Manayunk’s newest yoga studio is heating things up. By Noel Bartocci Photography by Melissa Kelly Photography (melissakellyphotography.com)
There are few fitness classes or feats of physicality misunderstood more than hot yoga. For many who haven’t yet tried it or only have an impression of its practitioners from movies or TV, it’s easy to apply as many stereotypes as possible. Something along the lines of, “Crunchy hippies, practicing breathing and stretching in a hot room.”
Personally speaking, I let my fear of the class inform my impressions of it. I allowed my own self-discomfort steer me from committing to yoga. I mean, I already hate being hot and I know I’m not flexible like those people on TV. I tried hot yoga once before and I didn’t walk away thinking it was time well spent. But I’m not one to back down from a challenge – especially one from Manayunk Magazine (ie, yoga, boxing, indoor cycling, boot camp, etc.). Still, I was haunted by my last mediocre-at-best melting on a mat. After speaking to Stephanie Weinstein, purveyor extraordinaire of JTown Hot Yoga, my fear was slightly assuaged.
Nestled on Levering Street, JTown Hot Yoga is massive, open and clean, while simultaneously welcoming. Though the studio runs the length of the building behind Never Give Up, there is a warm, welcoming face as soon as you open the door.
Stephanie and her crew have been in Manayunk for a year now. The decision to expand from Jenkintown to include our neighborhood was a fortuitous and simple one — the space presented itself and they jumped on it.
“When we opened in Jenkintown, it was 2,000 sq. ft and we only did 26/2 style classes and had 12 teachers,” Stephanie said. “Within two years, we doubled in size in Jenkintown with 54 classes, five styles and 30 teachers, and we opened our second location here.”
The Manayunk location boasts a newly remodeled hot room that’s 1,500 sq. ft, as well as fully functional showers and locker rooms.
Stephanie is a whirling dervish of positive motivation, but not in the way that would make a pessimist recoil. She’s the kind of person that earns your trust with confidence and frank honesty. Her demeanor is earnest and altruistic in nature, and her words are always coming from a place of experience. She’s a persuasive woman, but not in a pushy way — talking with her for more than five minutes makes you believe you can do anything you put your mind to. Ultimately, it was the refreshing honesty about Stephanie’s journey with yoga that truly opened me up to its benefits.
“I cried in every class I took (when I first started). I had to hold myself down on the mat and wanted to leave the room so badly,” she confessed, continuing, “I believe the heat was my biggest battle in the room, it brought my anxiety to the surface — I couldn’t find my breath.”
“I was super competitive, so I was trying really hard in the postures,” she continued. “I didn’t understand the concept of relaxing into it…you could’ve said it to me until you were blue in the face, but I didn’t get it. I was trying really hard, too hard. I wanted to beat it, but it was kicking my ass.”
In hearing her vividly explain her early experiences, I couldn’t help but relate to the feeling — in and out of a yoga studio. I asked her how she overcame it.
“I was struggling with anxiety at the time, and high blood pressure,” she said. “I would hold myself down on the mat and they would say, ‘Just breathe.’ There was something about that inner battle. I knew I just needed to stay, so I did the best I could. Sometimes, it was lay down and cry, because I wanted to give up. Sometimes, it was doing the postures, sometimes just being pissed.”
She continued, “However, there was something in the way that a 26/2 class taught that kept me coming back, as much as I may have struggled. I had never felt better in my life than at the end of that class, not just because it was over either. My body and mind were shifting in all the right ways.”
The 26/2 class quite literally stands for 26 postures and two breathing exercises. According to Stephanie, there are many types of yoga and a lot of times it’s yogis’ choice — do what feels good. With 26/2, it’s not to say that you don’t do what feels good, but it’s also saying that it’s OK to be uncomfortable as you work through therapeutic postures, but learning to find comfort in your discomfort becomes a priceless life skill.
“You have to find a place of peace within your discomfort. It was in my own search for the peace in my discomfort that laid me out when I first started this practice — whether it was the heat, the postures, or my breath, or I didn’t like the voice of the yoga teacher or whatever,” she explained. “The way that it is taught is to stay in the room and try to find your breath, even in your discomfort — breath and stillness. Once you can control that, nothing, no one, can take that away from you. That is freedom, that is magic.”
Yes, I took the 26/2 class. My yoga teacher, the fantastic Fi Garsed, asked me to move within at least eye shot of other practitioners so I can see and mimic if need be. And yes, I think I liked it. I say that because this first time I had practiced hot yoga years ago, it was hard and stressful for me. As a results-oriented person, it was difficult for me to truly let go.
However, towards the end of this class, found myself enjoying the slow process and could see what Stephanie was referring to in the distance. If I, or anyone, were to truly commit to finding peace in discomfort, in a consistent way, you can begin to feel how it may benefit everything else in your life. It was a wild feeling that’s quite difficult to describe fully.
Stephanie understands that there is a magnitude of needs for her clients, and that’s why she offers so many different class styles. To her and her staff, 26/2 is the medicinal backbone whereas the other classes extrapolate from that and scratch other fitness itches, such as Core & Cardio, Yin Yoga, Kettlebell Kundalini, and Fusion: Dynamic Hot Yoga.
“Fusion is really amazing because we pull from Yin, Ashtanga, which in turn includes Vinyasa, and hatha yoga as well,” Stephanie explained. “We take the best of all worlds and pull them together.”
She described the classes with the humility and pride that stems from having helped create a holistic experience for her Philadelphia clients who sometimes lead stressful, overscheduled lives.
“I was looking for magic,” Stephanie revealed to me about the start of her journey. “Within six months of my yoga practice, I was off all of my meds. My blood pressure, which was 220/110 at the age of 30, has been controlled ever since then. While I’m still high energy — that’s my personality — I was able to practice this yoga in order to cope with my anxiety.”
It just clicked for her, which prompted me to ask if she believes this practice is prescriptive, a fix all, and/or does one maybe lose what they’ve gained if their frequency of practice decreases.
“I believe it has a lasting, cumulative effect,” she said. “Consistency is key — the more you do it, the more benefits you get, and the longer they last. If you’re sporadic, it’s always your first time, and that’s with most things in life. We’ll start a little bit up a ladder, but then we get down. Instead of conquering one rung at a time, and keep climbing up.”
The magic has and continues to happen for Stephanie, her staff, and her already loyal customers. During our conversation, we were pleasantly interrupted by people coming in and out of class, with warm, unsolicited candor about their experiences at JTown and the encouragement to join.
I’ve been conducting interviews like this for a while, and it was a first for me — people excitedly inserting their positivity into a recorder on the slight chance it’ll make its way into the article. If not a quote, then at least an impression. Well, mission accomplished.