Eastside Story: Breaking Down Stereotypes With People’s Yoga

When I first wanted to learn yoga in the early eighties, I had to seek it out in a tiny, funky Sivananda Yoga Center behind a liquor store on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip

Stereotypes HipLatina Diana Rico People's Yoga

Photo: Courtesy of Leah Gallegos, People's Yoga

When I first wanted to learn yoga in the early eighties, I had to seek it out in a tiny, funky Sivananda Yoga Center behind a liquor store on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. I stuck with it over the years as yoga grew to be a New Age trend in LA, then a nationwide industry complete with pricey special clothing and gear, festivals, and retreats. I upped my game when I moved to Taos, New Mexico, by doubling my number of weekly classes, and I kept up my practice while traveling by visiting yoga studios in places like Manhattan, Denver, and Berkeley. In all these spaces, it was rare to see people of color, people who weighed “too much,” people beyond a certain age or stereotypes.

Yoga is now a $27 billion industry in the United States, and the predominant image we see in magazines and books, on Instagram and Pinterest, and on yoga apps and DVDs is of the thin, young, white, female yogi. No wonder so many people who don’t fit that stereotype assume that Downward Dog or Tree Pose is not for them. But yoga is a 5000-year-old practice for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being that has something to offer everyone. And the stereotype is being challenged: the website Decolonizing Yoga, popular Instagrammer “Fat Femme” yogi Jessamyn Stanley, East LA’s People’s Yoga, and others are opening our eyes to the wider possibilities of this ancient science.

People’s Yoga was founded as a “mobile studio” in 2012 by Leah Gallegos and Lauren Quan-Madrid, instructors who wanted to offer affordable, accessible yoga classes to the Eastside community where they grew up. In 2014 they opened their brick-and-mortar People’s Yoga studio in East LA. People’s Yoga now offers 28 classes weekly and draws several hundred students per week.

HipLatina yoga stereotypes

Photo: Courtesy of Leah Gallegos, People’s Yoga

We spoke to Leah Gallegos recently to find out why she decided to open her studio, how she welcomes the Latino community, and how she builds community through wellness outreach.

Hip Latina: What was your impetus for starting People’s Yoga? And why specifically in East LA?

Leah Gallegos: Lauren and I were experiencing the benefits [of practicing yoga], but we were also noticing some gaps. Classes were really expensive, and the participants didn’t look like the people in our communities—didn’t look like our mothers, our fathers, our grandparents. Myself being born and raised in Highland Park and Lauren being born and raised in Norwalk and Boyle Heights, it came very natural for us to want to do this work on the Eastside. And we picked East LA in particular because it was right in the middle of what I like to call a yoga desert. If you Yelp East LA there’s a big desert with yoga studios like 10 miles away.

HL: What are some of the strategies you’re using in order to draw in that particular population?

LG: Both myself and Lauren identify as Chicana. And growing up around a lot of Latinos in our neighborhood, it was really natural to create a space that was welcoming to our neighbors, our families, our nanas, our tatas. Most of our instructors needed to be bilingual, because most people are either Spanish-speaking or bilingual. We had to offer these classes in a way where people feel welcome and not intimidated, where it doesn’t matter the size of your body or the amount of ability that you have, where everyone can feel safe. We wanted to say, “Yoga’s a tool for everybody.”

HL: Can you tell me about the demographics of your students?

LG: I’m humbled and have so much gratitude every time I walk into the space because we have such a variety of ages, abilities, backgrounds, sometimes even languages, from Chinese to Korean to Spanish to English, all in one room. Our students range from three years old to 70-plus. We also try to target families. So you’ll see father-daughter, you’ll see mother-daughter, you’ll see sometimes husband and wife. It’s the biggest variety in a yoga studio I’ve ever experienced, and I travel a lot, so I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of spaces.  

HL: Ultimately, what kind of impact do you hope to have with People’s Yoga?

LG: Our vision statement is “Health and wellness for all.” Our approach is building our holistic ways of healing not only through [yoga] but also through relationship, through engagement, through support for one another. We want to expand our services to include, not just yoga and Pilates and meditation, but also juicing and smoothies and healthy eating as well as acupuncture and massage. We truly believe that through community building we can spread health and wellness to everybody, one neighborhood at a time.

Diana Rico is a writer, editor, and producer specializing in the arts and spiritual/social issues.

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