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Everything’s Not Zen

Photos by Gregory Bojorquez

The door to the roof of Larchmont’s Center for Yoga bears the stark warning: RADIO FREQUENCY FIELDS BEYOND THIS POINT MAY EXCEED THE PUBLIC EXPOSURE LIMIT.

Beyond looms the new Cingular tower — a simple, seemingly innocuous three-sided white fort. Then you notice the unpleasant hum and the glut of wires running across the tarpaper, each the thickness of a child’s arm.

Installed in late 2003, the cell-phone tower has become an unhappy symbol for the Center for Yoga’s recent surrender to the corporatization of the trend it helped to create. Founded by yoga luminary Ganga White in 1967, the center is the oldest studio in Los Angeles, a major training school and among the first global pioneers of an independent, eclectic approach. In addition to bringing multiple branches of yoga under one roof, it hybridized them, taking rigorous practices like Ashtanga and Iyengar and blending them into a Western smoothie called “Flow.”

But the center’s rich blossoming carried the seeds of its own demise. Flow has been co-opted by gyms and studios to become one of the most popular styles of yoga nationwide. Numerous center graduates have opened their own successful operations in Los Angeles, and the institution’s renowned teacher training is no longer an exclusive commodity. Crippled by debt and its failure to react to the rapidly changing business climate, in late April the Center for Yoga sold out to Yoga Works, a chain that in one year has spread from two locations in Santa Monica to 11 studios in Los Angeles and Orange County and five around the country — and counting.

At the center, the fallout from the sale to Yoga Works — considered the new Starbucks of yoga in some devotees’ eyes — was fast and furious. Teachers made warning announcements in classes, staffers quit, notes sprouted on bathroom walls, and rumors flew: When it takes over an existing studio, Yoga Works lowers many salaries (true). Yoga Works asks that its teachers sign a non-compete contract (true). Yoga Works is now fronted by two Internet entrepreneurs who have told teachers to jump aboard now because “soon, students will have to choose between us and Bally’s,” and it intends to spread nationwide (true, true, true).

Also true: Yoga Works has one of the best teacher trainings in the country, a devoted student following, and gorgeous locations — and the last three owners to sell to Yoga Works did so almost gratefully.

“Yoga is confrontational,” said instructor Christine Burke as she strode across the center’s golden floor during one of her last classes there in July. “Because it’s peaceful, people think it’s passive, but yoga is one of the most confrontational practices there is.” The balance between confrontation and peacefulness weighed heavily on Burke’s mind as she and her husband, Gary McCleery, departed the center this summer to open their own studio on La Brea. A fine-boned, freckly brunette who lifts her chin when she speaks with conviction, Burke spent six years on staff at the center, McCleery nine, and following a tumultuous spring, they moved on.

After class, a line of Burke’s fans trailed back through the center’s retail area. Pastel Yoga Works fliers now clutter the wall near a rainbow of new apparel, the few visible signs of the shift in ownership. But the real changes at the center have to do with how the former independent is now positioned in the yoga world. As Burke thumped out into the street in heavy sandals, confiding in hushed tones about modifications to her new studio’s schedule, Yoga Works people were meeting in New York to discuss a merger with Alan Finger’s BeYoga chain, which has four locations in Manhattan.

The differences in scale are what frighten local independents and their constituencies. “The smaller studios have a right to be paying close attention to what Yoga Works is doing right now,” comments editor of L.A. Yoga Julie Deife. “It’s never been done.”

 

Yoga may be confrontational as Burke said, but it has also been a bit oedipal in Los Angeles. Back in the 1980s, an Israeli yoga teacher named Maty Ezraty was living at the Center for Yoga when Alan Finger invited her to move across town and open Yoga Works in Santa Monica.

Under Ezraty’s and later her partner Chuck Miller’s keen business eye, Yoga Works developed two popular studios and a flock of star teachers.

Then, just as yoga’s taut-bellied bodies began to seduce mainstream audiences, several stars left on negative terms. Some departed because their teaching styles conflicted with Yoga Works, others over compensation, and one because he was forbidden to have a romantic relationship with the general manager. They launched their own operations — Sacred Movement, Maha Yoga, Forrest Yoga Circle, L.A. Yoga Center and others — each settling in painfully close proximity to Yoga Works.

 

“That tremendously increased Chuck and Maty’s concern and paranoia,” says Mark Stephens, the former owner of L.A. Yoga Center, now Yoga Works’ Westwood location.

Stephens claims that as teachers and their students started to peel away, Yoga Works’ business practices began to change. Yoga Works was the first and still one of the few studios to force teachers to sign non-compete contacts that restricted them from teaching at competitors’ locations within a strict radius. (When he sold L.A. Yoga Center, Stephens signed away his own right to teach at any Los Angeles studio, gym or private class of more than two people for two years.) The chain also required that every teacher take the same training with a standardized approach that blends three main traditions — Ashtanga, Iyengar and Viniyoga — includes an emphasis on basic safety, and uses the same language to describe the asanas, or postures.

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.”

“Wait, wait.

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.

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 café. 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.

Months later, Haase has returned to full-time work and is pleased that the studio has finally received a fresh coat of paint and repairs to its perpetually broken men’s bathroom. Center instructors are currently not eligible for Yoga Works’ benefits and some salaries have been lowered, but, at Haase’s request, they also have not been asked to sign exclusivity contracts. This fall, Yoga Works’ Lisa Walford will join longtime center trainer Diana Beardsley in teaching the philosophy section at the instructor training. The two women took their very first class together at Center for Yoga back in the 1980s. “I see the Center and Yoga Works as a marriage of two families,” Walford says. “It takes a while for families to get to know each other, but it will happen, with mutual understanding and respect.”

Meanwhile Burke and McCleery have bought YMI Studio on La Brea, renaming it and bringing Crowley along to work with them. Liberation Yoga has the outward trappings of a potential success: valet parking, a graceful garden, and a good location on the fancy furniture strip. But for the trio, deep physical and spiritual teaching is the heart of the studio — and of liberation itself. “We want to create a space for people where they will have our respect and trust to realize themselves,” Burke says. “Yoga’s not about the answers but the questions.”

One question that lingers is whether things have worked out best for the center. “I have received many calls from students and teachers connected to the center, and most of them have been negative about the changes,” comments founder Ganga White. “Yoga is in a time of great growth, change and mutation. Mutations can be evolutionary or detrimental. I hope [the center] maintains the broad and open-minded perspective for which it has become known and respected.”

Before Yoga Works acquired the Center for Yoga, the Larchmont location had one of the highest numbers of monthly student visits of any single studio: 5,135 in July 2003. The visits have inched up 7 percent to 5,488 this year, not the dramatic climb of other Yoga Works acquisitions, especially when you consider that students with Yoga Works passes can now take classes there for free. While the center’s status seems more or less secure for now, it remains to be seen if the studio will become emblematic of American yoga’s future or its past.

“Los Angeles today is to yoga what Paris in the 1920s was to literature and art,” says instructor Sydney Coale Light, who left Yoga Works because of its business practices.

 

“Some of the best teachers in the world are centered here, and this is a highly creative moment. Whenever you have enormous creativity and growth, there’s a lot of power, and people like George Lichter are attracted to it. But I don’t see Yoga Works as an evil empire.

I see their actions as a huge opportunity for teachers to ask themselves ‘Is this how we want the yoga world to run?’ and then take it to the next place.”

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