Yoga Sleuth Visits New York Studios Undercover

THE mild-mannered woman on a mat wedged into a crowded yoga studio on the West Side of Manhattan on a recent Saturday was not who she seemed. Brette Popper was no ordinary yoga student who had carved out an hour and a half to get to class. She was the Yoga Sleuth, in hot pursuit of a tip, confirmed by several informants, that out of the multitudes of yoga teachers in New York, this one was special. There was only one way to find out: Go undercover.

As Ms. Popper launched off her back foot into half moon pose, then raised the foot higher into a standing split, she was constantly assessing the situation, taking mental snapshots and notes. At the end, Ms. Popper decisively summed up the teacher: “She really didn’t pay attention to the students’ alignment.” Ms. Popper deemed the class not worthy of a Yoga Sleuth review.

As the publisher of YogaCity NYC, home of the Yoga Sleuth, a regular column on the site, Ms. Popper not only visits classes anonymously, but also deploys a team of undercover writers on reconnaissance missions to do comprehensive reviews of specific classes. Depicted as a muscular yogi — a superhero with strong arms spread wide in a warrior pose — the Sleuth is on a mission to hunt down New York’s best classes.

The Sleuth is well known enough to be a verb in New York’s yoga world. “We’ve been Sleuthed four or five times, likely,” Mike Patton, an owner of Yoga Vida NYC, wrote in an e-mail.

The reviews have been a mainstay of YogaCity NYC since Ms. Popper, a veteran of the business side of print journalism, including at the Gannett Company, founded the site in 2009 with Minna Proctor, a writer and editor. From the site’s inception, Ms. Popper said, the content included Sleuth reviews and a calendar of Sleuth-approved classes, as well as articles about yoga, coming events, training, lectures and directories, which include paid listings.

YogaCity NYC is only one source of information and opinion about yoga in New York. Yogis and would-be yogis can join, or eavesdrop on, lively conversations posted on Yelp, Facebook and Google, and get yoga news and reviews at sites like Well+Good NYC, FitEngine and Yoganonymous.

Well+Good NYC, which covers subjects like spas, juices and boot camp and says it has 500,000 page views a month, is valued as a source for coverage of personalities, chronicling the comings and goings of innovative instructors.

“Teachers are our rock stars,” said Melisse Gelula, an editor and co-founder. “Our readers are less moved by there being a new antigravity class than who is teaching where.”

Recent articles include a roundup of the best 60-minute yoga classes in New York, the bulging roster of barre classes and the whereabouts of the popular teacher Isaac Peña. The piece cheekily, if flatteringly, called him the next Rodney Yee, “whether he likes it or not.”

One thing that is hard to find on most sites is criticism, something that seems to be antithetical to the yoga zeitgeist.

Nurturing teachers tend to say they “adjust” misaligned students rather than “correct” them.

Yoga Journal, the longstanding industry behemoth, is so upbeat and empowering that it makes Oprah Winfrey seem like a whining defeatist. And with so many students chanting for compassion for all living things, the urge to backbite recedes.

“Our philosophy from the beginning was to post only positive reviews,” Ms. Popper of YogaCity NYC said. “Everyone’s practice is different, and for me to say something is not good, when there are other students who find a connection, is not what we do.”

The site has 3,500 visitors a week, Ms. Popper said, as well as 4,600 Facebook friends and a weekly newsletter that goes to 1,500 local practitioners. The homespun look is getting an update, said Ms. Popper, who hopes to have an improved site up by early next year. “It’s a little wonky now,” she said.

Looking for a class in the yoga-laden vicinity of Union Square, a k a “YoHo”? According to the Sleuth, Veronica Perretti, owner of the new studio Bija Yoga, “deftly cued” the class into crow pose, played an Adele song and provided an “intense asana flow.” (An editor for the Sleuth, Jennilyn Carson, who also blogs as YogaDork, teaches at Bija, but she did not write the review.)

At the nearby Jivamukti Yoga School, the Sleuth reported that one teacher, Tamar Samir, started with a “little Dharma talk” from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and led devotional chanting before launching into a fast-paced class with hands-on assists; she stayed after class to help a student with headstands.

Far from a Sanskrit text, the theme of a recent class given at Yoga Vida NYC by Hilaria Thomas focused on shoulder and spine anatomy. The Yoga Sleuth wrote that just when it seemed that class was done, Ms. Thomas announced that she always finished with ab work.

“She added if we didn’t think it was part of our yogic practice it was totally cool and we didn’t have to participate,” wrote the Sleuth, who skipped the gym-style crunches. The Sleuth isn’t an idle gossip; no mention was made of Ms. Thomas’s romantic link with Alec Baldwin.

The closest thing to a critical comment about the Sleuth comes from some yoga teachers who say the Sleuth is inside-yoga and not necessarily a way of getting people on the mat. “I’m very grateful for the support, but I don’t know if it translates into students,” said Ms. Perretti, who nevertheless posted the review of her class on her Facebook page. “They are preaching to the choir.” (Or perhaps chanting?)

Ms. Samir of Jivamukti, who posted the Sleuth review of her class on her Web site, said, “Some of my friends who are yoga teachers say that nobody reads YogaCity but yoga teachers.” She added, “I definitely read it.”

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