May 19, 2015

The Non-Profit Yoga Studio: The American Dream with a Twist.

Common Ground Yoga 1

Common Ground Healing Arts, a non-profit yoga studio and wellness center in Charlottesville, Virginia, was founded on the basic idea that everyone in a community, no matter their economic standing, has the right to feel well and whole.

“I’ve always had an interest in social justice and been aware of the racial and economic issues that have been in Charlottesville, growing up here.” says yoga instructor and founder, Kate Zuckerman.

Kate was also the founder of Guerilla Yoga Project, an organization offering donation yoga classes throughout town.

Kate was in the initial stages of dreaming and planning for Common Ground when the recession hit in 2009.

“Everyone was telling me ‘I would love to go to yoga but I can’t afford it.’ After realizing how important mindfulness has been in my own life, it just struck me that often people who don’t have the access to it are the ones who need it the most.” ~ Kate Zuckerman

Located in the Jefferson School Building, an old brick elementary school which has been repurposed to house other new non-profits in the center of town, Common Ground sits between an affluent and a low-income section of downtown Charlottesville.

When the healing arts center opened its doors in January of 2012, it was with the hopes that within five years, the demographics of those attending the studio would reflect the demographics of the city at large. Operating within a sliding scale system, quality wellness services would remain the Common Denominator where all students could meet, whether on the wood floors of the main practice space, or in a mindful therapy session under high windowpanes of sun.

“There’s an element of oneness to the word ‘common’ but it’s also very unpretentious.It’s not necessarily spiritual world, but one that just means ‘regular.’ It helps to ground us in the recognition that we are all practicing in the same place.” ~ Kate Zuckerman

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Accessible Healthcare.

Yoga as an industry is booming, with practitioners spending $10.3 billion a year on yoga classes and products, a leap from $5.7 billion in 2008. According to a poll conducted Harris Interactive Service Bureau and released by Yoga Journal in 2012, 20.4 million Americans currently practice yoga; a rise of 29% in four years.

Yet despite the enormous growth in the number of people who practice yoga in America, the diversity within this group has, comparatively, seen little growth. As a whole, the population of those practicing yoga are overwhelmingly female, affluent and college educated. 40.6% of those who do yoga are between 18 and 34, 82.2% are women, 71.4% are college graduates and 44% have household incomes of $75,000 or more.

This disparity is interesting to consider when looking at how much news coverage there has been about Yoga as a spiritual safety net; a safe harbor to rely on in the midst of economic flux. In a 2009 CNN article titled “Recession Relief, Many Are Stretching For It” a Washington DC yoga instructor who offered a “bailout special” which claimed “this will make you feel like 700 billion bucks!”  

In the past 50 years, as the study and practice of Yoga has continued to imbed itself in american culture, it is not surprising that it has undergone some corporate contortions. But thankfully, that’s not the whole story.

For many American Yogis, the gap is narrowing between a yoga practice and social awareness.

Outreach yoga projects have gained momentum to an amazing degree in the last several years, with the formation of organizations like The Give Back Yoga Foundation which helps support teachers to work in underserved communities, as well as organizations like Off the Mat, Into the World, which helps young yoga practitioners think more socially about their practice.

Organizations serving particular populations in need such as the Veterans Yoga Project and The Prison Yoga Project have continued to multiply, and the number of attendees at The Yoga Service Conference at the Omega institute in upstate New York has tripled since its first conference was held four years ago. It is safe to say, that beyond the particular reach of each of these  branches, the future holds for American mindfulness in relation to social policy is a topic which is expanding at an elaborate and momentous rate.

“I think service is an evolution of the practice.It’s not like that sense of contribution happens to someone the first time or the 10th time or the 100th time they come to the mat, but that the personal path of self-inquiry that we do, if we’re committed to any practice over a period of time, will naturally lead people to the next step of asking what their relationship is to others and what they can give.” ~ Kate Zuckerman

A Radical Return.

In the context of our political climate, it is a bold claim to make that a person’s socioeconomic standing should not limit a person’s access to adequate healthcare.

In the American Yoga community and in the American dialogue at large, these are questions we face:

How do we reconcile this ideal of equality without sacrificing the value of the free market?

Are the promises of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for every American inherently incompatible with the Capitalist framework?

How responsible are we to one another?

These questions of connection, personal versus shared property and the extent of obligation are ones around which there is increasing political division.

To the question of whether everyone deserves to pursue their own health and well being, Common Ground’s answer is simply “yes.” This answer, on the one hand, is radically new, and on the other, couldn’t be more American.

When Kate decided to start a yoga program in a women’s correctional facility, Kate remarks that she was continuously invited to walk right up to the edge her own social judgments and have a good look.

Much in the same way we must move slowly into a difficult pose, Kate was able to ease into her own assumptions about her students in a correctional facility, some of which were uncomfortable and unflattering.

Eventually, she was able to teach a class with ease and be present to each sequence, each student, finding that the teaching of the asana was secondary to the experience of learning how to move through a new and challenging situation

This, for Kate, is yoga distilled to its essence:

“Yoga at its most basic is moving beyond the limitation of individual consciousness and into universal consciousness so there’s this idea of expansion—expanding one’s experience, expanding one’s horizon. Those were some of the best classes I’ve ever taught.” ~ Kate Zuckerman

American Yoga: A Practice in Progress.

At the time of its inception, yoga was an aristocratic practice, available mainly to young boys of wealth in the midst of the caste system in India. In a parallel comparison, American slavery was thriving during the writing of the Declaration of Independence. It is understandable why wanting to offer health and wellness to all, or working towards a more equitable American economy, could be mistaken for impossible idealism. Neither the founding roots of Yoga or Democracy have yet been fully realized and perhaps they never will.

“Democracy says we deserve equal rights. But yoga sort of takes it a step beyond and says not only do we deserve equal rights but we’re all part of the same fabric.” Wealthier students are free to practice anywhere in town, but they choose to come to Common Ground. They recognize that their freedom to pursue their own health and happiness is connected to someone else’s freedom to pursue theirs.

Perhaps the precipice that America is now standing on is another wave of its own revolution, where the pursuit of happiness is revealing itself to be not so different from liberty and the pursuit of community. This is certainly a shift that is occurring inside the small space of Common Ground and many non-profit yoga studios like it, where those who have more monetary resources are supporting the practice of others and in doing so, supporting the principle of connection inherent to the yogic tradition.

What non-profit studios like Common Ground are contributing to our American culture is the simple idea that our pursuit of a more equitable society doesn’t require us to travel very far.

And who knows? Your contribution could be waiting for you on the floor of a donation studio in your home town.



Yoga Journal


Relephant Read:

Bringing Yoga to a Women’s Prison.


Author: Lilly Bechtel

Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock

Photo: courtesy of Common Ground

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