As Mother Yoga’s 11 a.m. class gets out on an overcast Sunday morning in January, students linger by the entrance of this one room studio taking their time to roll up yoga mats and put on shoes. Owner and founder Nancy Nomellini says goodbye to each and every student, her voice echoing through the room. Upbeat music plays, bouncing off the vaulted ceilings.
There are marigold garlands gracing the windows that look out onto Maynard Alley. Chinese characters and open hands are lit up with a neon light on one wall. On the main wall is a larger-than-life mural of Durga — the humanized form of the mother goddess and creative energy — the namesake of this unique yoga studio in the Chinatown International District (CID).
To Nomellini, the word “mother” is loaded and relatable. She thought about naming the studio with several Sanskrit terms. But she knew no one would be able to pronounce Sanskrit terms like “Purusha” and “Turiya.” She wanted something accessible that would welcome anyone including people who had little exposure to yoga.
Where it all began
Nomellini moved to Seattle from San Francisco and started teaching yoga over Zoom during the pandemic. At the time, she had been looking for a spiritual center and community that mirrored what she had found in San Francisco. The pandemic also inspired a need for community, connection, and a place of healing.
Students venomed her for classes and before she knew it, a wave of interest in a physical studio had gathered momentum. Through the encouragement and network of friends, she found a small space for rent in the CID as the neighborhood endured many vacant storefronts and low morale from the economic and social impacts of COVID-19.
Though Nomellini didn’t have the kind of money to get a loan for the space, her students and supporters put together a GoFundMe page that eventually raised enough to build out the brick and mortar space. Her husband, Dane, helped imagine and design the studio and soon, Mother Yoga was born.
Now, the studio is celebrating two years in the neighborhood.
A circular financial model
Those familiar with Mother Yoga will know that its sliding scale is part of what makes it stand out. A crucial aspect of the studio that differs from other yoga operations is that students pay their teachers directly through Venmo or with cash. Teachers in turn pay a monthly fee to use the space to teach. In this way, Mother Yoga creates a circular model that mimics the reciprocity present in a self-reliant community.
“We belong to each other,” said Nomellini. “The teachers support the studio, the studio supports the teachers, the students support the teachers.”
In her experience teaching at other places, Nomellini remembered getting paid less than her paycheck and sometimes getting paid late. Having students directly Venmo places agency in the teacher’s hands.
Nomellini said she has never had to recruit teachers or put up a Craiglist ad. Teachers have approached her through word of mouth or some other connection. As the owner, she always meets with teachers, paying attention to how they interact with students.
Every month at Mother Yoga, teachers incorporate a shared theme into their classes. In the spring, it’s Ayurveda, a holistic approach to medicine rooted in India with similarities to traditional Chinese medicine. Last fall, they focused on chakras, or energy centers in the body.
Going beyond identity politics
Nomellini’s studio welcomes people of all ages, races, backgrounds, and body types. She strives to teach the core essence of yoga, cultivating students’ capacity for internal transformation and change.
Her teaching philosophy remains aligned with the cultural origins of yoga, which have sometimes come under scrutiny or been whitewashed amongst the broad yoga-practicing community.
Towards the back of the studio is an altar, featuring deities like Ganesha and Krishna who represent the physical embodiments of spiritual qualities found in Hinduism. The large mural of Durga at the center of the studio also pays tribute to yoga’s cultural origins from the South Asian subcontinent.
Nomellini is intentional in her use of the Sanskrit terms for asanas and uses concepts found in the yoga sutras, the scriptural texts where yogic knowledge is kept and passed down from generation to generation. But she is clear in saying that yoga, in its essence, goes beyond any identity marker, language, or religion.
“The source of the teachings is beyond race. It’s beyond color, it’s beyond religion, it’s beyond spirituality.Yoga would go as far to say it does not even belong to India,” said Nomellini. “The truth is our unity, the source of our unity which is beyond the mind.”
Mother Yoga’s practice philosophy is one of transformation that begins at the individual, internal level first and then radiates outward.
‘The working on ourselves from breath, from body, from mind, is so vital to how we perceive the world,” Nomellini said on how yoga engages the full person. “If we come into ourselves and start here, it does change things. Our perception, our perspective changes things. That is what changes things most.’
In other words, Nomellini sees it like this: The world is made up of each one of us, individuals who can collectively create change by doing the inner work, ultimately impacting how one perceives their world, shows up, and interacts with those around them.
This ethic shows up in who shows up to classes, and how involved the studio’s teachers are in their communities as well. Many teachers donate portions of their earnings to causes in the neighborhood. And a number of students who come to the studios are part of the CID’s activist class.
“The people that come into this space, that are regulars here, they are the defenders, the warriors of the CID,” she said.
Many of these regulars are young people, who work for neighborhood organizations or who volunteer their time in the CID. In fact, a majority of students are in their 20s and 30s, though Nomellini said she wants to see more diversity in age for a well-rounded community or practitioners.
The future of Mother Yoga
“We want to have older people practicing yoga so that our community also understands that there is this progression in all of our lives,” Nomellin said.
The way people practice yoga, the limberness and dexterity of their bodies and the pace at which they can move changes and looks different through the stages of life.
“As teachers we need to understand how to adapt to these changing bodies. What does the practice look like at the heart of it.”
Going into year three, Nomellini hopes that the community building around the studio will continue to grow, including the CID as a place. She hopes the neighborhood itself will undergo a renaissance and continue to come into the fullest version of itself.
More so, she hopes that the experiences and learnings that take place at Mother Yoga nestle themselves in a permanent way within people who come to learn and practice.
“I hope that they go to higher places. So everything we have learned is unlearned, so we go higher into ourselves to better understand the world. And I hope that we find more peace in ourselves and we see those changes in our families,” said Nomellini.
This story was produced in partnership with our media sponsor Communities of Opportunity, a growing movement of partners who believe every community can be a healthy, thriving community.