The End of an Era: before Soul Cycle, there was Jivamukti

I’m not the first to call Jivamukti the Studio 54 of yoga: it isn’t a place that inspires lukewarm reactions given its intense physical and spiritual teaching, star-studded clientele, and history of scandals.  Nor was I surprised to hear that Jivamukti will be closing its New York studio after a 35-year run. (Its last class will be held on December 22, marking the end of a decade.)  Many opinions have been written about its cult-like vibe and sexual harassment cases. What’s stuck with me most—after leaving the studio almost ten years ago—is the sweeping, complicated impact it’s had on so many yoga teachers and students who have lived in New York for a while. Love or hate it (or somewhere in the middle), many of us started practicing there or have studied with teachers who did. Without even knowing each other, old Jivamukti students might recall the experience like strangers recalling Woodstock. (It’s hardly coincidence that Jivamukti hosts a Wild Woodstock retreat.)

I started practicing yoga about 20 years ago and went to Jivamukti almost every day for nearly a decade. This was well before there were yoga studios on almost every New York corner and arguably before the concept of yoga itself became mainstream in the city. I knew almost nothing about the studio’s celebrity cache and history when I walked into the space on Lafayette Street. The fact that Madonna, Christy Turlington and Mike D. of the Beastie Boys were known to show up somehow escaped me, even though music promoter Russell Simmons was in practically every class I ever took with Uma Thurman’s brother Dechen.  I wasn’t in any in crowd there or cliques. More like a bystander, I floated on the fringes of Jivamukti social fabric and did my practice. What I loved was the combination of spiritual emphasis, the bright purple walls, and extremely fast-paced, rigorous dance-based yoga to the tune of Prince and Led Zeppelin. It may have been a replacement for clubbing (with true endorphin highs) for those of us who didn’t smoke or drink much. Before there was Soul Cycle, there was Jivamukti.

There were real teachings available, rooted in yogic tradition, taught by highly skilled teachers. Many acquaintances have said to me that troubled people turned to Jivamukti in the way that tortured souls turn to art. Who doesn’t have pain or difficult periods in life? (Like art, yoga exists to soothe the soul and body, and provide a healthy, productive outlet for emotional and mental challenges. Like anything else on earth, it can be twisted in any direction, even perverted, depending on the person. It doesn’t mean the whole system is corrupt.) For one thing, long-term practice at Jivamukti gave me the confidence and awareness to understand what was happening in my body and trust it. This has served me well through pregnancies, childbirth and motherhood so far—a wild, surreal trip that continues to challenge and amaze me. Jivamukti practice also helped me develop an openness and willingness to test my comfort zone and intuition in unknown situations—like interviewing strangers from anywhere in the world for any number of professional endeavors, including many experts who otherwise may have scared the hell out of me. (For this, I would also credit a decent chunk of work experience and several tough but clear-eyed mentors.)

For whatever reason, I wasn’t exposed to any harassment at Jivamukti, despite my regular presence there. I did assert my personal convictions on a few occasions and was firm about certain boundaries, even in the midst of deep soul searching and inevitable confusion. One was around the concept of gurus. Jivamukti typically posted a spiritual focus of the month that served as a theme in every class. Examples included following a guru, veganism, chakra clearing, community service. I liked this because it gave me the chance to investigate my own views. Sometimes the discussions were useful to me. Other times, downright heavy-handed and off-putting. I never believed in the concept of following everything the teacher said and always felt I had the option to decide for myself, taking what felt true to me and dismissing what didn’t.

Many years later, de ja vu at Soul Cycle. It’s worth noting that I gave Soul Cycle a try when the chain first opened way back when. Like any investigative journalist, I took my 80s hot pink spandex to their Santa Monica location, nearly fainted after class and got a vegan macro bowl with a friend in Venice to recover. Quite some time later (after children and work and not making enough time to break a real sweat), I found myself back at Soul Cycle in New York—once a week on Fridays to improve my cardio health. Also, because the instructor plays 90s music, which brings back my high school days; it’s clear I’m the only one in class old enough to actually have lived through the latest Pearl Jam album at prom. Nor do I wear the official Soul Cycle gear sold in the studio’s shop, except sometimes when I forget to bring socks. My teacher is charismatic and attentive. Like many Soul Cycle teachers, he’s got the persona, and is, in fact, a handsome actor when he isn’t teaching spin classes. He’s also very knowledgeable about technical aspects of riding. Once after class, he directly called me out: “I want you to stay with the rest of the class; you can do that during the slow songs.” The words flew out of my mouth: “well, it’s true I do my own thing sometimes.” My first reaction was resistance, then we’ll see: maybe I will try harder next time, or maybe I’ll continue to channel my inner Diana Ross during the weight series for arms.

Leaving Jivamukti many years ago was like breaking off any long-term relationship—there came a point when I knew it was over. The last straw was pretty run-of-the mill: the studio released a CD with music from several Jivamukti luminaries and was pushing students to make it number one on Amazon. I vaguely remembered this but recently went back to dig up the email I sent to Carlos, who managed the studio at the time. My issue was the over-emphasis on image-making, rather than using the studio’s clout to raise money for causes, as they’d done on other occasions like generating funds to build schools in rural India. Maybe they did donate proceeds to charity, I don’t know.

The yoga studios where I later chose to practice have been much more subdued, and may seem less intense and glamorous on the surface, though drama exists everywhere. In the mess of human affairs, I’m inclined to use the lessons to move forward, keep what’s real and inspiring, and leave the rest behind, especially as the end of the year and decade approach. (Jivamukti itself means liberated soul.) I’m grateful for the lessons. There are too many to count on both hands, and they keep coming.

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