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Assuming the Profit Position

Two entrepreneurs are establishing a national chain of yoga studios. Critics consider such commercialization an intolerable stretch.

September 10, 2004|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

When software was hot, they worked at an educational software company for kids. And when the Internet went wild, they worked together at one of the earliest search engines. When that boom busted, entrepreneurs George Lichter and Rob Wrubel went searching for the next big thing.

They looked for a wide-open market, ripe to be plucked. And all the while they worked through their own stress-related ailments with deep breathing, sun salutations and downward-facing dogs.

Then it hit them what their next business should be: yoga.

That was 2001. With a group of investors, they began snapping up some of the nation's oldest, most prestigious yoga studios, including Yoga Works in Santa Monica and the Center for Yoga in the Larchmont district, considered the first eclectic yoga studio in Los Angeles. They recently bought five studios in Manhattan, including four Be Yoga studios. That brings the total to 15 so far. They plan to open a new studio in West Hollywood this fall and are talking to studio owners across the country.

Their goal: a national chain of yoga studios that, they say, will feature well-trained teachers and high-quality classes while preserving the authentic, community feel of a neighborhood studio.

Lichter and Wrubel don't offer many details of how they will go about that, however, and already some yogis -- as yoga practitioners are known -- are saying that the businessmen's plan for a branded national chain marks the beginning of the end for yoga as they know it. A corporate yoga business, they say, could drive many small studios out of business, squelch the creativity of yoga instruction and fuel the growing commercialism of what for many students is an intensely spiritual practice.

Their business is called Yoga Works, after the two Santa Monica studios they bought from Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty, two yoga pioneers who opened Yoga Works 18 years ago. Miller and Ezraty, who are moving to Hawaii, have trained some of the most prominent teachers in the country and are credited by many for setting the foundation for yoga in the United States.

Though athletic types may take up yoga to build buns of steel, many who gravitate to the discipline are spiritual seekers. Among other teachings, they cite the yoga sutras written in the 5th century BC by Patanjali, an Indian sage, which stress the importance of not giving in to greed and doing no harm to others. For frazzled urban dwellers, the yoga studio is often a calm retreat from a world of commercialism -- or at least it was.

When venture capitalists began calling yoga studios a few years ago, "you could see the writing on the wall," says Trisha Lamb, associate director of the Arizona-based International Assn. of Yoga Therapists. "It's America, after all," she says. "We commodify things here. We franchise."

Lichter says he understands. "Our biggest battle is the concept other people have of corporatization," he says. "We agree with them, and dislike that ourselves. It sounds hokey, but what we want is for people to check their fears about corporations at the door and pick up their hopes and dreams about what the future can be."

According to Yoga Journal magazine, 15 million people practice yoga in the United States, and market studies show that lots more want to try it.

Yoga is a 5,000-year-old physical and philosophical discipline from India that joins the mind and body together through breath work, or pranayama, and postures, or asanas. Diet, ethics, concentration and meditation are all components.

The number of gurus visiting from India, such as B.K.S. Iyengar, accelerated dramatically in the United States in the 1960s and '70s. Some studios were run like small ashrams, the place where Indians go to meditate and practice yoga. Often teachers were volunteers and classes were free; some owners lived on-site, cooking community meals.

These days, yoga seems more about fashion, comely figures and pop culture. L.A. women bound about town in form-fitting yoga garb from Lululemon, designer mats slung over their shoulders like chic accessories. Pop diva Madonna choreographed yoga poses into her recent Re-Invention tour. And Madison Avenue shows fit yoga moms piling the kids into Honda Odysseys.

Many yoga purists blame a guru named Bikram Choudhury for helping to strip American yoga of its spiritual dimensions. For nearly three decades Choudhury has taught his trademarked brand of sweaty yoga, in which practitioners execute a scripted sequence of 26 poses in rooms heated above 100 degrees. There are now 1,200 Bikram studios internationally, all independently owned and operated.

Choudhury, a native of India, has been teaching his form of yoga in the United States since the 1970s.

"I am doing it in America," says Choudhury. "So I am doing big business and selling it the American way."

When Choudhury organized the first World Yoga Championship in Los Angeles last year, awarding a two-week vacation and a $3,000 cash prize to the competitor with the best poses, many yogis were dismayed.

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