The North American Studio Alliance (namasta) was co-founded by Bernard (who serves as president) and Lisa Slede (a Yoga therapist) in late 2002 as a response to the lack of a trade organization for independent Yoga and mind-body professionals. It provides support for these professionals in the form of access to affordable liability insurance, health benefits and many resources with which to successfully operate their businesses. In this interview, Bernard shares his experiences, vision and ideas with the aim of helping to keep your students coming back.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Can you share some suggestions for how to be a successful Yoga teacher?
Bernard Slede (B.Slede): Sure. Look at pricing. Many Yoga teachers are uncomfortable dealing with pricing their classes and other aspects of their business. As a business, a Yoga studio is an economic entity. There’s rent to be paid, and perhaps Yoga teachers who are independent contractors who have to be paid, and other expenses. I recommend studios set a fair price for classes, and a good business practice is to allow some kind of introductory period. Some places like in New York or Los Angeles have classes that go for $20 but I think offering an introductory formula allows for people to get to know you before making that stronger commitment. It also allows you to attract people who would have been deterred by the price or the fact they are entering a place that may be completely foreign.
It’s good for students to be able to buy a class and get a second class free, or try five classes at a low set price or unlimited classes in a limited period time. The idea is that you are offering a special value for new students. I think that’s an ethical way to enable a person unfamiliar with you, or your teachers, to become familiar with and get a feel for you and your studio. It makes it less threatening for the new student. Whatever you can do to make it easier for people to open the door and give Yoga or your studio a try is a good business practice.
There are also many ways Yoga studios can contribute to their communities, which is, in essence, being respectful of the Yoga tradition as well as being good business sense. You can offer classes for special populations, such as offering free classes for children from underprivileged areas or to the homeless or veterans on certain days. That’s a nice gesture and it also helps show that Yoga and the studio are committed to serving people and the community. Another idea to serve the community and bring visibility to your studio is to create special occasions during which you offer classes. For example, whether it’s Yoga Day USA or United Nations Health Day, you can find a date to hold a series of introductory classes maybe even for free, so those who haven’t done Yoga can try it. You can connect with a senior center, offer a class at the center as a gift to get people exposed to Yoga. From that there can be a lot of rewards: personal satisfaction as well as successful word of mouth, as those who tried Yoga tell their friends and families about their experiences.
IYM: Any secrets you can share to keep students coming back?
B.Slede: This involves more common sense than any secrets: for instance, paying attention to the students in class and providing individual advice and assists during asana classes. This helps students realize that coming to a class is better than watching a DVD. So, if you can, correct or at least offer verbal suggestions, that’s something to pay attention to. There are some teachers who learn a script. Scripts are good because they provide structure, but you need to see that that doesn’t detract from adding the personal touch to the individuals in the room. It’s not a public performance, it’s guidance to a number of students.
Other things you can try include asking for feedback on what students liked or disliked. Being there before and after the class so you can get to know the students and they can get to know you helps create a generally nice community feeling. You can try creating an occasion for the community of students to come together for some kind of celebration—maybe the one year anniversary of the studio or teaching the 100th class or celebrating a recent renovation. If you can keep track of who comes to class and who hasn’t come in awhile, you can try and reconnect with those who haven’t been and see why or if there’s something you can do. If someone says, “Well, my schedule is just so hectic,” you can offer Yoga as a reprieve from the busyness of their lives. Or, if they felt too challenged by something in the class, you can offer private time before class to assist them.
You can also offer the incentives of a referral system: Bring someone new and you get a free class or some other incentive. Yoga is a very individual practice. Students don’t always go back to their offices the next day and say, “Hey you should all try this.” But, that doesn’t mean they can’t share what they are experiencing. So, it’s a good idea to give some benefit to the student who brings in new students—a free class or gift that is Yoga appropriate. The statistics tell us that 10 percent of people in the USA move every year. So, you can expect 10 percent of your students to leave because they are moving. So, finding ways to replace and replenish that community through referrals, events, talking to a local paper or local fair and explaining about the benefits of Yoga based on the latest scientific research are all ways to generate new students. Helping students realize that the more they practice Yoga, the more they derive the benefits and emphasizing those—beyond any script or description of the poses—is what can help students keep coming back.
IYM: Are you concerned about the rise of Yoga franchises?
B.Slede: This may be my yogic view of the world, but I don’t think chains will take over Yoga or that local studios will suffer. One reason is because chains appeal to a different public. At the core, it’s still a Yoga class, but you sense many of the teachers in the chains and gyms have fitness backgrounds. Those who take Yoga there, may not necessarily be the same clientele served at a private Yoga studio. And, the benefits of the chains and of the marketing around franchises and gyms are that more people have gotten to try Yoga. Instead of viewing this as a concern, a zero sum game, think of it as a new entry point for beginners. Frankly, for those who have never done Yoga, crossing the doorway of the Yoga studio can be a bit daunting. If the fitness gym member tries a Yoga class it may be a little less threatening, especially to men. Once they’ve experienced it, they can decide if they want to explore further. Their local, independent studios may offer different approaches, more meditation-oriented practices, a richer schedule and things you wouldn’t find in a gym. If you look at Yoga students as people who evolve through their Yoga practices, I think some independent Yoga teachers will lose students to the local chain or gym because of some of the conveniences and economic benefits. But, conversely, I think the local studio is a sanctuary—a place where you don’t hear the whirr of the treadmills and other machines during class—and that is something that favors independent teachers and studios.
IYM: How has the economic downturn affected private studios?
B.Slede: A number of studios have unfortunately shut down, but others have opened. Generally we’ve seen our membership grow despite difficult times. We think it’s a sign that there is more demand for Yoga and as teacher training programs have blossomed, there’s been more of a supply of Yoga teachers better able to practice professionally. I think we are experiencing what I’d call the “democratization of Yoga” over the past five to fifteen years, via TV, DVDs, mats, etc., being sold in department stores. Yoga is very symbiotic with the wellness and sustainability movements. People who go to Whole Foods, who are vegan, might buy a mat and get into Yoga. Those concerned about climate change and damages to the planet might be more conscious of their role in the world, which is close to the message of Yoga: to be unified and united with the universe and the rest of humankind. Some people lament the fact that there’s too much Yoga, but the up side is that more people have been exposed to Yoga in places that never had Yoga before. Some of those will remain in these new forms of Yoga, which are not as true to the tradition, but I think many are evolving to more advanced and traditional forms of Yoga—in some cases more meditative forms, in other cases, more physically challenging forms of Yoga.
IYM: You mentioned Yoga’s compatibility with the sustainability movement. Do you see Yoga studios going more green?
B.Slede: Yes, I think there are multiple benefits for “practicing what you preach.” Yoga teachers aren’t preaching, they are conveying messages. As a Yoga teacher, those messages should be true to your discipline, your art and beliefs. For example, it would be shocking if you went to a Yoga studio and found the water cups were Styrofoam. When you manage a Yoga studio you can use recyclable products and green cleaning products. If you provide Yoga mats you can pick a brand that is respectful of the environment. It’s a way to lead by example and also indirectly it’s a good marketing practice. You are not sending a dissonant message, rather there is a message of authenticity that assures others that you are genuine and respectful of the world around you.
In addition to founding namasta, Bernard Slede launched HP Startup Central to foster mutually beneficial relationships with the ecosystem of startups and entrepreneurs. He also founded Breakthrough Venture Partners which has advised numerous innovative companies in the US and Europe. For more information about namasta, please visit: www.namasta.com.