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With Skyrocketing Rents, Studios Are Getting Creative With Dollars and Sense

Last month, members of Williamsburg‘s Abhyasa Yoga Center received a notice that class prices would go up.

Owner J. Brown’s email was detailed: The building’s water bill had doubled, and the landlord was offering to either install a meter or raise the rent. After doing some calculations, coughing up a determined amount of extra cash for higher rent was less severe than paying for each toilet flush.

Five days later, however, Brown sent a follow-up note explaining that he had made a mistake. Opting for the water meter was not only the wiser choice, but its cost would actually prevent Abhyasa from having to raise prices.

“Some people find it inappropriate to talk about money or numbers. But I decided to go with my gut and exercise ‘radical transparency',” Brown explained, on his blog.

While outcomes may differ, tight financial survival stories like this have been woven into our beloved city’s yoga dialogue for the last couple of years. Rents keep going up, eviction notices keep coming, and studios must decide how to keep going.

One trend is "double-bunking," when one studio literally sets-up shop in another, or multiple teachers agree to join forces to save on rents. Recently, Lilia Mead moved Go Yoga to The Three Jewels, bringing a full asana schedule to the mostly Buddhist meditation studio. Guta Hedewig brought her Krishnamacharya-inspired Yoga School of New York to a new studio,

Samamkaya Yoga Back Care & Scoliosis Collective. The originality prize, however, goes to the Meow Parlour, a patisserie with kitties that now offers weekly yoga classes.

But the buck problem doesn’t just stop in NYC.

Hudson Valley studio owner Ami Hirschstein recently uprooted her 16-year-old business, Jai Ma Yoga Center, to merge with Ashtanga Yoga of New Paltz, next door, forming a new studio named YogAlive.

“In a town like this, the rents are so high,” Hirschstein said of New Paltz. “but you can’t

charge Manhattan prices for yoga classes, so there’s a real disconnect between the two.”

Jai Ma wasn’t losing money, but, over the last year, the 20-year veteran of yoga teaching found herself researching creative options that would free-up her time to pivot and grow her Ayurveda business without the studio suffering. Then, during a period of teacher turnover, when she was forced to cover more classes per week than she could manage and already scarce time with family diminished, dividing the workload and too-large rent became an urgent priority.

“I just needed the energy to shift,” says Hirschstein, seated on the studio floor she now shares with its former sole occupant: her new business partner, Michael Stein.

Prior to their collaboration, Hirschstein considered converting Jai Ma to either a yoga collective or community-supported enterprise model. According to Christopher Michael, the attorney who helped Deborah Wolk and Miriam Rosetti create New York’s first backcare co-op yoga center last year, Samamkaya, there’s a lesser-known third option.

“Employee-ownership should be mainstream economic activity,” said Michael, who focuses on cooperative finance, community economic development, and labor law at the City University of New York.

Wolk added that she is confident that collaborating with friends, like Hedewig, adding more rentals, and maintaining lots of varied activity will allow their new studio to stay afloat.

As older studios look to soften the blow of an antiquated, vacant-between-classes blueprint, or consider sharing the management burden while transitioning into retirement, Michael believes worker cooperatives can serve as “a strategy to improve the income and financial well-being of yoga studios and practitioners.”

“More yoga teachers and studios these days seem to try to cater to what they think students want, versus teaching the practice in a way that will slowly build the knowledge and skill set of the students,” said Zenyasa Yoga and Wellness’ Jason Ray Brown.

As he sees it, offering something in your neighborhood that isn’t already there is key to being successful in an overly saturated yoga market. “Yoga For Tired People,” for instance, is how his friend Kim Stetz is framing her new studio in the East Village, aptly named Savasana Station.

Zenyasa, co-owned by Brown and his wife Frances, discontinued weekly public classes in February not because they couldn’t compete in this market, but because the building that housed the studio was only open during limited hours, and their lack of practice space and street-level visibility started to hurt their bottom line.

Now the duo focuses on trainings, by-appointment privates and massages, and renting out the space—all decisions they feel are less about dollars and more about sense.

“I’m super happy and much less stressed than I was before,” explained Brown, admitting that they had an initial period of questioning the decision. Both he and Frances still juggle their clients, schedules, and family time, but “no longer preoccupied with all of the myriad responsibilities of being studio owners,” their lives have definitely changed for the better.

—Lacey Seidman

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