|Participants in Sunday's "Sound Bath." Leah Andelsmith Photos.|
Seated crossed-legged on a bright, blue mat at Breathing Room, Lani Rosen-Gallagher rubbed her hands together. Twenty other pairs of hands—some child-sized and some adult-sized—joined in.
“Om shanti, shanti. Peace, peace, peace,” they sang in a soothing melody, smiles passing between Rosen-Gallagher and each student.
Rosen-Gallagher’s family yoga night is just one class offered by Breathing Room Yoga Center as it expands its scope, easing into new digs at 216 Crown St. and looking to new programming in a new space. As it charges into 2019 with 10 years under its belt, teachers are honing in on an increased focus on accessibility, seeking to demystify yoga for New Haveners large and small.
That transition began last year, as Breathing Room Owner and Founder Margot Broom moved from an upstairs space at 817 Chapel St. to a two-story location at 216 Crown St. She had been offering teacher trainings in the Chapel Street space for about six years when she made the announcement she was moving for both more space and a larger professional vision.
"It’s grown so much since then,” she said.
Broom has a background in architecture—she actually began teaching yoga after losing her job in the 2008 recession—and began to renovate the space after signing the lease. She recalled being thrilled to discover original 1920s hardwood floors in the main studio. When she realized that a vacant space in the building next door was only separated by drywall, she negotiated to get a variance to join the buildings. When she finished, she set about finding subtenants to set up shop in all the nooks and crannies. She dubbed the final product “The Center.”
“I created the concept of The Center so we could all be part of a larger umbrella of wellness,” she said in a recent interview on site. “We had a number of requests from the community, from people who said they would love to be a part of this.”
The space supports a number of practitioners who rent treatment rooms on the fourth floor for rolfing, craniosacral therapy, and massage. She has also rented out space on the fourth floor, with office space coming soon for therapists facilitating support groups that use a sliding scale to determine payment.
“The idea is to have a network of people who love what they do and want a collaborative space to do it in,” she said.
The third floor is home to Dr. Lindsay Ronshagen of Good Medicine naturopathic health center and Purest Flotation Center. Purest’s five float tanks each hold 1100 pounds of epsom salts dissolved in 12 inches of water, allowing users to float weightlessly.
After moving, the studio thought about different ways to make inroads in the community. After election day last year, Breathing Room hosted free yoga for all those who voted, opening their classes to anyone who could show off a sticker. In December, the business threw its second annual Gratitude Gala, a donation-based fundraising event with live music and cocktails that Breathing Room hosts as a thank you to their community. She and other teachers have offered workshops on the intersection of yoga and privilege, as well as methods for combining a yoga practice with a 12-step program.
“The events have really taken off because of a culture we have where people who are inspired by what they love can come and share it,” she said. “It’s about holding space.”
Those include classes like Rosen-Gallagher’s, geared toward accessibility as they unfold at the center. A teacher trainer and regular visitor to elementary classrooms throughout greater New Haven and Hamden, Rosen-Gallagher runs the center’s “First Friday” class, donation-based with a portion of the proceeds going to IRIS. In partnership with the S.E.L.F. program at the Yale Child Study Center, she also holds a yoga class at Breathing Room for girls aged 8-13 with autism spectrum disorders.
On Friday, she was working her magic on a group of young students with her breathing ball, a multi-colored contraption composed of plastic links folded and nested together with scissor joints. It expands and contracts fluidly with the pull of a hand. Rosen-Gallagher demonstrated how to take a full breath.
“We breathe all day long to keep ourselves alive. But we can also use our breath as a tool to make us calm,” she told them before leading the class in three deep breaths that blanketed the room in peaceful quiet. Breathing out again, she invited kids to imagine themselves as series of animals adapting to a winter freeze.
As turtles, students buried themselves deep in the mud to hibernate, stretching their arms underneath their knees in turtle pose. As rabbits they sat very still in child’s pose, holding a kneeling position and leaning forward over their knees, while they imagined growing a coat of extra-thick fur to cope with the cold.
As migrating birds and butterflies they twisted their arms and legs into eagle pose and flapped their knees in butterfly pose. Then they flitted and fluttered around the room before returning to their waiting family members in the nest.
As the children slithered around like snakes, the adults stayed on their mats for a gentle stretch in cobra pose, laying on their stomachs and pressing their hands and elbows into the ground to lift their shoulders into the air, bending backwards at the hip.
In the final pose of the night, family members inverted themselves like bats, lying on their backs with their feet in the air and scooting close in order to support each other’s legs. Rosen-Gallagher suggested that they hold hands and relax as they pretended to hibernate together.
Just two days before, Broom had padded in her slippers through the serenely clean, shoe-free space, shadowed by her tiny dog Ru.
“I was extremely fortunate to have been raised by a spiritual mother who created a container for me to understand myself,” she said from her office. Broom started practicing yoga at age 13. She went on to advocate for and help develop a yoga program at her high school before enrolling in the entrepreneurial studies program at Quinnipiac University.
“It never crossed my mind to make yoga my profession because it was such a personal and spiritual practice,” she said.
Broom has shepherded the business through ten years of growth by cultivating strong collaborative relationships, and also by demonstrating good business sense. She recently completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program, which she said helped her clarify roles among her team members to help the business run smoothly. Now, she’s figuring out what community outreach will look like as she moves into another 10 years.
“There’s a misconception that yoga is just for thin, young, white women.” she said. “Really, it’s an ancient technique of mindfulness used for people to come to know themselves.” And that means creating “opportunities for more people—for all people” to participate.
A weekly “Karmic Community Class,” a donation-based course from which proceeds go to nonprofits, is one way Breathing Room is making that happen. So is its “Activist Package”—unlimited yoga at a lower monthly rate for full-time employees of social justice organizations. Last summer they teamed up with 108 Monkeys for Yoga in Our City, which brought free weekly yoga classes to New Haven parks.
Broom also sees Breathing Room as a space where local artists can flourish. The Center’s two floors are decorated with local art by Jerry Weiss and Adrienne Broom—Broom’s stepfather and sister, and one of Broom’s team members is planning to organize local art exhibits in 2019 and host quarterly gallery openings.
Stepping down into “the den”—a common space with a cozy seating area and room for yoga teachers-in-training to meet with their instructors—Broom highlighted a large, colorful canvas. The artwork was an Arts & Ideas collaboration with local artist Kwadwo Adae, who also teaches meditation classes at Breathing Room. In the center of the canvas, the word PEACE stood out in white, blocky letters.
Later that evening, a small group gathered for “Rock The Room,” a yoga class in a darkened studio set to music. Students applied glow-in-the-dark paints and wound glow sticks around their wrists while instructor Jess Rawling plugged in black lights and checked her playlist. Patty Smith, Bikini Kill, Big Joanie—it was all in order and ready for Rawling to combine women in punk with vinyasa.
“Rock the Room grew out of my love for music and for fun,” said Broom. Rawling, a substitute teacher at Breathing Room, jumped at the chance to combine two of her loves.
“I grew up as a closet punk listener,” she said before class started. “Punk music was not ‘a thing’ in my house. I would blast it up in my room with my headphones and tape deck.”
As the students gathered, Rawling told them there were four words that would anchor their practice that night: fortitude, trust, fluency, and buoyancy.
“Think about women in punk—kicked off the stage, pushed to the back of the room,” she said. “Women in punk felt like a rallying cry for the times we’re in.”
A wild yelp squealed out of the speakers as the class settled into chair pose, bending their knees as if about to sit and hovering there.
“For me, this is where the fortitude comes into it,” said Rawling. The class bounced along to the beat while they held the pose, hands wearing neon, fingerless gloves held high in the air.
The music gave the class a relaxed feeling, like Rawling had a few friends over and spontaneously decided to teach a yoga class in her living room. As the class struck a balancing pose, standing on one foot, Rawling challenged her students by encouraging them to shake the lifted leg.
“Shake it like you just stepped in the patriarchy and you’re like ‘Oh my god, get it off!’” she said.
Later the class focused on a flow of poses that had them stretching, bending, and sweeping fluently back and forth from standing to lying on the floor. Rawling couldn’t help dancing in place a little as she coached the class.She took the class through one final series of floor stretches before settling into savasana, or corpse pose.
Traditionally students lay flat on the floor, keeping still as their bodies relax and process the movement of the preceding class. But Rawling encouraged her small group to make their own choices during this peaceful moment.
“It’d be a little punk rock to make up your own savasana,” she said before leading the class in a guided mediation on “embodying the spirit and legacy of what it means to be a punk.”
“What does it mean to question?” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s about embracing that voice within you and building our own platform from which we shout our truth.”
Afterwards, the class spilled out into the lobby, a long room with a high, arched ceiling bathed in soft light and decorated with bare tree branches. When Broom began renovations on the space, which was originally built as an Elk’s Lodge, the ceiling was painted gold and red, there were half-walls slicing the room into tiny divisions, and everything was covered in carpet.
Broom said she also wants to expand the idea of what a yoga studio can be, with classes including musician and instructor Josh Kane’s recent “sound bath.” After playing in a band, Kane said he came to yoga as a way to detox from the music world, and stayed to incorporate music into his practice.
But he puts his own spin on old techniques. A sound bath is an ancient practice in which waves of sound are used to cleanse and recharge the body. Traditionally, Tibetan singing bowls are used to create a resonant soundscape, and practitioners can incorporate gongs, drums, and singing as well.
“I don’t feel like a sound bath is what I’m doing,” Kane said. “It’s not a wash of sound that’s always happening. It’s more like a journey to take you to different parts of your self.”
At the most recent bath, participants laid out yoga mats and gathered bolsters and blankets to create their own little nests. After giving everyone time to settle comfortably and prepare their minds for the bath, Kane began by setting a steady rhythm on his buffalo drum, accenting the fourth beat as he walked around the studio.
Back at the front, he began striking a 32-inch symphonic gong softly on the offbeats, adding a complementary rhythm. Increasing the tempo, he started to chant on a throaty, husky “hey ya hey hey.”
Setting the drum down, Kane knelt in front of a semi-circle of instruments and struck a concert chime. The bright sound signaled a complete and seamless change in mood. Kane weaved in his antique Tibetan singing bowls, striking them softly, then setting them down and letting the notes ring out. He turned to the gong and delivered repeated soft strikes with a felt mallet to fill the room with waves of sound. It was hard to believe that just two hands and a suite of acoustic instruments could paint such a full and resonant soundscape.
Transitioning to a soft and quiet passage of music, Kane crept on silent feet around the room, dangling bamboo koshi chimes in each hand. This time, Kane walked between the mats, as if tending rows of sleeping seedlings. Gentle notes fell from the koshi chimes like rain sprinkling on soil.
A few moments later, Kane played a few chords on the harmonium, which sounds much like an accordion, but with a softer, rounder tone. He began to sing, completely relaxed but with a depth of feeling, as if he were alone with his instruments, just singing for himself or for the sake of the song.
The chords and melody moved with each other in a dance, before it faded into a chant: shanti, shanti, shanti. The harmonium became a carpet of sound underneath, layering deeply, like a cushion for all the prone forms in the room.
Finally, seated crosslegged with his eyes closed, Kane stilled all the instruments and silence settled over the room. Memories of sound vibrated in each corner.
“Silence is where everything comes together for a person. People don’t come for the sound, they come to get quiet,” he said.
That’s kind of what Broom said she hopes people will experience when they come to Breathing Room.
“I consider this entire space a big piece of art,” she said. “This is not just a yoga studio or a wellness center. It’s a place where people are coming to enrich their lives in so many ways. And that’s what art does.”