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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Hughes

Crowded Classes Test the Zen of Yoga, WSJ Encore Section, February 16, 2015

Updated: Feb 12, 2019

Crowded Classes Test the Zen of Yoga

Rising popularity has made yoga studios a downward dog eat downward dog world


Feb. 16, 2015 1100 p.m. ET

The ancient art of yoga is supposed to offer a path to inner peace.

But in this age of anxiety, many yoga classes—which teach poses and breathing designed to quiet the mind—have become so crowded that finding a spot on the floor is becoming a competitive sport.

And that’s leading to some very unenlightened behavior.

Consider my recent morning in “Strong and Calm Yoga,” a class offered by the Equinox gym in Palos Verdes, Calif.

Stressed, harried and rushed, I arrived only two minutes before the start of my favorite class. It was packed. There wasn’t a single space on the floor large enough for my mat.

Spotting an empty mat in front, I moved it—just a tad—to make enough room. But then, worried about the mat’s owner coming back, I repositioned it. I was frantically trying to fit myself in at a perpendicular position to the rest of the class when the woman returned.

“Why did you move my mat?” she asked in an angry tone. I explained. “And we don’t wear shoes in yoga,” she said, glaring at my running shoes. (I knew that and was about to take them off.)

As the class started, feeling attacked, I rolled up my mat, leaned over, and in a truly uncharacteristic outburst said, “You win. I’m leaving.” I then walked across the room, out the door, and left the gym in tears.

Boom and Gloom

“Yoga is supposed to be about unity and ultimately the divine,” my yoga teacher, Christopher Quain, said later, shaking his head. “I felt terrible.” In the locker room, my swim coach, Niecia Staggs, chimed in, “People who are practicing yoga want Zen, they don’t already have it.”

The number of people trying to find inner peace—or maybe just fitness and flexibility —through yoga soared to 24.3 million in 2013, a 37% climb in six years, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry

And while the number of yoga studios has also risen, many classes, typically priced from $15 to $30 each, are now packed to capacity (and beyond), particularly at peak times and with popular instructors. Many studios don’t turn away students until they can’t wedge one more in.

“The growth is crazy. Crazy good,” says Nicole Conners, director of education and outreach at Yoga Alliance, a registry listing 58,000 yoga teachers.

Yoga to the People in New York’s East Village, which requests only donations, offers up to eight classes a day. On a recent Monday night, roughly 150 people showed up, filling three floors of studios. As more people entered, instructors told us to move even closer together, until I was 3 inches from the next mat.

Most yoga teachers seem to have at least one tale of drama and woe. “I have seen violence,” says Lara Benusis, a New York yoga teacher. She once was about to start a class when a foam yoga block suddenly flew through the air. One hapless customer had put her block in another’s usual territory. Alarmed, Ms. Benusis moved closer, but the tiff ended there.

Once a crowded class begins, there are other risks. A yoga class often involves leaping into poses quickly. Limbs fly. And then there are headstands and handstands. A yoga mat typically measures 2 by 6 feet—and that just isn’t a big enough landing pad.

Hard Landing

For those who need glasses, this all raises other issues. Fred Hoffman, a Los Angeles art dealer, has been taking yoga classes for several decades, and he usually places his glasses on a support block next to his mat. Last year, a woman on the next mat attempted a handstand.

She landed with a thud—right on Mr. Hoffman’s antique gold glasses, breaking the frames. She also grazed Mr. Hoffman on her way down.

“I was really mad about that,” he says. “It was insensitive.” Mr. Hoffman didn’t confront her. He took the glasses to be repaired and paid to have the rims rebuilt. He is planning to get a case to protect the glasses.

But, hey, nobody’s perfect. Mr. Hoffman recently found himself at fault when his hand accidentally grazed his favorite teacher’s head. “I didn’t have my glasses on,” he says. “I felt terrible about that.”

You might be wondering why on earth spaces in yoga classes can’t be better controlled. Why not just limit the number of people who come in? After all, other popular classes, such as spinning, require sign-ups.

Yoga studios explain it’s a particularly competitive field. Rents are high and class fees are low. “If we tried to have classes with 10 and 20 people, as some might suggest, we would have to charge $50 to $60 a class to pay the rent in this city,” says Mike Patton, the founder of Yoga Vida in New York.

When I tried one of Yoga Vida’s classes at 8:30 on a recent Saturday morning, there seemed to be enough room in the spacious loft, with only about 26 people in the class. But then the guy on the mat in front stretched lengthwise, resting his hands briefly on my feet.

Of course, many crowded classes run smoothly. “I really believe our mats can be an inch apart,” says JJ Hendershot, the group fitness manager at my gym, Equinox in Palos Verdes, which offers yoga classes as part of its monthly membership. “We all shimmy and move as a community. A lot of it is the instructor setting the tone.”

(The woman I had the incident with there declined to comment.)

Some enterprising studios guarantee smaller classes. Yoga 216 in Manhattan, which opened two years ago, recently mailed fliers boasting: “Six yoga mats per class, not per row.”

And Tommy Schey, the owner of Sweat Yoga, a new upscale hot- yoga studio in Santa Monica, Calif., is about to introduce an online software system that will let people reserve a designated mat space—much like picking a seat on an airplane.

Mr. Schey has experienced the mat wars. He once entered a crowded class where a “lovely, friendly woman” came up and put her arm around him—a distraction, whether it was meant to be or not. Then, wham! She quickly unfurled her mat in his space. “It was just really bad behavior,” he says.

The High Road

Yoga purists, those committed to studying the history and philosophy of the discipline, take a dim view of the mat wars. One of those purists is my sister-in- law, Michelle Carney, a New York yoga teacher who also takes classes. “People get angry all the time,” she tells me. “I do my best to send blessings or love or move away from them.”

She recently noticed a woman asking a group to make room in a crowded class. “UGH,” was the collective answer.

So Ms. Carney volunteered, moving her mat. The woman thanked her profusely, twice.

“A true yogi looks around to see if anyone needs help,” she says, using the term for yoga practitioners. “A yoga studio is a holy space. This is just ridiculous.”

Ms. Hughes is a writer living in California and New York. She can be reached at

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