban Flow offers classes specifically catered to the greater community, like Eric Kobrick’s Yoga En Espanol on Sunday afternoons. This month, they are refusing to charge a penny for weekday noon classes.  Not to mention utterly free workshops for beginners, every other Sunday, many of which are taught by Rusty himself.  That’s right. For the price of nothing, you can take your very first yoga class, for free, with Rusty Wells. How cool is that?

I just got wind of this new video that was made to publicize Urban Flow. Made by San Francisco filmmaker Daniel Jarvis and recently featured on local magazine 7×7’s web site, it’s admittedly a marketing piece. But I think it tells the story well. And I am happy to spread the word.

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