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By Jill Stewart
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Everyone agrees that yoga will evolve in the United States, but differences arise when they discuss how. This fall, as Liberation Yoga and Yoga Works’ Center for Yoga throw open houses to attract students, the Kundalini yogis of Golden Bridge, located adjacent to the ArcLight Cinema, are putting the finishing touches on a serene 1933 Hollywood warehouse that will feature four studios, retail space, a wellness center, tea garden and vegetarian cafĂ©. A spiritually soaked practice that emphasizes repetitive motions and chanting, Kundalini doesn’t get the fad fitness traffic of Flow yoga, but Golden Bridge proprietors Gurmukh and Gurushabd are still making savvy moves to secure their following.
“Kundalini is very different. It’s a lifestyle choice and it’s not for everyone,” explains Gurushabd, his royal-blue turban soaking up the diffuse glow of his future atrium. “In addition to the teaching, we wanted to provide all the other support that’s needed for people’s transformation.”
He insists that the mall-like scope of his plan emerged only after he found the building and knew it was the one for Golden Bridge, even if they had to raise $1.5 million to do it. “It’s God’s project, not my project.” He puts on his sunglasses to block the white light from nearby welders. “It’s His will that we create a space for people to awaken their souls.”
Gurushabd’s righteous attitude underscores the deep ideological differences underlying the turf war between Yoga Works and the independents. They’re not just battling over students but rather whose business model is more yogic. Is it the small-studio approach where instructors are free to define their own teaching styles and locations but have no real job security or health benefits? Or the Yoga Works method, which offers health insurance, paid time off, retail discounts and opportunities for career growth to instructors who teach eight or more classes — but insists on a codified teaching practice, squeezes out independents, and underpays staff and less popular teachers? Is it more ahimsa to protect diversity or protect your own?
Former Center for Yoga owner and current director Lisa Haase opted for the latter. Describing the center’s sudden financial spiral, she closes both hands around a cup of mint tea and draws it toward her, speaking into the steam.
When she bought the studio in 2001, it flourished in the peaking yoga market. “The infrastructure was strong, the aesthetics got better . . . ,” she says. “And then I surprisingly got pregnant.”
After Haase gave birth to a son, she promoted Burke and Alison Crowley, the marketing director, to help McCleery run the studio while she cared for her newborn. The threesome became the public faces of the center, operating everything from retail ordering to bookkeeping to washing yoga mats.
Haase says that about a year ago the center’s financial status started to change. Enrollment for free monthly demos dropped, merchandise sat longer on the shelves, and new students stopped pouring through the door.
She attributes the drought to the usual suspects — gyms and the oversaturation of studios — yet a range of instructors, staffers and students have described Haase’s business approach as “mismanaged,” “benignly chaotic” and “disorganized,” and Haase herself as “cold” and “distant,” reputations that may have contributed to the erosion. In addition, the center’s old building, a former Masonic temple with clanking water pipes and creaking floors, has a well-used air that may have put off the trend chasers. “People expect these spalike conditions now,” says instructor Lucy Bivins.
As the studio began to drift toward the red, Haase made small cuts in marketing and staff, but did not want to put full-timers out of work. “Things got tighter and tighter, and I realized I had a choice: to lay off my staff and come back to work full time or find another solution.” So she started to cast around for a business partner. “And when all this started hitting, I was pregnant again,” she adds, her eyebrows arching.
Although Haase found a number of interested inside investors, some balked when she told them she only wanted a silent partner. Others shied from the financial risk — the studio’s lease is due to expire in three and a half years.
Over the winter, Yoga Works called. At first, Haase didn’t seriously consider the chain’s interest in the studio, but she soon began to see it as the best prospect for saving the center. Talks accelerated as another payroll loomed and she had no money to cover it. Before Haase signed a letter of intent, however, she hammered out her priorities: to retain the center’s name, to give the center long-term financial security, to keep her teachers’ situations the same, and to ensure the jobs of her full-time staff.
Although the first three items have been accomplished, the latter is a matter of debate. The new owners immediately offered McCleery his same position but axed Burke’s and Crowley’s jobs, providing them only vague employment possibilities — and not at the center, where the two desperately wanted to stay. “We built this studio every day. This was our family,” says Burke. “I didn’t want to work in an administrative job somewhere else.” After spending 15 years combined inside the peaceful caverns of the center, Burke and McCleery quit.