Charleston has never been a yoga destination. Even if you isolate the East Coast, or zoom in on the Southeast, our city is out-Om-ed by New York, Asheville, New Orleans, and possibly Atlanta, too. Even Charlotte beat out Charleston as the newest outpost for the nation-wide yoga giant CorePower Yoga. But this year, Charleston had its largest collaborative yoga event thus far — Salute the Solstice — our newest studio will host world-famous yogi Dana Trixie Flynn, and even Pounce Cat Cafe is hosting classes.
Charleston seems to have nailed down its yogi M.O. This is a city that welcomes yoga in the most unexpected places. The Holy City might not be a yoga destination; but it is a yoga home, and that might be even better.
Yoga is no longer the patchouli-dank “woo woo” of crystal-toting free spirits. If you’ve been alive and coherent this century, you’ll know that yoga progressed long ago from the realm of taboo topics into celebrity fitspo. It’s been a long time since The Beatles crossed paths with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Longer still since America’s first superstar swami, Vivekananda, appeared at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. And it was over 200 years ago that William Emerson, father of Ralph Waldo, published the first Sanskrit scripture translation, prompting Henry David Thoreau to write, “at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.” Despite times of extreme anti-Asian racism and claims that yoga was corrupting pure women, the practice has remained a relative constant in American culture since its arrival. Americans have, for the most part, overcome a fear of otherness enough to embrace a few Sanskrit words into the vernacular. Namaslay Beyoncé memes are a thing; yoga has graced the cover of Time magazine at least twice; and new scientific studies on the benefits of downward-facing dog seem to roll out with every moon phase.
The scent of sandalwood is waning and yoga now smells like expensive Lycra pants, last night’s vodka, and a whole lot of Benjamins. The dot guru age is here, a time of yoga as a platform agnostic: beer yoga, baseball yoga, cyber yoga, goat yoga, naked yoga. You get it.
“Nowadays, everything is yoga,” says Kelly Jean Moore, owner of Charleston’s mindful Mission Yoga. “I mean that in the most wonderful and the most awful way.”
Yoga can — and does — go everywhere. Hardly anywhere is this so true as in Charleston.
“People walk into the bar like, ‘That’s my yoga instructor!’ and I love it,” says Meggie Austin, a local teacher who double-turns as bartender at a crowded beach joint. She also teaches bachelorette classes on the beach. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, here’s your tequila!'”
By day Austin leads sweat-drenched students at Charleston Power Yoga, her purple-tinted blonde hair twisted into a topknot as she orchestrates bodies from Vinyasa to Chapasana to Savasana while Halsey plays through the speakers. By night, she pours shots and rakes in bills.
“I bartend to make money and alleviate any worry of money on the yoga side. Because I don’t teach yoga for the money,” she says. “I’ll probably never make more than $45 a class.”
Forty-five dollars for teaching an hour-long class seems pretty cushy, right? That number, which is just slightly above the average pay for Charleston’s everyday teachers, seems to lend weight to arguments that yoga is elitist, too expensive, or a lucrative business endeavor. CNN sure thought so. In 2015, CNNMoney ranked yoga instructor the number 10 best career for “Big Growth, Great Pay,” estimating the mean salary at $64,000. This is where every yoga instructor laughs through tears. Yes, the yoga market did rise to $16 billion a year in 2016, up from $10 billion according to a Yoga in America Study run by Ipsos Public Affairs and Yoga Alliance. Even with 36 million Americans self-reporting as yogis, little of that trickles down to one-off studios, DIY owners, and teachers. In Charleston — with the exception of Lululemon — those are what we’ve got.
“I can work three shifts a week and make enough money to take all the rest of my time to do my yoga thing,” says Austin, who is one of many local instructors who might be pouring your next vodka soda on a Friday night. It does require guru-like zen to field shot orders from the shitfaced masses.
“It’s an opportunity for me to practice my yoga outside of a yoga environment. I mean, people drive me fucking crazy … and then I have to go back to the things I teach, like creating your own calm.” There’s nothing wrong with coming to detox from those shots: “You can come [to yoga] to just sweat and leave,” she says, “but once people understand the connection of the breath and body, and the power of feeling your body move — it’s a place to deal with all that stuff we hold.”
Austin’s coworkers assume she’s vegan and her students assume she’s sober. Like most local instructors, she floats in between, resolute that she won’t bartend forever but happy to pull a Saturday closing shift while she contemplates acupuncture school.
Why not follow the money? “It’s the way yoga makes me feel not just about myself, but about life,” says Austin.
Possibly the biggest yoga buzz this year was something called the lightbox. Ashley Bell, a school teacher turned Lululemon ambassador and yogi matriarch, opened Reverb Charleston this April with a live DJ-ed class in the plexiglass studio perched atop Workshop. The sawdust on Pink Bellies hadn’t even settled when Bell packed the room. Reverb looks like the ethereal daydream of Frank Lloyd Wright and Elon Musk, a triple-story cube that transforms sunlight in a way you’ve never witnessed, let alone while upside-down in down-dog.
This Edenic yoga site was a happy accident Bell explained over Pink Bellies eggrolls and pork belly before her 4 p.m. class. Makeup-free, wearing unfitted athleisure pants and cork-soled sandals, Bell doesn’t vibe like a yogalebrity out for her cut of that $16 billion.
“The last six years I’ve been a single mom, trying to teach yoga to make a living … it’s a nightmare,” she says. “I spent a summer on food stamps.”
Over 14 years ago, Bell took one of this city’s first Vinyasa yoga teacher trainings at Gaea in Mt. Pleasant and jumped out of the hoops of the public school system, straight into the hustle of teaching as many classes as she could. That was “back when people thought yoga was going to knock the Jesus out of them, or something,” as she puts it.
“I’ve been on the ground in gyms, yards, classrooms, fancy studios, dilapidated building, the deck of the Yorktown, and breweries … It’s not like ‘woe is me,’ but in our line of work there’s very little reward for being an experienced teacher,” says Bell, whose mission now is offering yoga to under-served populations through classes like kids yoga and recovery yoga. Everything is on a sliding price scale. “It was hard, but life is hard,” she says of the hustle. “I’m a yoga teacher. I don’t mean that as ‘la-dee-da I’m a yoga teacher,’ I mean that I get to have a conversation about God with the dude at a nearby apartment complex or come up with a new way to stretch someone’s neck.”
“I get to be in a creative process for a few hours every day,” says Bell. “That makes it worth it.”
Zen life, liberty from W-2s, and the pursuit of that creative process is a strong draw. Nearly 100 students complete teacher trainings every year in Charleston alone. While studios like Mission and Charleston Power Yoga have slowed their teacher training roll this year, that’s not to say this yoga thing is a trend burning out. Last year saw premature eulogies for the local yoga scene. The Post & Courier asked if the bubble was about to burst because Charleston Bikram Yoga and the Yoga House said their last Namaste. Instead, Redux and Soul popped up in their place like reincarnations of studios past, and Reverb launched mindfulness into the yoga desert of far upper King.
You can read the tea leaves here; yoga isn’t going to disappear. Charleston may not have the most studios or elite yogipreneurs, but it damn well represents. Beach yoga; bachelorette yoga; yoga at Candlefish, yoga on the Restoration Rooftop; hip-hop yoga; Bendy Brewski beer yoga. The New York Times profiled Charleston’s Beth Cosi as the inventor of brewery yoga back in 2014.
“Beth [Cosi] was in the freaking New York Times as the originator of yoga and beer. If Beth were not Beth she would’ve copywritten that shit and been suing everyone,” says Bell. Cosi just wanted to do yoga with her service industry friends and couldn’t get them to step foot in a studio. “She’s constantly working on: how do we create community for people who don’t feel that the community of a yoga studio works for them,” says Bell.
Matthew Foley was one of those people. Lululemon leggings and push ups were never high on the local author’s list. A writer by trade who leads poetry slams, sports chin length brown waves, and totes a Nalgene to writers group meetings at Eclectic Cafe, Foley looks like the polar opposite of Austin. He took his first yoga class at Holy Cow with the encouragement of a mentor while he was at College of Charleston.
“I came from the mindfulness side. I was like, ‘I guess I can exercise,'” Foley says. “You walk into the average class and it will be very predominantly white, upper middle class, mostly women. I don’t know if all that has to do with money exactly. I think it has more to do with the culture, like, who feels welcome in a yoga class.”
Foley rolls out his yoga mat at home, next to the desk with his typewriter. Now, after years teaching high school English and hiding his Buddhist philosophies from Facebook, Foley is leaving academia to write and teach yoga full-time. You’ll find him teaching free classes on Folly Beach, sometimes reading poetry in Savasana. While he admits that corralling his many 1099 forms next tax season will be a brave new world, he’s staunchly in the not-about-the-money boat right next to the modelesque Austin.
“We’ve discovered that yoga pants are way more profitable than actual yoga. That’s the great irony,” says Foley. “That’s the entrepreneurial spirit and it’s what you’ve got to do … but it is a little fucked.”
Ditch the metaphorical cat memes — that’s Foley’s advice for Charleston and its yoga scene: “If you use a lot of cat memes, you’re guaranteed to get traffic. Even if it has nothing to do with your product,” he explains. “Cat memes are statistically proven to get traffic. If on the other hand, you give something authentic … I think that’s what yoga has been afraid to do. In Charleston, we have enough yoga. No one is to say what quality is, but each studio should feel empowered to deliver what they believe in.”
The real question now becomes, what does Charleston yoga stand for? The Holy City might be a wedding hub, a foodie’s Mecca, a historical landmark, but it is not known for yoga, despite having an overwhelming number of yoga events, connections to world-renowned teachers, and a studio — Holy Cow — as old as San Francisco’s renowned Yoga Tree and much less egotistical about it.
I dreaded the thought of yoga in Charleston before I moved here. My only Southern yoga experience was in a gym’s back room in Columbus, Miss., where a Pilates teacher in an orange velour tracksuit guided me and one high-school footballer (wearing socks) through sun salutations. Also, there is zero buzz in the yogasphere about Charleston.
“This whole thing has been an accident, an experiment in yes,” says Kelly Jean Moore.
Charleston now has beer yoga, queer yoga, and Buti yoga. Yoga at Pounce Cat Cafe and the Summerville YMCA. We don’t have yogalebrities, but we have an armada of teachers who you’ll find mixing or enjoying strong drinks, performing at PURE Theater, in their day job at an architecture firm or gassing up at Costco. We don’t draw the biggest names, but when Kathryn Budig and Dana Trixie Flynn do come, they come because they have family here or friends that are yoga family. We haven’t reached Bell’s vision of yoga beyond socioeconomic boundaries, but across Charleston there are free or donation-based classes every day of the week for anyone who wants it.
What we have is a city where nearly anyone can find a yoga space that feels like home.
I remember the first time my fingertips touched at a studio in Brussels, 5,000 miles from my family, without a cell phone, pretzelizing myself to the teacher’s cues in alternating, German, French, Polish, and Sanskirt. I remember it because there’s nothing like feeling the touch of your own fingerprints when you’re far from everything you know. That’s the yoga you don’t see on Instagram. Yoga in Charleston gets that.
“We need to take ourselves less seriously and really work on some shit,” Bell says, “but it is amazing, in a town where we have so much complicated history, that there are so many people earnestly in pursuit of what it means to be human and what it means to be whole.”
Support the Charleston City Paper
We’ve been covering Charleston since 1997 and plan to be here with the latest and Best of Charleston for many years to come. In a time where local journalism is struggling, the City Paper is investing in the future of Charleston as a place where diverse, engaging views can flourish. We can't do it without our readers. If you'd like to support local, independent journalism:
Charleston City Paper Staff
Charleston City Paper Staff