Ouroboros

August is a good time to take a break from routine.  It is the traditional month for taking holidays in Europe.  So the Rogue in me will be taking a few weeks away from posting.  Look for new content starting in September.  Topics will include:

  • making yoga a sustainable business
  • why you are not working hard enough in your postures – no excuses, and…
  • how fighter pilots and Navy SEALS can teach yogis a thing or two.

In the meantime, if you want to read some of my more popular posts, check these out:

A cautionary tale on operating yoga studios”

“Questioning the Mysore Style”

“Apprenticing in Yoga”

“Why you will success with a minimal practice done daily”

Also, I will be leading two workshop on the Moon Sequence (Chandra Krama), designed by Matthew Sweeney, at the Washington Yoga Center.  You can sign up for September 24th or October 22nd.

Vale! (Stay Strong!)

 

 

 

A cautionary tale on operating yoga studios

It’s almost a year since I closed down the yoga studio, where I worked as studio director, senior teacher, and director of teacher training for almost six years.  Time and distance has given me a chance to reflect upon what went wrong and how to use this knowledge to help others to avoid the same mistakes that I made.

Operating a yoga studio is first and foremost a business, and it needs to be treated as such.  If you do not acknowledge basic business practices when you open a studio, you will spend a lot of time learning through trial and error.

I speak from a unique position.  I’ve worn every hat possible in the yoga industry.  I started as a student, twenty years ago.  I became a teacher, then a studio manager.  I took on the roles of teacher trainer and then studio partner.  Since the closure of my business, I have served as an informal advisor for several yoga studios, local and national.

I’ve never worked in an office. Never been desk-bound in a cubicle.  I’ve always been self-employed, self-directed, self-taught, with lots of wonderful mentors who have guided me on the way, sometimes explicitly, other times through example.

If I failed, it was because I did not apply what I had learned.  I took my eye off the ball.

I don’t have an MBA from Harvard or Stanford.  My MBA is from the School of Hard Knocks.  My case studies were conducted in real time, with real people.  I didn’t get As or Bs on business projects.  I was rewarded with more customers or punished with less customers.  I learned to negotiate business deals, oftentimes at my disadvantage, and had to live with the consequences.

I learned that people are not always honest, trustworthy, or direct, even if they say they are.  Words can mislead, deeds never lie.  One famous instance was when my landlord revised fine print in the lease when we decided to take over more space (Mistake # 9, listed below), telling us in person that nothing except the square footage had been changed.  When we reached year 5 and expected to have half of the deposit returned, he informed me that I should look at the lease again.  He had changed the wording in the fine print so his company would hold all of the $20,000 of security deposits (my savings) in escrow until the end of the 10-year lease.  (Lesson learned: read the lease with a fine tooth comb.  Then spend $300 to hire a lawyer to comb through it a second time.  Compare the results and then proceed if all is good).  That was a bitter pill to swallow, and I lost the money when the business closed in year 6 and the landlord used it to pay for the rent.

There are so many more stories.  Toilets overflowing.  Vandalism.  Early mornings checking the bank account balance.  Late nights brainstorming marketing ideas to increase membership retention.  Endless hours writing emails, newsletters, and handling customer issues and teacher issues.

And more.

But I want to get to the whole point of this post, which is to provide a postmortem of a yoga studio failing.  A cautionary tale, if you will.

These factors are in no particular order, and no single factor was the main cause.  A business is very much an organism. Once one organ starts failing, then systemic problems start to multiply and further wreak havoc on the body.  Sure, the cancer may have started in the liver or the lung, but when it metastasizes, does it really matter which organ was at fault?

It would be wise to read through these points if you have any aspirations to open a yoga studio.

  1. High cost of studio rent – commercial rent in DC (and most major cities) is expensive.  By the time we closed, we were paying close to $7,500 a month, just to keep the doors open.  That doesn’t include taxes (retail and employment), utilities, phone, internet, security, cleaning, maintenance, renovations, or any of the other costs associated with running a business.  Basic business monthly operating expenses, just to break even, was close to $30,000.  Lesson learned: Rent is too damn high!  Develop a robust business model, like in #6, with yoga diversified.
  2. High payroll – If you teach all of the classes yourself, you can reduce your payroll by a lot.  The problem is you will drop dead within a week, after teaching 20 to 30 classes.  So you have to hire other teachers.  It helps if you have a partner to share the workload, but hiring other teachers is inevitable if you want to have any semblance of a work/life balance.  Hire more teachers, and your expenses go up.  But the good thing is you develop a team of experienced teachers who bring a lot of love, commitment and expertise to building a community.  Lesson learned: pretty self-evident.
  3. Low revenue from classes – you have to run a lot of yoga classes every week in order to meet your customers’ needs and desires. Stay open seven days a week, most holidays and during all types of weather.  Forget snow days. If people are home, they will want to do yoga (good!)  Run classes morning, afternoon and evening.  An average, one-room yoga studio will have about 25 to 35 classes a week.  Add a second room and you can double your evening classes, and push the weekly schedule to 50 or 55.  Which brings me to point number 4, 5 and 6.  Lesson learned: if you open a yoga studio, you will eat, breathe, sleep yoga, 24/7, 365/year.  Be prepared.
  4. Market prices for yoga are too low – Yoga is cheap nowadays.  Plain and simple.  You’ll pay $20 for a single drop-in, compared to SoulCycle’s drop-in rate of $34 (!) and SolidCore’s drop-in for $35.  If you purchase a class pack, you get a few bucks knocked off each class. The downside of class packs is this: they are much more volatile.  Someone buys a class pack and then you hope that they purchase another class pack when they finish the pack.  Memberships, on the other hand, are more reliable source of income: if you have 200 memberships, at $89 per month, then you know you will have $17,800 every month, with maybe 5% fail rate from expired credit card or membership attrition.  Lesson learned: yoga studios need to charge higher prices for yoga classes, to stay competitive with other fitness studios and to meet rising costs.
  5. Groupon/LivingSocial/ClassPass were a blessing and a curse.  When we first opened, we ran a deal on LivingSocial, where we sold 5,000 vouchers.  The good thing was that it put us on the map, and provided seed capital to continue to run the business and to grow.  But the bad outweighed the good: the studio became known as a Groupon studio, where, because we educated the client to not want to pay full-price, it was very difficult to completely remove it from our business model.  For a time, we had too many students, trying to get into too few classes, and we were getting slammed on Yelp.  Lesson learned: Do not do daily deals.  They will condition your customers to pay less and will condition you to use it as way of generating revenue.  Believe in the value of the service you are giving to customers, and NEVER be ashamed or shy to ask for payment.
  6. Too much dead space during non-primetime hours – This wasn’t always the case.  When we first opened the studio, there was one practice space and then a set of separate rooms where a massage therapist and an acupuncturist offered their services.  It was a nice model – students could take regular yoga classes, supplement their practice with regular massage or acupuncture.  Both arms of the business had different revenue models, so, in retrospect, it seemed more robust, more resilient to volatility.  (If I had to do it all again, I would keep that set-up).  Once we closed down the massage rooms and renovated it into a second space, the big problem became under-utilization of space.  Now, there was a second studio which stood empty on most mornings and afternoons, but was full in the evenings and weekends, with classes, workshops and teacher trainings.  Lesson learned: be careful about how much space you take on.  Figure out how to make the most of it. Negotiate hard with the landlord to get the best price per square footage. If you don’t like the deal, walk away, and mean it.
  7. Opening of second location stretched the business too thin – Absolutely do not open a second location until your first location is stable and profitable.  You really have to ask yourself, when you are thinking about opening a second location, “Why do I want to do this?  What could I gain from opening a second studio?”  If you are thinking about trying to sell your yoga studio (as I tried towards the last year to save the business and to pay everyone), just a word of advice from a broker: yoga studios are incredibly slow to sell.  If you are thinking about going corporate or public (as YogaWorks tried to go public earlier this month, before withdrawing their IPO at the last minute due to investors’ concerns of its profitability), then you are in the wrong business.
  8. Too many renovations in the early years: We renovated three times in the space of 4 years. That’s three times too many.  It ended up putting a heavy financial strain on the business, even though it did improve the appearance.  Lesson learned: Renovate early, then wait for five or six years before you renovate again.  Make use of the space you are in.
  9. Closing the second location caused a huge backlash from the customers –
    People don’t like things taken away from them.  We tried to market the hell out of the second location, and students were genuinely interested in the second location.  Classes were small, but the second location suffered from a lack of attention.  It was in the basement, and the landlords were intractable about fixing signage and addressing flooring issues.  As one businessman described the situation for me, “Imagine going to the ATM every morning.  Take out $400, and then flush it down the toilet.  That’s what is happening here.”  The only choice was to close down, to end it at the right time.

WHEW!  I sweated through my shirt writing this.

You might think, given the chance to do everything over again, I wouldn’t have started this business.

Oddly enough, I don’t regret it at all. I wouldn’t give up these experiences for anything in the world.

I met so many wonderful students and teachers, some of whom have become good friends and trusted allies.  I got to collaborate with some of the most dedicated professionals I have met in my life.  I had the honor to host major yoga teachers, such as David Williams, Tao Porchon-Lynch, AG Mohan, Jules Febre, Tamar Samir, Lama Norbu, and Leslie Kaminoff.  We hosted holiday parties, a business launch, speeches given by activists and prominent thinkers, kirtans, and celebrations.  Over 50 people went through our teacher training, many of them now teaching at local yoga studios around DC. We participated in yoga festivals, international retreats, and fundraising campaigns for local and national non-profit organizations.

The lessons I learned hardened me, made me much more of a realist, tempered my naivete with nerves of steel (although I still get rattled from time to time).  They also made more compassionate, more understanding of people.

The last class (right) I taught there touched me deeper than any class I have ever taught.  Or will ever teach.  Such an outpouring of love, compassion, and appreciation.

The other day, I was re-reading some old Yelp reviews about the studio, as I was researching this post.  Yes, many people complained about one thing or another: too hot, too many student, not enough classes, too vegan (or not vegan enough).  Yes, there were some genuinely eccentric (read: crazy) people who posted some bizarre things. I laughed quite a bit.

But I was overwhelmed with the majority of reviews which were positive, which complemented the beautiful space, the teachers, the sense of community, the overriding mission of the studio, and the students’ appreciation for having an oasis from the stresses of office, school or home.  I was overwhelmed by people sharing what they really wanted from yoga: peace of mind, better health, and a chance to connect.

Yoga is often translated as “union,” which has always struck me as a bit sanitized.  I prefer nowadays that yoga means “relationship, intimacy, connection, contact.”  That’s more compelling.

Would I do it all over again?

Yes, but better, leaner, clearer.

Thank you for reading.

 

Student, teacher, owner

First, be a student for 10 years before you consider becoming a teacher.  Practice regularly.  Read the classic books.  Study a traditional form (my top recommendations are Ashtanga and Iyengar).  Stick to one or two teachers for a few years – if not longer – at a time.

Second, teach for 10 years before you consider opening a yoga studio.  Become remarkable at teaching students.  Figure out what makes your approach unique.  Why should a student practice with you?  Also, observe how studios operate.  Work for other studios.  See how they do things.  What do they do well, where do they underperform.  Study the mechanics of the business of yoga.

Third, operate a studio for 5 years before you consider starting a teacher training program.  Why?  80% of small businesses fail within the first two years.  You will spend the first two years keeping your overhead low.  Which means teaching a lot of classes.  Developing a teacher training takes a lot of time to write manuals, to design modules, to build up enough customers who want to learn how you do things.

 

Next week’s post will be about pitfalls of operating a yoga studio.  A cautionary tale.

Stay tuned.

 

Questioning the Mysore style

My mantra for the last few years has been: “Coffee, yoga, hustle.”  When I took up teaching Mysore classes (first from 2015 to 2016, then a two-month break while my yoga studio business collapsed, before taking it back up from 2016 to 2017), it became, “Coffee, teach, yoga, hustle.”  I had been practicing Ashtanga for 15 years, and I wanted a more personalized setting in which to share with my students the Series, techniques, and insights I’ve had about yoga.  It seemed that I had to take the plunge and start teaching Mysore, 5 to 6 days a week (moon days off!), early mornings from 5:45am to 7:45am, and start living that “Mysore teacher lifestyle.”

You know?  The lifestyle where you wake up every morning around 4:30am, jump start the system with the strongest coffee you can find (7-Eleven coffee is not sufficient!), and then head to the studio to “hold the space” and teach for 2 hours before doing your own practice.  (Note: the younger crowd of authorized and certified teachers make it a badge of honor that they practice before they teach, waking up super early and practicing at 4am, a time of day that routinely gets described as ‘ungodly.’  I don’t have kids, but if I did, I wouldn’t want to have to go to bed before they do.)  Then…well, what exactly do you do after that schedule?  9 to 5 jobs are out of the question.  So…it has to be more teaching!

What did I realize after 9 months of teaching in two different programs?  I was feeling exhausted, irritable.  I got into the habit of 12 to 14 hour work days.  My creativity dropped dead.  My relationships suffered.  I had the general feeling of being trapped in a very demanding, brutal schedule, being underpaid and overworked.

I loved my students who were showing up every (or every other) morning.  I admired their dedication and their sincerity.  They were eager to learn the Series, to refine their practice, to explore alternative vinyasa sequence from Vinyasa Krama.  I was eager to see their practice grow.  This was more emotionally satisfying than the financial concerns.

But at the end of the day, even yoga teachers have bills to pay.

I got burned out.  I had to stop teaching Mysore style.

Now, for those of you who don’t know what Mysore style is, permit me a moment to explain.   Mysore-style yoga is the way in which Ashtanga Yoga has been traditionally taught, and I would hazard to say that it is considered the most authentic way to learn Ashtanga yoga.  Students practice set sequences, at their own pace, in a group setting.  The teacher supervises the class, offering practice advice and physical adjustments where needed.  Class is held usually in the mornings, although some studios are offering late morning, afternoon, and evening Mysore classes.  Classes are held Monday through Saturdays (although it used to be Sundays through Fridays) with Sundays off.

How is it to teach Mysore?  My experience has been the following:

  • a lot of observation of people’s practices
  • some verbal cuing or instruction
  • moderate levels of physical adjustments
  • some falling asleep while watching =-)

It takes a certain rhythm between observing, teaching, and adjusting.  Everyone has their own unique way of balancing it.  I tend to be more observer than adjuster.  Some teachers I know or have taken class with are more adjuster than observer.

The Mysore method is practical.  Students learn set sequences, so it is like teaching people how to play familiar pieces of music.  Everyone knows the tune, now we just need to look at the sheet music.  Students learn the Ashtanga Primary Series first, then progress to Intermediate Series once they can satisfy the following two conditions:

  1. Perform all of Primary Series, with competence in most, if not all, of the postures
  2. Stand up from Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow) 3 times by themselves

This post is not going to be the place where I go into the progression method of Mysore-style class.

If I had to practice yoga in only one way, it would be in the Mysore format.  I love the feeling of practicing first thing in the morning.  Mornings truly are sacred for me.  I know that I will not be called into a meeting, have to answer emails, or any other tasks to handle.  I can focus on my practice, get level-headed and calm for the day, and then head off to tackle the day’s tasks.

If I had to teach yoga in only one way, it would be in the Mysore format, for a brief period of time.

Here are some of the problems with the Mysore-style format, as it is currently designed:

  1. Early morning hours: some people just don’t want to practice that early in the morning.  I do, and many of my students want to as well, but it is a hard sell to the rest of the yoga community when you say that the only time to learn Ashtanga is in the early morning.  Also, the most financial rewarding classes are in the evenings, so…see point 3.  But first please read point 2 =-)
  2. Six days a week: for the teacher, this is the most brutal aspect of the format.  Teaching Ashtanga in the Mysore format requires a certain knowledge and commitment to the tradition and to its method.  It cannot be taught in a weekend teacher training, or a year-long training.  It takes years of being a student in this method before you can learn how to teach it.  So, as the Mysore teacher, you are a scarce resource, which can be valuable (scarcity creates value) but it also means that you cannot get a sub when you have the flu and the studio needs for you to teach the class.  Additionally, teachers are prohibited by the KPJ Ashtanga Yoga Center in Mysore from holding teacher training programs to create more Mysore teachers, so Mysore teachers are often forced to be creative and designate “assistants” who can fill in when the teacher needs them.
  3. Burning the candle at both ends: Mysore teachers cannot really live off Mysore classes alone.  They have to teach other classes, in the afternoon or evenings, to make ends meet.  You end up burning the candle at both ends.  You become the itinerant teacher, dashing from studio to studio, teaching two or three (or more!) classes a day.  At the end of the week, you look forward to Friday evening when you can fall asleep on the couch with a book and sleep in the next day.
  4. Codependence: It is ironic that it is called “self-practice” yet a teacher has to be present all of the time.  Students can become dependent on the teacher for adjustments into certain postures (e.g. binds, feet behind the head, dropbacks).  These adjustments can be physically taxing for the teacher, if he or she has 10 or 15 students in any given class.  Teachers can become dependent on their students to support their ego and feed what I often have seen as dictatorial tendencies (more on the dark side of Ashtanga in a later post).
  5. Tunnel vision on how to practice: Because it is a set sequence, Ashtanga demands that you adhere to the sequence in order to observe the effects and, half-jokingly, to avoid the ire of the teacher.  Because it is a set sequence, Ashtanga is easy to memorize, easy to observe deviations, and easy to discuss with the student on areas of improvement of difficulty.  Because it is a set sequence, though, Ashtanga can foster tunnel vision for the teachers and students alike.  “You have to practice it this way, or it’s not Ashtanga!” “Why are you not doing jump backs between sides?” “Why are you doing it that way?  Who taught you that?” “I cannot practice because my (random body part) is injured and I cannot do a full practice.”  All things I have heard in the Mysore room, over the years, sometime said to me even.  Discipline is important in learning the sequence and the method, but I’ve never felt comfortable with the simultaneous shaming and interrogating that can occur in a yoga class, especially the Mysore classes.  (As I am writing this post, I am seeing about 5 other articles I am going to have to write).

So what to do?  Is there a way to make Mysore-style yoga more sustainable for the teacher, more accessible to the public, more profitable for the teacher and the studio?

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.

 

 

 

A balanced Half-Primary Series

Surya Namaskara A, 3x

Surya Namaskara B, 3x

Standing Postures

Padangusthasana

Padahastasana

Trikonasana A, B

Parsvakonasana A, B

Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C, D

Parsvottanasana

Utthita hasta padangusthasana

Ardha baddha padmottanasana

Utkatasana

Virabhadrasana A, B
Seated postures

Dandasana

Paschimottanasana A, B, C

Purvottanasana

Ardha baddha padma paschimottanasana

Trianga mukha eka pada paschimottanasana

Janu sirsasana A, B, C

Marichyasana A, B, C, D

Navasana 3x
Backbends

Salabhasana 2x

Dhanurasana 2x

Ustrasana 2x

Urdhva dhanurasana 4x

Paschimottanasana
Finishing Postures

Sarvangasana, 25 breath

Halasana, 10 breath

Karna pidasana, 10 breath

Urdhva padmasana, 10 breath

Pindasana, 10 breath

Matsyasana, 10 breath

Uttana padasana, 10 breath

Sirsasana, 25 breath

Baddha padmasana, 10 breath

Yoga mudra, 10 breath

Padmasana, 10 – 25 breath

Utplutihi, 10 to 100 breath
Final rest, 5 to 20 minutes

Firefly and Crow Poses

The following two poses, Titthibhasana (Firefly) and Bakasana (Crane/crow pose), are the dynamic duo you have to flow through when you are transitioning out of Supta Kurmasana (sleeping turtle), the Gordian knot of Primary Series.

Exhale, from Supta kurmasana, move your hands underneath your shoulders.  Inhale, press into your hands, lift your hips and feet away from the floor.  Keep your ankles crossed behind your neck. Once you are balancing on your hands, still inhaling, straighten out your legs, dropping your hips and lifting your feet. Look forward.  Hold for the duration of the inhalation (or longer if you want to build strength for Intermediate).


Exhale, pull your heels back to your bum.  Press your arms straight, drop your tailbone, suck your heels up to your bum, and press through your index knuckles.  Squeeze your knees into your arms.  Look forward.  Now you are in bakasana.  Hold for the duration of the exhalation (or longer if you want!  The first westerners to practice Ashtanga would hold this pose for up to 59 breaths!).  Then, inhale, followed by an exhalation, jump back into chaturanga.


Both poses are excellent at developing arm strength, endurance, and focus.  Make sure to straighten your arms as fully as possible.  Work on smoothing out the transition from one pose to the next.  If you practice Crow with bent arms, you will only get strong in that particular joint angle.

And don’t forget to soften your face and breathe!

Let me know if you have any questions.

Vinyasa Krama, by Matthew Sweeney

Vinyasa Krama Playful, Versatile, Creative

Mindful, Focused, Consistent

with Matthew Sweeney

1. Vinyasa Krama is Yoga tailored for individuals – sequences that are scaled and modified for students with any physical condition. Students learn sequencing as a model for exploration rather than a goal to be reached. This enables all Vinyasa Krama teachers to help a huge variety of students with different rates of learning. One claim we make on VK teaching is that we are able to teach more students than most if not all other Vinyasa or Ashtanga teachers – as neither age nor ability is a barrier. Potentially any sequence or tradition can be used under the VK umbrella.

2. Self Practice
– rather than focusing on Led classes where the teacher will often teach what he or she is best at, we focus on self practice so the emphasis is on student maturity and learning / experiencing at your own pace. Self practice is the key to all other aspects of Yoga – Pranayama, meditation, and self inquiry. A key point we make is the importance of not relying on only one technique, sequence or tradition – the technique or tradition is the map, not the territory. A Self Practice teacher guides and encourages; he or she has to be objective and able to provide time, space and feedback. Self Practice class sizes are also generally limited in order to give individual attention.

3. Pranayama
– Vinyasa Krama breathing techniques are comprehensive, taught over a period of time, in a step by step manner, via self practice. Students learn based on commitment and ability, and are assessed as to whether each technique is appropriate. As most Pranayama classes are taught in a group format, this comes with some significant problems. That is, a lack of individual guidance, plus the tendency to teach more advanced techniques (Kumbhaka for example) before a student knows how to breathe properly and without effort.

4. Self Inquiry and Relational Development
– we explore self awareness in the context of our relationships to others. This key aspect of integrating Yoga, Self and relationships is usually overlooked or even abused by many teachers, Yoga or otherwise. A teacher / student relationship must be ethical first, and technical second. It is personal and therefore requires a clear mind and open heart.

 5. Meditation and Advaita Vedanta – we also focus on the big picture, continually returning to the spaciousness of the natural, effortless, non-dual self. The techniques are simply pointing at the same universal truth every time – I am that.

For more on Matthew Sweeney, his books and DVDs, and his courses, visit http://www.yogatemple.com