Creating Your Niche


By Tevis Gale  |  

Yoga for Depression. Yoga and Chocolate. Yoga for Golf. With such titles littering
the schedules of studios and retreat centers, it doesn’t require marketing
genius to notice that subspecializations are a rising trend in yoga.

“With the huge wave of teacher trainings, many practitioners are now
teachers who want to live and breathe yoga. They want to make their passion
their work. The natural outgrowth is for each of us to ask ourselves, ‘What
do I have that I can offer?’ rather than just replicating what is already out
there,” says Traci Childress, yoga teacher and program coordinator at
the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. The resulting specialization can
take one of many forms, from focus on a therapeutic application of yoga to
concentrating on an element of the practice. It can integrate yoga with elements
of Western culture or address a single demographic.

True to the nature of yoga, these relevant but varied interpretations have
always existed. What is new is the diversity in yoga’s positioning in the world.
This raises philosophical questions and invites self-inquiry. Is specialization
a simply a marketing tactic? Is it outreach serving the growth of yoga and
the students? Does it bastardize the practice? Is specialization economically
beneficial? Exactly when do we know we are qualified to be the expert?

Passion Becomes You

Amy Weintraub’s work with depression is remarkable: Open the pages of leading
retreat centers, and it’s likely Weintraub will be on the schedule. From the
student-oriented “Breathe to Beat the Blues” to the practitioner-centric “Yoga
for Depression,” her work encompasses classes, a CD, workshops, articles,
a book, and multiple teacher trainings.

This niche is a marketing no-brainer. The sheer volume of advertising for
antidepressants alone attests to the value of serving this population. After
all, companies wouldn’t clamor to capture the market without a profit motive.
But Amy’s motivation had nothing to do with economics, and everything to do
with her life. “Prior to 1992, I was a depressed journalist with seven
unsuccessful novels to my credit,” she explains. “With yoga, I found
new life.”

Her journey began with teacher training at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health
in Lenox, Massachusetts. Convinced the training had helped her own fog to lift,
she deepened her skills by studying internationally with various masters in
Pranayama, kriya, and nada yoga. “It never occurred to me that I was doing
something different,” she says. “Specializing in this was just me
being me.” Compelled to share her findings, she penned “Yoga: The
New Prozac
” for Yoga Journal. From that initial article, the first workshop
was born.

Over the past 15 years, she has evolved ways to use yoga as a source of relief,
both for those experiencing depression and for those teachers who serve them.
Her work has benefited yoga as well, as is evidenced by the volume of laudatory
articles featuring her in both the yoga and the mainstream press. Now when
Weintraub speaks at professional seminars, psychotherapists and other health
workers actually earn CEUs for attending. “In the ’70s and ’80s I was
a consumer of mental health services, and now I am considered a leader in the
field,” she says.


East Meets West

Even when driven by passion, the niche offering might not always be universally
well received. Such has been the experience of David Romanelli. Eight years
ago, while he was working for an agent representing Shaquille O’Neal, a friend
urged him to try yoga. He did, and fell in love. “From that first class,
I felt driven to get yoga to as many people as I possibly could,” he muses.
He left his job, abandoned L.A., and started At One Yoga, now a leading studio
in Phoenix.

Beyond his contribution to Arizona’s yoga landscape, Romanelli has drawn attention
for his workshop topics, including Yoga and Chocolate, and Yoga and Wine. Fascinated
by trends within pop culture, he explains, “I honor people where they
are by wrapping yoga in different sensibilities and language so people can
relate to it. My passion is how relevant and integrated yoga can be with peoples’
lives.”

The pop-culture allure of Romanelli’s workshops has won him the spot as mind/body
expert on Yahoo! Health. In addition, he has appeared in The New York Times
and Chicago Tribune, in O Magazine, and on CBS News. Not surprisingly, controversy
has followed. “Despite great press coverage and attracting newcomers to
yoga, the criticism can be vicious,” he says.

Romanelli feels critics overlook the fact that he integrates popular cultural
elements with yoga to reveal the sacred. Yoga and Chocolate emphasizes the
ancient symbolism of the cocoa bean, examines the chemical and sensate impact
upon the body, and pays respect to the modern-day mystique. In Yoga and Wine, “we
support deeper meaning in celebration, including raising the glass in a sacred,
ritualistic way. We also explore wine as a metaphor for how to view aging.” With
Yoga and Country Music next on his agenda, Romanelli will emphasize the mystical
aspects of Christianity in country music and underscore yoga’s traditional
values to integrate and reveal the philosophical consistencies between the
two. To him, this work is yoga. “I want to show people that yoga is completely
accessible and makes sense no matter who you are,” he explains.

Profiting and Proliferating

You don’t have to have an MBA to be smart about your business. In both her
teaching and her business management, Ann Dyer draws from her 20-year career
as a vocalist. She integrated music into her classes from the moment she started
teaching yoga, eight years ago. Now a national presenter in nada yoga, her
work has flourished and includes retreats, workshops, classes, and conventions.
Next she will launch a “workshop-in-a-box—something to take home
to keep the practice alive.”

A savvy businesswoman, her advice is clear. “Think of yourself as content.
What are the avenues through which you can distribute yourself? DVDs, conferences,
retreats, recordings, essays, journalistic publishing, workshops, classes,
public speaking, posters—what are the many forms? Each has strengths
and weaknesses. Construct a life in which one supports the other. Take a look
to ensure that the pieces make sense in terms of your life as a teacher and
in terms of the experience of the students.”


Often the roots of regular teaching remain. Many specialists continue “regular” classes
to complement their big picture. “When someone takes my Yoga for Singles
retreat, they deepen their relationship with themselves, and then they’re off
to live their lives,” comments Debi DiPeso, owner of Bliss Yoga Center
in Woodstock, New York. “Teaching regular classes, I see many students
every week, often for many years. The evolution possible with weekly contact
is rewarding in a really different way.”

It makes business sense as well. Economically, it provides a steady income
flow while serving as a great platform for recruitment of participants in your
niche offering. Weekly classes are also a laboratory for new ideas and allow
for refinement of skills in the art of teaching itself.

Ready, Set, Go

Creating a niche is a passion-driven process, evolving from the study of multiple
related topics and their synthesis into something new. Reflecting with gratitude
upon her path of intensive study with Indian voice masters, mantra masters,
kirtan leaders, and western vocalists, Ann Dyer says, “Eventually, like
all really great teachers, we have to take on the task of becoming who we are,
to allow that to unfold, rather than mimicking our mentors.” In a tradition
that alternately champions transmission from a teacher and affirms the wisdom
of each individual, it can be intimidating to give yourself permission to step
forward as a niche “expert.” Meditation teacher Sally Kempton offers
the following self-inquiry for such situations.

  1. Do I have the adhikara (authority) to teach this?

    This refers to the technical knowledge to skillfully address the potential needs of your students. It indicates your foundational understanding of and commitment to yoga and asks if your intention, scope of study, and knowledge in the niche confers authority.
  2. What is appropriate in this circumstance and for these students?

    Teaching is a dance between the knowledge of the teacher and the readiness of the student. Challenge your niche to best serve the needs of the student. For example, though Yoga for Singles could have been yoga speed-dating, DiPeso used it as an opportunity to explore a deeper concept: each student’s relationship with him- or herself.
  3. Will sharing my knowledge in this context be emotionally satisfying to me?

    Choosing our teaching environments wisely is less a function of the wallet than a function of the heart. The most glaring need for yoga is not worth addressing if it does not awaken shakti (power) within the teacher; the outcome will be disappointing for all involved.
Be Careful What You Niche

Paul Toliuszis, co-owner of Miami Yoga Shala, has been on both sides of the
equation. Within a year of becoming a full-time teacher, he combined his passions
by using yoga to enhance his golf performance. A pioneer of vinyasa in south
Florida through his classes and teacher trainings, he built a very successful
franchise in Yoga for Golf between 1998 and 2004. It included retreats, work
with recognized golf professionals, and several highly profitable Yoga for
Golf
videos.


Grateful for the learning and success, Toliuszis no longer wants to be identified
with only one population. “For new teachers, specialization can be good.
It can really help to find a niche. But now I want to serve everyone.” Benefits
aside, he counsels that niche associations can be hard to shake. When he recently
pitched himself to the director of scheduling for a retreat center, he was
greeted with, “Oh, you’re the Yoga for Golf guy.” Only time and new
positioning will change that perception.

Your Bottom Line

Let passion determine whether you create a niche, and let study feed your
evolution. Just as rushing a pose can result in injury, the heartache of rushing
your evolutionary process is avoidable. Resist any urgency to distinguish yourself
in what seems like a crowded market. Your teaching is a work of self-expression
in progress. In the words of Omega’s Traci Childress, “When teachers meld
yoga with their vision for social change, the result creates momentum for transformation
in the world. The world needs this kind of engaged practice!”

Combining a lifelong passion for yoga with 13 years of experience as a corporate
executive, Tevis Gale teaches Corporate Yoga nationwide. She lives and writes
in New York City.