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caption: A yoga class held on Zoom by 8 Limbs Yoga Centers.
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A yoga class held on Zoom by 8 Limbs Yoga Centers.
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Pandemic forces yoga studios to contemplate their future

Lockdown has changed the business of yoga. Now, Western Washington studios are seeking answers as reopenings begin.

This week at Twist Yoga in Edmonds, a first: a class with studio members in the room as well as online.

Yoga studios in Snohomish county are re-opening at reduced capacity while studios in King County remain closed.

Twist was like a lot of Seattle area studios that pivoted to online classes when the pandemic closed their physical spaces. Studios found that their customers appreciated the online connection during the anxious days that followed.

Annie Stocker of Two Dog Yoga Studio in Lake City found that her new online classes brought back students who had moved out of town years ago. These people wanted a familiar face and voice, and they wanted to help the studio survive.

Going online expands the reach of a studio, but it also presents a problem.

“We are a physical business,” said Ross Yearsley of Breathe Hot Yoga. “Our competitive advantage comes from our people, from our in person experience, from our neighborhoods. It doesn't come from online, right?

If you're competing online, you're going to be destroyed. Ross Yearsley

The reason: there is a lot of free yoga online. It’s all over You Tube. And it means the value of the local yoga studio is still in the physical spaces where people can go.

But the pandemic means many people won’t be coming back, for months or years – or maybe ever.

“We're in uncharted territory, obviously, as everybody knows now,” said Amber Borgomainerio of Breathe Hot Yoga. “What's the consumer mentality going to be like? Are people scared? I mean, even before our business was shut down, we saw our attendance literally dropping overnight. You know, due to the fear.”

Breathe Hot Yoga has heated studios in Belltown, Capitol Hill and West Seattle. And like a lot of studios paying rent in an expensive city, they need to know soon whether customers will be coming back.

They also need to know how many people have realized over the solitary months of lockdown that they want a membership at a studio.

The pandemic is forcing studio owners to look hard at the problems that have been accumulating for years. Many studios opened up during the Great Recession while rents were cheap. Now those same spaces are much more expensive.

Yoga teachers struggle with the disconnect between what a teacher is paid and what it it takes to live in the Seattle area. Studios say they want to pay more and be more successful themselves. But they find themselves between a rock and a hard place: free internet yoga and a high cost of doing business.

As the pandemic surfacing these issues it is forcing difficult decisions. Last month Twist Yoga’s owner Jen Mitchell gave back the keys to one of her locations -- a 4,000-square-foot studio near the King-Snohomish county line. Back a decade ago this place was packed with people doing hot yoga.

Now, Mitchell says, rents are up, tastes are changing. And there’s only so many people who are willing or able to pay for a yoga class.

“The market just won’t bear paying per class what it costs to run a studio like that,” she said.

The big question hanging over yoga studios is this: Will the experience of the pandemic make people value their yoga communities all the more, or will the pandemic be the yoga studio’s undoing?

Jen Mitchell of Twist says this is a challenge: “It is an opportunity to rethink and revise and have an exciting new business model. Yes, it was extremely sad to have to close our third studio but at the same time it's an opportunity to get really clear on who we serve.”

8 Limbs Yoga Centers, which has four studios, is also trying to find its way through the challenges of this pandemic. Lauren Kite she’s hopeful, because yoga meets needs that are universal and eternal.

“We need support in doing life. Life requires tremendous stamina and courage and willingness to be adaptable and willingness to change.”