If I did this every day I’d become a different kind of woman. That’s the thought that crosses my mind at the end of my first Y7 class, as I lay drenched in sweat in a position I’ll soon learn is called Child’s Pose. I don’t “do” yoga; I’m one of those. Supermodels contorting themselves into pretzels while teachers beam on is not my idea of an uplifting workout. Watching myself sweat, chubby and confused in the mirror, usually depresses me more than whatever recent personal catastrophe drove me to seek the peacefulness of namaste. Yet, I’m here crying on a yoga mat in the darkened, candlelit room, feeling empowered, and connected to something bigger than myself after 60 minutes of intense vinyasa. A song off Drake and Future’s joint mixtape What A Time To Be Alive fades into the background.
Why is this yoga class different enough from my preconceptions that I’m contemplating a monthly membership to the studio? Because before founding Y7, Mason and Sarah Levey felt the same way I did.
“I actually hated yoga, so this is kind for me,” Sarah says when I meet her at a coffee shop in Williamsburg one morning, several months after my first Y7 class. Sarah first began to practice yoga in Michigan, when she moved home after college and discovered her now-husband and business partner Mason had become a devoted yogi. He urged her to go to class with him, but initially she was distracted and frustrated.
“I would leave these yoga classes feeling worse and worse about myself,” she explains. “I was being told to look at these girls with their leg over their head. ‘This is what you should look like.’ There’s all these levels and so many different kinds and types of classes. I didn’t understand, and no one explains it to you.”
Eventually, the couple found a class that favored loud music, a more vigorous and quick-paced workout, and a darkened room. But when they moved to New York a few months later, it was impossible to find anything close to this.
“I’ve been to so many classes where you walk into a sun-filled room that’s super cold. That just didn’t feel good to me,” Mason notes. “You’re chanting things without knowing what they mean. Classes weren’t as physically challenging as we wanted, and music was always a background element.”
So they struck out on their own in the summer of 2013, aiming to create a practice that catered to their own preferences. The room was dark, heated, and candlelit. They loved hip-hop so they blasted it during class. Y7—named for yoga and the seven chakras—started off as a tiny pop-up studio in Williamsburg on the weekends. The demand for their classes was immediate. Soon, every slot was sold-out.
After moving around a bit, they settled into a permanent location on Kent Avenue. Then, came a satellite location in Soho’s Monster Cycle Studio. Next, a studio in the Flatiron District, followed by their own location in Soho. Things continued to pick up speed, and growth has skyrocketed. Earlier this year, Sarah and Mason both left their other jobs to focus on Y7 full-time; plans to open in Los Angeles in 2016 are imminent and the staff has grown to 40+ people.
“It still doesn’t seem real that this is what we do,” Sarah says. “We wanted to create this really safe space. There’s a purpose to these poses, they are doing things that are beneficial to your body. But everything is a suggestion and we want everyone to feel safe here—mentally and physically.”
This is what I picked up on immediately in the class. The instruction was so detailed that I was able to do the poses, and if I wasn’t, no one could see me anyway. The teachers empowered me to choose how and when I moved my body, encouraging me to seek out what felt good that day. In the dark, no one noticed or cared if I failed. I wasn’t able to judge my own awkwardness, so I focused on the flow instead. When I found myself crying in relief and surrender at the end of the class, I quickly discovered I wasn’t the only one. Asking around one day before my next class, other students assured me they’d all cried at least once during or after a session.
“Not to sound dramatic but I kind of like it when people cry,” Sarah says when I tell her about my experience. “This is why we have it dark and candlelit, why there are no mirrors. I want you to let it go. For you to feel safe enough that you can burst into tears—even if it’s silently—in a room full of thirty people? I think that’s so amazing.”
Letting go isn’t the only emotional appeal of a regular yoga practice, though. Y7’s lead instructor and mentor for their roster of teachers, Stephanie Laspina, finds connections between the coping skills yoga teaches and facing everyday life. And though many people envision yoga as a slow, peaceful and relaxing practice, that is something of a misconception. The practice is rooted in finding ease during moments of immense challenge.
“You might hear people say yoga is supposed to be relaxing, but that’s actually not the case,” Laspina explains. “If you look at the root of yoga, it is meant to challenge you. It’s meant to bring you into a place of discomfort. You’re meant to visit familiar and unfamiliar postures. And in those moments of challenge where your heart is pounding, and you’re moving into a shape you never thought was possible, you’re meant to find ease in that. And of course, that’s a challenge. It’s a physical form of exercise with purpose.”
I notice this in my own life as I begin to practice regularly. Running through the poses calms me down and helps me refocus on the minute aspects of physical movement. Focusing on my breath helps me to be present in the moment, and not frantically fret over every stressor in the rest of my life. The practice of yoga was influencing me far more mentally and emotionally than it was physically, which surprised me, but also made me want to practice even more. The sense of calm was much more appealing than a six-pack or toned arms–though those are certainly another benefit.
The music matters too. From Beyoncé and Jay Z to Dej Loaf and Kendrick Lamar, the soundtrack helped me feel more comfortable and confident in the class. I didn’t feel like an outsider here–this was what I listened to at home, too. And it’s much easier for me to run through an intensive series of poses with a loud beat bumping. It’s easier to sweat to Drake.
“If you can find a sense of calm when you’re trembling in a Warrior Three posture, maybe you can use that skill to react differently when you’re facing a family crisis, or to find more peace and happiness in your life,” Laspina says. “This is an ancient practice that’s designed to help create space inside of yourself. Not just physically, but mentally and spiritually. The hip-hop allows us to merge our modern culture into this ancient philosophy.”
Incorporating hip-hop references lets yoga take on a less serious aspect that makes it more accessible to beginners. Brooklyn We Flow Hard is the studio’s primary, rap-influenced tagline, playfully molded after the borough’s best-known entrepreneur Jay Z and his infamous track “Brooklyn We Go Hard.”
“We built Y7 for ourselves,” Mason says. “It was exactly experience we wanted, and it turns out a lot of other people want that experience too. But it’s bigger to us than a business or money or anything. We’re helping people.”