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Thursday, December 22, 2005

it's my birthday!

i turned a year older today. ok, i know that it really took 365 days for me to get to this point, but as of today, i start writing in a new number by the "Age:" field on race applications. it's going to take some getting used to, but then again, in about a week or so, i'll have to start getting used to writing in a new year, too: 2006. that reminds of the time earlier this year when the orthopod's office filled out a medical form so i could get a disabled person parking placard for my car while i was on crutches. i didn't notice that his assistant had filled out "valid until may 2004" until the DMV clerk rejected it. she insisted that she couldn't issue the placard because it was already december 2004. i told her to note that the form was filled out that morning and that he really meant "may 2005", but she wouldn't budge. so while i stood in front of her, i called the doctor's office, explained the situation, got their OK to make the correction, changed the date, and handed the form back to her. she wasn't too happy about what had happened, but then again, i wasn't too happy that she was giving me a hard time, especially since i was standing there the whole time balancing on one leg, leaning on my crutches...

so on this special day (to me, at least) i'd like to share with you something i found online while researching yoga studios. before i continue, here's some background info on me that might explain why i found this article particularly interesting:

for almost 10 years now, i've been sending out a somewhat-weekly eletter to many of my friends in the marathon training group we belong to, the la leggers. and it's no secret to my readers how i've felt about how, due to our need to make ends meet, our board of directors had allowed a large sports apparel company to sponsor us and dictate to us what we could and couldn't do. we essentially sold our soul to the devil for the money and the supposed prestige. needless to say, the corporate mentality has permeated our organization, and while everyone once used to volunteer where needed to make things happen, it now it seems like people are only motivated to help if they're offered free merchandise or other incentives.

anyway, it sounds like a similar phenomenon is happening in the yoga world, as expressed in an article published in the LA weekly in november 2004. i'm including a somewhat abbreviated version, just in case the link below doesn't work (warning -- what follows below is still quite lengthy; read on only if you have a real interest in the LA yoga scene):

Everything’s Not Zen - As yoga’s popularity explodes, a battle rages for its heart and soul
by Maria Hummel

Beyond the door to the roof of Larchmont’s Center for Yoga looms the new Cingular tower. Installed in late 2003, the cell-phone tower has become an unhappy symbol for the Center for Yoga’s recent surrender to the corporatization of the trend it helped to create. Founded by yoga luminary Ganga White in 1967, the center is the oldest studio in Los Angeles, a major training school and among the first global pioneers of an independent, eclectic approach. In addition to bringing multiple branches of yoga under one roof, it hybridized them, taking rigorous practices like Ashtanga and Iyengar and blending them into a Western smoothie called “Flow.”

But the center’s rich blossoming carried the seeds of its own demise. Flow has been co-opted by gyms and studios to become one of the most popular styles of yoga nationwide. Numerous center graduates have opened their own successful operations in Los Angeles, and the institution’s renowned teacher training is no longer an exclusive commodity. Crippled by debt and its failure to react to the rapidly changing business climate, in late April the Center for Yoga sold out to
Yoga Works, a chain that in one year has spread from two locations in Santa Monica to 11 studios in Los Angeles and Orange County and five around the country — and counting.

At the center, the fallout from the sale to Yoga Works — considered the new Starbucks of yoga in some devotees’ eyes — was fast and furious. Teachers made warning announcements in classes, staffers quit, notes sprouted on bathroom walls, and rumors flew: When it takes over an existing studio, Yoga Works lowers many salaries (true). Yoga Works asks that its teachers sign a non-compete contract (true). Yoga Works is now fronted by two Internet entrepreneurs who have told teachers to jump aboard now because “soon, students will have to choose between us and Bally’s,” and it intends to spread nationwide (true, true, true).

Also true: Yoga Works has one of the best teacher trainings in the country, a devoted student following, and gorgeous locations — and the last three owners to sell to Yoga Works did so almost gratefully.

“Yoga is confrontational,” said instructor Christine Burke during one of her last classes there in July. “Because it’s peaceful, people think it’s passive, but yoga is one of the most confrontational practices there is.” The balance between confrontation and peacefulness weighed heavily on Burke’s mind as she and her husband, Gary McCleery, departed the center this summer to open their own studio on La Brea.

Pastel Yoga Works fliers on the wall are few visible signs of the shift in ownership. But the real changes at the center have to do with how the former independent is now positioned in the yoga world. As Burke confided in hushed tones about modifications to her new studio’s schedule, Yoga Works people were meeting in New York to discuss a merger with Alan Finger’s BeYoga chain, which has four locations in Manhattan.

The differences in scale are what frighten local independents and their constituencies. “The smaller studios have a right to be paying close attention to what Yoga Works is doing right now,” comments editor of L.A. Yoga Julie Deife. “It’s never been done.”

Yoga may be confrontational as Burke said, but it has also been a bit oedipal in Los Angeles. Back in the 1980s, an Israeli yoga teacher named Maty Ezraty was living at the Center for Yoga when Alan Finger invited her to move across town and open Yoga Works in Santa Monica.

Under Ezraty’s and later her partner Chuck Miller’s keen business eye, Yoga Works developed two popular studios and a flock of star teachers.

Then, just as yoga’s taut-bellied bodies began to seduce mainstream audiences, several stars left on negative terms. Some departed because their teaching styles conflicted with Yoga Works, others over compensation, and one because he was forbidden to have a romantic relationship with the general manager. They launched their own operations —
Sacred Movement, Maha Yoga, Forrest Yoga Circle, L.A. Yoga Center and others — each settling in painfully close proximity to Yoga Works.

“That tremendously increased Chuck and Maty’s concern and paranoia,” says Mark Stephens, the former owner of L.A. Yoga Center, now Yoga Works’ Westwood location.

Stephens claims that as teachers and their students started to peel away, Yoga Works’ business practices began to change. Yoga Works was the first and still one of the few studios to force teachers to sign non-compete contacts that restricted them from teaching at competitors’ locations within a strict radius. (When he sold L.A. Yoga Center, Stephens signed away his own right to teach at any Los Angeles studio, gym or private class of more than two people for two years.) The chain also required that every teacher take the same training with a standardized approach that blends three main traditions — Ashtanga, Iyengar and Viniyoga — includes an emphasis on basic safety, and uses the same language to describe the asanas, or postures.

Finally, in 2003, Yoga Works passed the business operation into the hands of George Lichter and Rob Wrubel, two guys who made their first marks in business during the ’90s Silicon Valley boom. A collective that Yoga Works folks collectively keep mum about now owns the chain.

Lichter and Wrubel met 12 years ago and have worked together often since then, first when they created Jumpstart educational software and later when they headed up the Internet search engine Ask Jeeves.

"Something’s happened in yoga in the past year, and the yoga studios, especially the oldest and best of them — they can’t make it,” Lichter says and proceeds to unveil his eclectic-studio-as-endangered-species theory.

Predator No. 1, says Lichter, is
Bikram Choudhury, the shamelessly entrepreneurial guru who’s as famous for his Speedos and gold jewelry as for his hot-room, fixed-sequence approach, now franchised to 1,500 studios worldwide. “In L.A., these McYoga franchises have grown up rapidly and they’re very popular,” Lichter says. “We can say what we want about America, but it’s undeniable that the Mc-ing of anything changes the landscape for small retailers.”

Predator No. 2 is the health clubs, which have successfully incorporated yoga into their schedules. Lichter cites the ’80s aerobics studio trend as an example of how a fractured and fragile scene can simply vanish into the Bally’s maw. “The instructors make good money at gyms, so they don’t want to blame them,” says Lichter.

The exponential growth of small studios is Predator No. 3, a hapless, self-consuming creature. According to figures from L.A. Yoga magazine, Los Angeles has 101 studios, the largest concentration in the country.

No matter what caused the financial collapse of three quality yoga studios in the past year, the 5,000-year-old Eastern spiritual tradition is a tough fit for Western capitalism. In India, yoga classes are traditionally free, the gurus supported by communities, and such yogic principles as ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truth-telling) and aparigraha (greedlessness) are not so bruised by the constant fight for profit.

Everyone agrees that yoga will evolve in the United States, but differences arise when they discuss how. This fall, the Kundalini yogis of
Golden Bridge are putting the finishing touches on a serene 1933 Hollywood warehouse that will feature four studios, retail space, a wellness center, tea garden and vegetarian café. A spiritually soaked practice that emphasizes repetitive motions and chanting, Kundalini doesn’t get the fad fitness traffic of Flow yoga, but Golden Bridge proprietors Gurmukh and Gurushabd are still making savvy moves to secure their following.

Gurushabd insists that the mall-like scope of his plan emerged only after he found the building and knew it was the one for Golden Bridge, even if they had to raise $1.5 million to do it. “It’s God’s project, not my project. It’s His will that we create a space for people to awaken their souls.”

Gurushabd’s righteous attitude underscores the deep ideological differences underlying the turf war between Yoga Works and the independents. They’re not just battling over students but rather whose business model is more yogic. Is it the small-studio approach where instructors are free to define their own teaching styles and locations but have no real job security or health benefits? Or the Yoga Works method, which offers health insurance, paid time off, retail discounts and opportunities for career growth to instructors who teach eight or more classes — but insists on a codified teaching practice, squeezes out independents, and underpays staff and less popular teachers? Is it more ahimsa to protect diversity or protect your own?

When former Center for Yoga owner and current director Lisa Haase bought the studio in 2001, it flourished in the peaking yoga market. “The infrastructure was strong, the aesthetics got better . . . ,” she says. “And then I surprisingly got pregnant.”

After Haase gave birth to a son, she promoted Burke and Alison Crowley, the marketing director, to help McCleery run the studio while she cared for her newborn. The threesome became the public faces of the center, operating everything from retail ordering to bookkeeping to washing yoga mats.

Haase says that about a year ago the center’s financial status started to change. Enrollment for free monthly demos dropped, merchandise sat longer on the shelves, and new students stopped pouring through the door. “Things got tighter and tighter, and I realized I had a choice: to lay off my staff and come back to work full time or find another solution.” So she started to cast around for a business partner.

Over the winter, Yoga Works called. At first, Haase didn’t seriously consider the chain’s interest in the studio, but she soon began to see it as the best prospect for saving the center. Before Haase signed a letter of intent, however, she hammered out her priorities: to retain the center’s name, to give the center long-term financial security, to keep her teachers’ situations the same, and to ensure the jobs of her full-time staff.

Although the first three items have been accomplished, the latter is a matter of debate. The new owners immediately offered McCleery his same position but axed Burke’s and Crowley’s jobs, providing them only vague employment possibilities — and not at the center, where the two desperately wanted to stay. After spending 15 years combined inside the peaceful caverns of the center, Burke and McCleery quit.

This fall, Yoga Works’ Lisa Walford will join longtime center trainer Diana Beardsley in teaching the philosophy section at the instructor training. The two women took their very first class together at Center for Yoga back in the 1980s. “I see the Center and Yoga Works as a marriage of two families,” Walford says. “It takes a while for families to get to know each other, but it will happen, with mutual understanding and respect.”

Meanwhile Burke and McCleery have bought YMI Studio on La Brea, renaming it and bringing Crowley along to work with them.
Liberation Yoga has the outward trappings of a potential success: valet parking, a graceful garden, and a good location on the fancy furniture strip. But for the trio, deep physical and spiritual teaching is the heart of the studio — and of liberation itself. “We want to create a space for people where they will have our respect and trust to realize themselves,” Burke says. “Yoga’s not about the answers but the questions.”