by Ali Valdez
Being in the business of transformation is never easy. Not on a professional level, never on a personal one either. Opening a yoga studio to serve your local community is an exciting endeavor. Hollywood always has beautiful actresses in roles such as art gallery owner, designer, working at a fashion magazine, either teaching or doing yoga. God, if only life were so simple that I could have enough time on my hands to break up with a guy in ten dates or obsess over the latest fashion must haves and get paid for it.
Life in the yoga lane doesn’t work that way. No. It takes hard work, firing on all cylinders on every level of one’s own complex being. I began teaching yoga by default when a teacher was stuck in traffic. No one who showed up for class wanted to leave and I found twelve sets of eyes looking at me assuming I would just do it because of the quality of my practice. Fast forward, I feel like I have seen it all in the yoga studio world. Silly, of course I have not but I have helped dozens of studios open, expand, brand, trained teachers, set up programs, schedules, did interior design for studios, web work, worked and conducted workshops at many studios.
But I never put the sack of bricks and mortar directly on my back.
Back then, I was on the executive fast track at Microsoft at the time with a healthy amount of discretionary income. Now I pay myself nothing and am wiping down sweaty mats and sitting at the front desk hoping someone might call. Welcome to your first week on the “job”, right?
Well, yes and no. Here are some of my keys to survival.
Attitude and Intention: This “job” isn’t just any “job:” it is part of my life’s work. It has meaning beyond subsisting at the lowest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy where I am scrounging around desperate for a dollar. There is sweat equity, but also heart equity in the art of building something of your own from scratch that requires one’s own commitment to serving others. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. The ground zero of setting up shop, and turning your shingle to OPEN is a profound and vulnerable moment.
It is on a professional level like your first love, where you willingly put it all on the line…for another and hope they feel the same way.
There is something about showing up, doing your thing, and leaving. My new business partner and I had not spoken in over ten years and neither of us had it on our dashboard to open a new studio. But we responded to outreach from the yoga community in Redmond after their beloved studio was abruptly shut down. This meant dropping most of our holiday plans, scrambling to get all of our ducks in a row to open two weeks later at the start of the New Year.
Was it fun? No! Was it easy? No! Would I have done things differently? Yes! Do I regret doing it? Hell no. And I would even say I would, and probably will, do it again.
Responsibility: I have been contracting people for many years as part of my operations and teacher training faculty. I am used to writing out check and I feel comfortable paying others. In fact, one of the greatest rewards of my job is providing meaningful opportunities for my teachers. The importance of committing weekly to paying others, even if at first it means no paycheck for yourself, is on some level the first test of one’s fortitude.
As studios are folding faster than metal chairs in an Iyengar class after supported shoulderstand, I feel that many of them are opened by relatively new teachers who just want to teach yoga all day. Opening a studio is not about your yoga; it’s about your students doing THEIR yoga.
Acceptance: It’s not about you. It’s about them. I had the opportunity to learn that lesson early on when I was an art dealer in Pioneer Square, Seattle’s famed art district when I thought opening an art gallery would be awesome because I love traveling the world collecting and buying art. Owning my art gallery meant buying no art but creating a space for others to enjoy it. It meant living in Kirkland and getting up extra early to sweep cobblestone brick, and possibly clean vomit off the side window after a bar crawl weekend, maybe an alarm being tripped in the middle of the night and of course, really the hardest of all when one’s heart is open wide for business: the times spent in solitude between customers.
Love & Respect Your Teachers: As a studio owner, your teachers are the heart of your business. It helps A LOT if you are actually a teacher and enjoy interacting with your students on this level when you run a studio. And frankly, it’s the fun part of the gig.
You don’t need to be the star ‘yogi’ indulgently gracing your students with your powerful presence to succeed, but a real live human being who genuinely gives a shit about the individuals who walk through your door.
Because I trained most of my teachers myself, many on my teacher training faculty and as friends, it really helps that I already know them well and they know me. They understand that this place is as much for them as it is for the students. Both need to be loved and cared for equally. I want them to feel sense of place; that this is something that on an energetic level, we are building a community. You know something sacred and splendid.
And Of Course, Your Students: Everyone who enters the studio needs to be acknowledged and known by name. It is not enough to cattle herd people into a box. People want connection and when students are at the studio, they need to be job #1 joyfully.
“Your” Yoga Takes Shape in New Ways: No more just a downward dog kind of day. Your yoga as a studio owner needs to be found in the shooting of the arrow without attachment to the outcome. It also comes in the yoga of mindfulness as you find your Zen moments between folding towels, wiping down surfaces, and creating your space day in and day out. Find joy in the monotony as much as the time on the mat. Meditate each morning in your space; pray for your students, bring blessings spoken and not into everything you do.
Business One “Oh” One: Studios needs students who are serious about the transformational value proposition of the services you are offering. As a shrewd and practical business owner, you need bodies in a room to pay for the heating and rent, and if you are a good business person, you absolutely deserve to make a great salary for your efforts and intentions.
As a teacher you need to see those friendly faces coming back and developing a regular daily yoga practice because that is the greatest satisfaction of all: seeing people grow with yoga. Yipee! But teachers also need to come prepared to serve all and not just their friends or regulars. I had one student who hated my classes. I could feel her energy bristle when she came close to me. I even went to the studio owner and mentioned it concerned that there may be a customer satisfaction issue and I wanted them to be aware.
I also wanted the feedback, even if negative, so I could svadhyaya myself to oblivion and grow as a teacher and better serve her needs. Oh, did I mention she is now part of my staff at the studio? At the beginning what seemed an improbable teacher student connection has flourished into working together, her enrollment in my advanced studies program, and also my friend.
Everyone matters, even if they don’t become your best friend. We remain all one.
As a student, you need to commit to the practice to really see the benefits. Find teachers skilled enough to take you to the next level so you don’t grow bored or complacent with your yoga. Transactional interactions don’t sustain the long term vision of a studio or nourish its soul. Like any relationship or partnership in business to work, it needs to be mutual.
Zumba, Insanity, TaiBo, Jazzercise and other fitness crazes fade out but yoga has endured for thousands of years and is quickly becoming the defacto universal wellness imperative worldwide to address both of troubles and opportunities of our times.
Together, under one roof with the tool of yoga, we meet on our mats, talk in the lobby, hug in the hallway and do our best. Time to run; we’re open for business.