Images by Katie Piper
Words by Monica Pirani
Walking to class, a friend posts his thoughts on social media: “Does anyone else get that sinking nervous feeling when they are going to a new yoga studio?” Anyone who’s ever practiced yoga or taken fitness classes knows that feeling of dread trying to find a new studio, especially in New York where the options are endless, it often feels like staring down hungrily at a twelve page menu in a loud restaurant.
With so many studios popping up around us, finding a space that has genuine people and a solid practice seems to be something of a white rabbit. Many practitioners, especially those that are queer, black, POC, fat, older than 20 or who don’t look like the person at the front of most classrooms (i.e. blond, thin and white), find it challenging to find a studio they want to come back to with knowledgeable teachers that they like practicing with. While many industries including yoga and fitness are trying to tackle “diversity and inclusivity” issues within their doors, there are a few yoga studios opening up who have authenticity, education, professionalism and inclusivity weaved into their business model from the start.
Merge New York is one of those places. The 1200sq ft studio offers a range of movement and wellness classes like yoga, pilates and stretch classes along. Says owner Kajuan Douglas, “Why is diversity and inclusivity a question? Why isn’t it the norm? It blows my mind that people want to have cookie cutter molds and clones of themselves, how boring is that?”
Merge opened its doors in December 2018 when Douglas felt pushed to open his own space after seeing and experiencing the toxic work environments that existed in yoga studios throughout his 7+ years of teaching.
“I felt really underappreciated, ‘ says Douglas as we share tea in his spacious, sun drenched studio that sits two stories above Lafayette Street, “Honestly I was trying to run away from yoga, I was trying to get another job but I realized ‘you have a skillset you really shouldn’t abandon’. I decided I needed to open up my own studio and have a space where teachers feel appreciated, where [teachers and students] can be themselves in every capacity possible without being chastised for being authentic or sincere and to actually elevate the education and make it more creative and innovative so that people are learning and having a good time.”
Meeting Kajuan Douglas it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t be running his own business. Having just turned 30 this year, he exudes confidence and self worth, a trait he says has been a double edged sword as a Black gay person in the wellness industry.
“That confidence can be intimidating to people. Does my skin and the perception of my “gay” behavior play into that? Of course it does. I am blunt but I’m not unkind. People generalize and stereotype without consciously knowing they are doing it. That behavior inhibited me from being myself because I had to code switch and always be aware and censor certain things to make myself relatable. Other people can say what they want and it makes them cool and edgy, but me, that makes me a bitch, makes me negative. The goal at Merge was to get rid of that.”
If the staff and student body is any indication, Merge is truly embodying inclusivity in the workplace. Teachers ad concierge staff come from all walks of life: different body types, abilities, races, genders and orientations. “You do not have to give up your culture, you don’t have to change your face, your hair, your body to look like someone else to feel confident or feel good.’ says Douglas, “You can be a plus size person and be confident AF. You can be a short person and be confident AF. If you hold it and that’s your truth you’re fine.” The class types at Merge reflect that everyone has a different practice and that wellness is not one size fits all. You can feel the community that Douglas and the staff are building.
“To me, community is the regularity of showing up, the loyalty of people sharing a space. When I first began practicing yoga that’s what drew me to it. I went to a class that had really good music, there was a lot of people, and it was motivating and that kept me in it. Just having these bodies in the room with me helped me realize ‘You’re not alone, don’t take yourself too seriously, just have the best time that you can.’ Just being around those people without necessarily communicating was a big factor. Just being here, feeling, working hard, you can feel the energy of the space and then over time it became ‘oh I’ve seen you in class before’, or I get a chance to share a few words after class with the person next to me. It’s the getting to know each other that became a big part of class, getting to see people, having this bonding experience.” says Douglas as he shares what drew him to yoga from the start.
When it came time for Douglas to step into the role of teacher, he carried on the tradition of building community that his teachers had in their classes. Three years ago he began introducing people in class to one another and having them introduce themselves to the person next to them. “People started having that camaraderie and finding different connections and making friends.” Douglas says those friendships he made in his journey to being a teacher and business owner made all the difference, he wants people who come to Merge to feel the same. “At the end of the day I have a team of people who I know have my back no matter what, so that’s where the confidence comes from. I fostered and invested in relationships, that was a big part of my becoming a teacher and my teaching. You can rely on each other, depend on each other, talk to each other.”
As the studio begins to fill with students for a morning class, Douglas talks on how valuing community relates to valuing teachers. “I’m a big advocate for teachers being paid fairly, in my experience there were teachers who were after three months – and since they have a cute face and blonde hair or thin body – they get a huge pay increase or popular time slot and now they are leading teacher trainings. Yes, some people are going to be more popular and bring in more students and they should be compensated as such, but we should value education, professionalism, and sincerity over popularity. There are so many teachers that do cool things online, but are they showing up on time for work?”
All of the teachers at Merge have at least 8 – 10 years of teaching experience and extensive certifications not just in fitness and anatomy, but also in the history of what they are teaching.
Says Douglas, “There is a morphed disturbing avatar of what a yoga teacher should be. Historically they wore a loincloth, had dreads or were bald and people here don’t look up to that. And the reasons for that is rooted in a lot of racism and colonization. So then you look at what’s an “acceptable” form now and its evolved into size 2-4 woman, flawless skin, shoulder length hair, matching outfit, athletic body not sitting in meditation but sitting in a beautiful trendy space with airy hummy music. How do you get from the loin cloth to that?”
Douglas is referring of course to the colonization of India by Britain during which Indians were prosecuted for and banned from practicing their ancient traditions of Ayurveda and Yoga. Swami Vivekananda introduced Indian practices to the West as part of a world religious forum in 1893, an event that would spur the West’s fetisization of Eastern religions and traditions. Swami Vivekananda introduced these practices at the forum to raise money for an impoverished India, a poverty caused by Britain’s rule which was mired in racism, sexism, queerphobia, and a forcing of Christianity onto a Hindu nation. “People forget history and thats whats causing confusion. People aren’t reflecting on the past they’re ignoring it and choosing to create the future they want, but if you don’t know where you’ve been how can you go anywhere? I think it’s a lot of chaos and a lot of dissolution happening in the Yoga and wellness industry.”
“There was this whole shift in wellness that’s been more about the fantasy of what you can aspire to be when that’s not even the goal [of yoga]. They [instructors/studios] aren’t even trying to get you to that goal they’re just trying to sell you something, like an ideal and then abandoning you. With Merge I wanted to shift us back in the right direction.”
The class room is filling up now and students are settling onto their mats, bathing in the sunlight while listening to the sounds of Ariana Grande, Frank Ocean and Marvin Gaye. I ask Douglas, what makes the teachers at Merge stand out. He smiles, “Teachers with sincerity and education are giving you nutrients, vitamins and minerals, other people are just giving you empty calories.”
Merge New York is located at 128 Lafayette Street, Suite 202 in NYC. More information can be found at www.mergenewyork.com