Live Be Yoga ambassadors Lauren Cohen and Brandon Spratt are on a road trip across the country to sit down with master teachers, host free local classes, and so much more—all to illuminate the conversations pulsing through the yoga community today.
I could feel it the moment I stepped into Gather in Encinitas, California – the simplicity, the warmth, the humility, the devotion. It permeated the air and the architecture, creating a sense of belonging. After walking along a short pathway on the side of the building to enter, I admired the open, light-filled space. I checked myself into class simply by writing my name down and choosing which form of payment I’d like to use to pay the teacher – cash or Venmo – on a sliding scale of $10 - $20. At Gather, it’s all about the yoga: there’s no distractions, no front-desk staff, no pressure to purchase anything and no marketing collateral. As I set up my mat, the teacher greeted me with a sweet smile and welcomed me to the space. I dropped right into my practice – this practice that has transformed my life and continues to inspire and awaken me, over and over again.
After speaking with Lauren Duke, the founder of Gather, it’s clear that she had a similar experience when she first walked into Yoga Swami 11 years ago, after moving from the Bay Area to San Diego. Duke discovered yoga, as many do, seeking a way to “quell her suffering." She described her first class as equally intimidating and enchanting. That first savasana was the first time she felt truly present, and that sense of presence is what inspired her to dive deeper into the practice, taking her first training when she was 19 and opening a studio at age 24 in Pacifica, California.
When she moved to San Diego and found Yoga Swami, she also discovered a home and a community that couldn’t be matched. Before the space closed in 2009, it was a community hub that provided donation-based classes inside a yurt, in the heart of Encinitas. It operated as a co-op, giving each teacher the opportunity to pay rent and take home the earnings from their classes, while being part of a larger mission to bring people together through yoga. Having attended many yoga classes at various studios, Lauren remembered how different she felt walking into Yoga Swami for the first time.
The Studio that Started it All: Yoga Swami
“When I first went to Yoga Swami as a student, I could feel the difference compared to other studios,” said Duke. “There was no one to interrupt my flow and turn my experience into some sort of monetary exchange. On top of that, there was an obvious difference in the level of practice. The artfulness and authenticity was up-leveled because teachers were paying rent for their classes. You don’t do that unless you’re really good at what you do.”
When Yoga Swami shut down as a result of Encinitas banning sustainable wooden structures due to potential fire hazards (i.e. the yurt), Duke decided to take matters into her own hands in order to keep the community alive and honor the co-op model that inspired this higher level of authentic studentship (adhikara).
She opened Green Flash Yoga as the next iteration of Yoga Swami. Less than two years later, when the building was sold, Duke relocated to a new space called Yoga Bergamot. Six years later, that building was sold too, and Duke decided to find and create something that could really last. After she successfully raised $25,000 through a Go-Fund-Me campaign, it became even more clear that she had the support she needed to make it happen. Next thing she knew, she and her partner were renovating an old tear-down building to carry on the legacy that had inspired her and so many others
So, while Gather has only been open for two years in its current space along Highway 101 in Encinitas, it is really the continuation of a 10-year project and the fourth iteration of a space that has become much more than a yoga studio. This is why Duke and the Gather family think of it as a “social movement,”rather than a yoga space, with a mission to cultivate community, creativity and wellness through yoga and various educational programs.
“Gather is an education space and a hub for knowledge, connection, inspiration and community,” said Duke. “We want to open up the box of yoga and make it more about mental health and tapping into tools to help people enjoy their lives more.”
How Does a Yoga Co-Op Work?
As a co-op, teachers at Gather collectively pay rent on the space and everyone acts as a team player. Teachers take home 100 percent of class fees. They are themselves responsible for growing their classes, and, in turn, helping to grow the Gather community. “Through this model, teachers are more willing to hold themselves accountable,” said Duke. They are building their brand while also building Gather’s, and when done successfully, they can make 4 to 10 times as much money as they would in a regular studio setting.
What I love most about this model is the fact that everyone who is part of Gather is viewing it as a project and as a movement - one that requires a dedicated team working together to be of service to anyone and everyone that walks through its doors. The model also provides teachers with a beautiful incentive to create what they want to create and to be entrepreneurs in every sense of the word. As a teacher who is very familiar with the hustle of going from class to class at various studios, at times feeling isolated in the process, I am deeply inspired by the co-op model and the overall vision of Gather; inspired so much that I am exploring how to bring the vision to life in San Francisco.
Teachers Creating and Nurturing Community
It was particularly inspiring to chat with three of Gather’s senior teachers who have not only found success through the co-op model but have been instrumental in the studio’s success as a whole.
“It’s been a saving grace to have the community we’ve created. It truly feels like we’ve been able to preserve and maintain what made us fall in love with yoga in the first place,” said Josh Vincent, a lead teacher at Gather, who has been by Duke’s side since the early days at Yoga Swami. “Having the co-op model has allowed me the freedom to keep it about the yoga, which is what I’m most interested in. As a teacher, I have the ability to share what I want to share without feeling any pressure from the outside to teach a certain way.” This is particularly unique, as more and more teachers are managing the expectations of studio owners and corporate models that require classes to be taught in a certain way.
Libby Carstenson, a Kundalini teacher agrees. “Laying roots in a community like this has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced,” said Carstenson. “We are evolving the narrative of yoga - every teacher is teaching from their direct experience and from an embodied and authentic space. As a result, there is a humility and accessibility in what is being offered.”
This is exactly what Aubrey Hackman says makes her excited to teach at Gather – the accessibility and sustainability it provides to both students and teachers. “As a practitioner, the sliding scale makes yoga accessible, she said. “As a teacher, your pay truly reflects your skill level. Gather gives me the platform to earn a real living and provide a service that most people can afford.”
Along with a full class schedule (28 classes per week) plus workshops and pop-up events on weekends, Gather offers massage and acupuncture; its sister space, Be Well, serves as a membership-based women’s co-working space during the week as well as an event space. Between the two spaces there are a full spectrum of workshop offerings, ranging from “This Is Your Brain on Yoga,” to the Wim Hof cold therapy method, writing workshops, and more. Thought leaders, wellness experts, entrepreneurs, artists, innovators, yogis, neuroscientists all join together to share their expertise on healing, self-discovery, and self-acceptance. “The goal is to offer various methodologies and tools to help people dive into their own consciousness and to navigate their lives so they can really be well,” said Duke. “After all, yoga is ultimately a path to help you live your life.”