Yoga in New York is not an unusual activity.
But yoga in chairs? In a 123-year-old Episcopal church? Under a giant, turquoise-lit sculpture of a floating pair of birds? That doesn’t happen every day.
“Breath is the key to yoga,” chanted instructor Jo Sgamatto sagely, her voice echoing off the hallowed sanctuary of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine at Amsterdam Avenue near 112th Street. “Yoga is about a series of poses that work together to cleanse your entire body.”
About twenty practitioners intently stretched their bodies under the mauve lighting of the church and took careful sips of air through the nose. As they looked up to the church ceiling, a constellation of tiny lights — defining the outlines of a darkly majestic sculpture called Phoenix — stared back.
“We’re not a traditional art space, so we wanted to have a…different type of experience,” explained Isadora Wilkenfeld, a spokesperson for the cathedral. “We wanted to have something, not hands-on, exactly, but that allowed people to interact with the art in a different way.”
Phoenix is a work by contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing and is made up of salvaged materials from Chinese construction sites. It made waves in Bing’s home country for its perceived critique of labor practices and environmental waste in China. Since early 2014, it’s been on view at this church in the tony Manhattan neighborhood of Morningside Heights.
But the long-running guest in this house of worship will soon say goodbye. The February 19 late-night yoga session was one of two events scheduled to celebrate the sculpture before it soars away in March; the next event, on February 25, will be a poetry reading.
“I’ve been teaching yoga for sixteen years in all sorts of locations, and this location is unbelievable,” said Sgamatto, who teaches at the Integral Yoga Institute in New York. “It’s such sacred space. The people participating were totally into it.”
Two of those people were Deborah and Glenn Doering, a pair of artists from the garment district.
Leaning back in his red puffy coat, Glenn Doering said the yoga and the church were a perfect combination. “It’s a spiritual practice and it’s a spiritual place,” he said. “The nice thing about the Phoenix is it seemed like you were under a canopy. Which worked, totally, for me. It made the space seem more intimate, and yoga’s an intimate practice.”
Deborah agreed, saying she found the combination of Eastern art in a traditionally Western cathedral to be particularly moving: “It’s a very nice feeling of what has been seen as two ends of the spectrum coming together.”
As the couple discussed their yoga moment, a drum began to beat louder and louder in the hall. Suddenly, two movement artists sashayed into the cathedral in purple and turquoise onesies, and broke into a dramatic interpretive dance.
While many chose to put themselves near the center of the action, others held back, preferring to analyze the sculpture from afar. Aaron Svobora, a 35-year-old medical physicist from Denver, looked up intently at the piece with his mentor John Arbo, a faculty member at Columbia’s Department of Applied Physics and Math.
“I’m more concerning myself with all the technical parts of it,” said Svobora. “We were just talking about how the ceiling is built so delicately and how it’s suspended from the ceiling — I was fascinated by the whole process. Maybe that’s not what I should be focusing on.”
For Arbo, Phoenix — made up of a hodgepodge of construction materials, including hard hats, shovels, and plastic tubing — is “better at night.”
That’s when, he says, “it seeks release from the rest of the world. Or maybe, escape.”
If you haven’t seen Phoenix yet, the clock is ticking. You can visit the exhibit from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily or head to Saint John the Divine’s upcoming poetry reading, “Birds of Metal in Flight,” from 7 to 10 p.m. on Wednesday, February 25.