Yoga thriving as Tibetan monks head for Baltimore

Baltimore Yoga Village
(Nicole Martyn, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

When a group of Tibetan monks visit North Baltimore for "10 Days of Mindfulness," May 4-15, Anjali Sunita will be among the most mindful.

Sunita is the owner and director of Baltimore Yoga Village, with studios at the Mill Centre in Hampden and Lake Falls Shopping Center near Mount Washington. As in years past, Baltimore Yoga Village will be hosting the monks of Drepung Gomang monastery in Southern India on their international Sacred Art tour to teach Westerners about their cultural traditions, religious beliefs, chanting and music, and meditation practices.


They will also be using their annual visit to raise money for their monastery. Last year's visit raised $10,000 and Sunita thinks this year's Baltimore leg of the tour could raise as much as $20,000.

The monks, who will be staying with host families in Roland Park and the Mount Washington area, will be doing much of their work at the two Baltimore Yoga Village studios and at the Divine Life Church on Falls Road in Hampden. The centerpiece of the monks' visit will be using colored sand to make a sand mandala, a spiritual symbol that represents the universe in Buddhism and Hinduism. The monks will also be participating in yoga and meditation classes and workshops, and giving talks about kindness, compassion, principles of nonviolence and other tenets of Buddhism.


The monks are imparting beliefs that Sunita said she shares and tries to instill in students at Baltimore Yoga Village, where classes are not just about physical postures.

"For me, a lot of what they do bolsters what we do," said Sunita, who will turn 34 while the monks are here. "Yoga is about community, fostering friendships and kindness."

Growing market

Sunita and Baltimore Yoga Village are at the forefront of a growing market for yoga in North Baltimore and the region, ranging from Charm City Yoga, with six locations, to small studios like Sunshine and Yoga, in Woodberry.

Many studios carve out their own niches. Some emphasize "power yoga," while others have a more intimate feel. Diversity of yoga styles is a big trend, as are classes that target children, seniors, couples and teenage girls.

Forms of yoga range from restorative yoga, a relaxed style, to acroyoga, a more playful style that combines elements of acrobatics.

"Yoga can be for everybody," said Kasia Merrill, 24, of Charles Village, a teacher at Sunshine and Yoga who also mans the reception desk at Baltimore Yoga Village in exchange for study priveleges.

One of Baltimore Yoga Village's specialities is therapeutic yoga for people with back pain and other ailments, Sunita said.

That suits James Rosenthal, of Homeland, one of the students in Sunita's therapeutic yoga class. The 42-year-old photographer, a yoga student for 10 years, said he is on his feet a lot at work and has back and heel pain. He said his wife pressed him to start doing yoga and he found it to be "addictive."

"I don't go for the Eastern philosophy," he said. "I go because it helps keep my body in far better shape than it was before I started."

Miriam Avins, 50, of Waverly, finds peace of mind as well.

"It makes me feel better. Everything calms down. My skin calms down. My brain calms down."


Sunita has also reached out into the community by partnering with the 29th Street Community Center in Charles Village to offer two yoga classes for beginners per week, one of them an acroyoga class.

"She really understands what we're trying to do," said Hannah Gardi, director of the community center. "It's a win-win for everybody. We're getting yoga classes and (Baltimore Yoga Village) gets to expand (its) reach."

The yoga market is competitive — Forbes magazine last year ranked Baltimore sixth among U.S. cities in the percentage of residents who do yoga — and many studios advertise affordable pricing packages.

But Changa Bell, who bought Respite Yoga on Girard Avenue near TV Hill last year and renamed it Sunshine and Yoga, prides himself on keeping his class sizes small, and said the studio has an app on Google that lets people see how many spaces are left in each class.

Bell, 42, who left his job as a media technologist at George Washington University to open the yoga studio, said he has 110 students per week and has started to turn a profit. But he's doing it because "I feel like it's my life's work," he said.

Philosophical roots

Sunita, a 1999 graduate of Roland Park Country School, said a drama teacher taught her breathing and theater techniques, and turned her on to books by philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Her interest in philosophy deepened at Oberlin College in Ohio, where she read the Bhagavad Gita and found a yoga studio near campus.

"It was more of a calling," said Sunita, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater, but decided, "I really wanted to do something meaningful."

She traveled around India for a time, staying in ashrams, where, "I personally felt what it was like to be peaceful."

She was certified as a yoga instructor through the organization Sivanarda. Returning to the Baltimore in 2005, she taught yoga in private homes and yoga centers such as Charm City and Ojas in Mounty Washington, but focused more on breathing techniques, chanting and postures, which she said wasn't as popular as "fast-paced yoga clases with loud music and a great workout in a heated room. It's much more subtle and closer to meditation," she said.

"Fitness is a wonderful side effect," Sunita said. But she said much of the yoga that is taught "is losing a lot of its cultural context and original intent. There are things about this society that make us sick. When yoga (becomes) hot, fast and sexy, it can do more harm than good. I wanted to create a place where people hopefully, when they leave here, are more self-aware."

In 2007, Sunita opened Baltimore Yoga Village in a former yoga studio in Mill Centre, and two years later opened the Lake Falls location in the old Quantum Yoga space.

"Now, I'm teaching other teachers," and looking for teachers "who are interested in creating a peaceful place and community," she said. "People are starting to be more interested in philosophy and some of the deeper roots of what we're doing."

Next week, she will be hosting the monks, who practice Tibetan Buddhism, a religion led by the Dalai Lama as head monk. He is also the traditional leader of Tibet's government.

Deprung monks, whose roots date to 1416, lived in the Deprung Gomang monastery in Tibet, near the capital of Lhasa, until the invading Chinese government took over the country in 1959.

By then, 5,500 monks had studied there.

The 14th Dalai Lama fled to India with 100 followers. Ten years later, 60 monks re-established the Deprung Gomang monastery on land in southern India, donated by the Indian government. Today, more than 2,300 monks live there.


Sunita said she was surprised but honored a few years ago when a national coordinator for the Deprung Gomang monks reached out to her, looking for a host in Baltimore, a relationship that has remained steadfast.


"It's a privelege," she said. "It's a blessing."

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