by J. Brown
It’s official. I will be closing my yoga center down at the end of this year. The hipster pond that I once helped homestead a decade ago has come to a boil quicker than I could have foreseen, and the only sensible thing to do is come up with an exit plan. Contrary to the common meme though, I don’t think the ‘studio model’ is disappearing.
I always knew that my time for an ending would come. I have witnessed the pattern enough to predict that an operation like mine can only keep pace with the rents for so long before getting priced out. What is surprising is how fast it happens and how hard it is to accept when the numbers turn against you. It’s easy to place blame somewhere. With myself for not running the business better. Or with the NYC real estate market for acting so seemingly against its own interests and humanity. Or with a larger economic system that is based on a grow-or-die model which precludes a healthy stasis for community-supported businesses.
Looking back, the center grew along with the neighborhood for the first seven years. At that point, it reached its full health. I’d like to think that if we could have just stayed there then we would have trucked on forever but that is probably not true. Nothing stays the same for very long and now that I have a front-row seat for what seems like the downfall of independent centers, I can’t help but see it differently.
Riding the wave of yoga into the mainstream also means weathering the crash.
In some circles, I am considered a bit of a throwback to the old days of NYC yoga. Probably because I am often reminiscing about earlier times before yoga went mainstream, and lamenting the direction the industry has gone since. But I now realize that the very thing I have railed against is also what enabled me to live the last ten years entirely on my own terms. The rise in yoga’s popularity, albeit fueled by corporate interests and somewhat at odds with my own sensibilities about yoga, are the coattails I have ridden on nonetheless.
In a way, while the commercial ascendance of yoga classes is only now beginning to recede, early adopters and diehard practitioners have begun quietly re-calibrating and looking for where and when to make their next moves. Many, like myself, are starting to realize that the big city A-markets that once were the coveted spots, no longer offer the same recipe that our initial cakes were baked with. Smaller towns, less affected by gentrification trends, actually allow for the kind of grassroots yoga communities that we hunger for.
The ‘studio model’ is not disappearing, it’s just heading back underground.
Larger chain yoga centers have taken a page from the playbook of big business. Walmart can come into a market and use their scale to outcompete independent players. After the businesses close, they have a lock. Even Amazon, having put mom and pops out of business from a perch online, is now opening actual retail locations in towns left decimated. Granted, these businesses are successful because of the value they offer. However, there is always trade-offs to be had when things become scaled larger than can remain personal.
Of course, chain yoga centers will likely continue to do well in the cities where they have taken hold. But as these cities continue to become less habitable for the bohemians that first make them popular, there is an inevitable exodus of thoughtful yoga center attendees relocating to smaller communities that they can afford and feel more connected to. These places are not really “on the map” for a CorePower or Yogaworks, but are the kind of environments where peer-to-peer yoga best thrives. The old days of indy centers will not be lost to the newer generations of practitioners forever, they are merely undergoing a slow process of receding to the safer grounds in which they can grow once again.
Given the difficulties ahead, imagination and fortitude are required.
Some of this may be only wishful thinking on my part. As I get ready to bid adieu to perhaps the most important thing I have ever done, I can’t help but be hopeful as a matter of survival. Since the news of my decision to close the center was announced, I have seen in the teary gazes of so many friends a palpable anxiety that the beauty and warmth we cherish in these spaces, not felt the same at large chain studios, are becoming a thing of the past, and forces beyond our control are beginning to undermine the foundations of our lives.
But any future I wish to inhabit will not be based in fear. I care too much about life and humanity to let myself succumb to cynicism or a lack of imagination. I choose to trust that, in being brave enough to relinquish outdated means of doing business, we can open ourselves to new possibilities that remain obscured. I, for one, am willing to be so bold as to believe that we have it in our power to fashion things anew.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, podcaster and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com