“If you want to learn how to hate yoga, then open a yoga studio” is a quote that I read in the comments of a YogaDork post earlier this afternoon.
I closed my bootstrapping little space in the wilds of Cleveland’s west side in March.
I’m starting to come around to the love again.
The neighborhood where we opened the studio is the best and (hopefully) the only street in the city where folks looking for prostitutes, used cars and shabby antiques can be fully satisfied in one trip. Nestled between the city’s premier arts district and a quickly expanding market district, Lorain Avenue is the street that is hoped to turn into the living artery between the two.
Our former landlord has been betting on that turnaround for a dozen years or more, and with his commitment to seeing this dream come to fruition in his space, we opened after months of meticulous restoration. We (my partner, co-teachers and I) had high, albeit incredibly naive, hopes for our pop-up studio. I envisioned a space where I could remove pretense as a barrier to entry, contribute to the city’s renaissance while making yoga accessible to one of the city’s most under-served communities.
The space sits empty, just as it had for decades before we arrived.
A net positive experience, I learned more about the business side of yoga than I had imagined possible. Two weeks before I opened the space, I scrambled to fill the spaces in the (already printed) schedule after several teachers bowed out of the project. (Full disclosure: I am pretty sure I offended one of them and they all quit in solidarity. We all say the wrong things sometimes.)
I fielded the call from a crying teacher who was fired from a studio (30 miles away) for being involved with our project as I gave my parents their first look at the space. We hadn’t even opened yet.
I had no idea that the notion of a yoga studio in a blighted neighborhood with a manifesto about actively not selling fancy stretch pants would be considered offensive. My intention was to include all those on the fringe and the margins and the people like me who can’t actually afford to do yoga but need it the most. I was rattled by this, but not exactly apologetic and definitely not surprised, considering the source. That night was the first of many that I lost sleep over the studio.
One of my teachers said two things during my teacher training. I wish I would have listened a little bit closer. The first, if you build it, they won’t always come. The second, you can’t control anyone’s response, only your intention.
Those first weeks, I filled every one of those blank spaces on the schedule. I was slated for about 18 classes a week, many of them unplanned privates and no shows. I sat in the space with five students waiting for a newly hired teacher to show. She never did. I taught that class embarrassed, flustered and angry. Later, I found she was late and thought it appropriate to drove by the space to see if there was anyone waiting outside the studio. I was crushed, disgusted and pissed. I didn’t know a yoga teacher would or could ever make me that angry. These are the tiny things that added up to a staggering sum. I was starting to hate yoga.
I thought I knew the risks, but was blinded by my own naive ideals. I dreamed of this space becoming a model for urban revitalization through yoga in other spaces and cities. I never thought that the experiment would fail, and didn’t know how paralyzing that failure would feel. The risks that we calculate in a business plan don’t account for the raw emotion entangled in investing every available resource into our dreams.
I heard the nay-sayers, the downers and the skeptics tell me that we would never survive there. I didn’t listen until I was holding two jobs simultaneously to help pay the overhead on the space. Those whispers grew a little louder in between the four a.m. siren wails as I curled up on the floor on a stack of mats and props begging for the sweet solace of a real night’s sleep on weeks long stretches of working, teaching and running the space 7 days a week. As I struggled with the burnout, recurring health issues and my own defeated ego, I started to resent the practice. I felt like I had put everything I had into this thing and, just like a self-absorbed lover, it took even more than I was willing to give.
I held on because of the notion that this space could be the change. I held on as my partner and I moved from the loft we couldn’t afford anymore and in with his family. I didn’t want to let anyone else down. I held on for that one lady who drove two hours to meet with me as she transitioned out of her job of decades and into the uncertainty of forced unemployment. I wanted to prove it was possible to follow a dream to its beautiful ends. I held on for those students priced out of regular yoga classes, only to see a few of them on the other side of the high end bar I was tending with a $15 artisan cocktail in hand.
The morning that I announced the closure to all of the teachers and staff that had dedicated their time and energy during that year, I started to feel a sense of resolution tinged with bitter embarrassment and a mass of caustic anxiety. The final straw had happened weeks earlier. My decision to close came with the news that one of our teachers was leaving quite suddenly. A young man had been shot in the back after being robbed four blocks away from our back door. She didn’t feel safe anymore. I didn’t either, but not only because of that incident. I was starting to lose the solace of my practice.
When we announced the closure publicly, I was touched over and over again by the number of supportive, loving emails, calls, texts and drop-ins from the community around me. Each one of those shattered that rough shell and started to let the light shine in again. It was all love, from everywhere.
Right before the final class, I choked through my nerves as the owner of our closest studio neighbor walked through the door. I choked through tears and all of my silly yoga one-liners with the accompaniment breath of the students who joined to celebrate the funeral of a doomed space.
As we settled into the silence after that final om, I repeated the final closing I still use in all of my classes.
May that sound resonate out from here, carrying with it our highest intentions and aspirations for the benefit of all. May all beings, everywhere, be blessed with clarity, compassion, and a liberated heart.
I had to pause multiple times, voice wavering, choking on the permanence of letting go of that naive dream.
A few days later, Theresa, the studio owner who graciously showed her support by simply being present for that final class, offered up a space on her schedule. I was grateful, humbled by this, one of many compassionate offers from studio owners in and around Cleveland inviting me into their spaces to continue my work. I accepted immediately, inspired by her openness, kindness and unsurpassed yogic professionalism. I took the time I needed to mourn and heal from that whirlwind ride, and began teaching a few weeks later.
As I get to know her more each Sunday morning before and after my one weekly class, I am increasingly impressed by her commitment, creativity and resolve. I can identify with her struggles, her celebrations and find a growing expanse of common ground in her passion for the well-being and growth of the yoga community in Cleveland. This is what a studio owner should be like.
I hold her space with even more reverence than I held my own. I have realized that the opportunity to support someone else in their vision is one of most important contributions that I will ever make.
Through her, I continue to learn more about business than I did in a year of owning my own studio. This woman is one of the most driven and passionate that I’ve known. I am honored to call her a friend.
Through the dedication of Marcia and Lizzie, the teachers who were there from the inception to the final day, I learned what commitment looks like.
Through Jesse, the guy who volunteered to teach by donation every Saturday, I learned that the best teachers don’t always look the part.
Through every teacher that I hired, I learned the value of honesty, integrity and compassion.
Through my partner who held my hand and shored up the parts of me that fell apart as our dream crumbled, I learned what the ‘for worse’ part of that sacred vow means. As I fall back in love with my own practice and fill my time with all the things that I sacrificed to realize the dream, I am beginning to see the ‘for better’ part again. (Full disclosure: we aren’t married and I can’t believe he hasn’t kicked me to the curb.)
Through the students I see every Sunday morning, I am reminded of what it means to teach with full intention and attention. It’s through their presence, their curiosity and dedication that I fall in love with this practice again.
Every Sunday, I drive by the ‘For Rent’ sign in that vacant storefront window and realize that experience is knowledge. I realize the merit of leaving a space better than you’d found it. That final day, I had a team of my best friends helping me tear it all down without giving me even a moment to break down myself. Sometimes the most powerful experiences in life are fleeting, and, looking back, I see that, because it was so temporary, it was even more special.
This experience was a reminder to me that the dreams and passions that we share in this life are just that, shared. I write this not as a cautionary tale, rather, as a reminder that we are stronger when we set aside the comparison and the notion of lack and not enough, forget about the idea of competition and stand together as a community for the benefit of all.
In one of the notes that I received after the announcement was made, a simple statement from a woman that I admire (but haven’t met) still resonates: We never really know exactly how we affect the lives of others.
I do know now that when we join others who share a similar vision, our effect is stronger, fuller, multiplied exponentially.
There isn’t room in this life or in this community for anything else.
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