"The only thing that we ask," Jivamukti Yoga co-founder Sharon Gannon says, "is that you shut up."
If that sounds like a rather muted way to celebrate, participants say it's a refreshing one — a way to go out but look inward, and end the year on a note of mental tranquility.
Drawing on a long history of silent meditation in yoga, the event certainly isn't the only venue for people who are less interested in spirits than spirituality on New Year's Eve. Many churches hold reverent services on Dec. 31; the custom holds particular resonance for many black churches, where Watch Night observances commemorate the Dec. 31, 1862, services at which congregants awaited word that the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect.
And some yoga and spiritual centers advertise multiday silent New Year events. That's regularly the most popular retreat at Yogaville in Buckingham, Va., which began the New Year's sessions about four decades ago and expected 65 people this year for more than four days of yoga, meditation, small tasks and listening to lectures, the Rev. Lakshmi Bartel said.
"People who come to Yogaville really want to live better, happier lives ... and New Year's is the perfect time" to focus on that, she said.
The New York event requires a lesser time and financial commitment — it's free, while retreats can cost hundreds of dollars or more. It started in 1988 because students were disappointed that Jivamukti Yoga planned to close for New Year's, Gannon said.
"We wanted to celebrate New Year's Eve but didn't want to do it in a party-down kind of way," she said.
Now, as many as 1,000 people come to the school on bustling Union Square, about two miles south of Times Square, for at least part of the evening, and about 500 are usually there at midnight, Gannon said.
After cutting loose for an hour with a band that plays devotional Sanskrit chant music, participants hush up at 9 p.m. Even staffers use pencil and paper if they need to communicate. Participants do whatever comes to mind — yoga exercises, journal writing, reading — as long as it's quiet and alcohol-free.
When the clock strikes midnight, the crowd greets the new year with a Sanskrit chant wishing universal happiness and freedom, followed by some uplifting remarks from Gannon and co-founder David Life.
Karin Goldmark generally went to New Year's parties with friends before trying the Jivamukti Yoga event for the first time in 2006, when she was pregnant and not up for partying.
"I was a bit intimidated, initially, by the idea of meditating for three hours," she said, but it turned out to be fun.
"It still feels like an event ... but it's not overwhelming. It's both calm and festive," said Goldmark, who works in education and now also teaches yoga at the school. "All the great stuff about New Year's Eve, and no hangover."