Lauren Gutierrez wasn’t looking for another yoga instructor gig when she crossed paths with Dana Flynn last year. Flynn had just opened the Church of Yoga in the 7th Ward, adding it to her Laughing Lotus brand, which includes locations in Brooklyn, Manhattan and San Francisco.
“I was so focused on searching for dance jobs that I brushed (Flynn) off a little bit,” said Gutierrez, a New Orleans native who conducted her interview from a straddle split. “Then I took her class, and I cried afterwards, because she was talking about really being who you are. At the time, I was striving to be who I wanted to be, but I felt this block.”
Gutierrez began teaching at the Church of Yoga. At Flynn’s suggestion, she used the space to practice dance and record her choreography. She uploads dance videos to Instagram at @thisdancer_werks and performs each Thursday at the AllWays Lounge’s open mic night.
“I found my yoga home, and through that, the dance started to emerge,” Gutierrez said.
Sheri Celentano, creative director at Laughing Lotus and a visiting instructor at Church of Yoga, works to create programming conducive to this kind of self-actualization.
“We strive for individual bodies to find their strengths in their own practice,” Celentano said. “We listen to the needs of our community and respond with different kinds of classes and workshops.”
Past workshops have included kirtan (chanting), meditation classes, restorative yoga and a race and inclusivity workshop by Faith Hunter. There are free classes for kids, one for beginners and one for people in recovery from addictions.
Other classes are donation-based.
“You are more important than your money; you will never get turned away,” Flynn said. “You can definitely have a yoga practice and pay with your energy or time, by bringing cookies or sweeping the floor.”
When Flynn opened the Church of Yoga in the former Greater Good Shepherd Baptist Church, she envisioned it becoming a neighborhood hub.
“The heart of what a church is is a community center,” Flynn said. “We’ve had swing dancing, African dance, baby showers, and I’m sure someone is going to get married here — it’s starting to become what it needs to become.”
A San Francisco native, Flynn “fell in love” with New Orleans 25 years ago while driving across the United States. During one of her yearly pilgrimages to the Crescent City, she spotted the storefront church’s “for sale” sign. Flynn purchased the church, relocated to New Orleans and embarked on a massive renovation job in 2016.
Even though Flynn had been visiting New Orleans for years, “living here was a completely different experience: difficult, eye-opening.”
The termite-ridden building had to be gutted to the studs. Flynn’s Indiegogo campaign raised more than $25,000, which helped fund a new foundation, ceiling, HVAC system and walls. “The only thing that remained was a baptismal font,” Flynn said.
Flynn hired Concordia, an architecture firm that partners with community-based projects, for the renovation. Today, the 4,500-square-foot space is inviting and pristine. A neon sculpture of praying hands (or Namaste hands, depending on one’s spiritual practice) casts pink and blue light across gleaming wood floors. A group mural project depicting Frida Kahlo, Louis Armstrong, the Dalai Lama, Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday decorates the exterior.
“My friend and I projected them on the side of the building, and people came to help and fill in the lines,” Flynn said.
In the future, Flynn plans to open a café serving juice, red beans and rice, smoothies, avocado toast and more. The studio offers Lenten class specials and holds a free black light yoga class with food and a DJ at 6 p.m. March 22, to celebrate its one-year anniversary.
“It’s a space to come together, to explore,” Gutierrez said. “We really strive to make it a place for everyone.”