By Caroline Benveniste
The Integral Yoga Institute at 227 West 13th Street is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary in October. And while now yoga and vegetarian food are mainstream, at the time of the Institute’s founding, this was not the case. In 1966 Swami Satchidananda, who had come from India at the invitation of Peter Max, established the Integral Yoga Institute in an apartment at 500 West End Avenue. In 1970, supporters arranged to purchase the Village building and Integral Yoga moved to its current location. In 1972 the food store opened. Today the neighborhood is one of the most sought-after in the city, but this was not always the case—in the 70’s things were much rougher. The site of the LGBT Center was a derelict school building, and Jackson Square Park was not the lovely garden it is today, but rather a magnet for drunks and drugs. But Integral Yoga hung in there through it all.
I have shopped at the food store for years, but recently I had the opportunity to explore it in depth when I took a tour with the Institute’s General Manager, Chandra/Jo Sgammato and the food store Manager, Wendy Roberts. Integral Yoga Natural Foods Store is 100% vegetarian with an emphasis on organic products. There is a vegan section, local and seasonal produce and homemade prepared foods. One of my favorite sections is the bulk area, with an extensive selection of grains, rice, dried fruit, nuts and more, at very reasonable prices. In addition to those, the store has a considerable assortment of herbs and spices, which are also offered in bulk. Given their short shelf-life, it is extremely convenient to be able to buy them in small quantities and not pay a premium. Also available in bulk are honey, peanut butter, coffee and various non-comestibles like laundry detergent, shampoo and hand soap. To avoid additional waste, you can bring your own containers.
Unlike some other stores offering senior discounts, Integral Yoga has no minimum and offers the 10% discount every day for seniors and students (something that was highlighted in a letter from a reader). Integral Yoga also donates food weekly to City Harvest.
A separate vitamin shop operated across the street from the main store for years, but Integral Yoga did not own that building, and with rising rents in the area, they moved those products into the front of the food store. There is no animal testing for any of their body care products. The large array of vitamins and supplements can seem overwhelming, so the store offers free nutritional consults every Wednesday.
Chandra explained that the mission of Integral Yoga is to help people maintain health and prevent disease. The food store works to promote health through nutrition, but the central work of the Institute happens next door. The main building has six yoga studios that are in constant use. The Institute offers over 100 yoga classes a week, including pre-natal, post-natal as well as gentle, yoga for arthritis and chronic pain, and myriad others. The classes are reasonably priced, and there are also many free classes, such as one a week for the unemployed, free drop-in meditation (I attended one of the noon sessions) and Friday deep relaxation, discounts for veterans, seniors, and a special program for 9/11 first responders, to name a few. While visiting the building, we saw a children’s yoga class with three kids running around and having a great time.
Chandra enumerated countless programs, partnerships, celebrations and other community events that Integral Yoga sponsors. They have always been strongly involved in community service, before it was fashionable. On August 13th, Integral Yoga will open their long-held street fair to all of the organizations and businesses on the block.
My yoga experience with Integral Yoga dates back to my pregnancy. I had heard of pre-natal yoga, but before I could attend any classes I ended up on bed rest. I called Integral Yoga and they arranged to have an instructor come to my house. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember that she preferred to teach in the room with the Tibetan tiger rug. Later in the pregnancy when I had to stay in the hospital for a month, she traveled uptown and did relaxation exercises with me there – something I sorely needed. She even brought me food from the store, judging correctly that hospital food could not be doing me any good.
Most of the people working at the Institute are volunteers except for a small full-time staff. The yoga instructors all teach on a volunteer basis. Integral Yoga is known for its excellent teacher-training program. Those enrolled in this program learn anatomy, meditation and philosophy, as well as yoga.
For 46 years, Integral Yoga has made major contributions to the quality of life in Greenwich Village. And today, with all that is happening in the world, the principle of interfaith harmony that Integral Yoga promotes, “Truth is One, Paths are Many”, is more relevant than ever.