At Vata Asana in Pennington, Leyna Schaeffer demonstrates how using silks hung from the ceiling gives yoga a whole new dimension. (Photo by Zinc Photography.)

By Meagan Douches

A small doorway wedged between Zorba’s Restaurant and Paper Source on Nassau Street leads up a narrow flight of stairs to the Rise Power Yoga studio. The space contains a community room for students to store their things and a practice room.

Inside, most of the walls are covered in red and orange words of empowerment. The space feels meditative and reflective. The temperature of the studio is controlled by infrared heaters to maintain a warm 85-90 degrees, which is meant to help increase blood circulation.

Students are here for the 9:15 a.m. All Levels Baptiste Power Yoga Inspired class. They begin setting up in the small studio room by placing their mats between the designated spaces outlined with tape marks on the floor. The placements are designed to maximize the intimate space which feels larger because of an oversized window on the wall facing Nassau Street. Students continue preparing, grabbing two blocks each from a shelf in the back corner.

Afterward, most lie silently with a block under their spine while they close their eyes and tune into their breathing. The room is silent aside from a hum of soft inhales and exhales.

Owner and instructor Annie Isaacson begins the practice by playing a stereo recording about dealing with difficult situations in life and how yoga can help us through. She follows this with some of her own words of wisdom and a lighthearted story before encouraging students to set an intention for today’s practice.

The physical part of the class is about to begin. Everyone inhales and lets out a big, collective “Om” which is loud and powerful. The sound reflects the studio’s mission to help students ‘rise’ above their challenges and to bring this strength into their lives outside of class.

All over Princeton, residents are seeking to better their bodies and minds through the practice of yoga. Yogis in Princeton set their alarms to make an 8 a.m. class before work or rush to squeeze in an hour at the studio on their lunch break. Others dedicate time after work between their busy schedules and family time.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, over 21 million Americans—the equivalent of 9.5 percent of people across the county—currently practice yoga. This number has almost doubled since 2002, when 5.1 percent of Americans reported as yoga practitioners. As the yoga industry continues to thrive, more and more people in Princeton are catching on to the craze.

Yoga on the rise

At Rise Power Yoga, we start off the hour and fifteen minute session by lying on our backs and doing several rounds of leg lifts and holds with a yoga block for added difficulty. As part of our warm-up, we also do bridge pose and a few seated twists before moving into a vinyasa sequence. We eventually work our way up to warrior poses, triangles, side angle and chair pose.

As we work through all of this, Isaacson reminds us to breathe and encourages confidence and sturdiness in the poses. It’s a challenging practice at a moderate pace and by the end, my legs are burning — which is the goal, according to Isaacson, who tells us to, “find our edge.”

The space was home to Princeton’s first yoga studio, Yoga Above, owned by Michael Cremone. Cremone closed down in December of 2013 when he decided to move to North Carolina, and the space was in negotiation until Isaacson took over the following August. Since then, the yoga scene in downtown Princeton has expanded across three studios in the heart of downtown and over a dozen around the county.

Isaacson, who was trained in Baptiste power yoga by the well-known Baron Baptiste, began teaching at Yoga Above in 2007. She spent several years instructing at various studios in town, including Gratitude Yoga, before opening Rise Power Yoga in 2014.

She was eventually drawn back to the Nassau Street space because of its key feature: an oversized window on the street side with views of the park and Princeton’s historic campus. Isaacson calls this her ‘magic window.’ She loves being able to gaze out and observe the changing seasons and the people of Princeton.

“[The studio] has become my sanctuary,” she said. “It gave me the space to get to know who I am. It’s about discovering your feet — grounding and rooting — so you can overcome challenges and handle situations better.”

Isaacson has been around the world. She was born in the Philippines, and grew up in Guam. She came to the U.S. as a single mother in 1998 for her job with an airline company. Today, she is happy to call Princeton her home and to play a part in the community.

The Rise studio specializes in power yoga — a form that combines a vigorous physical practice and meditation to encourage empowerment, authenticity and passion in life. The majority of classes are open to all levels, though having some background knowledge of the poses would be helpful, as classes move at a moderate speed.

“It’s very athletic and it requires inner personal and physical strength,” Isaacson said. “Baptiste power yoga allows for self-inquiry and the practice becomes aligning with your true north.”

In every yoga community, certain studio instructors present a more philisophical approach to their teaching style. Isaacson could be considered one of these “new-age” teachers, as she tends to speak from the heart and encourages students to look inward to advance their practice.

Maintaining Princeton’s original studio, Rise has helped develop the town’s yoga community. Many students choose to practice at the studio on a regular basis. Rise Power Yoga students span across several age groups, though the majority are professionals living in and around Princeton.

“It’s a very supportive community,” said Deborah Dorman, a Princeton resident and loyal student at Rise Power Yoga. “When we’re all together, we embrace each other. I feel like my wings are getting sewn back on and ready to fly again.”

Stream of consciousness

Located at the corner of Spring Street and North Tulane Street in an old building reminiscent of a French artist’s studio sits Yoga Stream, a cornerstone of Princeton’s yoga community since it opened three years ago. Before leasing the space, owner Lara Heimann taught yoga out of her home studio on the Princeton-Lawrence border for 10 years, during which time she developed a following of students. Now, she’s looking to relocate again to a bigger studio in town, as her following has continued to expand, outgrowing the current space.

Inside, the studio opens up to a large, rectangular room with high ceilings and light brown wooden floors. To the left is the front desk, a wall of cubbies for shoes and other unnecessary items and a small back room with a bathroom. While the studio space seems fairly large, the floor quickly begins filling with yoga mats as students enter and start setting up for class.

Many begin stretching and practicing press up handstands while a buzz of friendly chatter beings to fill the space. Unlike the meditative start to class at Rise Power Yoga, students at Yoga Stream talk to their neighbors exuberantly while stretching out on their yoga mats.

It takes a minute for Heimann to get everyone quiet and focused in order to begin the class. Practice starts out with leg lifts and core exercises including handstand work against the wall.

While most classes are vinyasa-based, the Yoga Stream style emphasizes inversion work- the practice of inverted poses such as headstands, handstands and shoulder stands. The goal is to create balance by spending as much time on the hands as on the feet. There is no requirement to do the inversion work, though the students here seem to really enjoy this unique aspect of the studio.

“While we’ve been known as the ‘handstand studio,’ we’re really teaching people how to utilize their whole body,” Heimmann said. “There is no better way to empowerment than through the vehicle of the body — the exploration of the human condition, the overcoming the hurdles of the mind, the connection to breath and core strength — all of which handstands make you do.”

Besides the inversion work, the class itself is unique in the sense that it consists of constant movement of poses which differ from the traditional vinyasa flow — a style which Heimann says is “heavy on the legs.” A class at Yoga Stream will definitely be a workout, with movements that include yoga asana, plyometrics and core strengthening exercises.

The room floods with sunlight as we continue flowing through our vinyasa sequence. The class moves at a fast pace and focuses on movement and mindfulness while philosophical lessons are typically kept to a minimum — a positive or negative depending on your preference.

“The Yoga Stream style is the bridge between life on and off the mat,” Heimann said. “It’s about balancing the extremes and it makes people happier and more connected.”

The overall demeanor is less serious at Yoga Stream. It’s a very friendly atmosphere, where most people seem to know each other. Even if you don’t know anyone when you arrive, you are sure to make a few new acquaintances while sharing wall space for conditioning or exchanging a smile with the person next to you while you both hold forearm plank pose.

“It isn’t like a class of New Yorkers, who don’t interact and look each other in the eye,” said Heimann.

At Yoga Stream, the practice feels more like a communal experience than a personal quest of self inquiry. The quick and active pace of the class means that everyone is moving together and is focusing on the present moment, rather than reflecting on things outside the studio. That helps to quiet the mind and increase awareness of the here and now.

Heimann says students get to know each other at the studio and they care about one another’s progress — a consciously created, community-oriented yoga practice. Yoga Stream also hosts a collective vegan potluck dinner once a month, where students can connect outside of class and share in their practice of a healthy lifestyle.

“Many students examine their choices more carefully: what they purchase, what they eat, how they talk to others and themselves, and these are the transformations that yoga gives us,” Heimann said.

Yoga Stream students vary widely in age. Princeton resident Melinda Reissner, 73, says she could never find time to practice yoga until after she retired at age 65. Now she’s a regular at Yoga Stream who can hold a handstand right alongside her younger peers.

“You’re never too old to start,” Reissner said.

She says that the practice has transformed her mind and body and she no longer needs to get shots in her knees like she used to. Reissner says that she feels safe to explore poses and develop her practice with Heimann because of her background in physical therapy which Heimann incorporates in the Yoga Stream style of teaching. With this method, students learn proper body alignment and how to protect themselves from injury.

Many of Heimann’s other students also advocate her physical therapy inspired teaching, stating that it has actually helped heal their existing injuries.

“I used to do crew, but I had to stop because I had two bulging discs in my back,” Jess Cook said. “After I started coming here, the core integration work helped fix my chronic pain.”

Whether recovering from an injury or not, most students than come to Yoga Stream seem to have some sort of athletic background.

“I love how it’s changed my body,” said Georgiann Anker. “I used to do Crossfit, but I feel like I’m so much stronger now.”

Anker, who has been a member at Yoga Stream for the past year, drives to the studio every week from Robbinsville to experience Heimann’s unique yoga style.

“When I came for my first class, the community and Lara’s personality just blew me away,” she said.

In partnership with Lululemon, Yoga Stream is set to be the November studio of the month offering free classes at the store every Sunday. Classes will begin at 9:30 a.m. at the Princeton retail store located at 36 Nassau St.

‘We support each other’

At any given point during the week, you’re likely to encounter groups of yoga students hanging around the Spring Street alley situated between Cool Vines and The Savory Spice Shop. Yogis are constantly coming and going from Gratitude Yoga studio which has been a part of the Princeton yoga scene since it opened in January of 2012.

Students are instructed to enter from the alley through the back door which leads up a few stairs and into a modern designed guest space with a couch, storage space, the front desk and extra yoga mats for students to borrow. Continuing past the desk, there is an entrance to the studio space, which also connects to (and shares a bathroom with) Holsome Tea Shop on Witherspoon Street.

The studio space lies at the center of the building, meaning there are no windows. The space is dimly lit by candlelight and warmed with small heaters placed around the room. The 4:45 p.m. vinyasa class I’ve chosen to attend was not described as ‘hot yoga’ so the room is a little warmer than I expected.

Many students talk quietly to each other before class begins, though the atmosphere allows for a moment of internal meditation and reflection, which owner and instructor Gemma Farrell likes to emphasize.

By the time that Farrell is ready to start the class, the room is pretty full and several people end up moving their mats in closer to make space for latecomers. The session begins very subtly as Farrell instructs us to lie on our backs and bring our knees to our chest. Being accustomed to defining practice time with a communal “Om,” I feel as if something’s missing.

The practice begins at a slow pace as we do a few twists and deep stretches. Movements become progressively faster as we continue and delve into a more complicated progression. As we move through the poses at a quicker speed, the collective breathing in the room becomes deeper and heavy. A few times, I feel rushed to keep up with Farrell’s instructions and I have to take a second to get caught up.

Sequences are mostly made up of sun salutations, standing splits and warrior poses with a few options for arm balances. Simply designated as a vinyasa class, the session is somewhat vigorous compared to other studios, and it might be a bit fast for a first-timer who is unfamiliar with all of the poses.

The studio aims to make yoga accessible to everyone, so while the room is filled mostly with younger university-age students, it has a down-to-earth vibe.

Farrell says that she never planned to open her own studio, she just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Farrell also taught at Yoga Above but began looking for another space when the studio started closing down. In late 2011, she came across Gratitude’s current space and decided to turn it into a studio.

“I didn’t really have a plan,” she said. “The community sort of created itself.”

Farrell says that she also never intended on becoming on a yoga teacher. After working in investment banking, marketing and publishing in New York City for many years, she and her husband Jack Farrell decided to move to the Princeton-Plainsboro area. When Farrell completed her teacher training at Simply Yoga in Kingston seven years ago, she started teaching in Princeton and she was surprised at how much she enjoyed it.

Having worked in several studios in town, Farrell has observed the camaraderie between Princeton’s yoga studio owners. She says that they each encourage each other to do their best and to serve the community.

“It’s nice to see everyone doing what they love,” Farrell said. “We all have different strengths and we support each other.”

The Gratitude studio focuses on working with local charities and giving back to the community. The majority of classes are donation-based and proceeds are given to a different charity each month. Farrell says that she doesn’t keep any of the money from her classes, and that she only uses what she needs to pay for the cost of maintaining the studio.

“That’s what makes me excited about the studio,” Farrell said. “It’s not a business in my eyes, it’s a vehicle to serve others.”

Gratitude Yoga functions as a not-for-profit and according to Farrell, the studio is currently working to file for nonprofit status with the government. This model attracts many university students and makes Gratitude’s yoga classes accessible to anyone, says Farrell.

“It’s a very welcoming, casual atmosphere and there’s no judgment here. We’re all about giving back—I think we really embody the name of the studio — Gratitude. It doesn’t feel like a workout studio, people feel at home here and you’re free to be yourself,” said Princeton resident Jordan Faigen.

“It’s a heart-centered community with a sense of friendship, support and acceptance,” she said. “We have all different ages, shapes and sizes and it’s a very inclusive and positive place to practice.”

Gratitude also offers a very spiritual experience for those who want it and Farrell says that is what keeps people coming back to the studio. Aside from an array of fast-paced vinyasa classes, the studio offers meditation sessions, book discussions and a study group for students to expand their practice beyond the physical components.

“Gemma brings a strong spiritual aspect that adds a deeper level to the practice,” said Alex Gow, a senior at Princeton University who has been taking classes at Gratitude for the past four years.

The mind-body connection

Walk into most studios and you’ll find students lined up on yoga mats performing synchronized warrior poses and downward-facing dogs. At Vata Asana Yoga Studio, the scene is a little different. On a typical day, the room is filled with silk hammocks which hang from the 11.5 foot ceiling. Students can be found hanging upside down in pigeon pose, flying downward dog and other inverted poses off the mat.

On Wednesday nights, the studio is transformed as a special acroyoga class is offered. The silk wraps are gone creating a wide open space for a community-oriented practice involving partner acrobatics, traditional yoga and elements of Thai massage.

There is a warm energy in the air with a touch of excitement and nervousness as students make small talk while stretching out on the mats.

Class starts off as Schaeffer instructs us to sit in a circle and introduce ourselves. While I usually cringe at the mention of fun facts and name games, it seems appropriate to learn everyone’s name and experience level since we will soon be balancing on each other in the air.

After the introductions and a collective “Om” we line up in two rows to go through a warm up flow of traditional floor poses and core work. We move into practicing headstands and pikes—something I had never heard of before this class—which involves holding an inversion (in this case tripod headstand) and ‘piking’ the legs toward the floor while holding a straddle. Our partner stands behind us for balance and to help maintain the integrity of the pose.

After this we are finally ready to break into groups of three- consisting of a flyer, base and a spotter to assist and prevent any falls.

The class is much lighter and more playful than any other style of yoga I’ve encountered. Glancing around the room, it feels like we’re a group of adults playing around and laughing lightheartedly like a bunch of kids. Acroyoga requires students to pay attention to directions, communicate with each other and to be in the present moment. All of this creates a space where you can forget about the stresses and worries of everyday adult life and simply have fun.

While a floor yoga class is often a very personal experience, acroyoga classes offer a communal experience and connection.

“In acro, you have to touch other people, communicate and work together to practice the poses. So it’s really great for introverts,” said Joe Casisa, a resident of Ewing and regular at Vata Asana.

According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, women make up 72 percent of those who practice yoga. This statistic seems to hold true in Princeton, though there are many men who recognize the benefits of yoga.

“It’s about the mind-body connection, not about how flexible you are,” said Casisa, who has been practicing yoga around the area for the past three years. “I started doing yoga because I was working in construction and had a lot of back pain. After my first class, the back pain was gone.”

“Some guys think that yoga isn’t ‘manly,’” he said, “but if you want to build muscle and real strength do aerial. It’s made my floor practice grow exponentially. There are poses you can do in the air that you wouldn’t dream of doing on the floor.”

At Vata, there is a sense of camaraderie as groups accomplish a difficult pose that they’ve been practicing, such as a cartwheel onto a partner’s feet or a lift into five-pointed star pose. Once a move finally ‘clicks’ for a student, the expression on their face fills with excitement and pride. Students continue to build upon their practice each week, though new yogis are always joining.

The end of class is allotted to Thai massage practice with partners for deep relaxation and is followed by a group circle and final “Om.” Most students find that even if they come to the class feeling exhausted and cranky, by the end of the hour and a half session they find themselves feeling lighter, happier and more energized.

Schaeffer says that there were several acroyoga teachers in the state when she started practicing about four and half years ago, but now they spend their time traveling.

“We had this amazing little community and we wanted to re-cultivate that here because acro really changes your life,” she said, “aerial does too, but acro even more so because it’s interactive.”

Located on the second floor of the Shoppes at Pennington, the studio offers a unique style of aerial yoga called Vata Asana which was created by owner and Bucks County native Leyna Schaeffer. The practice fuses traditional yoga asana, acrobatics, alignment and breath work to create a flow of sequences lasting from 60 to 90 minutes, depending on the class. With its signature style, the studio attracts students from all over New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Regulars come from Flemington, Princeton and Robbinsville every week.

Schaeffer first discovered acroyoga- a style of yoga which combines traditional poses, partner acrobatics and Thai massage — four and a half years ago when she saw a PBS television special. She immediately began searching for classes online. In doing so, she stumbled upon several photos of aerial yoga and knew from then on that this was what she wanted to do with her life.

“The first time, most people expect it to be hard physically, but it’s more emotional. It’s all about putting your trust in the wrap.”

Schaeffer sold her business Kaya Aerial Yoga in Philadelphia and decided to move to the Princeton area with the intention of creating an aerial and acroyoga community for those seeking an alternative method of practice. She opened the doors of the Vata Asana studio last May and has since been working to bring aerial and acroyoga to Central Jersey.

“We thought Princeton had a really nice yoga community,” Schaeffer said, “but they don’t have aerial and acro and that’s the one thing that would really enrich the community.”

While the Vata Asana Yoga Studio is based in Pennington, Schaeffer says that plans are in the works to open a Princeton location in the New Year.

No matter what studio you choose for yoga, chances are you will find that it embodies a unique spirit — whether it’s one of empowerment, gratitude, balance or playfulness. Yoga students are drawn to the style that best fits their needs and lifestyle. So if you don’t find the right fit at one of the studios profiled in this story, then maybe you’ll find it at a studio nearby like Simply Yoga in Kingston, Breathing Dragon Yoga in Montgomery or the Princeton Center for Yoga and Health in Skillman.

Mary Cullen, a Princeton resident who practices at Rise Power Yoga, had been a lifelong runner before an injury prevented her from being able to keep up her routine. So she began practicing yoga seven years ago, and like many yoga advocates, Cullen got more out of her practice than she bargained for.

“It’s definitely not just calisthenics,” she said. “It’s that connection of the mind-body-spirit, yoked.”

Cullen’s practice eventually led her to become a teacher, like many enthusiastic yoga students who participate in teacher training to delve deeper into their practice. Most yoga studios offer teacher training once or several times a year for students to learn more about anatomy, alignment, yoga philosophy and asana sequencing. Cullen began instructing classes at Rise last year after completing her teacher training in 2013.

Like many Princetonians, Cullen has a full-time career at a corporate training company, and she has had to set aside time for yoga. She says it’s the community that helps her find time to practice and teach.

“It’s almost like the studio put its arms around me and embraced me,” Cullen said.