By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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. “We’re a hearty band in Sherwood Forest,” says Lichter.
“This is the global headquarters of Yoga Works,” Wrubel says with a get-the-irony grin, pointing to a mint-green building across the parking lot from Yoga Works’ Main Street studio. Inside sits a small encampment of very clean, empty desks. You get the feeling that most of the operation is roving, from studio to studio and cell phone to cell phone. Blond, affable Wrubel lives in Berkeley and pops down frequently, while Lichter does much of the day-to-day negotiations.
So far their formula has worked, at least on paper: July numbers at their Orange County locations jumped from 9,166 student visits to 15,168 in two years. At Mark Stephens’ former L.A. Yoga Center, they went from 2,600 in July 2003 to 3,395 in July 2004. Yoga Time, now Yoga Works Beverly Hills, also saw more than a 50 percent increase in a single year. Despite this hike, the Beverly Hills location has been shut down to avoid a looming permit fight with the city. Yoga Works has also just initiated a $1 price increase for all individual classes in Los Angeles.
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. Their easy camaraderie borders on shtick as they stroll down Main Street, decrying the evils of Wal-Mart.
When asked how can they be anti-Wal-Mart and still spread faster than wildfires in Julian, Lichter is ready for this question. “Because 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,” he 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.
When a sandwich joint proves too noisy for an interview, Lichter gets hepped up about the prospect of pizza. Pizza is food for the common man, and Lichter, ’60s protester, Woodstock-goer, wearer of casual cotton shirts and athletic pants, considers himself the common man’s chief ally. He parries the accusations against Yoga Works with a shield of liberal intent.
“If anything, we’re one of the solutions, not the problem,” he says, taking a bite of a mushroom slice. “One of the hard parts for Rob and me is that we’ve been at the front of every rally. I’m the one with a picket sign in my hand. All of a sudden to have this same language that I use when I’m fighting for the left turned on me . . . it’s awkward.”
But if Yoga Works has spotless intentions, how come a Yoga Works employee was caught scouting for instructors at a small studio on La Brea?
Both men look puzzled. “If anything, people come to us looking for jobs,” says Lichter.
Wrubel: “Have we sent someone into a local studio with a great set of instructors to say, ‘We’ll offer you a better deal at Yoga Works’? Never done it.”
I think Jesse did go out looking for some people,” Lichter says.
“She went to some classes . . .”
“She did take classes, but what’s being described sounds more organized,” Lichter frowns. “It’s not like what the health clubs are doing. You know they have a grid, a big matrix, with all the instructors up on it.”
But Lichter’s theory, however accurate, doesn’t jibe with a well-kept secret divulged by two former employees: One of Yoga Works’ chief investors is affiliated with 24 Hour Fitness.
When pressed on this, Lichter says, “He’s committed to the cause. There are just people who do yoga and love yoga.”
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.