Noontime Namaste

January 3, 2013 

Christel Joy Johnson's yoga class has become one of Grand Park's most popular programs. Photo/Javier Guillen

Christel Joy Johnson has a resolution for all you desk-bound downtowners: Come see her at lunchtime—and breathe.

Since November, Johnson has been leading one of the most popular public programs at Downtown Los Angeles’ new Grand Park, a free lunch-hour yoga class. The free 45-minute sessions have been drawing passersby, office workers and downtown hipsters, who’ve gathered by the score in a performance space between Grand Avenue and Hill Street for the gentle midday workouts, even in inclement winter weather. 

“We thought we’d get maybe ten people,” Johnson says laughing. “The first time we held the class, 50 people showed up.”

Since then, she says, the classes—at 12:15 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays—have averaged 30 to 40 students.

“It’s everybody from county workers on their lunch break and Music Center employees to people who come by bus or walk over from apartments and bring their yoga mats with them,” she says.

“It’s getting so I’m starting to see some of the same faces. There are two girls in the front who live downtown and have been there for every session. I imagine with New Year’s resolutions we’ll get even bigger when we start up again on January 9.”

The Wisconsin-born Johnson, 39, didn’t set out to become the unofficial yogi of a major metropolitan civic center. Like so many in L.A.’s service sector, she came here to act.

Arriving in her mid-20s with a degree in theater arts from San Francisco State, she says, she gravitated toward small ensembles; she is currently a member of the local theater group Ghost Road Company. Work as a production assistant on films and at the Music Center helped underwrite her stage career, she says, “but theater doesn’t pay a lot, so I had to do other jobs to pay the bills.”

One of those other jobs was yoga, which she had taken up while she was a student to help mitigate the lingering effects of an assortment of old back injuries.

“About six years ago,” she says, “I became really serious about it, and in 2009, I did a 3-month teacher training at the YogaWorks in Larchmont Village, where I had taken some classes.”

At first, she says, the intensive training was a personal challenge and a means of coping with a series of illnesses in her immediate family. Over time, however, she found she enjoyed the challenge and the personal contact.

She’s taught in fitness centers, community classes and for private clients. But for all her skill at saluting the sun and assuming the “downward dog” position, it was her theater network that led to the Grand Park gig. From the outset, park programmers had talked about yoga classes as a way to entice the brown-bag lunch crowd away from their desks and into the fresh air.

“I’d been a part-time production assistant at the Music Center for eight years,” she says, “and the Music Center does the programming for Grand Park. When they decided they wanted to do yoga classes, and that they wanted to produce something themselves rather than team up with a studio, someone mentioned that I taught yoga and they approached me.” Though the classes are open and free to the public, the Music Center pays Johnson for her time.

“I love it,” she says simply. “You’re outside. You have the sky and the trees. Hummingbirds fly around the group as we do our class. And it’s really cute—people in business suits at the Starbucks will often take in our energy as they sit there watching. One day, a group of ladies in very nice clothes was just quietly doing yoga with us in their chairs.”

About a third of the group is male, she says, and ages range from twentysomething to seventysomething. Most, though, are middle-aged beginners who appreciate her ability to help them tailor the positions to build flexibility.

“As someone who loves yoga and thinks it’s a beautiful thing for the community, I hope the program grows,” Johnson says, noting the success of other outdoor programs such as the free daily yoga in Hollywood’s Runyon Canyon Park.

For now, she and her students are just glad that the lunch-hour yoga has been extended for another quarter. “It’s probably not going to lead to acting jobs,” she says, laughing. “But that’s not why I do it.”

Johnson's other career in theater helped lead to her new gig at Grand Park. Photo/Javier Guillen

Posted 1/3/13

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