Lyn Trotman describes Quest as “a peaceful sanctuary in the heart of midtown. ” President of the New York Theosophical Society, which studies the wisdom behind various world religions, Lyn also operates the Society’s book shop, Quest. The store is a pleasantly-scented oasis, with a section devoted to incense, candles, and gemstones. People interested in esoteric studies and rituals can browse through books on every conceivable spiritual tradition, from Kabbalah, to Sufism, to Buddhism, and all things in between. “A lot of other metaphysical bookstores are gone. We are the oldest one left. ”
In an effort to bring Zen to the West, the first branch of The Zen Studies Society was established in 1956. New York Zendo was opened in 1968. This temple offers multiple facets of practice including zen meditation, chanting, and Dharma talks, with the mission to awaken all to "inner freedom and true happiness. " The Zendo is one among a limited number of places where authentic Rinzai, one of three main sects of Zen, is practiced. Today, Giun Stefan Streit is the resident minister and Shinge Sherry Chayat, whose name means “heartmind flowering, ” is the abbot. The pair underscore the authenticity of what the temple offers, as NYZ is among the few places where Rinzai — one of the three main sects of Zen — is practiced. Shinge, who encountered the Society in the 1960s when many were “hungry for spiritual experience, ” has applied herself to adjusting the ancient traditions of Zen for contemporary times. To her, “NYZ has always been a hothouse for spiritual maturation. People have gained insight here into what it means to be human, what it means to dedicate oneself to a purpose that goes beyond one’s own small self. ”
Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center functions as a community center rather than simply a yoga studio, making for a very special experience. It is run entirely by volunteers, some of whom reside upstairs. Aside from regular yoga and meditation classes, there are often workshops, talks, vegetarian cooking classes and group meals. The aim is to teach the ways of yoga as a healthy lifestyle, not just an exercise routine. The followers of Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center live by five simple guidelines: proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, a vegetarian diet, meditation and positive thinking. Sivananda Yoga is a global movement with centers all over the United States and the world. We talked to a woman who had recently completed a certification program in California and returned home to New York to volunteer at the Sivananda Center. She went by the name Jayanti – a name given to her at the yoga school. Jayanti shared the history of the Sivananda Yoga movement, which began in India under Swami (meaning master) Sivananda, who then sent Swami Vishnu-Devananda to the United States to spread the knowledge of Yoga with the words “The West is waiting for us. ” The Center has been in New York since 1959, and in this specific location since 1964. Simply listening to Jayanti calmly tell us the story of this community that she felt so attached to, and this way of life that she found so rewarding, we could not help but be drawn in by her air of content. Getting to know a bit about this niche community in Manhattan was certainly a highlight for us while walking 24th Street.
Kadampa is one of the most tranquil indoor spaces that we have encountered. The Center, which is run completely by volunteers, has been housed at various locations through New York for the past twenty years, but moved into its current location in 2012. Just as the volunteers are trusted to run the center, guests are welcomed with a level of trust and openness that feels almost alien. Upon entering we were warmly greeted, and offered the option of sitting in on a free meditation session, or even of availing ourselves of private meditation rooms downstairs. Unsure what to do, we sat in on a pre-recorded meditation. Our host, Margaret, set us up with books, cushions and water. We took off our shoes and read along while the speaker rhythmically took us through the passage. The text was surprisingly smart and proscriptive; it was completely devoid of fluffy affirmations or vague mysticism. Rather Kadampa emphasizes Buddha's teachings, which at this center is done through examining the writings of venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Still the meditations do not dwell on intellectualism, as the central thrust at Kadampa is providing a place of calm in our bustling city. When we were ready to step back into Manhattan, after feeling thoroughly serene, Margaret invited us back, telling us that even if we did not have time to meditate, we were always welcome to stop by to relax.
The street outside Pure Yoga was deafening, filled with construction sites and traffic, but as soon as I stepped inside Pure Yoga, I felt an immediate calm. Any tension fell away as I descended into the subterranean yoga complex, which smelled like a luxurious spa and was decorated with Buddha sculptures and mandalas. I met Jack Cleary, the studio’s yoga advisor, who told me that, according to one Pure Yoga member who followed the teachings of feng shui, the mandalas are the reason why the basement space feels open and healthy, rather than claustrophobic. Either way, I barely noticed that I was underground. Instead, I simply appreciated the relaxed, wide, warmly lit hallways, ornamented with cozy, bench- and pillow-filled enclaves painted in different colors. As we walked through the 19, 000 square foot space, Jack shared the story of Pure Yoga. It began in Hong Kong in 2002 as a studio that offered a wide range of yoga instruction before coming to New York six years later. The studio on the East Side was first to open, followed by the 77th Street location in 2009. The New York locations are owned by Equinox and there are special benefits offered to Equinox gym members. There is also an Equinox spa attached to Pure Yoga on the lowest level. Whereas only yoga that was taught, initially, Figure 4 Barre classes and PXT sessions are now available. There are also meditation classes and workshops specifically devoted to different stages of life, including pregnancy and infancy. Jack, who is now in his forties, got into yoga early on in college after hurting his back playing lacrosse. Yoga helped him significantly, and now he enjoys speaking with others who have been injured or simply those who are unsure of what kind of yoga would be best for their needs. He seems to fully appreciate the opportunity to guide men and women of all ages in the right form of exercise. Jack showed me the schedules for each of the six studios, which included everything from advanced Hot Yoga to gentle beginner classes. “We run the whole gamut, ” Jack stated. He led me around to the different rooms, pointing out the natural anti-bacterial cork floors that designated the Hot Yoga rooms. In every room, mats are already provided and are laid down prior to class. These mats are then immediately put into their washing machines, a practice, Jack informed me, that is not found in many studios. Pure Yoga went above and beyond in many other ways, too, such as providing cool Eucalyptus-infused towels. As we continued to walk, Jack said that occasionally members will take a break from Pure Yoga to try other studios, but they almost always return. Jack noted that very few other places offer the facilities that they do, including the impeccably clean showers and changing rooms (stocked with Kiehl’s products). Pure Yoga is perfect for those who like to mix up their routine and try different schools of yoga. Benefits offered by Pure Yoga include a one-time beginner drop-in fee of $21 as well as access to various workshops and trips. When I visited in 2015, there were signs for a workshop with Diamond Dallas, a pro-wrestler-turned-yogi, as well as advertisements for a group retreat to Nicaragua. At the back of the space, I took note of the private yoga studios for both members and non-members, including a Hot Yoga room. Jack then mentioned that he sees a lot of members, especially those who are free-lancers or moms, using the hallway spaces as a quiet place to work. “It’s a little getaway, ” he said. “Many people think we’re a normal yoga studio when they pass by on the street. ” After exploring the many different facilities, I was convinced that Pure Yoga is far more than a “normal yoga studio. ”“Pure is a place where people who are passionate about yoga can find a place where they can grow, ” Jack said, before introducing me to Alexandra Seijo, the studio's General Manager. She agreed, adding that both members and instructors can find new forms of yoga to experiment with and embrace. With such a wide breadth of scheduling, there is always something for someone to take at any time of the day. Alexandra went on to say that many yogis end up falling in love with a new form of yoga, thanks to Pure: “They may not even know what they’re looking for, but they’ll find it here. ”