Healthy Manhattan: Yoga Stretches Uptown

Written by Emily Johnson on . Posted in Healthy Manhattan, Posts.

It used to be that if you were looking for a good yoga class in New York City, you naturally gravitated toward Union Square. Within a small radius of the park, a cluster of studios—with respected names like Om Yoga, Bikram Yoga and Integral Yoga—have prospered over the years. So many studios, in fact, that people in the yoga community started jokingly referring to the area as "YoHo."

But at least one of those people thinks there’s a new YoHo in town. Frances Taylor-Brown, who runs Zenyasa Yoga on West 72nd Street with her yogi husband, says the Upper West Side is giving Union Square a run forits money when it comes to the quantity and quality of yoga offerings.

"It used to be like when you wanted to do good yoga, you went Downtown," Taylor-Brown says. "You kind of had to. Now I see people walking down the street in the Upper West Side with their yoga mats all the time. It’s become an appendage."

She may be on to something. A Google Map search turns up 22 yoga studios in a four-avenue span between Eighth and 23rd streets. The Upper West Side claims 20. And this doesn’t include those gyms and rehab facilities that count yoga among their many other offerings; these are places that only offer yoga.

Debra Flashenberg, the director of Prenatal Yoga Center on West 72nd Street, said the Upper West Side’s yoga scene has actually been thriving for a long time; it’s just been a well-kept secret.

"When I opened my studio almost nine years ago, on our block alone there were five yoga studios," Flashenberg says. "I feel like it’s been there, but quieter in a sense. In Union Square, you have the big well-known ones like Om."

She said the recent arrival of highprofile new studios like Pure Yoga and Yoga Works might have helped create some buzz about the Uptown area—but in reality, according to Flashenberg, it has been a destination for high-quality, specialized and even revolutionary types of yoga for some time.

Over the years, yoga has been interpreted in different ways and in a number of styles. Some of the most popular are hatha yoga, which is slowpaced with an emphasis on mindfulness; vinyasa, which emphasizes the alignment of breath with movement; and Bikram, which is taught in a heated room with high humidity. Practitioners of all of these styles can find a home on the Upper West Side.

Flashenberg’s studio is the only one in the city to cater specifically to pre- and post-natal women. And at Zenyasa Yoga, you can practice a slow-flow style that was pioneered by Taylor-Brown’s husband, founder Jason Ray Brown.

Brown was a teacher at Om Yoga years ago when he began seeking more knowledge about anatomy to inform his yoga practice. What he learned made him question some commonly held beliefs about yoga.

"A lot of people assume yoga is balanced, but he started seeing teachers come to him with yoga injuries," Taylor- Brown explains. "People are told in yoga class, if you just keep working long enough, you’ll get it. But anatomically, that’s not true. You could just work and work until you tear a meniscus."

So Brown incorporated his knowledge into a new style that combined slow stretching and strengthening with an emphasis on mindfulness practices like meditation. He called it Zenyasa and opened his studio at 155 W. 72nd St. last year.

Walking across West 72nd Street, it’s not immediately clear that it’s a yoga hotbed. Zoning laws in the neighborhood put tight restrictions on signs, so most studios are tucked away in otherwise nondescript buildings. On a cloudy day last week, for example, there would have been almost no visual evidence of the flourishing scene if it wasn’t for a pair a young women carrying yoga mats.

Ashley Szucs, 27, who lives several blocks away, was on her way home from a hot yoga class and laughed at the image she gave off.

"It’s kind of a cliché, right?" she said. "The train is always full of people with mats. It’s like we’re on our way to a convention."

Most studios rely on word-of-mouth and Internet search rankings to spread the word, and despite the economic downturn, people are still willing to pay for yoga.

"It’s really becoming that people are getting more interested in taking care of their bodies," Taylor-Brown says. "It’s exciting. The more people take care of mind, body and spirit, the more we can be helpful to our families and our communities."

In Flashenberg’s view, while many students attending yoga classes around Union Square tend to be young people new to the practice, the demographics are different Uptown. "Up here, you have older people who have been practicing for a while," she explains. "It’s been a strong but quiet yoga community for many years."