It’s officially springtime, which means all the familiar ushers of the season are here: the throngs in our parks, the pollen in our sinuses, and those rainbow umbrellas lining our street corners. That’s right, it’s King of Pops time and with it comes our favorite yoga sweat sesh.
In anticipation of hitting the field armed with our mats, we sat down with KoP Yoga’s fearless flexor, Charlie Baxter Graham. Over the course of 3 years, Charlie has been reppin’ the mat as Atlanta’s ‘Yogi of the People;’ creating a free class with less than 15 people to over 3,000 yearning for a thirst of zen.
Charlie can’t wait to kick off a new season of classes (now Sundays at 7 pm) and sat down with us to talk about the power of pose, how she incorporates social good, and KoP Yoga’s little-known charity partner.
How did KoP Yoga get started and how did you end up teaching it?
It was Summer in Atlanta, 2014. I’d left a job I’d had for about 10 years. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but knew I didn’t want to do that anymore. I was treading water in life but had started teacher training at Tough Love Yoga. I needed part time work to buy some time so I met with Steven and Nick Carse, the founders of King of Pops. I said, “Listen guys… either I sell popsicles for y’all or I guess I’m going to be a lifeguard.” So I started slinging pops part-time which was so much fun. When I graduated teacher training, Steven asked me if I was interested in leading a new yoga class for their employees. I was scared out of my mind because I had never taught a yoga class before. I agreed. When it comes to service or people asking for help, the answer is always yes. If I can’t help you, then I’m committed to helping you find someone who can. Even if you’re scared of something, do it. So I did it.
Our first class was on a Tuesday morning for a handful of KoP employees on the BeltLine. We started doing it regularly. More people found out about it and wanted to come and we were like, yes, please! About a dozen people came to those morning classes. People started to notice us and said we should add a nighttime class. Thirty people showed up at the first night class which was a big deal. The next week there were 50 people and the class just kept getting bigger. That was towards the end of popsicle season. We ended that season with a 75 person class. At the time, no studio class was that big – we were already reaching so many new Atlantans. So we ended that season and planned to do yoga again the next year. 300 people came to the first class I did that second spring; it was just amazing. Later that year, the biggest class we had was 1,200 people. Last year, the first class had 2,000 people out on the field and now we’re excited to do it all over again.
In those 3 years, I have only missed one class and I think that consistency goes a long way. Similarly, it has always been free. I don’t want money; don’t bring money. It’s not about that. People really love KoP Yoga but teaching it has made me richer than anyone I know. Being able to offer people free yoga has been the gift of a lifetime for me.
How does KoP Yoga contribute to social good in Atlanta?
I think yoga is social good on a personal level. In my heart and my bones, I truly believe in the microcosm of kindness and its effect on a global scale. When it comes to social change and acts of good it just comes down to people being kind. I think more often than not an hour of yoga is going to put you in a better place than you were when you showed up to practice. It puts you in touch with your breath and body and gives you a break from the hubbub and business of our every day. From that place, you can more easily gain perspective and make clearer choices. You can do yoga all you want but sooner or later it’s going to start doing you and you’ll see a change. Offering yoga to people who don’t have access to it or wouldn’t otherwise is the platform of KoP Yoga. I believe that has created a lot of change. Most of the people who come to the class don’t practice in studios. A third of the people who come to that class every week have never done yoga before. If you think about that ripple effect, it’s truly impactful.
Tell us about your collaboration with charities.
Our class obviously got a lot of attention on the belt line and on social media and naturally, companies tried to piggyback in some pretty creative ways. They would do things like set up tables on the field or pass out products before and after class without talking to me or KoP. We support collaborations and partnerships off the field but when it came to the class, I really wanted to keep it centered around yoga, not products or promotions, of any kind. There are still people that don’t know King of Pops puts on “KOPyoga!” I had to think about how we were going to set up boundaries and lead and hold space for this huge class with a “less is more” mentality.
The thing is, people really do want to contribute. There is a tremendous exchange of energy and service and betterment on that field every week. Because they are receiving something, people genuinely want there to be reciprocation. Our response to that last year was if you want to contribute, please know that it is not what we are asking, but we created an opportunity. We teamed up with Centering Youth so students could make a donation after yoga class at the KoP window; there is no place for money on the field. On busy sunny days, we’d make, like, $50! For a small nonprofit like Centering Youth, that kind of outreach, exposure and fundraising made a big difference.
Centering Youth sounds awesome. What is it?
Centering Youth offers yoga and meditation to trauma-affected populations in and around Atlanta. CY goes to where they are needed: treatment centers, rehab facilities, jails, juvenile detention programs, sex trafficking shelters, etc. They address the common physical and neurological effects of trauma survivors through yoga. Trauma occurs differently for everyone and can look like many different ways. In trauma, your body is systematically hijacked and you shut down on a different level. Trauma-sensitive yoga reintroduces you to your body through sensation, feel, engagement, and breath. The science behind it is incredible and the results are hard to ignore. It’s really, really cool.
It’s a different kind of yoga which requires special certification from a specific school. I actually teach with them as well. We are trained to meet people where they are with their process and recovery and give them their body back.
How can people support what you do?
Please just keep coming to KoP Yoga! There’s a hashtag – #kopyoga. People like to give me a lot of credit like it’s all me; I’m not an idiot, I think there is some truth to that but I also completely disagree. KoP Yoga has very little to do with me, it’s just folks showing up. Those people consistently show up with a willingness to try something new, a curiosity to see what is going to happen, and an open mind to be in a space with strangers. Know it or not, people at KoP Yoga put their soul out there on that field; it is a magical slab of earth. So just keep coming; keep practicing, y’all.