New York City: Yoga in Times Square

Yogis stretch, with buildings as a backdrop. Andy Castillo photos.
Yogis stretch, with buildings as a backdrop. Andy Castillo photos.

International Day of Yoga

By Andy Christian Castillo

A complimentary sunflower given out during the event.
A complimentary sunflower during the event. “Inhale the sweet nectar of the universe or whatever that is you smell. What is that? Fried chicken? Cars?”

Douglass Stewart’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers positioned around sectioned-off plazas in the bustling hub of New York City.

Stewart, an instructor at Yogaworks and the ISHTA Center in New York, is the Cofounder of Solstice in Times Square: Mind over Madness Yoga — an all-day, annual yoga event held on the sweltering, filthy concrete of Times Square.

I laid my mat alongside about 17,000 yogis to celebrate the 13th Summer Solstice annual event, and the first ever International Day of Yoga.

“To all of you, I say: Namaste!” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced earlier in the morning. According to a press release, “UN dignitaries and guests including the President of the 69th UN General Assembly, the Indian Foreign Minister, and Sri Sri Ravishankar, Founder, Art of Living Foundation,” took part in the celebration.

Yoga in Times Square

“Solstice in Times Square originated thirteen years ago when I was joined by two other yogis to do sunrise yoga on the longest day of the year,” said Tim Tompkins, President of the Times Square Alliance; “It is phenomenal to now see this event grow to become an internationally recognized worldwide celebration.”

In December, the United Nations General Assembly declared June 21 to be the International Day of Yoga, and organized celebrations around the globe — with Times Square “playing a central role”, because of the established solstice gathering. Other event locations in the United States that participated included Los Angeles, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and Washington DC.

Around the world, yogis in places like London, Beijing, Tokyo, Kabul, Sydney, Bangkok, Paris, and even boats floating down the Seine river, also practiced yoga in honor of the day.

I went with my girlfriend, Brianna Lertora, who is a certified yoga instructor in Connecticut: “It was really cool to see so many people come together in the midst of a bustling, fast-paced city and intentionally choose to practice mindfulness together,” she said: “We created space for each other in one of the most crowded places on earth. It was a really powerful practice.”

Brianna Lertora practices yoga in Times Square. Finding Peace in Chaos

The experience was certainly surreal. Imposing iron structures towered above me, and the pavement buckled beneath me — from the rumble of cars rushing by, and the trample of feet wandering past. The irony of it all was not lost on me: Times Square is the exact opposite of calm; and yet, intentional peace prevailed: the perfect example of what yoga is.

On our way over from the Port Authority, the crowd was thick with tourists and purpose driven pedestrians — and the air was putrid with smog and worn brakes. Stewart’s calming voice cut through the noise: “I invite everyone to wake up, look up, reach up, climb up like the sun to your highest good.” And then he told us to line up with the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. for reference, and face away from the Samsung sign.

Yogis participate in the Solstice event in Times Square
Yogis participate in the Solstice event.

Fences separated us from the onlookers; we: who were intentionally present, and they: who awkwardly gawked from afar.

I couldn’t help but think of the words of Henry David Thoreau, penned after a night of civil protest spent in jail: “I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up.” In the same way, our separation was far more than just physical.

The Power of Purpose

The singularity of purpose was also powerful: to have that many people — from all different walks of life, gathered in one place, to participate in a central activity, was incredible. A tremendous feeling of unity prevailed throughout the practices.

Exiting the subway in Manhattan
Exiting the subway in Manhattan

“I kinda just want to be in it with everyone,” commented Karen Bummele, an integrative yoga and life coach from New York. She had the opportunity to instruct at the front of the event, but instead opted to participate in the class: “It’s a different experience.” Despite the morbid forecast of all-day thunderstorms, the sun broke through the clouds just before our 11:15 a.m. session began, bathing the crowd in sweat and sunlight.

But I didn’t mind at all: yoga in Times Square isn’t something that I do every day.

Running Through the Pouring Rain

Afterward, we stopped in at the Hillsong Church in the Best Buy Theater, and meandered through the Discovery Place Body Worlds, before heading further downtown to Chinatown and Little Italy.

Every time I go to NYC, it feels like I’m visiting for the first time. There is so much to see and so much to do that it’s intimidating. The sheer grandeur of the symmetrical infrastructure and the diversity of its inhabitants is awe inspiring – magical and frightening at the same time.

Pedestrians cross the street near Little Italy
Pedestrians cross the street near Little Italy

Our Megabus home left at 6:05 p.m.; but we lost track of time, and arrived at the stop just in time to see it pulling away from the curb.

Literally, that moment, it began pouring rain. I mean absolutely dumping water. The heavens broke open and the forecaster was redeemed. I pulled out my umbrella and it was immediately flipped inside out. So we hurried back to the Port Authority, soaked. There’s nothing like running through the rain in downtown Manhattan.

I’ve learned that sometimes, the best experiences come pouring down unexpectedly on the first day of summer.

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