Competition Is Fierce Between Vancouver Yoga Studios

Competition is stiff among Vancouver yoga studios. One yogi-cum-businessman thinks Bikram won't be hot forever, and he's hedging his bets with different yoga styles that can still bring the heat.

Hot commodity: Vancouver Bikram yoga studios proliferate.

Competition is stiff among Vancouver yoga studios. One yogi-cum-businessman thinks Bikram won’t be hot forever, and he’s hedging his bets with different yoga styles that can still bring the heat.

It’s day two of the grand opening weekend at Bikram Yoga White Rock. The evidence of renovations – a Shop-Vac, paint cans and scattered tools – are hidden behind a closet door downstairs. The stairs lead up to a cube cabinet on which a sign is posted imploring visitors to remove their shoes. Some pairs sit tucked into the cubbyholes while others have been kicked off and lie haphazardly on the floor. There is a tangible excitement in the air as well-­wishers greet and hug Jennifer Hanover, the owner. She returns their affection but is busy explaining Bikram yoga to a young couple while absent-mindedly standing in tree pose, her heel tucked into her groin. Lululemon-clad folk of all ages follow Hanover as she gives tours of the facility before the free afternoon class. She proudly points out the alder floor and travertine bathroom tile. Her father, who is signing people in at the front desk, helped her build the show-home-quality studio. “I lucked out on space,” Hanover brags, standing in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows. “One of my students owns the building.”

The actual yoga room feels like a sauna, but the heat is comforting and the view of the ocean is impressive. At the end of the tour, visitors see a poster-size picture of Hanover with Bikram Choudhury, her guru and the studio’s namesake. He’s standing on her back as she executes a sitting-forward bend, with her head to her knees. The photo was taken in 2005 during Hanover’s training in Los Angeles, which culminated in certification that allows her to teach Choudhury’s 26 poses and two breathing exercises in a series that has come to be known as Bikram yoga. By five minutes to four, the sweat gear has been shed in favour of short-shorts and sports bras for the women, Speedos for the men. Instructor Frank Sinek is herding people into his classroom, encouraging those he knows to stay up front. He counts his pupils: 20. “If it’s not 50, it’s not busy,” he states, anticipating bigger classes to come. Bikram Yoga White Rock is setting up to be a contender in the South Surrey yoga wars. Four short blocks north, Westcoast Hot Yoga is holding its regular Sunday afternoon class, but on this day it is only half full. The facility, owned by Bikram-trained Eddison Noel and his sister Camille, is a little more worn, the mood more subdued. Its soothing amber tones and soft lighting are in direct contrast to the brightness of Hanover’s yoga studio down the road. This used to be a Bikram space. It was Bikram’s White Rock until December 2006, when Noel decided to drop the Bikram brand in favour of an independent moniker. The decision does not sit well with Bikram loyalists, who believe the Bikram series should not be taught under any other name. Hanover, who used to work for Noel, is one of those people. When Noel changed the name of his studio, she decided to leave. Like many other instructors, she didn’t want the stigma of working at a non-Bikram studio. When Hanover left Noel’s centre, her colleagues encouraged her to apply to Bikram’s Yoga College of India, whose world headquarters are in Los Angeles, for permission to reopen a Bikram yoga centre in White Rock. She wasn’t the only one who applied, but Bikram’s chose her. When asked if there was any friction between her and her former employer, Hanover replies, “I wouldn’t know; we aren’t in contact.” Hanover contends that Noel would have found himself with competition regardless of her plans to open a studio: “If it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.” Dropping the recognizable Bikram name may seem like a backward step, but Noel’s reasons were plentiful. His first concern arose when, no matter how much he steam-cleaned the carpet, the sweaty odour remained. When his students started to complain of athlete’s-foot-like rashes on their bodies, he started to investigate alternatives to the Bikram’s-mandated carpeting. The rubberized flooring he switched to was not acceptable to Bikram’s in Los Angeles. There is no fee to maintain the Bikram’s licence, only an agreement to comply with certain rules, of which carpeting is one. Bikram’s-certified instructors must also use a specific script that is recited in every class, teach the poses in the series according to Bikram’s teachings and heat the room to between 41 and 44 degrees Celsius (depending on relative humidity). They are also forbidden from offering any other yoga discipline in the centre. This last stipulation also troubled Noel. As a business owner, he wanted to reach as wide a market as possible while serving his existing client base. His students were asking for specialized classes such as pre-natal yoga (which cannot be done in a hot environment), seniors’ yoga and kids’ yoga. And Noel was looking to expand. He wanted to open a Bikram studio in Yaletown. His proposals were denied by Bikram’s head office. Going out on his own seemed the only way to run a self-determined business, but the challenges just kept coming once he pro­ceeded with a Yaletown location, the second Westcoast Hot Yoga studio. “After I opened Yaletown, my instructors started getting calls. They became afraid that they were going to lose their certification and that they would not be able to work in any Bikram studio again,” Noel recalls. Even though he explained that a court of law had mandated that Bikram’s head office cannot revoke their certification, his instructors were too nervous to risk it. He lost all nine of his instructors and had to train new ones or find Bikram’s-certified instructors who were willing to play on his team, even if it meant they would be excommunicated from the Bikram world. Lisa Pelzer is the owner of three Bikram studios in Vancouver and was the first to bring Bikram yoga to B.C. in 1999. She confirms that instructors who work in non-Bikram studios are not welcome in her studio. It’s her way of defending the brand and the integrity of this style of yoga. “We’re not trying to put down other yoga; all yoga is good… but there’s a system that needs to be protected,” says Pelzer. “The name is everything,” she explains, adding that she fears people will pin problems experienced doing generic hot yoga on all forms of hot yoga, including Bikram yoga. [pagebreak] It’s not just the competition between Bikram’s-certified trainers and others that is threatening the vitality of yoga businesses in B.C. Yoga students have changed, and they’re forcing yoga studios to adjust. With celebrities accrediting their fit bodies to yoga and studios, such as those certified by Bikram’s, touting physical results, many new yoga practitioners are in it for the fitness, not the spiritual enlightenment. This marks a shift: studios now aim to draw clients rather than students. And in such a relationship, the customer is king. Sitting in a coffee shop, Shakti Mhi confesses she is in negotiations to sell Prana Yoga & Zen Centre, a business she started 10 years ago in Vancouver. The business is still doing well, but Mhi can no longer deal with the demands of some of her clients. A veteran yogi with 30 years as a teacher, she cannot separate the spiritual from the physical. So when a client complained that her classes had “too much spirituality,” she knew it was time to move on. When it was suggested that she simply tell those students to practice elsewhere, she laughed and replied, “Then you won’t be able to pay the rent.” She will continue to train teachers because she can pick and choose her students. “If the first thing they ask me is how much a teacher can make,” she says, “I tell them this is not the class for them.” Chasing the dollar and focusing on the competition nearly put Nichole Murray out of business. Two years ago, her West Vancouver studio, the Yoga Practice, was in the red every month. Competing yoga studios were popping up all over the North Shore, gyms were adding yoga to their schedules and everyone seemed to have a gimmick – hot yoga, laughing yoga, even yoga aerobics to the music of the ’80s. Murray started to question her business savvy and had BCIT marketing students analyze her company and make suggestions. She started feeling stressed about money, getting new clients and keeping the old ones. She spent a lot of time worrying about what the competition was doing. That may sound normal for a small-business owner, but when you are a purveyor of stress antidotes, it doesn’t resonate well with the clients to be wrought with anxiety. Murray contemplated closing her studio and going back to being a roving teacher, but then she came back to the yoga principles and stopped focusing on the outside. Once she did that, students came back and they brought friends. In Kitsilano, Eoin Finn is contemplating opening his own studio after eight years of holding classes in rec halls and church basements. It’s a tempting proposition for a popular instructor. He knows his students are loyal and will follow him if he opens his own space. It seems like only slightly more work, and he’d keep more of the profits. Finn never wanted to put down roots, but after so many years he’s starting to think a central location might be easier than lugging mats and music to each space he rents. Settling down in a fixed location would be a surprising move for someone who has found ways to leverage the yoga trend in unique ways. Finn offers a yoga/ecology/surfing retreat in Costa Rica and has two websites that offer the yoga community DVDs of his workouts and downloadable mp3 files for iPod yoga workouts. His cutting-edge vision of tomorrow’s yoga centre is based on what he and his wife and partner, Insiya Rasiwala, had experienced when they visited Los Angeles – the yoga hotbed – in November 2007. He describes the experience as being as consumer-focused as a spa. “Four days after we got home,” he recalls, “we got a phone call from someone who said he was our personal yoga adviser wanting to make sure we had enjoyed the class and assured us there were many other styles and teachers if that one didn’t suit us.” Finn believes this level of customer service and the spa-yoga-fusion trend will migrate north to Vancouver within two years. Judy Zaichkowsky, professor of marketing at SFU, agrees with Finn. “Spas are the future trend for consumers,” she notes. Baby boomers are a leading consumer group, and they have no problem spending money to get the experiences they want. Zaichkowsky believes that “yoga businesses have seen that they can take it to the next level and charge for it.” Of Bikram yoga, Zaichkowsky says, “That fad has humped.” If that’s true, then Noel is ahead of the curve in leaving the Bikram family. He has no regrets. Although it has been hard, he is confident his business will succeed. Within a month of Hanover’s Bikram Yoga White Rock opening down the road from his Westcoast Hot Yoga, Noel says he hasn’t seen any significant decline in membership. However, with the typical operating cost for a hot yoga studio running at around $20,000 a month, it’s hard to believe there is enough sweat in White Rock to keep both businesses afloat. Hanover also claims active community involvement and a strong, loyal membership; within four days of opening, she had 100 students sign up as members. However, that number will have to climb significantly to keep her business running (see “The Cost of Being a Sweat Merchant”). Competition in B.C.’s yoga industry is heating up, and, with consumers growing increasingly demanding, yoga-business owners realize there will be casualties. Nevertheless, everyone interviewed for this story agreed that if more competition means more people finding yoga, that’s a good thing. And while many do not agree with Bikram’s rules and his desire to trademark his style of yoga, they do acknowledge that he is a brilliant businessman who has brought yoga to the masses. Instructors within the Bikram family believe this will mean more, not fewer, clients for them. As Murray says, “There’s a type of yoga for everyone, and not everyone will like hot yoga, but it doesn’t mean they’ll quit yoga.” Will there be enough runoff to sustain the growing concentration of studios? We’ll have to wait and see how the lotus unfolds.