A Yoga Studio Owner’s Journey During a Pandemic – by Anna Haddad
Timing can make or break a new business. Before the pandemic hit, I was grinding away with renovating my yoga studios – one in Montauk, located at the East End of Long Island, NY, which I had previously co-founded (formerly known as bYoga) and run for three years, and a second brand new location in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, at Brooklyn Bridge Park. They were both slated to open in April 2020.
Leading up to that date, I had negotiated two ground leases, set up my businesses and a beautiful website under the new brand, ONEYOGAHOUSE, poured resources into having the studios gut renovated and decorated with custom furnishings and brand-new supplies, and hired a full team of 30-plus people who would work at both locations. We had planned for 45 classes a week in Brooklyn and up to 28 classes a week during the peak summer season in Montauk, a seasonal location where the majority of income would be earned during four months of the year. We were excited to hit the ground running. We had a photo shoot planned at the Montauk location, and we all had our bags packed to go. I had my creative director, teachers, and studio manager coming out for the two-day photo shoot, in preparation for our website and studio launch. I remember that sunny day in mid-March vividly. As news of the pandemic spread, it became clear as I approached the hour of departure that I needed to call off the shoot. My priority became keeping our staff safe. I still think back to that day—little did we know then how much life would change for all of us. We had no choice but to halt renovations and shut down even before we had a chance to open our doors.
Our lives as we knew them came to a screeching halt. The unknown was the most stressful part of the pandemic as the Covid-19 numbers continued to worsen
The last two weeks of March were spent quarantining in East Hampton at my summer home near my Montauk studio, trying to get a handle on all the implications of school and business closures. Our lives as we knew them came to a screeching halt. The unknown was the most stressful part of the pandemic as the Covid-19 numbers continued to worsen. As we entered April, and some of the initial shock wore off, I was focused on gathering information. The CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) had recently passed by Congress, and I waded through the information and sought advice on how the legislation could offer support to my business. I signed myself up for numerous Zoom calls to be brought up to speed, hoping to get a little peace of mind. Initially, I was relieved to hear that I would be a good candidate for both the Economic Disaster Loan and the Payroll Protection Program (PPP). But after seeing the official calculation of payroll expenses, I quickly realized I wouldn’t receive much support. I had started a new brand and a new tax ID. And given the fact I had never officially opened, despite the numerous expenses incurred since fall of 2019, I would not qualify. I had no choice but to encourage the vast majority of my staff to file for unemployment.
Adopting A New Perspective
I received an influx of emails from some of my talented team of teachers, who needed support around claiming benefits. It was an incredibly frustrating and scary time, as they were forced to make some tough life decisions. Many had to move out of the city they love, unable to work, unable to make rent. Some moved in with their parents or relatives to make ends meet. Some faced their own health issues, and some lost loved ones and were unable to be with them during their final days. Add to that, they were witnessing their home studios shuttering their doors, one after the other. These were places where they had dedicated their lives to creating community, to helping people heal their hearts, bodies, and minds. It all weighed on me tremendously. I took long walks. I stopped practicing and teaching yoga. I cried often, for the better part of March. I prayed for each and every one of my friends and teachers. We were going through a collective grief that we hadn’t even been able to process, perhaps not even now after all these months have passed. I did my best to reach out and to offer support.
Book 2.3 of the The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali reads, “Avidya Asmita Raga Dvesha Abhinivesha Klesha,” or the five causes of affliction. Avidya (Ignorance), Asmita (Ego), Raga (Attachments), Dvesha (Aversions), and Abhinivesha (Clinging to life as we know it, or fear of change). The last one, Abhinivesha, was what I was fighting. I was constantly navigating around the best path to move forward but also wishing for what was, the life we knew, that I didn’t realize the paralysis it inflicted from taking stock and moving forward.
We were going through a collective grief that we hadn’t even been able to process, perhaps not even now after all these months have passed
I thought back to the last time our country and our city went through major adversity. The housing and financial crisis in 2008, when millions lost their homes and their jobs came to mind, as did witnessing people jumping from the burning twin towers on 9/11 then seeing the towers collapse behind us. No one knew what was coming, who was lost, or what to do next. I sent an email to my teachers and staff of ONEYOGAHOUSE, sharing my mantra through these times, that “this too, shall pass.” As yogis we do our best to overcome our obstacles by cultivating a deeper awareness of the impermanence of life. By encouraging them to check in on each other during this pause and be a source of light and love to quell the anxiety and unease, I found a newfound hope and faith to be nimble and do everything I could to keep going.
Once I became friends with reality, I went on the offensive. I wasn’t going to allow all my years of hard work to arrive at this place, only to crash and burn.
Pivoting to a New Reality
Given the world was shifting towards instituting more work-from-home policies, in April, I decided to take ONEYOGAHOUSE virtual with our class offerings. I wanted to highlight our teachers and their unique teaching styles on our digital platform, all while setting up for the success of their public classes at ONEYOGAHOUSE. I compared and tested various streaming platforms, ways to maximize visibility for teachers, and for a solid two weeks, I didn’t move away from my laptop. Instead, I onboarded, tested, and supported teachers to record their live and on demand yoga classes. But meeting the immediate demands of generating revenues while also preparing for long-term success as a yoga studio proved to be challenging.
All of a sudden, teachers from all over the globe with an Instagram, Facebook, or Zoom account were offering free, donation-based classes. Yoga teachers were in survival mode. I completely understood the mentality. Many teachers found they were generating more income from their own donation-based classes. Many were earning more income on unemployment than teaching at multiple studios. Many taught at other studios where they had been teaching for years with a big built-in community. I was a new brand that never had a chance to open, the little train that could. But students, friends, and neighbors began buying class packages. They gave this virtual yoga thing a try with us. I was able to pay rent in Montauk (I was on the hook despite being unable to open our physical doors, for what turned out to be several more months, with strict protocols). I was temporarily able to breathe again. My landlord at the Brooklyn studio had bigger obligations to tend to, so I was let off the hook, for now. It was a lifeline.
I had a feeling that students would be overwhelmed with so much yoga online, and as the warmer weather approached in May, would prefer to practice outdoors than in front of a screen. So, we decreased our online yoga offerings to focus on outdoor yoga. We signed a licensing agreement with our neighbors, The Montauk Beach House, just steps away from our yoga studio. They had a fairly large pool deck, with platforms where their daybeds would normally be used for sunning and relaxation. It was where we would have our residency for outdoors, socially distanced yoga.
My goals of elevating our brand into the wellness space and a recognized yoga studio began to reap some rewards. We were placed into numerous media outlets, from the New York Post, Hamptons Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, Dan’s Independent Media (aka Dan’s Papers), The Glassy, and even a feature in The Wall Street Journal’s Mansion & Global. Every other day after teaching was spent writing for these publications, taking photos, working retail hours, teaching livestreams, and teaching private clients outdoors at their summer homes to supplement revenue. With most of my staff collecting unemployment and some not feeling comfortable teaching, I was left to teach the majority of the classes without drawing a salary—everything I made went towards rent and paying the few staff I was able to hold on to.
As spring turned into summer, a time when the Montauk studio would normally be bustling with activity, even as New York’s Covid-19 numbers declined, there was still no news on the horizon of being allowed to open for group fitness. I had to pivot yet again to make ends meet. We turned our yoga studio into a retail store, as we were also considered a retail space, and that industry was approved to open, with limited capacity. We had boxes of activewear, outerwear, books, apothecary items including natural remedies, CBD and essential oils, candles, and branded products sitting in our studio. We brought life into the space, purchasing rolling racks and bringing in furniture to pretty up the space and display our products. Signage was made, marketing photos were created. We hosted trunk shows and created a shop page on our website and on Instagram.
The pivot for fall was setting up our studio to pass inspection in September as Suffolk County was finally able to open for fitness. My annual Montauk retreat, originally scheduled for the first weekend of May, was moved for the third time to the final weekend of September, just one weekend prior to the Montauk Beach House (where guests would be staying) closing for the season. I assured guests that the retreat deposit would be fully refundable should they be unable to attend due to Covid-19. I wrote our NY Forward Plan and Studio Policy, and the Department of Health approved our studio to reopen as we took every possible precaution to be vigilant about the safety of our staff and guests by adopting and exceeding federal, state, and industry safety, cleaning and disinfecting, and screening guidelines.
I discouraged students outside of New York State to attend, which was hard, but necessary. We still sold out a month early. We put in a lot of effort to ensure the safety and preparedness of our studio with strict cleaning procedures and safety plans to keep our students and staff safe. Students expressed repeatedly that they were craving connection and to be in nature. They felt confident in the measures we took, of our capabilities to lead the retreat and practice together safely.
Fortunately, we lucked out with the weather. All six yoga classes were held outdoors at the beautiful pool deck of the Montauk Beach House, where students practiced socially distanced, using their own props. We encouraged use of outdoor spaces as much as possible for meals and times of connection. Given the very popular Joni’s and Left Hand Coffee being our next door neighbors, we reduced foot traffic at our studio with signs and arrows to avoid areas where lines and people might congregate. We removed the front desk, cash box, and shared computers used for check-in and retail purchases to limit the sharing of tools and objects.
All businesses operating during the pandemic had to make a significant investment of time and capital, and we certainly weren’t an exception. We purchased MERV-13 filters, air purification fans, UV hand-sanitizing dispensers, vast amount of cleaning products, extra supplies of masks, touchless thermometers, the list seemed endless. The mask mandates for teachers and students in order to practice indoors prevented many students from wanting to attend classes. The students who gave it a try found it to be better than anticipated. However, given the reduced size of gatherings at 33 percent of maximum capacity, class sizes remained small.
What has been a huge blessing in disguise is that due to the setbacks presented by the pandemic, I have been stretched and forced to think big. Since this summer, I began collaborating with corporate clients in the financial, software, and consulting industries to bring yoga and meditation to their teams working from home all over the globe. I have hosted virtual yoga retreats, networking events, and breathwork and meditation classes, with more planned in 2021. We have brand initiatives planned out through the quarter of 2021 and will collaborate with some worthwhile charities and organizations and spotlight some incredible healers, artists, and other creatives to diligently stay anchored around ONEYOGAHOUSE’s mission: to pay attention, gain insights, cultivate relationships, support each other, and bring more joy and healing to the planet.
Learning New Lessons
The pandemic has altered our approach to yoga and fitness. We spent way more time outdoors getting ourselves fit, and we also changed how we spent our money on fitness products. I think the hybrid model of indoors, outdoors, and virtual fitness will continue as the population increasingly gets vaccinated.
I am profoundly grateful for the students who have continued to practice with me. I’ve learned that one doesn’t have to be a famous guru or have millions of Instagram followers to be a successful teacher. But there is a secret sauce, one that only develops over a long period of time. Of falling but getting back up. Of steadfast effort, faith, and dedication. Of keeping an abundance mindset, knowing you are more than the present circumstances.
But there is a secret sauce, one that only develops over a long period of time. Of falling but getting back up. Of steadfast effort, faith, and dedication. Of keeping an abundance mindset, knowing you are more than the present circumstances
I have dedicated a lot of time not telling students what to do or who to be, but instead, hoping that teaching them how to align their bodies and integrating the tools of yoga will affect the alignment of their minds. That they would invest in themselves, to speak and move with greater awareness by creating a growth-oriented experience. Despite numerous studios filing for bankruptcy and shuttering their doors, I firmly believe our industry will come back. Human beings crave community and the socialization and connection that this practice offers, which will never go away. I am often asked what I hope to bring to the communities where I live and work. It’s to launch ideas from the heart and to help one another thrive. I always ask myself, what can I do with what I have and still stay true to who I am? It’s about using my platform for my teachers and students to elevate their voices, be courageous, and nurture relationships to make our community stronger.
[note: This story was originally published on www.WellDefined.com, a comprehensive destination for all things related to wellness for both consumers and industry professionals. Anna is a contributing writer and serves on their advisory board].