New initiative brings free yoga to The Point

Shahar Golan

Rachelle Fernandez (left) and Maria Torres (right) at a new YogaShare class at The Point CDC.

Sierra Straker, 15, was stressed after her A.C.T.I.O.N meet-up, The Point CDC’s teen leadership group, one day last month. She never practiced yoga but decided to try the free class debuting at the cozy wooden-floored, graffiti-decorated dance studio in the building.

“I was feeling really tense that day and I thought it would make me feel better,” she said.

For the next hour Sierra practiced a series of balancing poses, strengthening exercises, stretches, and meditation. Afterwards, she was “more focused and in tune with myself. It made me a little happier.”

The class is part of YogaShare, a new initiative that strives to make yoga accessible to all New Yorkers. Although attendance at The Point has been low so far, program founders and community leaders hope that with time, improved outreach, and funding the program will grow in popularity and become self-sustaining.

A 2016 study concluded that 36 million Americans practice yoga, a 76 percent increase from 2012. YogaShare co-founders, however, are frustrated that this proliferation is geographically and socio-economically confined.

“You go to Manhattan and there’s a yoga studio every five blocks,” said YogaShare co-founder Alena Campo, 28. “ We know the benefits of the practice. And we felt it almost not right to keep it to ourselves.”

According to co-founder Linda Lopes, 34, yoga is akin to organic produce; both are healthy and inaccessible to many. She says they want “to break that with yoga.”

Peer-reviewed science shows that yoga has health benefits. It can alleviate back pain, reduce inflammation, and increase body awareness.

In October, The Point became YogaShare’s second site, with a teen and adult community class every Monday, and a youth class once a month.

Rachelle Fernandez, 63, fiscal officer at The Point, says yoga can be a coping mechanism for youth and teens in stressful times and hopes the program sustains long-term success, but Fernandez is unsure if The Point will be able to provide the necessary funding. Currently YogaShare is offering its services on a volunteer basis. The Point is providing the space with an agreement through December that will be reevaluated.

But the co-founders are optimistic they will be able to secure funding through small grants from Citizens Committee for New York City, and Give Back Yoga Foundation.

So far almost all of the participants at The Point are new to yoga. Classes have been averaging three students. Sierra says that the low turnout is at least partly due to local teens being unaware that the initiative is here. YogaShare has been relying on hosting organizations for outreach; at other sites with this division of labor, classes are averaging 15 participants. Sierra and her A.C.T.I.O.N colleague, Destinee Morales, 16, say that to reach those numbers in Hunts Point, The Point and YogaShare should focus on social media outreach. 

Others say it will just take time. Angel Torres, 25, who coaches a circus program at The Point, says that all programs start slow. He added that initially his own program attracted a quarter of the 20 it does today.

Another challenge for engagement, according to Sierra, is yoga’s association with gentrification. Local residents are “seeing many new faces,” and gossiping about new luxury developments, she said, adding that many in Hunts Point perceive yoga as correlated with neighborhood changes they are already suspicious of.

Lopes is understanding of that perception. She says that yoga has developed a reputation as an activity of upper classes because of the high cost of most classes and the fact that it is concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods. She hopes to help change that reality.

Lopes, who is black, adds that attending yoga classes where few other participants were women of color motivated her to teach. Creating yoga spaces welcoming to communities of color was always a goal for her.

“I look different than most yoga teachers, so hopefully that makes people realize it can look many different ways,” she added.

Reflecting on her own experience, Sierra hopes others in the community give YogaShare a try. “It made me take account of my health” she said, “I would recommend to try it once. More people should take care of their health.” 

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