ANGELES — As soon as Cheri Rae Russell steps onto Spring
Street in downtown Los Angeles, parking lot flag wavers and
quinceanera outfitters flock to her like sparrows to St.
Francis. This is a woman who has either lived a life seriously
committed to erasing all traces of urban anonymity, or she is
simply that charismatic.
amor," the flag wavers tell her, mid-hug. "Mi amor!"
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.
arrives at Peace Yoga Gallery, where an enormous Buddha carved
from volcanic rock attracts offerings of coins from the
homeless in the neighborhood.
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.
really hate touching money," Russell says. "With the
people who come here, I prefer to have an exchange of energy,
As must 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.)
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
going to worry about that: "I’m just enjoying the here
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.
then, downtown lacked grocery stores and safe parks, requiring
more of a commitment to the old, the quirky and 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.
space gradually shrank and rose in price as the building’s
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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.
classes were originally something she gave away free in
between waitress shifts, acting gigs and trips overseas to
compete as a professional ice skater.
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.
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.
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
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.
doesn’t sense the same purity of commitment in the
businesses sprouting around her.
I moved here, it was far nicer than it is now on Spring Street
with all those bars," she says. "ArtWalk 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."
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.
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
BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)
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.
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!"
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.
very long moment, they surrendered completely to a language
they’d never heard and a posture they’d never experienced.
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.
is something special," she says. "You go to another
level, another dimension."
Scholz said the classes helped her decide to leave her
marriage and navigate its aftermath.
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.
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.
not to say Peace has been received with universal acclaim.
Though most Yelp reviews are effusive, there are others.
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."
anticipates that sort of reaction. A large sign in her studio
begins with a two-word profanity, and ends with two other