It’s Friday morning yoga, and my fellow classmates and I are congregating in the waiting room at Spoke the Hub. The toddler dance class before us lets out, and for a few chaotic moments, we are overtaken by a swarm of excited 3-year-olds that seem to swim through us in the mosaic-tiled fishbowl.
Dolores, our instructor, motions us into the multi-purpose studio space. The setting isn’t quite what you would expect from your typical yoga class — there are no mats, my classmates are mostly over 40, and we are all seated on folding chairs. We’re all here to participate in the gentle, restorative practice of Chair Yoga. It’s just one of the classes in Spoke the Hub’s “Move for Life” program, an initiative designed to get everyone, regardless of age or fitness level, acquainted with an active lifestyle.
There are currently over 20 yoga studios in Park Slope alone, but decades before downward dog and ashtanga became part of the American vernacular, Elise Long was here, a pioneer exploring a frontier devoid of gyrotonics and morning vinyassa. Despite the constant stream of new fitness trends and health fads, Long’s message has been simple and consistent throughout — move your body.
Long first came to New York in the 1970s after college and began her professional career under the guidance of the renowned Irmgard Bartenief. She started off in the no man’s land between Avenue A and B on the Lower East Side until she was invited to visit Park Slope by some friends who would soon become her business partners. “I said okay, let’s do the calculation here. I’m paying for this shithole, and I’m scared, and no one will come visit me. Or I could pay 50 cents to take a subway ride and live in a mansion by a park. Okay, I’m gone!”
From there, a movement for movement was born. Long and her partners set up shop in a loft space in the former Polish Social Club building. By 1985, they found their permanent home in the Gowanus Arts Building, a 15,000-square-foot “artist’s habitat” on Douglass Street, and in 1995, they expanded to a second location on Union Street.
In the Park Slope of 1979, there was only one other studio offering the traditional spread of dance lessons. Long’s new collective in Gowanus would teach more than just tap dancing. It would serve as a conduit of creative energy to the local community, and in fact, that is where the name Spoke the Hub originated. “This is your hub.” She points to her core then stretches out her arms. “These are the spokes, and it’s about exchange from the inner to the outer.”
When Long interacts with her students, she’s teaching lessons that go beyond choreography. The same enthusiasm and seemingly infinite reserve of energy displayed by Long is reflected in the expressiveness of her young protégées. “I feel like the people who move regularly, they find joy in movement. They don’t do it just because they want to be thin. They do it because it brings them joy, and they keep it up because it’s an important part of their lives. They are the most vibrant people around at any age.”
Here in stroller central, there is an obvious market for children’s classes, but Long suspects the people in most need of her resources are the adults. “Who doesn’t have back problems these days? Everyone has back problems now, and it’s because of this —” She points to the giant iMac on her desk and knowingly glares over at me with raised eyebrows and a toothy smile.
I become aware of my slumped posture. She’s right. How many hours have we all spent literally hunched over our laptops? According to a 2011 study, 80 percent of us are desk-bound throughout the day. “At a certain point, my Type-A, big-brained, white-collar men need to move! It’s not just for gym rats, it’s the white-collar, academic businessmen with high-stress jobs. This population needs fitness help, but often they are embarrassed. You should see them come in [she mimics someone with arms crossed and shoulders up to their ears]. Eventually we have them dancing.”
This morning’s chair yoga class was (thankfully) far from a Wall Street hoedown, but the message was the same. Even if we are stuck at our desks for the majority of the day, there are still ways to engage our bodies that don’t involve complicated poses or reaching our target heart rates.
Perhaps this is the greatest strength of Long and her talented team — bringing movement to the lives of the habitually sedentary in a trusting, nonjudgmental environment … maybe with some good-intentioned teasing. Long has recognized the need for movement in everyone’s life, no matter their age, weight, or gender. She adamantly believes the benefits of an active life extend beyond the physical. “I think when you are more active, you get more fearless, you have more courage to try things.”
Starting this fall, Spoke the Hub will be offering classes tailored specifically to the needs of all of us sequestered to our seated lives in front of the computer. The program will include something for everyone, be it prenatal yoga to low-intensity dance classes for seniors, as Elise quips, “As long as you’re not on a gurney we can get you moving.”
Spoke the Hub’s Fall Session runs from September 10 until February 3. For details on class schedules and locations, visit www.spokethehub.org