A 41-year-old man showed up for his first yoga class in butt-crack-baring jeans and without a mat, but he committed to the night’s yin-style practice with a bottle of Budweiser beside him.
After bending, twisting and meditating on loving kindness, Wesley Church of Homer, Nebraska, described achieving a level of peace and calm he usually only experiences in his backyard, surrounded by raised-bed gardens, a hummingbird feeder and songbirds. At Beer Yoga, he found that same feeling on the floor of a bar.
“I didn’t see that one coming,” he said. “I didn’t expect much.”
He’s the kind of person that Caroline Rivera wants to reach.
About six months ago, the yoga teacher from Studio 83 Holistic Wellness started offering Beer Yoga every other Thursday night at The Marquee, a live music venue that serves craft beer in Sioux City, Iowa. The class costs $12, which includes a drink.
“It’s less intimidating, less expensive,” she said. “It’s a way for me to introduce something that’s been so healing for me to a group of people who aren’t necessarily willing to walk into a yoga studio … Because, through no fault of the studios, it’s just not a place they feel comfortable.”
Beer, cats, dogs, cursing, gangster rap, goats, ganja — all have been used by teachers across the country to make yoga appear more fun, inclusive and accessible to attract new students.
Critics have called some of these newfangled ideas everything from tacky to borderline sacrilegious.
A study by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal found that nearly 37 million Americans practiced yoga in 2016, up from 20 million four years earlier. Over the long term, yoga has gone from an ancient spiritual practice in India to a $16 billion industry in the United States, where a pair of yoga pants can cost $128 and there’s naked yoga in New York.
In Decorah, Iowa, Laree Schouweiler, owner of indoor cycling and hot yoga studio Reefuel, leads a monthly all-level flow called Bend & Brew at Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. (During the summer, classes are held in the park across the street.) For $20, students can get a health smoothie from Impact Coffee before class and one free beer from the brewery after — all with the promise to “cure what ‘ales’ you.”
“Even though this billion-dollar industry isn’t lacking in participants, these specialized classes open the door to those who may not have tried it before,” Schouweiler said. “Does this coincide with every yogic principle? No, but does that mean that all the benefits are negated? I don’t believe so. Yoga offers so much on- and off-mat that benefits outlast a single beverage consumed after class.”
In Hinduism, the aim of yoga has been to unite body, mind and soul — experiencing one’s true self — in a quest for moksha, meaning enlightenment or liberation. Yoga isn’t just some fitness fad; it is thousands of years old. Now, as the popularity of yoga rises, so have efforts to keep it rooted in tradition.
In 2010, before beer and goats crashed the scene, the Hindu American Foundation launched the Take Back Yoga campaign to raise awareness about the practice’s Hindu history. A few years later, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi also started an initiative to try to reclaim yoga by appointing a yoga minister and organizing the first-ever International Yoga Day on June 21, 2015.
More recently, Sanjay Manaktala, an Indian-American stand-up comedian based in Bangalore, released a satirical sketch featuring “Biryani yoga,” where fans of the spicy rice dish get their fitness fix with a plateful of biryani balancing on their backs during Downward-Facing Dog, followed by a guided meditation with visualization: “I am chicken. I am mutton. I am boneless.”
During Savasana, the students in the video finally get to eat, but they get up and leave when they find out it’s made with mock meat. There’s a message at the end of the nearly two-minute video: “Biryani yoga does not exist and hopefully never will. Please stop beer yoga also.”
In many Iowa communities, at least, beer yoga is defined less by pretention and gluttony than accessibility and outreach.
Another alcohol-infused practice has been going strong in Davenport, Iowa, for more than three years. Originally called Tippi Yogis, Bends & Brews led by Sarah Wendland meets every Sunday and Thursday at the Front Street Brewery Taproom. It’s advertised as “BYO mat” and $10 to practice.
“I am a fan of meeting my students where they are and making yoga accessible to everyone, not just the privileged few who can afford a yoga studio membership,” Wendland said. “I get a lot of first-time yogis who have always wanted to attend a class but felt this style was more approachable … And it’s fun!”
Yoga for First Responders, a Des Moines-based nonprofit, has been offering BrewerYoga at Peace Tree Brewing Co. — first at the Knoxville location, now in Des Moines — for about two years. The beginner-friendly yoga class includes free beer samples after Savasana. If someone doesn’t want an alcoholic drink, there’s water or root beer, or kombucha.
YFFR founder Olivia Kvitne saw multiple benefits to offering a donation-based yoga class at the brewery: she could raise funds for her nonprofit, support a local business and — like Wendland pointed out — meet people where they are.
“It’s not about where the classes are being held or what gets them in the door — it’s how the classes are being taught that matters,” Kvitne said. “I teach the same yoga class I would teach at a yoga studio inside the four walls of the brewery.”
“It’s a way for me to introduce something that’s been so healing for me to a group of people who aren’t necessarily willing to walk into a yoga studio.” —Caroline Rivera
The monthly class usually draws 30-40 students, including a lot of men who are new to yoga. With craft beer on tap and a Big Acai Bowl food truck on site, students tend to stick around and socialize instead of rolling up their mats and going home.
The community aspect is partly what brought Jeff Phipps to Beer Yoga in Sioux City. He keeps coming back for the beer — and because he likes Rivera’s style of teaching. At each class, she sets an intention and incorporates mudra, mantra and mindful breathing, inviting her students to settle in for an hour-long meditative slow flow, just like she would at a studio. She doesn’t drink while she teaches, and generally, her students don’t either. The beer is there to be sipped and savored afterwards.
And that’s enough to shift a newcomer’s perception and get him to show up.
“This doesn’t seem like it’s such a commitment. When you go to a studio, it’s maybe more serious,” Phipps said, then paused. “It’s kind of nice to be able to find time for your soul.”
This is the only yoga class he attends. For a few months, Phipps and his 13-year-old daughter went to a more fitness-focused yoga class at the community center in Onawa, Iowa, where they live — almost 40 minutes from Sioux City. But then the teacher moved away. Phipps wanted a social outlet and to do something that would be good for him. He found Beer Yoga.
On a recent Thursday night, Rivera lit a piece of palo santo and watched it burn while her students relaxed into Savasana. Then she guided them through the metta meditation: “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. May I be peaceful and at ease.”
Phipps came up to her afterwards. She was still sitting on stage. “I really needed this,” he said. “My dad passed away last week.”
With a glass of Surly’s Todd The Axe Man by his mat, that night’s class gave him a chance to pour out the sadness. As long as people like him keep showing up for Beer Yoga, Rivera is going to keep teaching it.
“Just because somebody doesn’t consider it ‘real’ yoga,” she said, “doesn’t mean that the people who are here aren’t experiencing real healing.”
Ally Karsyn is the founder, producer and host of Ode, a live storytelling series presented by Siouxland Public Media, where she is the arts and culture producer. She’s also a lifestyle photographer. More details at allykarsyn.com. This article was originally published in YogaIowa’s Summer 2018 issue.