The Story Behind Austin’s Free Day of Yoga

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In case you haven’t heard: There’s another Free Day of Yoga happening in Austin this Saturday. This is the first year Austin yogis have organized a spring event; the traditional one happens on Labor Day — and last year’s drew an estimated 5,000 students.

That’s a lot of yoga. When did it get that big? How did it happen? Only having been back in Austin a year and a half, I was curious. I moved here from New York — where the yoga scene is humungo — and was quickly impressed by how big it is here in Austin as well. New York doesn’t have anything like a free day of yoga to bring the whole of the community together, though. Let alone two.

So I had tea with Mary Esther Middleton, who’s been coordinating the Free Day of Yoga for years together with Russell Burns. They’re both teachers with computer skilz (that clean-looking official website is Russell’s graphic design handiwork).

The first Free Day of Yoga was in 1999 — the brainchild of a handful of teachers including Donna Belk, Charles MacInerney and Ellen Smith of Living Yoga, and longtime Austin ashtanga teacher Sharon Moon. Mary Esther took the reigns around 2003, and she remembers that the schedule of free classes fit on one tiny sheet of paper at the time, which they would distribute in local libraries.

Now, the event has more than a dozen sponsors whose generous support pays for an ad in the Chronicle to get the word out about many dozens of free classes.

Promoting an event of that scale — some 5,000 attendees and a large-scale ad in the Chronicle, which is not cheap — is no cupcake. “We usually start in April or May,” Mary Esther said of the Labor Day event.”This one came together in just a couple weeks.”

That’s impressive. And surprising.

Turns out Yoga Yoga is the frontrunner on this one. Brainstorming on how to get more people involved in their 40-Day Yoga Challenge (a semi-annual event that challenges people to practice for 40 days straight, though not necessarily at Yoga Yoga), they thought, “What would go really well with this?”

I called Jamie Perkins who works behind the scenes at YY (since I work in front — teaching a class on Monday nights — and knew nothing). She said that the 40-Day Challenge and the Free Day of Yoga were by far their two most popular events, so it occurred to them to have a second one. “We called Mary Esther, since it’s a community event, and within a week it was coming together.”

The organizers’ quick work means a couple of things.

  1. Saturday’s event won’t be as large as the September one. Many studios already had events planned for that day and so were not able to participate. But make no mistake: There is still a lot of free yoga.
  2. It also means the studios that are participating are responsible for updating their own class schedules, since there wasn’t time to finalize them all before the ad came due for the Chronicle. This means you should check the website for any last-minute additions.

Happy Free Day of Yoga, y’all!