A Donation-Based Studio in Brooklyn Seeks to Honor the Roots of Yoga

Story and photos by Elsa Säätelä

In 2008, Hamid Elsevar, a software consultant in Brooklyn, attended his first yoga class. The experience changed his life.

Elsevar found himself drawn to the philosophy of yoga, with its focus on connecting body and mind. Eight months later, he had completed a 200-hour teacher-training program, put his consulting business on hold and decided to open a yoga studio that would serve all comers and, drawing on Yoga’s communitarian philosophy, offer classes free of charge; participants would be asked to make a contribution.

Cory Kantin is one of 20 instructors at Hosh Yoga who works without pay, teaching two classes a week.
Cory Kantin is one of 20 instructors at Hosh Yoga who works without pay, teaching two classes a week.

Together with friends, Yuuki Hirano and Becca Broughton, Elsevar started to raise money for the yoga studio and to scout for locations. On May 15, 2009, Hosh Yoga, still without its own studio, held its first yoga class in McCarren Park, Brooklyn. In July 2010, it opened its first studio.

Yoga dates back more than 5,000 years, having evolved as an integral part of the practice of Buddhism and Hinduism in India. It was originally built on three main structures: exercise, breathing, and meditation, and aimed to achieve an ascetic spiritual insight and tranquility. In the 1960s, yoga became popular in the United States, as youth culture began to draw on the spirituality of East Asia.

Today, numerous modern versions of yoga about, and most dedicated yoga studios in the United States are money-making ventures. In 2008, Yoga Journal released a study, “Yoga in America,” which estimated that Americans spend $5.7 billion a year on yoga classes and products, such as clothing, yoga mats or even yoga-themed vacations. Many yoga studios charge as much as $20 an hour for their time, not everyone approves of the for-profit trend in yoga.

Yoga to the People, where Elsevar started his yoga practice, is a yoga studio striving to recapture the original spirit of yoga. To make it less about money and more about spirituality, it operates on a donation-only basis.

The studio, which first opened in lower Manhattan and now has four studios in New York City, recently opened branches in San Francisco and Seattle. In New York, its studios have become popular destinations for those on the lookout for an inexpensive hour of sweating.

But, Yoga to the People has become so popular that its classes are regularly crammed with as many as 50 people at a time, and, as a consequence, some of the personal connection between instructor and students, which many consider to be part of the essence of yoga, has been lost.

“Yoga To The People was a great start for me, and I still think it is a studio known for motivating people to practice,” Elsevar explains. “What I wanted was their concept of pay-what-you-wish combined with a focal point on personal attention and a spiritual environment.”

After teaching yoga in a park and later in the basement of a small gym, Elsevar rented space in an old industrial building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. With funding from the three founders and some additional loans, Hosh Yoga was able secure a lease, which was guaranteed by Elsevar’s brother. The space is now split into two studios so that Hosh can provide two different yoga classes simultaneously.

Hosh Yoga uses this bicycle, parked at different spots in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, to make its presence known.
Hosh Yoga uses this bicycle, parked at different spots in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, to make its presence known.

Both studios are decorated with plants and incense burners and are dimly lit. Elsevar says that besides a feeling of connection between students and instructors, one of his main goals is to offer a comfortable environment.

The suggested donation for a class at Hosh Yoga is $10. A donation box sits next to the studio door, so participants can drop in donations on their way out the door; the idea is that no one is judged by the amount of their donation. So far donations are averaging less than $5 a student. “The students who have more will pay more, and the students who have less will pay less,” says Elsevar.

Hosh Yoga’s donations-only policy makes keeping its doors open a continuing challenge. Elsevar has set up a nonprofit organization so he can receive tax-deductible donations and organize fundraisers for the studio. So far Hosh Yoga’s biggest grant—1,000—-has come from the Schwab Fund for Charitable Giving.

Twenty teachers give classes at Hosh Yoga, all without receiving any financial compensation. “The idea is to have so many different teachers that no one has to work more than they can,” Elsevar explains. “For the teachers here at Hosh, teaching yoga is more like a lifestyle, and thanks to this the donation-based system works.”

The number of yoga practitioners has doubled since the studio first opened. During the first quarter of 2011, the number of students at Hosh Yoga reached its peak with nearly 2,000 visits in just one month.

Andrea Brown found Hosh Yoga when she passed the studio during a walk in her neighborhood. “I had been attending Yoga to the People in the East Village for almost a year, so finding a donation-based yoga studio close to my home was a pleasant surprise,” says Brown, 26. “Hosh Yoga was a new experience. The classes were small and the teachers gave you more personal attention. The practice was also more built on finding calmness than having a serious work out.” Brown explains that she first felt intimidated by the personal attention and small groups, but that she soon learned to enjoy it and got more out of her practice.

Hosh Yoga has grown slowly but steadily. The studios now offer up to five different yoga classes a day. For Elsevar, this is just the beginning; he has high hopes for the future. “Any donation-based practice will have its peaks and valleys,” says Elsevar. “But if you are 100 percent devoted to what you do, and have some sense on how to run a business, it is going to work.”