Joy Chen | Good Things Come In Small Packages
Updated: Aug 7, 2018
My name is Joy Chen and I regularly stand on people's shoulders teaching and managing my own movement, yoga, dance and acrobatics studio-- Cosmic Fit Club, in Long Island City, Queens!
A basic beginning skill in acrobatics is called a "two-high" or "standing on shoulders." It's when a smaller person-- called a "flyer" climbs on top of a larger person-- called a "base" and ends up standing five to six feet higher than they normally would. I love this position because as a petite 5'-1'' Asian American woman, being able to feel tall and see over other people's heads gives me quite the high. This skill comes in especially handy at music concerts in the park. When engaged in a two-high, the "base" on the bottom can then walk forwards or backwards, side to side and perhaps even squat up and down and jump with the flyer on top. The flyer can also do amazing feats of balance and flexibility either standing right-side up or balancing upside down on the base's shoulders. Standing on shoulders is therefore typically considered a transitional position toward higher level circus tricks. I wish I could show you what I mean now, but maybe at the end of this story I will ask for a volunteer from the audience to base me!
I wasn't always an acrobatic daredevil. I grew up in a very strict and religious Chinese family in Manhattan's Chinatown, where physical fitness was less encouraged than academic prowess. We lived on the 24th floor of Confucius Plaza at the intersection of Bowery and Bayard streets. My best childhood friend lived on the 44th floor and whenever it would storm heavily we would both look out the window of her apartment and feel the whole building move and sway. It was an awesome view to look down and see our perspectives shift just as the building did. That's where I think my love of heights was born. Being elevated made me feel like a bird: free, daring and powerful. The ground, people, and places took on a sharper intensity from above. It was an incredible feeling. To be physically conscious of my own body and how interconnected each movement was to every other movement in the universe. That was something I started to think about and explore at a young age.
There definitely were other early movement influences. At P.S. 3 in Greenwich Village where I went to elementary school, I had a dance teacher, Joan, who was always barefoot and beat the time on a drum and taught us maypole dances, Virginia rail dances and also "free dances" which once meant translating Langston Hughes poetry into dance. Looking back now at the yoga and fitness instructor I’ve become, I like to think a lot of my flexibility, easy going attitude and joy of life comes from Joan's influence. Another pivotal person that stands large in my formative years is my traditional Chinese dance teacher, Chao-Hui Chou of Chen and Dancers and later Margaret Yuen of Chinatown's Red Silk Dancers. Through learning the dance of the fans, ribbons, lanterns, flower drums, swords, royal sleeves and more, I learned to appreciate the richness of my Chinese heritage and the values and stories behind the movements that have been passed down. Even in our rapidly modernizing world,, being able to dance these traditional folk dances and experience the same feelings of thanksgiving and harmony my ancestors once did, has given me lasting cultural roots and a vocabulary of action that I can continuously draw inspiration and strength from.
Even with these movement backgrounds, it was only approximately ten years ago that I discovered yoga and took the first major step toward learning acrobatics as an adult and opening my own studio. My first yoga teacher at Yogaworks in Soho was a very atypical yogi. Sherman was almost six feet tall, but he could move with such grace, agility and strength, that I was instantly in awe. He taught invigorating, creative, Ashtanga and power based yoga flows that made me feel superhuman, dripping with sweat. I would take his classes six to seven times a week. From Sherman, I learned that to be an effective teacher you must always be working the room-- walking around the room, doing the poses, assisting people and taking time to give individualized attention even in a packed class. Sherman's presence felt larger than life in an approachable and humble way. He was the kind of teacher I remember telling myself I wanted to be someday. Popular. Caring. Bad Ass.
When I graduated from my 400-hour yoga teacher training program at Yogaworks in Soho, it was very difficult getting that first teaching position with no prior experience. I remember auditioning at Chelsea Piers in a room full of 25 other super fit and cute yoga teacher hopefuls and they needed to hire just 1 person. I ultimately landed off the beaten path at a Chinatown community center and a Chinatown neighborhood gym. I started teaching yoga bilingually believe it or not-- as an ABC (American Born Chinese!) to garment factory workers, middle-aged Chinese professionals, and moms who mainly brought their kids to take karate lessons at the gym but then would stay to try out a yoga class. I became convinced that someday when I had the resources I would reach underserved populations such as the immigrants and workers in Chinatown with tight shoulders, hurting backs, jammed hips, inflexible hamstrings. My class sequencing was mobility driven and different than regular vinyasa. I helped my students feel better and get stronger. I really got my feet wet outside the studio because it was outside-- in the real world-- where interesting things were happening. I imagined bringing yoga and acroyoga into the streets, coffee shops, and factories so that everyday people could try it and enjoy its physical and social benefits.
After teaching in Chinatown for a year I became a yoga instructor at Brooklyn Boulders’ original Gowanus location and further developed my teaching style and voice. Rather than middle-aged Chinese moms, these super fit rock climbing dudes would flock to my yoga and core classes. Again, they were not your typical vegetarian or Sanskrit chanting yogis. I think they were surprised that a tiny Chinese woman like me could be so strong. I would lead them through these intense ab workouts and body weight exercises and they would moan and groan while I would cue them with a big smile and do all the exercises without breaking a sweat! They often remarked how unfair it was because I made it look so easy. I would do full range of motion push-ups on my fingertips and press up and press down from a handstand position while carrying on a conversation about my day. Teaching sold out back-to-back classes like this on Wednesday nights in Gowanus and later on at Queensbridge over a seven year time period, my students became like my second family!
In terms of opening my own business last spring, I must say, I stood on many shoulders. I had initially shared my dream with my first acrobatic partner-- a really strong cross-fit and former Olympic style weightlifter, Tanya Evans who was two inches taller than me but could lift me up and down like a piece of cake! Tanya said it was a good idea. There were people who didn't like traditional gyms with machines and there were young computer programmers and techies who craved novel experiences. I certainly felt like there was a void in the fitness industry in New York City that wasn’t filled by New York Sports Club or Equinox or Crossfit that I could help fill with acrobatic and movement based class programming. But I was already teaching up to 14 classes at Brooklyn Boulders and things were great there. Why rock the boat? Actually the boat overturned last February when management changed and I was let go over creative differences. After such a long and rewarding relationship it was very disappointing. But it was also the final motivation for taking the leap and opening my own studio!
A lot of people ask me where the name "Cosmic Fit Club" comes from? Honestly when I was first brainstorming names with my boyfriend and business partner, he asked me to describe what I wanted the gym to be. I said something along the lines of an "A-D-D" gym, meaning a place where people who are curious and want to explore different movement vocabularies can tryout many different kinds of fitness classes and styles and do a lot of cross training.
I also wanted a futuristic, outer space vibe to the studio. In other words, when visitors or students step through our doors, they shouldn't feel like they just entered a sweaty, gross, crowded gym full of treadmills and equipment, but rather a spacious well-lit room with twenty-foot ceilings, where artists, computer programmers, policy-makers and other working professionals could mix and mingle. I wanted all our classes to think outside the box and offer playful, connective social experiences. I wanted to turn the lights off in my yoga and core classes and turn on club lights instead so students could feel like working out can be like going to a party! I wanted to engage with the community and families and also offer family fitness classes including family acrobatics for kids and their parents. For instance, on Saturday mornings now at 9am we offer Cosmic Zumba class in the front and free childcare in the back! Of course, as a passionate mover and teacher myself, I wanted acroyoga, acrobatics, yoga and dance, all those things that captivated me as a child and continue to make me happy as an adult, to become front and center at our studio and accessible and affordable to a wider audience.
As we get ready to celebrate our one year anniversary of being open at Cosmic Fit Club this Saturday May 5th, I am truly grateful to have this opportunity to share with you all. The short story version of how someone short of stature like me with a baby face and a childish voice can open a dynamic new studio in one of the most expensive and competitive cities in the world is no small feat, and is in large part thanks to the shoulders I have had to lean on, climb on and stand on. It is the real estate and business advisors who gave freely of their time and expertise from the very beginning without expecting anything in return; it is the photographer and videographer who shoots amazing images and content for our social media; it is the graphic designer who works until three in the morning and the general contractor who worked until dawn with his team to give us a beautiful white oak floor. It is the community leaders and residents who visit us, support us and believe in us that mean the world to me.
Many of these amazing people, my friends, would never let me literally stand on their shoulders. They are probably too scared of dropping me. My boyfriend does base me and let's me stand on his shoulders on a regular basis. But he can't demo anything tonight as he is out of town putting a hospital's computer simulation system together in Florida. You don't have to have any special ability to base me or anyone else for that matter. You just have to be able to stand on your own two feet and squat down a little. You have to be brave and let me do the rest. Together we will make it happen!