Yoga finds a home in Jackson Heights Laundromat
Whitney Light, The Metropolitan Monitor - 12/3/12
Bent over in downward-facing dog position, the yoga students lowered their heads, lifted their hips, closed their eyes, exhaled. Then the door opened. Eyes shot up to look.
After an awkward moment, instructor Suran Song chirped, "Come right in!" A woman trundled past the seven students' bottoms with a loaded laundry cart as they lowered into cobra pose.
Since June, Wednesdays are yoga mornings at the JH Laundromat in Jackson Heights. Song, a local painter and performance artist who incorporates yoga in her work, acquired a grant to offer two months of free weekly yoga classes to anyone who cares to join. They've been so well received, she has extended the classes beyond their planned August finish on her own time through November.
On yoga days, participants kick off their boots at the door and settle onto foam mats. The scent of detergent hangs pleasantly in the warm air and a TV hums with the morning news. The Laundromat seems miles from the busy commerce of 37th Avenue outside, which, Song said, is what she hoped for.
Song first discovered yoga as a child. When her older Argentinian cousins visited her family's home in Pennsylvania, she'd watch with curiosity as they rose early to practice yoga in the living room.
Yet it wasn't until she was an adult in Ann Arbor, leading a performance-art punk-rock band, that she learned the value of yoga for herself, she said. In 1999, while the band toured and lived month after month from a van, she bought a set of yoga tapes on VHS and started practicing on the van floor. It brought her comfort, she said.
"Yoga is about finding a way to come home to yourself," said Song. When you find your home, it's natural to want to help others find theirs, she said, and pointed out that Jackson Heights is full of people—immigrants—who have literally left their home.
The idea of bringing yoga to the immigrant community appealed to The Laundromat Project, to which Song applied for funds. Since 2006, the non-profit arts organization has produced 16 art projects in 25 Laundromats across the greater New York area and Philadelphia. Funded by numerous cultural organizations and individuals, its goal is to help improve the well-being of low-income people of color using art.
But before Song even heard about the grant, ideas were converging at the Laundromat.
Song had been thinking she wanted to take yoga out of incense-perfumed studios and back into the neighborhood where she lived. In part inspired by the Occupy movement, she read about Gandhi's ideas for self-sufficient villages and yoga's integrality to daily life.
"It's not a rarefied experience," she said, explaining that yoga is like a good teeth-brushing, or a hot shower—a healthy thing to do every day.
At the same time, she was washing her socks and sheets at JH Laundromat, noticing its sunny windows, large foyer and clean floors.
Owner Xu Jiang himself was wondering about using his extra space for entertainment, he said.
"Here we have people from all backgrounds coming. Chinese, Korean, Indian, people from Middle East, Europeans. Many of them cannot even communicate to each other," said Xu. "If I can, I would like to make it a more fun place for them."
Song had met Xu, but felt shy about proposing yoga, she said. Then, she saw an ad for The Laundromat Project online. She told Xu about it, and he agreed she should try for it. In April, the proposal got approved.
A $3,000 honorarium lets Song attend professional artist workshops for six months, and a $1,000 budget produced the yoga classes, as well as a complementary series of art prints: Song helps her students to use tempera paints on their body to make a record on paper of their yoga poses. The results help students by revealing how they carry their weight, a key yoga concept, she explained.
Within a month, the class was peaking at about 15 people, roughly half newcomers to yoga and half newcomers to the Laundromat, Song said.
"Always the class is almost complete," said Margarita Cortes, who attends every week. The 70-year-old Colombian immigrant had never practiced yoga before. She survived two bouts of cancer in the past 12 years. It was her doctor's orders that she take the next opportunity to try yoga, she said.
"I completely lost my balance," said Cortes. "I'd be in the shower and I'd try to dry my legs. Before I had to sit but today I can stand up and do it."
Ideally, Song said, she hopes to offer more classes in the Laundromat and other "nooks and crannies."
Xu is also enthusiastic. He's told other Laundromat owners across America about it, he said, through the online forum of the Coin Laundry Association.
"I actually posted pictures for other Laundromats to see, and they liked it," said Xu.
Xu himself is usually at home on Wednesday mornings taking care of his newborn, otherwise he'd join in, he said.
Nearing 9 a.m., as the washers and dryers whirred and customers shuffled in and out, Song led her students in their final sitting pose.
"Whole body breathes in, whole body breathing out," she said. "See if you can stay with that meditation..."
Cah-chink! Cah-chink! Cah-chink! Quarters fired out of the coin machine.
Clink, clink, clink, they went into a young man's hand.
"...no matter what!" Song implored.
A few minutes of meditation later, the students opened their eyes.
"Namaste," they said. "Thank you."