Getting Grounded: Yoga in Washington

Even power players are putting down their BlackBerrys for an hour on the yoga mat

By: Katie Knorovsky

When Kim Weeks opened Boundless Yoga in DC in 2002, local yoga studios were rare. “I would leave the studio at night and have my mat with me,” she says. “Women would stop me on the street and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, where do you go?’ ”

Today there are dozens of studios in Washington offering a range of yoga styles, from slow and spiritual to powerful and pulsing. “Now there are more yoga mats on the streets than I can count,” Weeks says.

Yoga gained widespread popularity in the 1980s and ’90s as a fitness fad endorsed by celebrities. More recently, the millennia-old discipline seems to have taken root here at a deeper level. For many, the practice has evolved from just a workout to a way of life.

Longtime practitioners credit yoga’s surge in popularity to support from the medical community. When doctors began recommending yoga to patients suffering from stress, that “gave the yoga world a huge amount of credence,” says John Schumacher, who founded Unity Woods Yoga Center in 1979, when yoga existed only on the fringe.

Washington’s high stress helped. Relief is a downward-facing-dog pose for a growing crowd of converts, from entry-level staffers to power players. “People come in with their BlackBerrys,” says Kimberly Wilson, founder of Tranquil Space Yoga, which has locations in Bethesda, Arlington, and DC. “The eight-o’clock class isn’t late enough.”

Many crave meditation’s ability to melt stress, says Suzie Hurley, founder of Willow Street Yoga Center in Takoma Park and Silver Spring. Its yoga nidra classes teach deep-relaxation techniques. “We get a lot of lawyers and government officials looking for something to take with them to their stressed-out jobs,” she says. “More and more people are learning to meditate.”

And as the economy tanks, people are flocking to yoga. “Our classes are packed,” says Kyra Anastasia Sudofsky, founder of U Street’s Inspired Yoga, which now offers a “yoga bailout” pass (three months unlimited for $300). “Our students don’t want to give up yoga, because they feel like it’s an important component in staying sane. People seem to be paying more attention to their health and maintaining a sense of balance.” Sudofsky says that her introductory class has doubled in size over the past few months.

A cohesive yoga community has started to develop. Students gather for service projects, seminars, and overnight retreats. Each spring during DC Yoga Week, about a dozen area studios offer free and discounted classes and people gather on the Mall to practice yoga.

The DC Global Mala Project (dcglobalmala.com) is the yoga community’s linchpin event. Launched in 2007, the annual one-day assembly was organized to connect local yogis. Last year, 500 people assembled just before the fall equinox to do sun salutations, chant, and raise $17,000 for environmental charities.

Boldface names have noted that Washington is becoming a yoga center. “DC has become a place that attracts the most popular, sought-after teachers in the world,” says Debra Perlson-Mishalove, founder of Flow Yoga Center in DC’s Logan Circle. Yoga stars Shiva Rea, Sharon Gannon, and David Life have added Washington to their international tours.

Thirty years after Schumacher helped plant the seeds of yoga in Washington, Unity Woods is the nation’s largest center for Iyengar, an alignment-based form of yoga. Finally, his hometown’s yoga scene has arrived. “It was a little slow to take hold, compared to more culturally progressive cities, but it has,” Schumacher says. “Per capita, my guess is that Washington rivals, if not surpasses, places like New York and LA.”

Studios We Like

Washington has lots of yoga studios, each with a distinct personality. Most offer newcomer deals, and many provide discounted or free community classes; check the studios’ Web sites for details. To search by teacher, browse the directories of the Mid-Atlantic Yoga Association (mayayoga.org) or the Yoga Alliance (yogaalliance.org).

Ashtanga Yoga Center, 4000 Albemarle St., NW; ashtangayogadc.com. Serious teachers in a welcoming, no-frills haven for students of ashtanga yoga.

Bagheera Yoga, 2801 Adams Mill Rd., NW, Suite 306; 202-265-1783; bagheerayoga.com. Intimate Adams Morgan studio with small classes taught by Bobbi Poncé-Barger, past president of the Mid-Atlantic Yoga Association, who incorporates Eastern philosophy into her practice.

Bikram Yoga Dupont, 1635 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-332-8680; bikramyogadc.com. A 90-minute sequence of 26 postures and two breathing exercises held in a heated room with an aggressive teaching style. Bring plenty of water.

Boundless Yoga, 1522 U St., NW; 202-234-9642; boundlessyoga.com. Integrates a variety of hatha yoga styles; offers a popular Yoga for Athletes program and a free community class each Sunday afternoon.

Capitol Hill Yoga, 641 Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-448-9680; capitolhillyoga.com. Anusara yoga plus prenatal and baby yoga in an expanded location near Eastern Market.

Circle Yoga, 3838 Northampton St., NW; 202-686-1104; circleyoga.com. Welcoming studio with several styles of yoga and meditation; offerings include yoga for runners and cyclists plus a Budding Yogis program for kids and teens.

Down Dog Yoga, 1046 Potomac St., NW, 202-965-9642; 4733 Elm St., Fourth Floor, Bethesda, 301-654-9644; 12973 Woodlands Crossing Dr., Herndon, 703-437-9042; downdogyoga.com. Large classes fill up fast for “yoga with attitude”—one of the area’s only studios that teach Baron Baptiste Power Vinyasa, practiced in a heated room. Offers lunchtime power hours, Friday-night intermediate “party” classes (Georgetown only), and intensive workshops.

Flow Yoga Center, 1450 P St., NW; 202-462-3569; flowyogacenter.com. Features flowing yoga styles such as ashtanga, jivamukti, vinyasa, and Prana Flow as well as trendy offerings: Afro-Brazilian dance, AcroYoga, and midnight yoga.

Health Advantage Yoga Center, 1041 Sterling Rd., Suite 202, Herndon; 703-435-1571; healthadvantageyoga.com. Anusara and Iyengar yoga offered in four sessions each year; students enroll for 8-to-12-week courses (8-to-10-week for teens and kids). Drop-ins accepted when space is available.

Hot Yoga, 3408 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Suite 205, , 202-468-9642; Try Yoga, 4609 Willow La., Chevy Chase, 240-888-9642; hotyogausa.com. Vinyasa yoga in a room heated to nearly 100 degrees; prenatal class in a cool room.

Inspired Yoga, 1115 U St., NW; 202-462-1800; inspiredyoga.com. High-energy Vinyasa Flow classes in an airy space; offers breathing- and meditation-focused candlelight yoga.

Quiet Mind Yoga, 3423 14th St., NW; 202-299-0111; quietminddc.com. New Columbia Heights studio fuses styles including Iyengar, ashtanga, vinyasa, and anusara; also offers restorative yoga.

Shakti MindBody Studio, 1015½ Seventh St., NW; 202-783-6463; shaktimindbodystudio.com. Cozy studio in Shaw with tea and cookies after class; offers massage therapy and restorative classes with an emphasis on meditation.

Spiral Flight Yoga, 1826 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-965-1645; spiralflightyoga.com. Since 1997 has provided Georgetown with diverse offerings, from traditional hatha, vinyasa, and restorative yoga to kundalini yoga.

Studio Serenity, 2469 18th St., NW; 202-518-9642; studioserenity.com. Vigorous vinyasa classes in the heart of Adams Morgan; also offers power yoga, ashtanga/Iyengar, and jivamukti.

Sun and Moon Yoga Studio, 3811 Lee Hwy., Arlington; 9998 Main St., Fairfax, 703-525-9642; sunandmoonstudio.com. Meditative hatha yoga with a variety of props, from a ropes course to a ceiling sling; popular therapeutic workshops and top-tier teacher-training courses.

Thrive Yoga, 1321-B Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-294-9642; thriveyoga.com. An Eastern oasis (waterfalls, artifacts from Bali and Thailand) in a Rockville strip mall; offers multi-week vinyasa sessions and a kids’ yoga-and-crafts program.

Tranquil Space, 1632 17th St., NW, 202-328-9642; 7475 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 8, Bethesda, 301-654-9642; 3260 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 703-348-7993; tranquilspace.com. Named one of the world’s top 25 yoga studios by Travel & Leisure; known for girl-power vibe, nurturing vinyasa classes, and attention to detail (lavender eye pillows, post-class tea and cookies, eco-friendly apparel).

Unity Woods Yoga Center, DC (Woodley Park), Tenleytown, Bethesda, Ballston; 301-656-8992; unitywoods.com. For 30 years, the nation’s largest center for Iyengar.

Willow Street Yoga Center, 6930 Carroll Ave., Suite 100, Takoma Park; 8561 Fenton St., Second Floor, Silver Spring, 301-270-8038; willowstreetyoga.com. Opened in 1994, now the largest center in the country for anusara. Several free weekly classes plus yoga designed for people with special conditions, injuries, and chronic back pain.

YogaChai, 1744 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-746-9642; yogachai.com. New Adams Morgan studio offers childcare during some morning classes plus a variety of nurturing classes for adults, babies, and kids.

Yoga District, 1635 Connecticut Ave., NW; 1910 14th St., NW; 1830 First St., NW; 202-265-9642; yogadistrict.com. Laid-back yoga that melds a variety of styles; affordable prices ($10 per class) in a bare-bones but comfortable setting.

What’s Hot

Though most studios are committed to honoring thousands of years of yoga tradition, many also experiment with variations. Here are some popular new offerings:

AcroYoga

This blends the spirituality of yoga with Thai massage and acrobatics. Postures require partners—one acts as a base supporting the other in the air. Try it at Flow Yoga Center, where it’s not recommended for beginners. Other studios offer occasional “jam sessions” that include some AcroYoga poses.

Jivamukti Yoga

Founded in New York by celebrity yogis Sharon Gannon and David Life, jivamukti yoga is a physically challenging practice that keeps a strong devotional element through flowing vinyasa postures, chanting, meditation, and music. Try it at Flow Yoga Center and Studio Serenity; find classes at jiva-dc.com.

Yoga Nidra

Yoga nidra (or “yogic sleep”) classes are offered at a growing number of studios. The ancient technique induces deep relaxation through breathing exercises and guided meditation. Try it at Willow Street Yoga Center, Circle Yoga, and elsewhere. 

Prana Flow

This energetic style of vinyasa developed by star instructor Shiva Rea combines traditional postures with dance, Indian martial arts, play, and ritual. Try it at Flow Yoga Center and Hot Yoga.

Yoga for Athletes

Classes for athletes complement sports training with a focus on improving flexibility and helping to prevent injury. Try this style at Boundless Yoga, Sun and Moon Yoga Studio, and Willow Street Yoga Center.

Yoga Styles

Ashtanga: An athletic, fast-paced type of yoga.

Anusara: A playful and flowing style that focuses on spiritual and therapeutic aspects.

Hatha: The umbrella term for practices that emphasize posture and alignment.

Iyengar: A slow and precise style; focuses on alignment, strength, and breath.

Jivamukti: A style that features flowing movements, chanting, meditation, and music.

Kundalini: A spiritual form that involves chanting and intense breathing.

Prana Flow: An energetic style that incorporates traditional postures, dance, and Indian martial arts.

Vinyasa: A general term for styles that synchronize breath and flowing movement.

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.