Yoga Works has become such a powerful presence in Southern California—and in the American yoga world—that it's hard to remember that founder Maty Ezraty bucked all conventional wisdom when she opened the studio 12 years ago.
"I was the laughing stock of the yoga community," says Maty, who founded the center in upscale Santa Monica. "Everyone told me the rents were too high, the neighborhood was too trendy, and I had spent much too much on art and decor. But I wanted to make the studio look so nice you felt good when you were here. I tried to gather the best teachers in the city and opened with a variety of classes. No one I knew offered such an eclectic program at the time. People didn't expect us to last a year."
Far from fading from the scene, Yoga Works now has two facilities and offers 150 classes a week, employing 35 teachers plus more than 30 other workers who do everything from accounting to organizing workshops to staffing the front desk.
Yoga Works's five levels of hatha yoga classes draw primarily from the Ashtanga vinyasa teachings of Pattabhi Jois, Iyengar Yoga, and Viniyoga. Most classes combine elements of all three practices in a flowing style that links asanas together in long, continuous series. In addition, Yoga Works presents frequent workshops with some of the most celebrated yogis in the world, including Kofi Busia, John Friend, Shandor Remete, Richard Freeman, Rodney Yee, Gabriella Giubilaro, Aadil Palkhivala, Dona Holleman, Patricia Walden, Erich Schiffmann, Donna Farhi, Gary Kraftsow, and John Schumacher. The studio also features workshops with staff teachers—such as "Study of Yoga Sutras" with Paul Cabanis and a workshop for women over 40 led by Chris Stein—plus a number of off-site retreats such as "Yoga and Rock Climbing" at Joshua Tree National Park with staff teacher Shiva Rea.
Finding a Home
Maty founded Yoga Works when she was just 24. Although she'd been teaching part time for three years, she didn't envision the studio as a venue for just her own teaching. She simply loved yoga and wanted to create a warm and welcoming home where she and others could learn and share the practice.
Shortly after the center opened, Maty met Chuck Miller (her partner in Yoga Works and life) in a workshop taught by Pattabhi Jois. Chuck asked her out for breakfast, and they've been together ever since.
Chuck, who was living in Aspen, Colorado, at the time, had quit his job as a carpenter to assist and study with Jois, as he always did when his master came to America. (Today Chuck is one of a handful of senior North American Ashtanga teachers recommended by Jois.)
Chuck resisted moving to Los Angeles, so together he and Maty tried to set up a yoga center in Aspen. It didn't work; the population base was just too small. So, with great reluctance, Chuck agreed to come to L.A.—but only for two months. He extended his visit for another month. That month has now turned into 12 years.
With her small stature, slim hips, and long dark braids, Maty could still be mistaken for the 20-something who first dreamed up Yoga Works; Chuck, with his long reddish hair and beard, still looks like the mountain man he is at heart. When asked why they think Yoga Works is so successful, Chuck answers immediately, "We were willing to work 80 or 90 hours a week. Now we're finally trying to cut back."
"And we respond to the needs of the community," Maty chimes in, noting their many special interest offerings, which include prenatal and postnatal classes, "Mommy-N-Me," and "Yoga for Kids." They also offer classes like "Relax Deeply," where busy people can replenish themselves through restorative yoga, and "Easy Does It," a very gentle, therapeutically oriented class for students with injuries and other special health concerns.
"From the beginning," Maty adds, "I wanted to create a space where great teachers from all over the world would want to come and give workshops. That takes a lot of preparation. We have two full-time staff members making arrangements, designing flyers, and sending out mailings. But it's fun to have a relationship with teachers who come back again and again."
The workshops also help strengthen the cornerstone of Yoga Works: its teacher training program. Although Yoga Works has always had good teachers, Maty was concerned about the lack of a clear, consistent standard for yoga teacher training. She wanted to be sure Yoga Works teachers knew what they were doing, had a high level of personal practice, and "were teaching from joy."
So a year after opening the studio, she inaugurated a training program. Today, the program begins with a six-weekend course taught by Maty and certified Iyengar instructor Lisa Walford. Students learn the theory and practice of asanas, study Pranayama as the subtle thread that connects us all with universal consciousness, and get a basic overview of the other "limbs" of yoga described almost 2,000 years ago by the sage Patanjali as steps to personal freedom and self-knowledge.
In addition, students consider such distinctly modern aspects of yoga teaching as the psychology of the student-teacher relationship and the prevention and treatment of injuries. But Maty stresses that the six-week course is only a beginning. Of the more than 400 students to go through this course, fewer than 15 have gone on to receive certification from Yoga Works.
To gain that certification, the student must assist in classes for six months with a senior teacher at the school (there are seven) and participate in prenatal and "Easy Does It" classes to understand how to work with beginners. Students working toward certification are also required to take a minimum of 80 hours of workshops with senior teachers, including at least one Iyengar-based teacher-training workshop. This year, for the first time, applicants must take a philosophy class and pass a written test. Next year, Yoga Works plans to require an additional 20 class hours on the anatomy of movement. Finally, after completing all this class work, the applicants for certification are tested by teaching a half-hour class in front of a panel of senior Yoga Works teachers.
"It's not an easy program," Maty admits. Eleven people took the certification test this year and only three passed. "But I'll tell you one thing, when they do finally get that certificate, they're good. This certification means something."
Yogic Business Values
Along with promoting their teachers' growth, Maty and Chuck try to take care of the center's other workers. Yoga Works is one of the few centers to offer health insurance to full-time staff.
"We want to try to make this a model," says Chuck. "We need to find joy in helping. If a yogi can't do that, then what hope is there? Some people think yoga shouldn't be a business, but we can't offer these benefits unless we run it on a businesslike basis." They are also looking into the feasibility of starting a 401K retirement plan.
"We have a great staff," Maty says. "We want to keep them, and keep them happy."
Maty invites me to visit her Level 2 & 3 class in their new center on Main Street in Santa Monica, just two blocks from the Pacific Ocean. Standing in front of the colorful little cement-block building with its cheerful yellow paint, I inhale deeply. The ocean breeze, fresh and nourishing, fills my lungs.
Inside, the stress of the traffic drops from my shoulders. The bare-bones building is softened with lots of wood and natural light. Chuck, the former carpenter, designed a carved reception desk made of golden maple to greet the students, and varnished maple shelves to display candles, books, CDs, T-shirts, and more. Geometric rugs in primary colors are spread out on the floor. The ceiling has been taken out, exposing the bare beams, and—a real plus for any yoga studio—there are showers in the changing area. Although it's a weekday morning, the lobby is quickly filling up.
The studio space here is booked nonstop from 6:30 in the morning until nine at night. As soon as the previous class breaks up, we enter the large sun-lit studio, bright with skylights and white walls and a burnished hardwood floor. Five minutes later Maty's class begins.
The Yoga Works brochure says, "Level 2 & 3 classes build heat and stamina through Sun Salutations and standing poses. Intermediate backbends and inverted poses are regularly practiced. Students will find these classes creative, challenging, and stimulating."
Build heat we do, as, after some focusing and breathing exercises, we jump through Sun Salutations, going from Down Dog to Chaturanga Dandasana again and again and again. Just as I am beginning to feel my arms turn into spaghetti, Maty moves us on to the standing poses. I look around. Am I the only one sweating? No, the woman next to me shines with a fine layer of perspiration. Maty and her assistant circle the room, quietly adjusting an arm here, the curve of a back there. Even though there are 25 students, we're all being watched carefully. I realize I'm safe to explore my edges in the pose, secure that Maty will warn me if I'm in danger of overbending my back or twisting my knee. As we go up into elbow stand, a pose I have yet to master, Maty says, "Don't worry. Do what you can. Just keep practicing, and it will come to you."
Although Maty doesn't claim to teach the Iyengar method, she employs many of its techniques: emphasis on proper alignment, a skillful use of props, and individualized modification of poses for some students. Along with her borrowings from Iyengar and the strong influence of Pattabhi Jois's Mysore-style (self-paced) Ashtanga practice, Maty also incorporates what she has learned from the many important teachers who come through the studio.
After the class, we visit the Yoga Works center on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica. Here, classes begin at 6:30 a.m. with Chuck's Mysore-style Ashtanga class, which he tries to offer in a way that will not intimidate even a total beginner. Chuck says he teaches Ashtanga as he learned it from Pattabhi Jois, and he sees himself as a conduit, passing on to a new generation what he learned from his teacher. Every student works at his or her own pace as Chuck moves through the room, guiding the newer students, whispering the moves in their ears until they have learned the routine. "It's like a private class, but with the energy and support of the group," he says.
Chuck believes gradual progress in a safe environment eventually empowers students to develop an independent practice. "It's too bad that Ashtanga is viewed by so many people as a new kind of aerobics," he says, "because it's so much more. The class attracts its share of physical fitness enthusiasts—what Maty calls the Triple A—type personalities-but when it's practiced properly, Ashtanga is internal, a mental cleaning. The body is the repository of all our thoughts, and by working with the body, we're freeing the mind."
Yoga Works started here in one room, and now occupies the entire second floor, with two large studios, off-street parking, and a beautifully laid out shop. But the business hasn't always been so solid. In 1995, it all came tumbling down, literally. Earthquake inspectors discovered the building had been so severely damaged in the 1994 temblor that they shut down the studio, only allowing staff limited access to retrieve crucial records and equipment.
Many schools would have gone under. But Maty and Chuck, working around the clock, found a structurally sound building about 10 minutes away, contacted their students, and within a week were able to resume classes, even as they consulted on the renovations needed for their original space.
"Sometimes people don't understand how hard it is to keep a center going," Maty says. "But it provides a resource, a stable place for teachers and students to come and work with their yoga. And once it's set in motion, it takes on a life of its own."
"Running the business is like riding a giant flying dragon," Chuck says. "We're holding on to the tail feathers, pretending to drive. What we want to do is get on the back and enjoy the ride. Fortunately Maty has a real talent for the business end. I'm hopeless at it."
"He's my anchor," Maty responds. "Chuck is the real yogi. He always has the best interests of yoga in his mind."
"Maybe you're the dragon."
By now they're finishing each other's sentences, with Chuck providing the poetic flourishes.
"It's like opening a restaurant," he says. "It can be beautifully decorated, have fine music, but it won't be a success unless it has a great menu. Maty is very talented in creating that menu. She has all these different classes and workshops that seem to flow into one another."
Maty has been approached many times to franchise the business, but says she has no interest in becoming the McDonald's of yoga. "Every school has to develop its own teachers, its own atmosphere. Just as the best restaurants are unique, so are the best schools. Chains become sterile and boring."
By now it's almost 4 p.m. and Maty must get ready to teach her daily Mysore-style Ashtanga class. Chuck walks me to my car. "Whatever you do in life, yoga shows you how to do it better," he says. "The universe is always giving us a message. Yoga helps us learn to listen."
Loraine Despres is a freelance writer, international screenwriting consultant, and author of the novel, The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc, (William Morrow, 2000). She lives in California with her husband Carleton Eastlake, a television writer-producer.