Hurricane Katrina blew a yoga trend into New Orleans
Published: Friday, August 26, 2011, 2:16 PM Updated: Friday, August 26, 2011, 2:18 PM
Once upon a time, the sight of a group of people striking yoga poses in the sculpture garden behind the New Orleans Museum of Art on a Saturday morning might have seemed odd. Today, however, nothing could seem more natural.
Six years after Hurricane Katrina left an entire city in desperate need of mind-body-spirit rehabilitation, there is mounting evidence that New Orleans has become one of the hottest yoga spots in America.
Sean Johnson, founder of Wild Lotus Yoga Uptown and in the Marigny, estimates the number of New Orleans studios has jumped from six pre-Katrina to 22 today. Yoga Journal, the largest-circulation yoga magazine in the country, cited that figure when it featured New Orleans among its "10 Fantastically Yoga-Friendly Towns" earlier this summer.
"We looked at a number of factors -- great yoga instruction in a variety of different styles and traditions, a community of inspired practitioners, surroundings that are inviting and encouraging to the yoga practitioner, " said Charity Ferreira, senior editor at the San Francisco-based magazine. "Basically, we were looking at cities where yoga is flourishing in a special way."
A 2008 study by the magazine, the latest available, showed that 6.9 percent of U.S. adults, or 15.8 million people, practiced yoga; nearly 8 percent, or 18.3 million, of those who didn't said they were "very" or "extremely" interested in doing so.
There's no study that measures New Orleans' participation against the national average, but Ferreira said the anecdotal evidence is compelling enough.
"What struck me was how much yoga had grown in New Orleans since Katrina, " she said. "The people I talked to really emphasized how much yoga had helped the community in the aftermath of the storm."
A case in point: Ann Yoachim, who said she considered yoga a luxury for hippie types or the wealthy until a friend persuaded her to visit Wild Lotus in the fall of 2005. She remembers being nervous, then moved by yoga students who wept during classes.
"I didn't think yoga was for me until Katrina, " she said. "It was a safe place to let emotions flow."
'Like an anchor'
Wild Lotus became a "real refuge" in October 2005 as one of the first studios to reopen after the storm, Johnson said. Veteran students reunited there, and new students, including relief workers, came looking for comfort.
"A lot of people said the studio was like an anchor for them in a time when they had nothing to hold on to, " Johnson said. "I think people really found a sense of healing and community through the yoga practice and through the connection with each other."
Suzy Rivera, owner of LIFE Yoga and Boutique in Uptown, said she used yoga to "keep a steady mind" after losing her year-old home in Waveland, Miss. Rivera, who moved back to New Orleans after the storm, said yoga offered a vital escape from insurance and FEMA hassles.
The practice of taking one posture at a time, each pose flowing into the next, helped her develop the emotional calm and mental discipline necessary to navigate the recovery process, she said. Yoga's meditative component also proved critical during those traumatic first several months after the storm -- a dynamic Keith Porteous, co-owner of Swan River Yoga, witnessed once before, as a resident of New York City after Sept. 11, 2001.
"Meditation is the most powerful way to gain control of your mind, " Porteous said. "Through the process of doing the poses, there is a kind of catharsis that occurs."
Influx of new styles
The social aspect of yoga also contributed to the post-K boom, students and teachers said. After the storm, studios began offering more free or discounted classes as a community service. At the same time, an influx of young people from other cities arrived, eager to contribute various styles of yoga to the city's revival.
"Everyone can find a style that works for them, " said Cheryl Golich, co-owner of Balance Yoga and Wellness in Mid-City.
The storm-inspired generosity persists. Studios here typically allow students to borrow mats without charge -- something that doesn't happen everywhere -- and discounted or donation-based classes are scheduled somewhere in the city virtually every night of the week, which is unusual for a city of this size.
Katrina may have started the trend, but there have been no shortage of other stresses to sustain demand.
Kelley Hebert, a student at Swan River, said yoga practice kept her from panicking when her house was broken into this July. Instead, she focused on the positive: Her family was not home at the time.
Myra "Cissy" Burson, an instructor at Wild Lotus, said she has used yoga to help students at the city's public charter schools manage growing pains.
Its appeal is not limited to its tension-fighting tendencies, however. Yoga is a perfect fitness fit for New Orleans, students and instructors say. The city's social dynamism is reflected in the community-oriented attitude of the yoga studios here, which generally support one another and their neighborhoods. Instructors take classes at other studios, and students bond through citywide experiences such as Carnival.
"You've never de-toxed until you've de-toxed with your whole yoga class after Mardi Gras, " said Nina McDaniel, a student at LIFE Yoga.
Yoga also tends to attract and nurture creative types, as does New Orleans.
"I think the soulfulness of New Orleans, the music, the food, the festivals, I think that energy actually enhances yoga practice here, " said Johnson of Wild Lotus.
Those who have practiced in other places, from yoga meccas like New York to smaller cities like San Antonio, agree that New Orleans adds a special flair to its brand of yoga. The words "lighthearted, " "laid-back" and "fun" pop up often in descriptions of yoga here, especially in comparison to yoga elsewhere. Students pose to the sounds of Rebirth Brass Band and feel comfortable integrating yoga into lives that include, say, a career in mixology.
Ferreira of Yoga Journal cites an intersection between live music and yoga as special to New Orleans. Johnson exemplifies this blend with his kirtan, or mantra, group, Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band, which performs in yoga studios nationwide. Last year, the band became the first kirtan band to entertain at the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
"We blend the soul of our culture with the spirit of yoga, " he said. "I think yoga and New Orleans go hand-in-hand. Yoga is another form of celebrating life."
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