Getting Green in the Big Apple

New York writer Andrea Rollefson, attends the gala for Jivamukti Yoga's new green studio, and stays grounded among the stars.

photos by Andrea Rollefson

After weaving my way through rush-hour traffic, I finally find a place to lock up my bike on the edge of Union Square. As I walk up to the address listed on my crumpled piece of paper, I see a line has formed with a number of very tall women in brightly colored saris. My not-so-patiently-waiting friend informs me that we’ve just missed the chance to go up the elevator with Sting for Jivamukti Yoga’s opening gala.

And so the evening begins.

I’d come with the idea of finding out how Jivamukti incorporated ‘green’ principles into their new space right in the heart of bustling Manhattan. But as we enter the party, these thoughts quickly fall away and are replaced by an excited buzz and a certain amount of fear. So many people, so many famous people! Jivamukti Yoga’s opening gala is all very big, very New York…and far from my recent home at a quiet yoga retreat on the edge of a lake, with a ring of mountains as the only spectators for miles.  

Instead I’m here trying to avoid bumping into Uma Thurman as a line of photographers all try to grab a shot. And everyone who’s not a celebrity is looking around to see who they recognize from the movies, television, or a rock band. I can’t say I was an exception to looking around. It was almost impossible not to…

I notice a pile of shoes building up in a corner, as people begin walking barefoot into the main yoga room. It’s funny, this small action somehow helps equalize things, makes it all more human-scale, as the man across from me in the finely-tailored clothes sheepishly stuffs his holey sock into the toe of his polished leather shoe and places them beside my scuffed adidas.

What might happen if there was more spirituality present in activism, more political & environmental action among yogis? Life jokingly says he has a “world domination plan: kindness”, and with an estimated 18 million yoga practitioners in the US alone, there really is potential for some sorely needed change.

The floor of the main room has a squishy feel to it, which turns out to recycled car tire rubber from Asia. Other efforts to use environmental principles in constructing the yoga center are far more subtle, from the toilets and sinks saved from the previous tenant, to the 90% reuse of office materials, fans and fixtures from Jivamukti’s much smaller space on Lafayette Street. Co-owner David Life later explains to me that these seemingly small acts required a lot of effort because of what he called “the obstacles to conscious building” from architects, builders and suppliers. In fact, to recycle anything at all from the previous space required that they do the work themselves, in a grueling 18-hour day in which many of Jivamukti’s staff volunteered their time. Even getting contractors to use less toxic paints and adhesives required perseverance.

Easier to establish was the ethic for the expanded retail section: organic, sustainable, and fair trade offerings. The opening of a fully vegan café also reflects Jivamukti’s perspective that an organic, vegan diet represents a more sustainable, conscious way of living. The soon-to-be added bike racks outside will help encourage a gas-free transportation alternative in this car & bus clogged city. Anything to avoid the need to fight for a spot to lock up my 10-speed (several blocks away and right next to a smelly garbage can) will be a welcome addition.

But back to the party. By the time the music started I’ve already seen Russell and Kimora Lee Simmons, Sting and Trudie Styler, Baron Baptiste (head gear firmly in place), Uma Thurman with her brother and parents, and Beastie Boy, Mike D., standing in a corner. As Krishna Das begins intoning the mantra Om Namah Sivaya with his deep, resonant voice, the evening takes on a new dimension. The atmosphere shifts as something more significant than small talk and star-struck superficiality come to the fore. It’s a relief to enter back into something that transcends, that isn’t about any one of us but somehow brings us all together. Even with the rustling sounds of people passing in the hallway, a stillness begins to pervade and open me, and open the people around me too. As the chanting continues, people look more relaxed, more genuine.

It is this transcendence, this base of connection in yoga, that Jivamukti’s Sharon Gannon and David Life are hoping can become an umbrella to bring together and support a diverse group of political activists, environmentalists, and musicians. They wonder how the spiritual and the political can inform each other, become stronger and more effective in working together. What might happen if there was more spirituality present in activism, more political & environmental action among yogis? Life jokingly says he has a “world domination plan: kindness”, and with an estimated 18 million yoga practitioners in the US alone, there really is potential for some sorely needed change. In the current political climate, where fear and an over-simplification of belief is keeping people apart from each other and from an open discussion of issues, a more nuanced and sustainable approach takes on greater meaning and importance.

As the opening night festivities continue, these ideals come more into focus. One speaker after another offers a dose of substance to the mix: Trudie Styler, whose Rainforest Foundation has provided millions in support of this delicate ecology, Julia Hill Butterfly of Circle of Life, best known for living 2 years in a redwood tree to protect it from logging, Ingrid Newkirk of PETA, and Michael Franti, social activist and member of Spearhead, all speak. Each has powerful words on integrity, vision, the challenges of daily life and the need to keep practicing, the importance of overcoming fears and taking a stand politically—even in the midst of a war zone (or a war conflicted country). Once they’ve all finished talking, a feeling of hope, strength, and an overriding sense of possibility lingers. Their words and example make me want to be a bigger, fuller, more giving person.

I have to admit that what I mostly expected from the opening night at Jivamukti was seeing a bunch of stars and NYC yoga glitterati. What I didn’t expect was to leave feeling happier, more hopeful, more expansive than I’d felt in a long time.  

But then, that’s the power of yoga.

andrea rollefson lives and works in new york city, a place she'd always planned to live in & now can't imagine leaving (except on those really hot, smelly summer days). send any comments, stories, photos etc to

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