14 Aug - Drunk on Joy : Interview with Eli Walker founder of Drunk Yoga
Drunk Yoga? The term itself feels like an oxymoron. But ever since Eli Walker founded her casual, pretense-free, wine-fueled yoga classes back in 2017, Drunk Yoga has become a full-on movement. We’re lucky enough to regularly host Walker’s classes on the Freehand rooftop — so on a recent sunny afternoon, we attended a class for ourselves (the rosé was flowing!), and talked to Walker about why Drunk Yoga has been so resonant, and what she loves about having classes here at the Freehand.
Freehand: In the story of how and why you chose to start drunk yoga — you speak of the “baggage that comes with regular yoga” and your desire to change that. What do you mean by “baggage”?
Eli Walker: Yoga is a loaded word, and as the practice continues to grow in popularity, more and more people develop a different relationship to the practice and word itself. For self-proclaimed “non-yogis,” practicing yoga in what we perceive to be a traditional way can be intimidating for so many reasons. And for those who practice yoga often, the industry and community carry with it a pretense of exclusivity masked at “sacredness.” There’s a lot of shaming that goes on in yoga. We’re led to believe there are the all-knowing teachers (often those with a tremendous social media following) — and then there’s…everyone else. And if you’re new to class, popular yogic vernacular can translate into body-shaming, soul-shaming and an overall sense of “I guess I’m not worthy of being here because I don’t know Sanskrit, I don’t look good in leggings, and I can’t touch my toes, soooo I’ll be leaving now.”
FH: When did you develop your own love for yoga and start practicing? How long did you practice on your own or take classes before you made the decision to study and become a teacher?
EW: I took my first yoga class when I was 18 years old and had just moved to New York City to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for acting. I’d overheard someone in my dance class talking about a free yoga class on St. Mark’s place. A week later, I went to try it for myself. I was a competitive gymnast for many years, and was always drawn to philosophy; so in my first class, I fell in love with yoga immediately. It was like a dance between physical and emotional expression, breathing, sweating, and being challenged by the yoga teacher with deeply thoughtful questions of what it means to be human. It felt like everything I loved about…everything. Theatre, art, script, movement, and being given the space to self-inquire about the nature of my own existence. Within the first 10 minutes of my first yoga class I glanced up at the yoga teacher and thought, “That’s my job.” From that day, it took me 6 years to gather the time and money to finally take my first yoga teacher training, and I’ve been teaching ever since.
FH: What other conventional or unorthodox forms of exercise do you practice?
EW: I love acro yoga! It’s a magical blend of amazing community, partner yoga, acrobatics, gymnastics, and of course, the mindfulness that “traditional” yoga requires. Also, it’s fun!
FH: When was the first ever drunk yoga class and what was it like?
EW: That’s a funny story. So after I conceived of Drunk Yoga, I commenced with scheduled classes just days after at Grey Lady, a bar downtown. But I think everyone thought it was a joke, because nobody came to classes for about 6 weeks. I was giving semi-private yoga classes to one of the bar owners for a month until I thought, I don’t think I can do this anymore. Clearly nobody wants Drunk Yoga. But then I thought, “That’s dumb. This is a great idea. People should know about it.” So I reached out to a friend of mine who was a journalist for Gothamist, and she interviewed me and wrote an article about it. That’s when it started to go viral. Thankfully, all the of the ideas I had in my mind about what I imagined a perfectly entertaining blend of yoga, joy, community and wine would look like actually played out quite nicely in real life! Her article was fantastic, and after she published it, Drunk Yoga really took off.
FH: Does anyone ever get too bombed ? What do you do if they do?
EW: No. We don’t allow that sort of thing to happen. It’s clear in our marketing and class atmosphere that the word “Drunk” is cheeky — suggestive and most definitely not descriptive. While we do sip through the class in the postures for the purpose of making the experience fun and interactive, we’re really diligent about monitoring wine consumption. Everyone purchases tickets in advance, so the bar knows how much wine to offer for class (enough for 1-2 glasses per person throughout the 90-minute experience). Both in written waivers and in verbal disclaimers, we’re very clear that “less is more,” and anyone who “over-indulges” will be asked to not participate.
FH: How many different Drunk Yoga classes do you teach a week? Are any of your private teaching sessions Drunk Yoga?
EW: We host about 5-7 public Drunk Yoga classes each week at variation locations in the city, though our big seller is private parties, like corporate team-building events and bachelorette parties, which we host frequently. Those events are often taught with wine in-hand, but sometimes with coffee, or no beverage at all for our fun, “sober yoga” experience!
FH: Drink of choice for a summer afternoon of Drunk Yoga classes on the Broken Shaker rooftop?
EW: I love the chilled sparkling rosé! I think most of our students are with me on that.
FH: What do you love most about teaching Drunk Yoga on the roof deck of Broken Shaker at Freehand NY?
EW: The view is awesome, and the whole aesthetic of the roof is super cool. I love the vibe — the plants everywhere, the graffiti art, the hip staff. It’s a perfect way to start your weekend, or wine down your work day.
FH: What is your favorite wine?
EW: The longer I’m CEO of Drunk Yoga, the more pretentious about wine I seem to become. Since our “Drunk on Joy” yoga retreat to the wine vineyards of Tuscany this past May, I’m on a huge Italian wine kick. Anything organic, red and Italian is my jam.
FH: We love the “punny” (tee hee hee) names for the drunk yoga poses — do you think this helps people take such seriously demanding physical poses, well, less seriously and feel free from the pressure of toppling over during crow pose?
EW: We love puns! Our yoga games, both verbal and physical, play a huge part in making our classes one-of-a-kind, and are vital to creating a relaxed, playful atmosphere that helps us achieve our mission: to lift your spirit(s) so that you may feel empowered to uplift others. People LOVE our wine-yoga puns, and they always bring smiles to our students’ faces — so to answer your question: absolutely! Anything to take the pressure out of the practice and keep people feeling uplifted is the name of the DY game.
FH: We had the pleasure and fun to sit in on a class while shooting for the blog and it was a packed class, a beautiful sunny day; the rosé and good vibes were flowing. What music is your favorite to play during class?
EW: Making these playlists is one of my favorite things about running this business. I love handpicking fun throwback songs that you just can’t NOT sing and dance along to. You know those songs when you hear the intro and you immediately think, “OH MY GOD I HAVEN’T HEARD THIS IN FOREVER I LOVE THIS SONG!” Our amazing playlists are also one of the things that make Drunk Yoga so special for private events. We curate playlists special for each event based on our clients’ preferences. For instance, we did a bachelorette party once that was themed around “Friends” (the TV show), because it’s the bride’s favorite show — so we created an entire playlist from ‘Friends’-era songs.
FH: What are your plans for the Drunk Yoga classes at Freehand as we transition out of summer into the beautiful fall weather?
EW: I very much look forward to continuing our partnership with Freehand into the fall and winter! I’d love to keep hosting Drunk Yoga classes on the roof of Broken Shaker as long as weather permits. Then we’ll move our weeknight happy hour and weekend brunch classes just inside near the bar — the PERFECT cold weather activity with friends.
Written by: Allison Poole