On January 1, one week before the Jefferson School City Center opened, I stood in front of the building’s main doors and rattled them in vain. I’d hoped to slip inside and sneak a preview of Common Ground Healing Arts, the affordable-rate holistic health studio nestled on the community center’s second floor. Instead I stared at its wide-paned windows, at reflections of clouds slipping past.
In a city where holistic health services are often prohibitively expensive, Common Ground offers affordable massage, acupuncture, and meditation and yoga classes.
I called Kate Hallahan Zuckerman, the executive director of Common Ground, to ask her what I missed. “There’s a chalkboard on the wall from the old classroom,” she told me. “The acupuncture lounge is where the library of the Jefferson School used to be. Original hardwood floors, lots of natural light, but very private because we’re on the second floor.”
“All our services are priced on a four-tier sliding scale,” she continued. “People come in and self-identify. They don’t have to show documents to prove anything. It’s an honor system, so people essentially pay what they can. Just come with an open mind.” No matter what their familiarity with yoga or what neighborhood they’re from, visitors are welcomed warmly “and treated like a human being.”
Visitors are also encouraged to call and ask questions about which practices might best fit their needs. Unlike many studios in town, Common Ground has a customer service staff available six days a week, and five of the seven staff members also speak Spanish.
Zuckerman hopes the availability of different services encourages cross-pollination. “Someone’s doctor might refer them because we offer affordable acupuncture to help headaches, for example, then they might come in and say, ‘Oh, there’s also offer yoga for cardiovascular health and high blood pressure, and that’s part of the reason why I have a headache.’”
At their core, Common Ground’s services all reduce stress. They lower cortisol levels and increase activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms and regulates breathing and helps immune and endocrine systems function optimally.
Dr. Greg Gelburd of Downtown Family Health Care recommends these treatments regularly. “Complementary medicine has a twofold effect—it helps treat illness or disease, and it helps keep people healthy.” Other physicians, he said, tend to focus on medical school solutions like medicine and surgeries, but “Common Ground offers things that are safer and sometimes even better.”
Gelburd, who is an advisor to the Common Ground board, explained that patients with stress-induced neck pain often need to learn how to stretch and relax on their own, and many anxiety- or allergy-stricken patients can be treated with massage or acupuncture. The problem, he told me, is cost—most East Coast insurance companies won’t cover complementary treatments. “A person that I was talking to earlier tonight owns a small business here in town. She doesn’t have insurance, and she really needs some acupuncture and massage for anxiety. She didn’t know she had anxiety. She thought she might have had breathing problems, but she was actually hyperventilating.”
This is the gap Common Ground plans to bridge. “It’s in the neighborhood, within walking distance, of people who could really benefit from complementary medicine,” Gelberd said, “in part because they’ve barely heard of it. Maybe they’ve seen yoga on television, but they don’t have the money to join a club like ACAC or Bikram Yoga or any of the other wonderful yoga studios in town.”
Five years from now, Zuckerman hopes, Common Ground’s visitor demographics will reflect those of the city: 19 percent African American, 22 percent below the poverty line, and so on. She knows the challenges they face, including the fact that “a lot of people in lower income or non-white communities feel that yoga is just for rich white people. That’s something we’ve come across in our outreach programs.”
In 2009, Zuckerman founded Guerilla Yoga, a series of pay-what-you-can yoga classes held in nontraditional spaces. Teachers brought yoga across the area, to Crozet, Scottsville, even the Fluvanna County Women’s Correctional Facility. “We taught classes across the socio-economic spectrum,” Zuckerman said, “and demonstrated that on a smaller level, this idea works.”
In 2011, with a grant from the BAMA Works Fund, Guerilla Yoga began offering free massages twice a week at the Westhaven Clinic in the Starr Hill neighborhood. “Within a couple of weeks, the residents came to us and said, ‘Hey can you do this every week? We want to tell our friends, our sisters and parents—we want to tell more people because it’s really helping us reduce stress.’”
“Citizens of Westhaven or Friendship Court may not understand what complementary medicine is,” said Gelburd, who works in Friendship Court, “but they certainly know a good massage when they have one.” The change in perspective comes, he said, when patients realize that someone will focus on them for 15 or 30 minutes, and their only intention is to make them feel better. “Those warm hands on their muscles are a sign that someone cares. It’s a gentle non-threatening feeling, and it restores a lot of calmness to people.”
JABA CEO and Common Ground board member Gordon Walker agrees. His nonprofit routinely offers chair massages and yoga classes for its adult day care center and staff. “What our community has been doing internally,” he said, “Common Ground is going to be doing externally.”
JABA, which hosts the Vinegar Hill Café in the Jefferson School City Center, appreciates its Common Ground neighbors. “I think we’ll be better able to realize our goals because of the community we’ll create within the walls of this building,” Walker said. “One of the beauties of Jefferson School is that as a whole we will realize more than the sum of our individual parts.”
The holistic approach permeates every aspect of Common Ground. It heals physical ailments, Zuckerman explained, but it also strengthens connections between individuals. “Yoga is based on the premise that we’re all interconnected—that essentially, we’re all one. That can be kind of woo-woo New Age-y, or that can be very real. On a molecular level we’re all made of the same stuff.” It challenges our habits and preconceived notions, she said, to come into contact with community members we normally never see.
“If you think about a yoga class, the real growth takes place in a pose at the edge of discomfort. You don’t ever want to go over the edge—you don’t ever want to hurt yourself or be in pain—but at the same time you want to be a little uncomfortable. Yoga asks us to be constantly evaluating, so we’re moving out of patterns and into a more open space.”
When I spoke to Gelburd, I mentioned this newness, the sense of heightened awareness that followed my own experience with pay-what-you-can yoga. I used to live on the Jersey Shore, I said, and my first few classes—sweaty, awkward, unbalanced—opened the door for a series of serendipitous meetings and clear-minded decisions that shaped the path of my life. If it hadn’t been for those classes, I said, I wouldn’t be in Charlottesville.
“If we keep our eyes and our hearts open, we will be surprised,” he said.
Zuckerman put it another way. “Whenever we come into contact with others—with the Other, if you know what I mean—it makes us work that edge of what’s comfortable and uncomfortable.” She took a breath. “That’s the driving impetus behind the whole project: to get people into those places that are a little bit uncomfortable and ideally they expand. They open. They experience something new and experience themselves in a new way.”