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Free-Market Yoga

Yoga Works is quickly becoming the first major nonfranchised studio chain in america—and while some yogis are nervous, others are delighted. what Does its expansion mean for you and your town?

By Laura Shin

A new, $30,000 ballet-quality wood floor—the kind with springboard underneath—was the first change that student Junis Roberts noticed when Yoga Works bought New York's Be Yoga in July 2004. "Instead of a dirty old carpet, we now have a beautiful wood floor. I'm thrilled," says Roberts, who has attended classes at Be's midtown Manhattan studio for seven years. The only other difference she noticed was minor: Teachers had a new name, Half Moon, for a pose previously called Crescent. All in all, she felt good about the change.

Around the same time, David Bilgre, a student at LA Yoga Center, which became Yoga Works Westwood last May, was noticing less positive changes. The desk staff no longer knew his name, there was less individual attention in classes, and his teacher, the studio's founder, Mark Stephens, had agreed not to teach public classes in Los Angeles for two years as a condition of the sale. "I went to Mark's class several times a week," Bilgre says. "He knew my practice, and he helped me grow unlike any other teacher I've had." Bilgre says the initial effect of Yoga Works' purchase of Stephens's studio was "traumatic."

There are probably as many reactions to Yoga Works' rapid expansion as there are students attending Yoga Works classes each month—and that's a big number, about 15,000. (Full disclosure: As a substitute teacher at L.A.'s Center for Yoga during its purchase by Yoga Works, I also had mixed emotions.) There are currently more than a dozen Yoga Works studios in Southern California and metropolitan New York, which together serve up more than 1,000 classes a week and employ more than 250 yoga teachers.

Sure, other studios are sprouting new branches: Yoga Tree has four centers in San Francisco and 7,000 students per month, Cyndi Lee's Om Yoga serves 4,000 students per month at three studios in New York, and Yoga Yoga's three locations in Austin, Texas, handle 3,000 students. Yoga Works is not only larger, it's the first to try consolidating schools across the nation to create a multimillion-dollar business. The company—once a two-studio affair started by respected Ashtanga Yoga teachers Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty and now run by two former dot com executives—has plans to open or purchase several more studios in 2005 in Los Angeles, northern San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, and cities in the Southwest. Yoga Works is, essentially, America's first major nonfranchised yoga studio chain.

Not surprisingly, some yogis are uncomfortable with such an openly commercial enterprise. Many question whether the essence of the teachings can be transmitted if classes become generic or overcrowded and companies fixate on the bottom line. At the same time, others are excited about the prospect of more people discovering yoga or about the benefits of taking a class at a large, well-run studio. No doubt, the commercialization of yoga has been debated since the first time money was traded for an asana lesson. The Yoga Works chain is simply the latest project to fuel the debate. Before judging, though, it's valuable to understand why Yoga Works is growing and how its expansion could affect the way yoga is practiced in America.

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