We recently had a tea for cooperative members of the studio. At that tea I shared the story of how Circle Yoga came to be. The members enjoyed hearing the story so much that they asked me to share it with the wider community. Since March 17, 2014 was our 11 year anniversary, we thought we would send the story out with our March newsletter. Here it is:
I discovered the teachings of yoga and Buddhism when I was a teenager and found them again in the early 1990’s. I took my first yoga class at City Fitness, then located at Scott Circle, in 1991. At the same time I was reading everything I could find about mindfulness and meditation. Yoga and mindfulness resonated with my heart and mind, and supported me in balancing a busy family and work life. At the time I was working for Oracle Corporation doing consulting, sales and technical writing.
In 1999, the Omega Institute catalog arrived in my mailbox on Oliver Street. I loved to look at the offerings and imagine what it would be like to go on retreat there. Because I had four kids and a very busy husband, I didn’t expect that would happen anytime soon. When I opened this catalog, I saw a two-page spread on Thich Nhat Hanh, his community and a retreat he was offering there. I had read many of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, beginning with The Miracle of Mindfulness, and was drawn to his simple, elegant words and wisdom for being present to our lives. So I was thrilled to see that families with children ages six and up were invited to participate. At that time my kids were six, eight, eight and nine, so I loaded them in the car and drove to upstate New York.
You can read my account of this first retreat on my blog. It simply and completely changed the direction of my life. I realized that I wanted to bring this compassionate, honest and joyful practice into every aspect of my life. I began to do more meditation at home, attend local meditation groups, and weave mindfulness practice into my everyday family life. I continued to practice yoga as well and I found the two practices to be very complimentary. In particular, I felt that yoga was a concrete way to bring mindfulness into my body.
I made some major life changes as a result of my deep dive into mindfulness practice. I stopped using intoxicants, including alcohol, and began to explore impermanence, non-self and the roots of my own suffering. During that time, anxiety and depression that had been suppressed came to the forefront of my life, and I longed for clarity about how to use what I now could see was my one wild and precious life. I watched as my children and many of their friends experienced sometimes crippling anxiety and despair too.
I concluded that one of the causes of increasing anxiety and depression in our children was the relentless pressure for them to live in their abstract minds rather than in their concrete sense-based bodies. There was an emphasis on doing and not on being and experiencing. When I was a child, I spent hours outdoors, creating my own worlds and playing in the woods. I had very little homework and only one lesson (piano) per week. I had household chores, but otherwise I was free to daydream, watch ants, or read books for pleasure. I sensed that mindfulness was something that could help young people return to their experience as it was happening, rather than spending so of their time thinking abstractly or performing for others. But I didn’t really have a clue about how to get involved.
Then the tragedy of September 11th happened, and I realized that I didn’t have time to ruminate anymore. I needed to act. So I contacted Colman McCarthy, the wise peace activist and teacher, and asked him to help me find a way to bring mindfulness and conflict resolution to the young people of DC. He gave me some suggestions, and within a week I was teaching peace and conflict resolution at Lafayette Elementary, supporting the Peer Mediators at Alice Deal, and visiting Colman’s non-violence class at Wilson High School.
I loved teaching kids, and I continued to learn how mindfulness and yoga worked together, both in my own life, and in my teaching. When I heard about a weekend workshop, Teaching Yoga to Kids, being offered at Next Generation Yoga in New York City, I decided to go take it. During that weekend I confirmed that yoga was a concrete way for kids to learn to be more present, realized that I had the skills to teach kids yoga, and met Linda Feldman (who became integral to the studio in so many ways!)
I came back to DC and immediately started teaching kids yoga at Lafayette and at my local health club. The class I offered at Lafayette filled immediately, and so I added a second class. I also continued to teach mindfulness, Nonviolent Communication (NVC), and conflict resolution to several groups of kids each week. After teaching yoga in various unused schoolrooms and the health club for a nearly a year, I started craving a more conducive environment. I wanted to create a beautiful and peaceful nest where kids could learn yoga, enjoy relaxing and transform their stress. I was looking for a space that wouldn’t smell like sweat or stinky feet, and would be safe and welcoming.
Walking down 39th Street in 2003, I noticed a vinyl For Lease sign hanging on a run-down red brick building surrounded by a collapsing chain link fence. Though dumpy, there was something that seemed just right about that building at 5615 39th Street (now 3838 Northampton Street). I called the owner and asked to see the space. He informed me that he had recently sold the building and he would let the new owners know that I was interested. I had to wait for them to contact me. I was disappointed, and continued to look around at other spaces. Nothing felt as right as the red brick building. After a few months, I passed by again and saw the vinyl For Lease sign still hanging. So I decided to call the owner again.
This time the owner told me that his sale had fallen through. He agreed to meet me at the building to show what was available. The only free spaces in the building were the two first floor rooms. The room that now accommodates the entry way, the office, kitchenette and women’s dressing room was the first room I saw. The other space was across the hall (what is now Studio 1) and was larger, but was broken up into several different rooms with a large bathroom squarely in the center. I decided to rent the smaller side. As I began this process, I promised myself that I would operate the business in the most mindful way that I could, and I recognized that this was a mission more than a business. Making money would not be my priority.
I had the space cleaned and painted, dubbed the studio Budding Yogis, added the giant paper flowers (which you can still see in Studio 1) and began telling people about the kids yoga classes. My first classes were for 8-12 year olds and families, and the first parents soon became the first kids yoga teachers. Camille, Linda, and Colleen were some of our first parents, and with Christine and me, they formed the basis for our teaching staff. Linda, our first hire, had been teaching kids yoga at a nearby nursery school. We continued to add more classes and soon we needed a separate office space for answering the phone and taking registration, so I rented the other side of the first floor. We used the back room as an office and I subleased the front to an artist friend to show her work. Once we had more space, we added a small shelf of books and yoga props to sell.
By 2004, it became apparent that we would need to add adult classes for two reasons. For one thing, adults came to the studio every day to ask when we might be offering classes for them. And for another, at the end of each class, our young students would be completely relaxed in savasana, enjoying the momentary down time, and their stressed-out parents or caregivers would arrive and hurry the children on to their next event. So we hired a few teachers who had been trained to teach adults, I did yoga teacher training at Willow Street, and we began to offer adult classes. Around that same time, my husband and I decided to purchase the entire building and renovate it so we could guarantee the space for the studio and so we could make it even more accessible to everyone. In the meantime, we began to transition the name of the studio from Budding Yogis to Circle Yoga to make it more representative of the larger community.
During the renovation, we re-oriented the building so the front door would face Northampton Street rather than 39th Street. We added the reception area, changing rooms, offices, and created the two upstairs studios. We had to ask the tenants to move out when we took over the upper floors, which was a hardship for some tenants. The tenant who was most upset came into the studio several years later and told us that although he had been angry when we made him move out, he had changed his mind and was really happy that we took over the building and made it a yoga studio. He said that ours was the best use of the building that he could imagine. That made me very happy.
As we grew we continued to bring on amazing teachers and staff. In addition to Linda teaching and managing the studio, Gayle was an early joiner, brought on to manage our finances and payroll. Penny worked for a consultant that we hired to help us with our mission and branding, and we later hired her to manage the studio’s PR and retail. Anne K. came to us as a teacher and then a desk person, and she soon began managing the staff and studio administration. Karen Soltes. came in to create and manage our therapeutic yoga programs. Last year we brought in Sarah Brown to support our financial and marketing programs. We are so lucky that most of our dedicated teaching and desk staff have been with us for years.
Growing from the two students in our first class to over 800 students every week, Circle Yoga continues to fulfill what I saw as its most important mission – to reduce stress, anxiety, and despair. In addition to strongly holding the ideal of mindfulness for the studio, I also wanted Circle Yoga to be a place where everyone is welcome. Some yoga studios, especially in the ’90s, were awkward for a “regular” person. If you didn’t know something about the philosophy of yoga, or the Sanskrit names for poses, you wouldn’t feel that you belonged. Circle Yoga was born from my longing to have a place where everyone could feel accepted and welcomed, even if you had never heard of Downward Facing Dog. A place where everyone could be enlightened with the support of the practice and the community.
To fully express our democratic goals, in 2012 we decided to transform the studio from a wholly owned corporation, to an employee cooperative. This allowed us to expand our commitment to shared decision making and gave teachers and staff the opportunity to share in the success of the studio.
Looking back, I can see how Circle Yoga grew out of both my own personal suffering and the suffering of the community especially in the aftermath of September 11th. There is a image used in the Buddhist tradition of a beautiful lotus flower that grows out of the dirty stinky mud. Without the mud, there could be no lotus. And without the suffering, there would be no Circle Yoga.
What has surprised me most about Circle Yoga is that the forms of yoga and meditation, while important, are ultimately not what the studio is about. What has been most transformative for the students, teachers, staff, and for me, has been the community that grew up around the studio. The love, care, personal challenges and support that we offer each other is what makes this studio more than simply a yoga or meditation service. We will always be both Budding Yogis, blossoming into our ever-expanding practice, and Circle Yoga, a connected, engaged community of friends and fellow practitioners walking the path together.