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The Unfortunate Business of Yoga

Last month, on January 29th, Mel Russo closed Yoga High at 98 Forsyth St. on the LES.

“It became obvious that it was no longer economically viable,” she said. “We saw ourselves growing…but rent was going up and I was putting too much of my own money into the studio.”

While she loved owning a space, Russo won’t miss aspects of the job. Taxes, insurance, phone calls, bathroom supply inventory.

“The biggest challenge is that you have to constantly think of new ways to make money,” she said. This could include seasonal specials, new student offers, and of course teacher trainings. And “all that takes away from being able to give 100 percent as a teacher, and even at times, as a student.”

Running a yoga space hurts. And Russo isn’t the only one who knows this. Yoga High is the latest in a series of falling dominoes.

Cyndi Lee catalyzed the cascade back in 2012 when she closed her fabled OM yoga Center on Broadway. Rent skyrocketed and the landlord didn’t renew her lease. When Lee announced the news, the whole community gasped. OM was a City staple, and if a top-cat teacher like Lee was closing her space, then what was next?

“I like teaching yoga and I like creating innovative and beneficial programming,” she said. “But I didn’t ever like being a boss. Or looking at numbers.”

Like everything in life, Lee found that running a studio was different each day. “What was least enjoyable depended on what I felt I was good at and had an understanding of, and that changed over the years,” she said. In retrospect, “I’m sure I’d do some things differently, but mostly, I did ok. You can only do what you can do when you can do it"

Jason Ray Brown and Frances Taylor-Brown just joined the ranks last week. They will close their Zenyasa Yoga & Wellness Studio on the UWS come the end of February. “Several variables have led to this decision, but the main one involves rising expenses and an already low profit margin,” they said.

And now, Schuyler Grant is biting her nails.

The adjacent building at Kula Yoga Project’s Tribeca location at 28 Warren St. will soon be under construction. And loud noise isn’t a desirable soundtrack for a Kula flow class.

While concerned, Grant is blessed with a supportive landlord – which is unusual. “He really deserves a shout-out,” Grant said. “He’s doing everything he can to protect me against the insecurity of being next to a large construction site.”

But not all spaces are being victimized.

Last June 28th, Elena Brower closed Virayoga at 580 Broadway in SoHo. Yes, lease issues; yes, rising rent. But Brower had other things on her mind.

“I came to realize that I wanted to be less busy,” she said. “Being home, cooking for my son, boyfriend, andfriends, as well as taking time to create and study…I wanted more time for myself and family.”

Brower was exhausted, but now she’s much happier.

“Life is simpler, slower,” she said. “My inbox isn’t as full, and I feel much more free to be visionary with other callings and opportunities.”

Russo is singing a similar song.

“Closing Yoga High was one of the best decisions I made,” she said. “I’m so much happier, and I’m still teaching a ton of classes.” But she worries for other yoga spaces.

In a supersaturated industry, the studio business model may become obsolete. Nowadays, people chase the cheapest deals rather than the quality of teachers. Groupons, offering free classes to scads of perspective practitioners, encourage “studio hopping” and chisel student retention.

“It’s completely devaluing yoga,” Russo said. “It really blows my mind regarding what people think yoga is worth, and it’s getting worse…I mean, would you walk into a restaurant and ask for your first meal to be free?”

So what’s next?

Lee thinks yoga needs to go underground. “The external parts of yoga like Instagram and magazines are going wide, but not deep,” she said. If she ever opened another space “it would be on a side street somewhere with no sign…and I’d let the word get out and the ‘deep’ yogis would find me.”

Secret yoga speakeasies may be the key. Or maybe yoga “collectives” where various teachers share space.

Brown and Taylor-Brown are steering in this direction. Zenyasa Yoga & Wellness won't close per se, but will transition to a new model. Students will now pay teachers directly and the space will be available to rent.

Will it work? Time will tell.

“You’ve got to be realistic at some point and say ‘I just can’t afford this anymore’,” Russo said. “As bleak as it sounds, no studio in NYC is thriving…and honestly, the way to keep your studio alive is to have someone help you pay the bills.”

Agreeing, Lee thinks “it might be smarter these days to get some financial partners.” Owning a studio is “an amazing opportunity to do something meaningful with your life…but it’s a gigundo commitment.”

And for anyone interested in opening a new space, she has two words of advice: “good luck.”

-Michael Laskaris

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