When Jackie Bogdan began practicing yoga, T-shirts and sweatpants were all she needed.
The downward facing dog and the bridge were maneuvered on bare, hardwood floors. And the Himalayan Institute was the area’s only yoga studio.
It was 1992, and yoga was so obscure, passersby were mystified by the mysterious happenings in the brick mansion at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Barker Street.
“Yoga was foreign to most people; it wasn’t a household word,” said Bogdan, who is now an instructor and the director of the institute. “People didn’t know what to make of it.”
But in the past decade, yoga has gone from an esoteric pastime to a mainstream fitness obsession. It’s attracted millions of practitioners and grown into a booming industry.
“The public’s growing interest in reducing stress and increasing mind-body awareness is fueling the popularity of yoga,” said Richard Karpel, president of the Arlington, Va.- based Yoga Alliance, the largest nonprofit organization representing the yoga community, which provides credentials for registered instructors.
With its wide-ranging health benefits, validated by scientific research and endorsed by celebrities, yoga is not just healthy, it’s also cool – factors that have given it mass appeal.
But some fear the explosion of yoga studios might have gotten ahead of demand. A plethora of yoga opportunities – from aesthetic studios to crowded gymnasiums – could be saturating the market. Some studios are sputtering along while some have closed in recent years.
More than 20 million Americans have taken up yoga, an increase from 16.5 million in 2004, according to the 2012 “Yoga in America” study sponsored by the Yoga Journal. Fueling the studio boom, however, are the 104 million “aspirational yogis,” Americans who are interested in learning yoga, a stunning spike from 6.1 million in 2004.
The popularity of the ancient spiritual practice from India has spawned the proliferation of studios all over Western New York, offering all types of yoga – from hot and power to gentle and even kids’ and prenatal.
“There’s like a new studio opening every month,” Bogdan said.
Yoga is now a $27 billion industry that includes designer yoga pants, mats and all sorts of gear. Between Buffalo and Olean, there are currently 40 studios, not including the dozens of independent instructors who lead classes at various locations, including community centers and churches. And when you add the ample offerings at area fitness clubs, Western New York is in the midst of a yoga explosion.
Yoga has gotten so big here that the Himalayan Institute now holds its 9-month teacher training annually instead of every two years. Yet, there’s still a waiting list for the $3,000-certificate program.
Amid this competitive backdrop, Marina Mukandala left a stable career in public relations to launch her Baptiste yoga studio.
“There are a lot of studios because yoga is so popular, but I think there are plenty of students to go around,” she said.
Even still, when she opened Mind Body Flow Yoga in 2012, she chose East Amherst.
“I wanted an area where I’d be the only studio,” she said. “I didn’t want to be right on top of another studio. The Clarence-East Amherst area doesn’t have another yoga studio, so I’m able to draw students from the Transit Road corridor.”
So far, her business strategy of avoiding the yoga strongholds, like the West Side of Buffalo and Williamsville, has worked. “I couldn’t be happier with my decision to do so, as this community has really fallen in love with yoga and all its healing benefits,” she said. Mukandala opened with 16 classes, and her offerings have jumped to 24. And because of so much interest, she’s no longer closed on Sundays.
The surging competition has even intimidated the 40-year-old Himalayan Institute, increasingly cornered by newer studios on the West Side.
“About five years ago we noticed what was happening all around us and became a little concerned,” Bogdan admitted. “But we decided to continue doing what we’ve been doing all these decades, and that’s worked for us. We’re continuing to grow.”
As yoga’s popularity has zoomed, area fitness clubs have wanted in on the action, adding more yoga to their group workouts programs, making gyms the stiffest competition for studio owners.
Health clubs may lack the tranquility of studios but their business model makes yoga more economical. While a single class can cost $10 or more at a local studio, at World Gym, members pay as low as $10 a month and can participate in all fitness classes, including yoga, and also have access to a variety of fitness equipment and machines.
“We try to make our group fitness program all-encompassing,” said Joe Major, district manager of the area’s five World Gym locations. “We offer variety. You can do Pilates, Les Mills Body Flow. There’s also yoga tai chi, things you wouldn’t find in a strictly yoga studio. Plus you have the entire facility, as well, and a lot of our yoga students enjoy that.”
Studio owners, many of whom went into business to share the benefits of yoga, not to necessarily make a buck, all of sudden find themselves in a competitive marketplace without the business know-how and oftentimes interest to compete.
And for some the spiritually based practice is incompatible with capitalism.
“You don’t have a lot of MBAs running yoga studios, but you do have a lot of people who are passionate about what they do,” Karpel said. The Yoga Alliance plans to beef up its efforts to better arm instructors with business skills.
While the Himalayan Institute and other longer standing studios, like East Meets West in Buffalo and Healing Waters in East Aurora, are able to withstand competition because of their reputations, experienced instructors and variety of classes, newer studios are having a harder time making a name for themselves in the stifling marketplace.
After two years of taking classes, Erin Cook had fallen in love with yoga and wanted to teach it. She did a 200-hour certificate program and opened Hand to Heart Yoga on Elmwood.
At the time, East Meets West and Shakti Yoga were in the vicinity. To distinguish her studio, Cook offered “date night yoga,” “hip-hop yoga” and “yoga, chocolate and wine” events.
“I was putting a modern twist on an ancient practice,” she said. But the studio wasn’t bringing in enough for her to hire additional teachers, so Cook was a one-woman show.
“I was teaching, doing bookkeeping and cleaning,” she said.
Also, her business was inconsistent. “Some months were better than others, it wasn’t a fixed income, and I was supporting myself,” she said. “One month, I’d be doing great, and then the next month, I’m scraping by.”
She closed the studio last December after three years. Cook, 31, is now a full-time nursing student at D’Youville College. She still teaches yoga but on a part-time a basis, just a couple of days a week.
“I was getting older, and I would like to have a family so I wanted a stable job,” she said. “Running a yoga studio is a really a tough business to be in. I think it takes a lot to be super successful. You need to have a really solid staff with teachers that know their stuff and know how to teach their stuff.”
In the fall of 2013, Buffalo Yoga Studio in the Tri-Main Center, a more established operation also succumbed to competition. It had been in business for 10 years.
“We are faced with issues that prevent the studio from being profitable and have been pouring personal funds into the studio to keep it going. We can no longer do this,” the studio’s newsletter stated.
60-70 hour weeks
Anita Greber, 66, opened East Meets West Yoga 13 years ago in the Elmwood Village.
Prior to the boom, students would trek in from Niagara Falls, Southtowns and Northtowns, but as studios opened in those areas, Greber noticed a drop in practitioners from afield.
“Our business hasn’t suffered, but our growth has slowed,” she said.
Greber believes yoga is attracting opportunistic entrepreneurs who view it as a “profit center.”
“But it’s not easy to make money, and it’s a very absorbing job,” she said. “It’s like any other small business, you work 60 or 70 hours a week. While it’s not terribly lucrative, it is very satisfying.”
Greber operates two beautifully serene studios – one on Elmwood and the other in Williamsville – but that costs money.
“Everything adds up, there are a lot of business expenses,” she pointed out. With the rise of quick-turn-around training programs that dole out certificates after a weekend of sessions, an increasing number of people are entering the business. So not only are newer owners not prepared to handle the business aspects of running a studio, they aren’t prepared to teach either, Greber said.
“The problem with the proliferation is we have teachers who are not really qualified and not really suitable to teach yoga,” said Greber, who was chosen and trained by an Indian guru in the 1970s.
Too many teachers?
Felicitas Kusch-Lango, owner of Healing Waters, which overlooks Cazenovia Creek in East Aurora, fears the true essence of yoga and its contemplative aspects are being lost in the craze and the lack of oversight for training is also problematic. There isn’t a state of federal license for yoga instructors.
“If you want to go out now and call yourself a yoga teacher, you could,” said Kusch-Lango, who started her business in 1997. “There will be no one stopping you. And that’s a problem. There are no guidelines put in place as to what constitutes a yoga teacher. I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a yoga teacher anymore. Everyone’s jumped on the band wagon.”
Karpel said there are “roughly” 200,000 to 250,000 yoga teachers, who largely teach part-time, along with about 8,000 studios, around the country, and those numbers continue to grow between 10 percent to 15 percent each year. “The number of non-practitioners in the U.S. who indicated they are interested in trying yoga increased 470 percent between 2008 and 2012, from 18 million people to over 104 million people,” he said. “So there’s a huge amount of growth remaining in the yoga business. However, yoga is not immune to the laws of competition. Those who provide great yoga classes and outstanding customer service will thrive. Those who don’t will fail.”