Ashtanga Yoga New York and the Broome Street Temple

 Figure 1 - (Top) Walking down Broome Street, this sign is visible to the public. (Bottom) The call box is used to buzz up to the second floor in order to request that the door be opened.

(Top) Walking down Broome Street, this sign is visible to the public. (Bottom) The call box is used to buzz up to the second floor in order to request that the door be opened.

Ashtanga Yoga New York and the Broome Street Hindu Temple operate as one physical and spiritual site. Through the initiative of Eddie Stern, the owner of Ashtanga Yoga New York and the primary temple operator, this conjoined space functions in a way that is unlike any other in the “SoHo” Manhattan area.

As an aspect of the experience of “Hinduism Here” in New York City, the Broome Street Temple has aimed to serve as a spiritual oasis since its inception in 2001. From an academic and scholarly perspective, the link between contemporary Hinduism in the West and yoga as practiced in the United States has been a matter of considerable debate. Authors such as Stefanie Syman draw attention to the fact that yoga has become so domesticated, so  secular in the United States that it can be practiced by children on the White House lawn.  She sees a considerable distance between this and the “spiritual discipline” which in its earliest scriptures “taught the spiritual aspirant how to conquer death and, more to the point, how to reach states of bliss so engulfing and powerful that they were beyond description”.[1]  Syman, who has practiced ashtanga yoga for over a decade, explains that “yoga has been a sort of multiplier, increasing the number of divine interlocutors… It’s this possibility— of turning yourself into the very thing you worship, call it God, superconsciousness, Brahman, Krishna, Kali, Shiva, the Self— that animates” the story of yoga.[2] In a somewhat different vein, experts such as H. Kumar Kaul trace yoga back to seals found at Mohenjo-daro in which the “the Great God himself, in whom the prototype of Siva has been identified, is represented in the specifically yogic postures”.[3] Kaul cites the monumental works of Sir John Marshall and Stuart Piggott in assembling his evidence for early, Hindu religious forms displaying asanas and yogic techniques including “eyelids more than half closed and the eyes looking downward to the tip of the nose”.[3] Kaul argues that yoga and the codes of yogis can consistently be traced back to the Vedas, other Hindu texts, and many other Hindu-based philosophies over the past several thousand years.

For authors such as these the link between yoga and Hindu practice is plain, yet the way in which Ashtanga Yoga New York and the Broome Street Temple converge in New York City does not serve as a quintessential example of any direct link between yoga practices and Hindu temple rituals.  Yoga practitioners and temple devotees at 430 Broome Street are typically different people. The crossover between the two groups is blurred and often   minimal.  Both groups generally respect one another’s rituals and beliefs, and some representatives of both groups seem to view the other group’s paths as a valid means to self-realization, but the connections between the two can be hard to pinpoint exactly.

 Figure 2 - East wall of the AYNY and Broome Street Temple. (Left) Sri Patabhi Jois in padmasana or lotus position. (Center) Image the Goddesses: Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswathi. (Right) Sri Pattabhi Jois performing ritual prayer.

East wall of the AYNY and Broome Street Temple. (Left) Jois in padmasana or lotus position. (Center) Image the Goddesses: Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswathi. (Right) Jois performing ritual prayer.

Figure 3 - Corner of Broome Street and Crosby in the bustling SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan.

Corner of Broome Street and Crosby in the bustling SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan.

For Eddie Stern, a discipline of the renowned yoga guru Sri Pattabhi Jois, the second floor of 430 Broome Street facilitates a “special concentration known as samadhi.”[4] This is the orbit of yoga.  Yet the Broome Street space adds an important aspect.  According to Eddie, “when we do pujas we are looking deep into the essence and we find the spark that makes things come alive.”  This connects to Eddie’s conviction that ashtanga yoga, with its special concentration on physical asanas, or positions, is the first step to a deep introspection that enables the self to connect to the Universal Self.[5]  The temple, with its murti-focused ritual regimen, seems to represent and facilitate that connection in quite another way.

Yet if one speaks with temple devotees and yoga practitioners alike, it becomes clear that all users of this space have one thing in common:  they share a tendency to explain their experience as engaging with a higher energy.  There is a sense that an energy common to both yoga and puja does circulate in the space shared by a temple and a yoga studio, and that it separates this space from the outside world.  The organizers of the Broome Street space take pride first and foremost in the separation that is thus created between this space and the bustling chaos found just outside, on the street corner of Broome Street and Crosby.

This space  in both of its facets–as a center for yoga and as a temple–embodies the concept of bhakti.  Bhakti, defined by Eddie as “loving responsiveness” in essence, is evident in the space because those who enter seeking a temple find themselves in a traditional temple, while those who seek a yoga studio find  that.  As one temple leader stated, “People can pretty much do whatever they want in the temple” all the way up to “sitting in a part of the temple and reading the Bible. [There are] attendees who just enjoy sweeping the floors of the space. The rituals we perform really try to get at the core beliefs of Hindu rituals and spirituality”.[6] Yet at the same time the “pretty much” to which he referred also applies to those who come with the intent of practicing yoga.  Under the shared principle of loving responsiveness, both aspects of the space are engaged in a process of learning from and adapting to one another.

Figure 4 - Friday night Kirtan within the Durga cave.


Friday night Kirtan within the Durga cave.

Theoretically, at least, one can see how the ritual pujas, or religious ceremonies, performed in the Broome Street temple resonate with the ashtanga yoga practices.  Paul Courtright describes pujas as creating a “special intimacy” between the deity and worshipers in which “the worshiper gains spiritual and existential enhancement”.[7] One of the goals of the pujari, or priest, during these pujas is for the worshiper to able to center himself or herself through ritual enhancement.  This can be seen as paralleling the use of a sequence of asanas for a similar purpose. The Broome Street Temple actively pursues this agenda in its approach of the rituals that make best sense for the place where it is located.  It sponsors after-work, evening abhishekas to Lord Ganesha on Fridays and to Lord Shiva on Mondays, as if intending to enhance the self-realization of a Downtown clientele that is otherwise engaged during the work day.  It also has monthly Satya Narayana Pujas and kirtans.

At the same time, the Ashtanga Yoga New York center teaches its own way of being fully conscious and connected to the self through several levels of ashtanga yoga classes. At the beginner level, group classes focus more on the physical by learning and practicing the asana positions in the primary sequence.  These classes create a scene in which each and every student is completely focused on himself or herself in relation to the position being held, as an instructor oversees and assists where needed. At the highest level, there are classes that focus on special techniques of pranayama–breathing exercises–in addition to meditation courses and other theory sessions.  Practitioners of ashtanga yoga thus proceed beyond the physically difficult asanas to a set of breathing and meditation techniques that they hope will lead to inner peace and realization.

The remarkable thing is that these coexist with temple rituals.  For instance, advanced self-practice classes of a type known as Mysore-style are held all morning from times close to dawn, and these run parallel to the morning Ganesha abhishekas, which are performed till noon.  Normally it is a peaceful coexistence and in the perception of some, even more, but there are times when the rigors of learning asanas can lead to gestures that conflict with the traditional decorum expected in the presence of murtis–feet pointed temporarily in the direction of the images, for instance, or heads placed under the feet of the bodies to which they belong rather than at the feet of deities being worshiped.

Ashtanga Yoga New York and the Broome Street Temple comprise a location that provides two distinct services–as a yoga center and as a temple–yet these two are also joined. Nowhere else in New York City will one find oneself watching underprivileged New York teenagers practice yoga while pujas are being performed just several feet away. This makes one wonder how, as time moves forward, the convergence between yoga practices and their murti counterpart will continue to be negotiated.  With Eddie Stern and the several other leaders in charge of this space, it is likely that one key to the interaction will be a great emphasis on simplicity, spirituality, and the self.


Citations:

[1] Stephanie Syman, The Subtle Body:  The Story of Yoga in America (New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 4.

[2] Syman, The Subtle Body, 9.

[3] H. Kumar Kaul, Yoga in Hindu Scriptures (Delhi: Surjeet Publications, 1989), 20.

[4] Eddie Stern. “YogaCity NYC Deeper Learning Series: Part 1”. Interview. Integral Yoga Institute. November 15, 2013.

[5] K. Pattabhi Jois, Yoga Mala (New York: North Point Press: A division of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002), 5.

[6] Neeraj Karhade. Interview by Vinod Nimmagadda. Post-Satya Narayana Puja interview. 430 Broome Street #2, November 6th, 2013.

[7] Paul B. Courtright. “On The Holy Day in My Humble Way: Aspects of Pūjā.” In Gods of Flesh Gods of Stone: The Embodiment of Divinity in Indiaby Joanne P. Waghorne, 33-50. Pennsylvania: Anima Publications: A subdivision of Conococheague Associates, 1985), 33.

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