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The struggles of D.C. area yoga studios

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The deal with yoga in Washington is getting kind of complicated.

If it’s a bargain you’re after, that’s not hard to find, especially with DC Yoga Week starting Sunday. Now in its seventh year, the event is eight days of free and $5 classes at 24 studios across the area. (This year, Maryland and Virginia studios are taking part, too.) And any other week, there’s a good chance folks can snag a Groupon or Living Social deal or similar discount on their downward-facing dogs. 

But for many of the people behind the city’s studios, which have been opening at a frenetic pace over the past few years, the yoga industry is turning out to be more than they bargained for. With a surge in interest in the practice has come unexpected side effects, including business disputes, legal showdowns and financial stressors. 

“I didn’t get into it for the money. There wasn’t any,” says John Schumacher, who founded Unity Woods Yoga Center in 1979. When he started teaching yoga, he made $8,000 a year and lived in a bus. Gradually, he built up enough students to open the studio. “People saw you could make a living doing this,” he says. “But now it’s become a struggle.” 

Survival of the fittest

Yogis don’t like to talk about competition, and most owners will deny there’s any tension among local studios. But Schumacher acknowledges that the businesses are vying for students’ attention.

That’s one of the reasons his locations in Bethesda, Woodley Park and Ballston are participating in Yoga Week. Another is to strengthen the bonds within Washington’s yoga community. Studios can happily coexist when they’re offering different things to different people. “We have to cooperate to stay alive and prosper,” Schumacher says.

Already, Schumacher looks around the yoga landscape and sees many studios scraping by and on the verge of closing. Several seem likely to follow the lead of Ashtanga Yoga Center in Tenleytown, which is shutting down May 31. The studio, founded by David Ingalls in 1997, was once the only place in the city to do Ashtanga, as well as the morning Mysore practices the style is known for.  

A few reasons factored into Ingalls’s decision, including the $50,000 a year he has been paying in rent and the increased difficulty of attracting students to a specific form of yoga. “Every time a new studio opened up, there was some attrition. One or two people would say, ‘That’s right in my neighborhood,’ ” Ingalls explains.  

The other problem? His landlord let a second studio, Hot Yoga, move into the same building in October.  

All yoga studios have been hurt by the explosion of such companies as Living Social, says Mike Graglia, a management consultant who’s been teaching yoga in the District since 2006. The online discounts encourage people to studio-hop. “The spiritual stuff in the background takes time. So they never get enough time to know the teacher, and the teacher doesn’t get to know them,” Graglia says. “It kills the community part of yoga.” 

Studios are also learning the hard way what happens when they run teacher trainings. In the short term, they earn cash fast (typically about $2,500 to $3,000 per student). But they wind up with proteges who open their own studios and create a glut of instructors.

The balance sheet

Despite these issues, there’s no shortage of newcomers in the area, including CorePower Yoga, a Denver-based chain that has more than 50 studios. The brand’s first outpost in the D.C. area, in Bethesda, is set to open in September.

There is real money to be made in yoga, after all. One of the most famous examples is Bikram Choudhury, whose eponymous Bikram studios — including the four in the area participating in Yoga Week — all pay $10,000 plus monthly royalties to use his trademarked heated, 26-pose series, thus helping to fund the luxury-car collection he has become known for

Although no one on the Washington scene has been nearly that financially successful, yoga has been a tempting investment. Schumacher was recently called by a mergers-and-acquisitions firm interested in buying Unity Woods. (He said no.) 

And there’s been plenty of speculation about what will happen to Down Dog Yoga, one of the city’s most successful yoga brands, with studios in Georgetown, Bethesda and Herndon. When the company’s two partners ended up in court last year over a business dispute, a court-appointed lawyer was asked to recommend how to handle their affairs. Word got out, and a venture capitalist put in a $775,000 bid to buy the company. A D.C. Superior Court judge is expected to decide the future of the business on May 30. 

The parties in the case aren’t talking about it, but Peg Mulqueen, a yoga instructor who’s friends with one of the owners, says it has caused self-reflection in the yoga community. “In the corporate world, the Down Dog situation is nothing. But to have it happening in the yoga world — this is supposed to be the opposite of what we’re about,” she says.

The reality is that money is now a permanent part of yoga, Schumacher says. On the plus side, that has helped bring yoga to a broader audience and allowed people to pursue careers in the field. But he sees the dangers in becoming too focused on the bottom line and losing touch with what brought everyone to yoga in the first place. 

That wouldn’t be a good deal for anyone.

Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.

© The Washington Post Company