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In downtown L.A., Peace Yoga Gallery raises the feel-good energy bar

In downtown L.A., Peace Yoga Gallery raises the feel-good energy bar

Column One

Raising the feel-good energy at Peace Yoga

Cheri Rae Russell leads a class at her Peace Yoga Gallery in downtown L.A. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times) More photos

In a downtown L.A. known more for deal-making than joy-making, a community has formed around Cheri Rae Russell's unconventional studio.

Nov. 15, 2013

As soon as Cheri Rae Russell steps onto Spring Street, parking lot flag wavers and quinceañera outfitters flock to her like sparrows to St. Francis. Either this is a woman who has lived a life seriously committed to erasing all traces of urban anonymity, or she is simply that charismatic.

"Mi amor," the flag wavers tell her, mid-hug. "Mi amor!"

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Russell bounds through traffic on her two-block commute to work with about as much glee and purpose as someone can bound, pausing for a split second to pick up litter on the sidewalk.

She arrives at Peace Yoga Gallery, where an enormous Buddha carved from volcanic rock attracts offerings of coins from the homeless in the neighborhood.

Inside, the waiting crowd is a mix of Type A careerists, tattooed musicians and working-class Russians just finishing a day's work in the fashion district. No money exchanges hands — there's an honor box, or you can pay later on PayPal or just clean some yoga mats after class.

"I really hate touching money," Russell says. "With the people who come here, I prefer to have an exchange of energy, not paper."

The Type A's have to let go here. Classes rarely begin on time, and even though most are scheduled to last two hours, they more often go for three. On some weekends, no one shows up to teach the classes at all. (One student's response? He cartwheeled back to his car.)

"I'm trying to break through the constraints of time. I'm almost there," Russell tells her students. "We are here to experience deep joy. Everything else is an illusion."

In a downtown known more for deal-making than joy-making, a community has formed around Russell and her studio's unconventional mores — maybe even an innocent cult.

"For downtown, Peace is like having the most amazing feng shui and not knowing where it comes from," says Santino Rice, a fashion designer and reality television personality. "It is kind of an anchor for all the amazing energy that is going on on Spring Street."

Odara Pi-eda, 28, left, stretches with others at the studio. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times) More photos

The economics of downtown Los Angeles have provided Russell's business a gentle refuge. When the studio opened in 2006, the neighborhood seemed to be sprinting from one economic height to another. But then came the 2008 financial collapse, leaving gentrification in limbo.

Today, the modern and pre-war buildings that first attracted Russell to the Historic Core feel fully alive again, and they are not yet conquered by chain stores. Another wave of gentrification is coming, though, with more high-end apartments and a Whole Foods.

The unlicensed tamale stand downstairs from Russell's loft has vanished, the Mexican juice place nearby is in peril, and the Korean hat and wig shop around the corner has recently been replaced by a gleaming white yoga studio where the classes begin promptly, last exactly one hour and are reserved in advance on a sleek website.

Peace's landlord recently told Russell in passing that he hopes to raise the rent from 25 cents to $4 a square foot when her lease is up in a few years.

She isn't going to worry about that: "I'm just enjoying the here and now."

Russell, 43, has been living on Spring Street since 1993 in a converted space that once held a bank of elevators and opens to a rooftop filled with potted herbs and tropical plants cut from her trips to Fiji.

Back then, downtown lacked grocery stores and safe parks, requiring more of a commitment to the old, the quirky and the overlooked.

In the beginning, she paid just $225 a month for 18,000 square feet and rollerbladed to the washing machine. On the streets below, a woman wore bundles of plastic from soda six-packs to give the appearance that she had stretched her neck. "I just loved that," Russell says.

Her space gradually shrank and rose in price as the building's residents assembled. They are mostly artists and musicians, including Gronk, the painter and performance artist who illegally graffiti-tagged the exterior of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as a young man and later joined one of its exhibits.

Russell used a jackhammer to open a skylight in her space, and natural light shines down on a little sign in her bathroom that asks, "What would Neil Young do?"

Her bookshelves are full of Charles Bukowski, and she has shared his affinity for topics that are typically untouched by her genteel contemporaries in Los Angeles' yoga world: sex, violence and alcohol abuse.

For decades, she's been telling her students — sometimes with coarse language and Pink Floyd reverberating in the background — that certain poses will improve their sex lives. She coaxes them to adopt a completely raw food, alcohol-free diet — sometimes successfully, other times not.

"The people around me are dying," she says, waving at the artwork in her home by a friend who died at 25 of a heroin overdose, and a funeral card for the building manager who drank too much.

Her yoga classes were originally something she gave away free in between waitress shifts, acting gigs and trips overseas to compete as a professional ice skater.

Then, nearly a decade ago, she met her boyfriend, Gabe Guynes, on the dance floor at Burning Man, the temporary city formed each year by tens of thousands of people on a prehistoric Nevada lake bed as an annual experiment in living together through self-reliance, self-expression and no commerce.

The front entrance to Peace Yoga Gallery. No money exchanges hands here — there's an honor box, or you can pay later on PayPal or just clean some yoga mats after class. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times) More photos

Russell and Guynes, a kombucha manufacturer, conceived Peace as something like a Burning Man fever dream that would bring a little of the spirit back to normal life — or default world, in Burner parlance. After three years of work on an abandoned basement, she tied her well-worn Converse shoes to the ceiling and opened for business.

"I was manifesting so fast that I couldn't control it," she says, speaking in a voice that is sometimes gruff, other times lilting, but always intimate and urgent.

But she doesn't sense the same purity of commitment in the businesses sprouting around her.

"When I moved here, it was far nicer than it is now on Spring Street with all those bars," she says. "Art Walk is no longer the art walk that it was. We didn't have food trucks and booze everywhere. We had art! Art! Now it's just a bunch of drunk people and really bad food."

As she teaches, she is careful to credit yoga luminaries who once taught her in Bali, India and across the United States. In classes, everyone gets hugged, held up, readjusted, massaged. "I know this is intimate, but so is life. No way around it," Russell says.

"It's like a gathering of the Puerto Rican and Mexican sides of my family," says Manny Chavez, another teacher. "You have to get past pride and ego, here, and out there in the city."

Above all, Russell teaches her students unembarrassed self-expression. So it seemed weirdly predictable when a substitute teacher who also works as a circus performer began her class with instructions to gyrate freestyle to the music.

Then everyone was told to crawl and hop on all fours around the room, occasionally flinging an arm into the air while shouting words that sprang to mind. "Love!" "Life!"

When she told her students to sit for 45 minutes in a painful pose, speed-chanting a mantra dedicated to psychedelic-drugs pioneer Ram Dass, only one person walked out.

For one very long moment, they surrendered completely to a language they'd never heard and a posture they'd never experienced.

Cheri Rae Russell, right, embraces musician Sheela Bringi at Peace Yoga Gallery, which opened in 2006. "I know this is intimate, but so is life. No way around it," Russell says. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times) More photos

Hilda Patterson had been hearing about Russell as soon as she moved downtown nine years ago and tells people it was the vehicle for moving through her grief when her sister died.

"Peace is something special," she says. "You go to another level, another dimension."

Beate Scholz said the classes helped her decide to leave her marriage and navigate its aftermath.

"I felt that there was a new beginning. I felt that something was shifting inside me that was natural and healthy. I felt that certain layers were being peeled away," she says.

Scholz's ex-husband now practices yoga there too. She even moved downtown, partly to be closer to the studio. "People say the neighborhood could be cleaner, a little less loud, but I love it, at least for now," she said.

That's not to say Peace has been received with universal acclaim. Though most Yelp reviews are effusive, there are others.

"The place is a disorganized mess. The woman that runs it, Cheri Rae, is a total nut job," one reviewer wrote. "She's loud, rude, highly emotional and has a very foul mouth, and I'm fairly certain she must be on something a little more than just a yoga high."

Russell anticipates that sort of reaction. A large sign in her studio begins with a two-word profanity, and ends with two other words:

"It's magic."

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