Monika Benkovich is the real deal.
In the health and wellness industry, the word “authentic” is often overused, its meaning distorted and diluted. But for the founder of Church 444, Hess Village’s brilliant new movement studio and gallery, being truly authentic to oneself is not only a core principle, it’s also punk.
“I was first introduced to yoga through Noah Levine’s book Dharma Punx,” says Monika, sharing her story over Zoom from the studio itself. “Noah was in punk bands, tattooed, had a history of substance abuse, and travelled a lot. I found I could relate to this person who was talking about meditation and yoga. That piqued my interest.”
Monika’s journey has deep roots in Hamilton, though her own travels have taken her to B.C, San Francisco, and many other places. Church 444 is a culmination of both Monika’s own story and her vision of greater unity here at home and in the world at large.
The name “Church 444” has a story as well. “I want to reclaim the word ‘church’ from its more negative connotations,” says Monika. “What we do here isn’t religious at all. The original root meaning of the word was ‘gathering place’, somewhere you can come as you are and explore. When you strip away the negativity from the word, that’s what you get.”
Church 444 is an extension of that idea: an inclusive, open-minded place to share yogic traditions and build community on a bigger scale, all led by Monika’s team of passionate and trained facilitators.
The “444” is a nod to the synchronicities that Monika had around that particular number. She says she had been seeing occurrences of this number everywhere over the past two years, so often that Monika wanted to find out what it meant. “It signifies rebirth, spiritual awakening, and a fresh start. The changes that were happening in my life were running parallel to the appearance of this number, like wanting to stop drinking.”
Indeed, Monika’s relationship with alcohol and a desire for a healthier lifestyle have been powerful themes in her own life. Prior to opening Church 444, Monika had worked as a bartender and server at the Gown & Gavel in Hess Village and subbing in at other bars and restaurants. Her parents, too, had owned and operated a bar for over 25 years.
Having lived in BC for some years prior to her return, Monika moved back to Hamilton near Dundurn Castle, across the street from De La Sol Yoga. Wanting to make changes in her life, Monika started an energy exchange, cleaning the studio for four hours a week in exchange for unlimited yoga classes, which she regarded as a “sweet deal”.
“Many teachers have said ‘I’ll never be a yoga teacher’,” says Monika. “My life at the time didn’t fit in with the western image of yoga. I worked in bars, didn’t consider myself a spiritual person, and just really didn’t fit in with the yoga lifestyle as I knew it back then. I found balance and benefit in the practice itself. My life was changing and I wanted to learn more, so I took the teacher training”.
Monika recognizes that not everyone resonates with the stereotypical yoga lifestyle, which has been criticized at times for cultural appropriation, elevating certain body types over others, toxic positivity, and a prescriptive image of how it should look for practitioners. “I wanted to inspire people to live a healthier lifestyle without having to stick their leg over their heads,” says Monika. “I wanted them to be completely okay with themselves as they were. A big misconception is that it’s only a physical practice. Really, it’s just one small component of the larger part of yoga, which we emphasize that our space.”
Monika started to teach a class called “Punk Rock Yoga”. The idea was to bring the traditions and benefits of yoga that she got to know and that were beneficial to her life to folks who would be uncomfortable stepping into a studio or with the idea of the Westernized view of yoga versus its origins in India and the East. “Bringing this class and music to bars was to help reframe people’s minds around what they thought of yoga and themselves in an unconventional way,” she says.
Church 444 had intended to open its doors last year, but due to the pandemic restrictions, they never got the chance. Monika had signed lease just two weeks before the first lockdown, requiring her to throw out her first business plan. Though not a tech person, Monika applied her creative talents to pivoting over to Instagram, rapidly developing new skills to build community in the new reality.
Church 444 grew quickly through word-of-mouth, social media, and outdoor pop-up events at the George Street location when the summertime permitted such gatherings.
“In April 2021, we’re entirely online,” says Monika. “We have a full schedule that includes meditation, yoga at different levels and fitness classes.”
What sets Church 444 apart from most other studios are its mental health supports. One-on-one support is available with three certified facilitators at affordable rates or sliding scale options. Monika recognizes that keeping our mental health intact during the pandemic and connecting with each other is just as important as the physical element of the movement classes.
Patrons can join a weekly peer support run by Church 444’s in-house addictions counselor, Joey Mercer. “The group is not necessarily recovery or addiction-based, but offered to anyone who needs a place to hang out online and connect with people as a contributor or listener.”
Monika also intends to add a grief circle, as she recognizes that many have experiencing loss at various levels, as well as a focus on diversity and cultural respect moving forward.
Also on offer are art workshops, ranging from step-by-step painting instruction to cannabis-friendly offerings such as Puff and Paint, slated to begin in June. “You don’t have to smoke to enjoy it,” says Monika, speaking of Puff and Paint, “but you can if you want. When we’re ready to return outdoors, we have gentle, cannabis friendly movement classes.”
Post-pandemic, Monika has a positive vision of the city and the world at large. “We want to do our part to grow the community in a creative, supportive way,” she says. These will include new free pop-up events in Hess Village, a private courtyard with acoustic music, and small business tables set up outside. These projects, Monika notes, are currently on hold pending the reduction of COVID rates, but she hopes to see more such events as the lockdowns come to an end.
As with the word “church”, for Monika, her vision of a desired future comes down to the root of the word “yoga”: to yoke, unity. “The pandemic has forced us to choose sides,” says Monika, “and it has created a lot of division. Many good things have come out of it, like hard conversations on anti-oppression, anti-racism and learning from our mistakes (myself included). Moving forward, how do we start to bridge the divides compassionately and listen to each other more?”
Monika’s hope for the world is unity. “We’re not all going to agree on the same outcome or be on the same side all the time, and that’s okay, but if there is a level of respect, dignity, and compassion for all parts of yoga, community, and living… well, I really hope to see the world going in that direction.”