Instead of hordes of tourists, commuters and costumed characters, Times Square on Wednesday, June 21 was transformed into an all day yoga event that attracted an estimated 8,000 participants.
Since 2023, beginners in yoga to yogi experts come together in Times Square every year to participate in an all-day outdoor yoga event where multiple yoga instructors guide people through yoga classes on the longest day of the year.
The event called Summer Solstice Yoga: Mind Over Madness introduced by Times Square Alliance from 7:30 am to 8:30 p.m. at the intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue between 44th and 48th Streets. The Times Square Alliance is the same not for profit group that also hosts the New Year’s Eve Ball drop.
Times Square might be the last place you would think of practicing yoga, but not to T.J. Witham, director of communications for the Times Square Alliance. “I think the most fascinating is that Times Square is known as one of the busiest intersections in the world so the thought of finding peace, calm and tranquility within this crazy phenetic space it is almost like the ultimate yogi challenge,” Witham said.
“If you watch the people’s faces over the course of this class, you’ll find that all of this noise—it doesn’t matter,” said Douglass Stewart, co-founder of Summer Solstice Yoga: Mind Over Madness said. “They can find stillness inside. And that’s what I learned when I was 24.”
Thanks to the Broadway Pedestrian Plaza that’s reserved by Times Square Alliance for the day, there is no need to actually re-route vehicular traffic as they did in the earliest days of the celebration. “It’s nice that we don’t have to block any traffic to have this event happen,” said Witham. “This year marks the second time we went north of 47th street. This year, over 8,000 people registered online to take one of the seven classes today, so we are seeing that number of people show up today. I’m going to guess we are somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 people in total.”
Despite the impressive turnout this year, it did not top the pre-COVID record.
“One year we had 15,000 people,” said Stewart, who kicked of the start of the Summer Solstice Yoga with the 7:30 a.m. class. “Thank you for coming back year after year—I feel like I have a grandchild, or I’ve sent someone off to college that length of time,” Stewart joked. “Tim Tomkins and I started this event as an experiment to see if you could open up your office doors where all the billboards were on, come into the center of the square, do a nice sun salutation, breath, clear your mind, set your intentions and go back to work.”
Stewart and Tomkins started the event when there was this question about whether to go to war in 2003 in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stewart recalled “There was a great deal of tension in the atmosphere about what was going to happen.” Stewart said. “Tomkins and I wanted to see if we can all come together, do some breath work, and see if we can find more humane solutions to our problems.”Times
Marco Rojas, another yoga instructor teaching at 1:30 p.m. expressed the importance of gathering to do yoga on the summer solstice. “Yoga is a lot like New York,” said Marco Rojas, a yoga instructor who was teaching a 1:30 p.m. course. “It’s about all of us working together. We are going to salute the sun; the sun is here to give us light and to give us energy,” Rojas said. In his class, he had his family relatives doing yoga with him on the stage they were one 92-year-old and one 82-year-old striking their yoga poses.
First time attendee Taylor Fillman said yoga in middle of Times Square “made me feel centered and whole and I like being around people. It was very calming, which is funny in a very busy area,"
“There’s something fun about the vitality of the area,” Stewart says. “I’m glad that pedestrians are yelling out “Hey, what kind of pose is that?” or this other guy that lives in Times Square 24/7 and after the second class this morning he yelled out, “You guys are doing this all the time!” Stewart said.
Over the years, the event has become something people knew was going to stay, Stewart says. “People have come over the years bringing their friends and families because it’s something they can rely on. It has been stable and a part of their lives that has become a tradition,” Stewart said.
It is the second year that Summer Solstice Yoga: Mind Over Madness is fully in-person after being interrupted by COVID. In 2020, the entire event was held virtually and in 2021 they reduced the capacity and put mats 6 feet apart.
Even in 2020, Stewart had a part of Times Square for himself with a film crew broadcasting his class live so everyone could still join virtually. “It was surreal because there was no one around.” Stewart said. “And it was profound because people were waking up to the injustices that were happening all around us, particularly represented in Georgy Floyd’s murder. I wanted to provide a practice that was uplifting and informative at the same time.”
Other than Stewart, one attendee, Judith Elaine Halek was alone in Times Square in 2020 practicing yoga. “I was here during COVID-19 by myself the year they didn’t do it [in-person]. I came and did yoga. A cop took my picture and said, ‘Can I video tape you and send this to the people who started this?’ and I went — yeah,” Halek said.
To Halek who has lived in New York City for 41 years, the event is not only a big deal for the city, but also for her cancer journey. “It’s one of the few if not only times during the year in New York City that people come together for a unified body and mind,” Halek said. “I had cancer nine years ago. And I came here during all my treatments. When I was going through chemo, I came down here, did the yoga, and I had more flexibility and stamina than I do now, nine years later. This has me jump started to go back home and doing this every day, even if it’s 15 minutes. Yoga is helping me get the water, the fluid, the softness back into my tissue.”
“Being able to gather in a place like this feels special after COVID-19,” Tanya Khotin, an attendee at the event who has been attending for many years said.
In addition to the physical and health benefit of the event, it aesthetically looks nice, Witham says. “It’s a beautiful photograph, it’s amazing to see people moving as one and I think it’s great for Times Square that this image is broadcast around the globe,” Witham said.
“In these times, it’s important to practice yoga. Centering the mind, centering, and strengthening the physical body so that we can allow peace and love to resonate beyond ourselves so that we are kind to one another,” Stewart said.
“It’s one of the few if not only times during the year in New York City that people come together for a unified body and mind,” attendee, Judith Elaine Halek said.
“Tim Tomkins and I started this event as an experiment to see if you could open up your office doors where all the billboards were on, come into the center of the square, do a nice sun salutation, breath, clear your mind, set your intentions and go back to work,” Douglass Stewart, co-founder of Summer Solstice Yoga: Mind Over Madness said.