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How Green is Your Studio?

By applying ancient philosophy to today's eco-concerns, yogis are inspiring a sustainable building boom and growing greener practices.

By Charity Ferreira, Victoria Klein, and Jeremy Lehrer

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Flow Yoga Center in Washington, D.C., is an airy, plant-filled oasis, with warm-toned walls, gleaming floors that feel good underfoot, and big windows with colorful curtains that let in lots of light. The studio is also a striking example of sustainable design. From the no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint on its walls and the denim insulation behind them to the Energy Star-rated ceiling fan and low-flow toilets, each element was chosen with the environment in mind. The floors are sustainably harvested bamboo and cork, and Marmoleum. Abundant natural light is supplemented by fluorescent light bulbs. The PaperStone countertop in the bathroom is made with recycled paper. Even the plants—ferns, spider, and bamboo—were chosen for their ability to reduce air pollution.

Owner Debra Perlson-Mishalove's appreciation for nature developed during a childhood spent camping and playing outdoors, but her deeper sense of herself as a steward of the environment came later, as a result of her study of yoga. "As my practice deepened, I became more aware of the interconnectedness and interdependence of life on this small planet," she says. "Yoga offers us a practical philosophy that encourages harmony and consciousness in how we connect with ourselves and the world around us."

Sustainable living is an important part of Perlson-Mishalove's lifestyle (her husband first touched her heart by bringing his own chopsticks and carry-out container to the restaurant on their first date), so when she decided to open her own studio in 2004 in an old D.C. row house that needed a complete renovation, a green build-out was a natural choice.

"Being environmentally conscious is really just being conscious, period," says Perlson-Mishalove, who teaches vinyasa yoga. "It's knowing that my actions have an effect on both me and the world around me, and striving to cause the least possible harm to both."

Perlson-Mishalove's attention to sustainability is not an anomaly in an industry where the concept of ahimsa (nonviolence) is often written into the business plan. Flow Yoga Center is part of the growing trend among yoga studio owners to lessen the impact their studios have on the planet and, some would say, to honor the true roots of yoga. From Sun Salutations Yoga located in a former garage in Buxton, Maine, to Denver-based Core Power Yoga, which has 29 locations across the country, yoga studios are increasingly building—and remodeling—green.

Why Green Yoga?
Yoga and ecology are not a radical pairing. Yoga's connection to the natural world is an inherent one that we are reminded of every time we do a Sun Salutation or Downward Dog, or hear our teacher use words like "root" and "ground." Today's green yoga movement might be best described as a modern manifestation of the ancient practice of yogis living in harmony with their environment.

"Traditionally, all yoga practice was green, with yoga taught and practiced outdoors, perhaps under a tree, either with or without a yoga mat, which would have been made of straw," says Christopher Key Chapple, a professor of Indic and comparative theology and the director of the Yoga Philosophy program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The expanded consciousness we gain in yoga can lead us back to that place of connection, allowing us to experience the interconnectedness of our inner and outer worlds, and then act from that place of connection in our daily lives, says Chapple, who is a founding member of the Green Yoga Association.

While running any business can set you on a collision course with the practices of ahimsa and aparigraha (the yogic precept that suggests cultivating the opposite of greed), studio owners are finding that innovations in green building and design offer the opportunity to imbue the physical aspect of their business with yogic consciousness. For many studio owners, sustainability in their studio design and operations is the obvious, and indeed the only, choice."Most simply, I wanted to have the cleanest breathing space possible, using natural materials as much as we could," says Jill Sockman, owner of Blue Lotus in Raleigh, North Carolina. "When the instructor says, 'Take a deep breath in,' the air our students breathe is clean. When they fold into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), their hands touch down on a natural surface."

Not a Black-and-White Issue
The standard for defining "green" when it comes to certification of new and existing buildings is the national Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. LEED points are based on water and energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and building materials—what they're made of and how far they've traveled. The LEED certification process can be a lengthy proposition requiring a lot of paperwork—a process better suited to large-scale building projects than small businesses. But although LEED certification is beyond the reach of most small studios, many are following similar guidelines in their building and renovating.

Building or renovating a green studio takes research and a willingness to navigate sometimes-conflicting information about what the "best" options are. It can also mean getting your hands dirty, and keeping the faith when contractors don't share the same vision."Our contractor kept asking us why we were using this 'old' wood, and our subcontractor was trying to sell us new laminated flooring," says Gary Margolin, co-owner of Home-Simply Yoga in Santa Monica, California. "We ran into this type of reaction from almost everyone who worked for the project." Margolin insisted, against the contractor's advice, on finishing the salvaged wood floor by hand with natural oils. "We undertook the project as a way of educating our community. As it turned out, I think that we educated most of the workers on the project as well."

Custom Green
For some, opening a green yoga studio is an opportunity to put all of the latest green-building technology into practice. "I was lucky," says Wendy Klein, owner of Nandi Yoga in San Mateo, California. "I was starting from scratch, and I had the time to do the research."

Klein, whose scientist father worked with the Environmental Protection Agency in the 1970s measuring air pollution, searched more than a year for a site that students could get to on foot or by public transportation. Nandi Yoga, certified by the city's award-winning Green Business Program, scored the highest possible marks in audits by county environmental agencies, thanks to features like solar panels for hot water and electricity, and water-and energy-saving appliances.

For others, opening a green studio means getting creative on a budget, going to garage sales and scouring Craigslist. "Many studios can't afford to go green by following a to-do list," says Kate Vogt, green-studio coordinator for the Green Yoga Association, the nonprofit founded in 2006 to help the industry lighten its impact on the environment and reconnect with its green origins. The association's Green Studios initiative has helped hundreds of yoga studios make their structures, interiors, and operations more earth friendly by providing resources, education, and community support.

Recognizing that a full-on green renovation is unaffordable and unnecessary for many studios, Vogt suggests that committing to small daily actions can make a difference. "We encourage studios to view greening as a simple way of being rather than doing. That way, they have the freedom to recognize that the small changes are equally important," she says.

Many of those small changes are easy and inexpensive, as Jasmine Chehrazi, founding director of the nonprofit Yoga District in Washington, D.C., discovered. Yoga District's furniture is almost all secondhand; its hemp yoga straps were sewn by a student; it makes its own mat wash from water and essential oil, uses prop blankets made from remnant fabric, prints on the blank side of used paper donated by local offices, and hangs cloth hand towels rather than paper towels in the bathroom.

"Our main objective was to be low impact, rather than buying our way into a green space with new materials, even if they were eco-friendly materials," says Chehrazi. "Oftentimes buying nothing, using as little as possible, being still, and living gently with awareness can make a big green impact."

Gary Margolin and his wife, Melissa, an interior designer, followed a similar "cradle to grave" model for sustainability when designing Home-Simply Yoga. "The best thing for the environment is to reuse things as much as possible and use things that are reusable after you are gone," Margolin says.

Rather than jackhammer out the space's existing concrete floor to install radiant heat, the Margolins laid a wood subfloor over it in pieces, making channels for the hot-water tubes. They laid salvaged mahogany over the subfloor and tubes, without filling the channels with additional concrete. "The result is very efficient and can be completely removed, so nothing went to a landfill when we came in, and nothing will need to go to a landfill if we leave," Margolin says.

Although budget is often the biggest consideration for a green studio, other factors, like geography and the style of yoga, play a part in determining a studio's priorities. When Sockman opened Blue Lotus, she knew she wanted low-flow plumbing and an on-demand hot-water heater. "We're in a city that is often drought stricken, so water conservation was at the top of my list," she says. Solar panels were a nonnegotiable element for Sylvana Carrara when she opened Bikram Yoga Napa Valley in Napa, California. "Keeping the studio room at 105 degrees each day, seven days a week, is integral to the Bikram practice, but it consumes enormous amounts of energy," she says. "Powering my studio with dirty fossil fuels just wasn't an option."

Size Matters
While small-studio owners tend to make decisions that reflect their personal beliefs and desires, bigger studio chains are equally engaged in bringing yogic consciousness to the building process. Two years ago, Denver-based CorePower Yoga formed its own in-house green-design team. "Now we have control over every aspect of the projects and can really promote green building without having to reeducate every architect we work with," says Trevor Tice, CorePower Yoga's CEO. The company incorporates low-VOC paints and adhesives and locally sourced building materials with recycled content into their construction. Team members build on what they learn, making each new studio potentially greener than the last. "We learn something from each studio we build," Tice says.

By virtue of their size, studios with multiple locations also stand to have a greater impact on the industry. "The scale makes a difference," says Adam Guttentag, the vice president of development and operations of YogaWorks, which has 23 studios on the East and West Coasts. "If a small studio wants to switch to LED lighting, it's a fairly straightforward, low-cost proposition. If you do it at 23 locations, it's a much larger investment."

A Greener Tomorrow
A 2008 green-building survey found that more than 80 percent of commercial-building owners in the United States have allocated funds to green initiatives, and nearly half of those surveyed plan to increase their sustainability investments in 2009. Although yoga studios are just a small part of that number, the green-studio trend is clearly here to stay, as sustainable building materials become more available and the awareness of their importance increases.

"More and more studios are recognizing it's good business to have a green studio," says Peter Sterios, a Santa Monica yoga teacher, green architect, and founder of Manduka, an eco-yoga products company. "There is no turning back. I think the studios that will thrive are going to be the ones that recognize the green trend and integrate it seamlessly into their spaces and operations."

Klein predicts that in the future, many of the green features she incorporated into Nandi Yoga will be mandated by building codes. "Either the government is going to regulate it, or the consumers will insist upon it, but it will happen one way or the other."

Green Space

Green your practice space without major renovations using these simple tips from studio owners around the country.

  • Print class schedules and fliers on recycled paper. Look for paper products that have a high percentage of postconsumer waste.
  • Switch to low-watt, energy-saving light bulbs.
  • Add plants. Besides having a soothing visual effect, houseplants can help clean the air.
  • Use nonchemical cleaning supplies for floors, windows, walls, and bathrooms.
  • When props wear out and need to be replaced, look for ones made from sustainable, degradable materials like natural rubber, cork, cotton, and eco-friendly synthetics.
  • Install water-saving devices at sinks, showers, and toilets.
  • Wash mats with natural soap, or make your own mat wash with water and an essential oil with antibacterial properties, such as tea tree or lavender.
  • Recycle your paper, bottles, and cans.
  • Post public transportation information in your studio and on your website.

September 2009

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