Stretching Out

Yoga is taking off—in its own quiet and relaxing way

October, 2006

For yoga instructor Mary Rain, it’s the scratching and fidgeting that gives them away. The “them” are her new students, usually downtown executives and office workers, who have a little difficulty relaxing after a hard day’s work.

Rain has seen plenty of fidgeting newcomers since she moved into her 770-square-foot studio, Open Space Yoga, on Nuuanu Avenue, a little less than a year ago. The New York native, who relocated to Hawaii in 2004, sees between 30 and 40 new students a week. She and her two instructors teach 25 classes a week and have approximately 700 students, 60 percent of whom are young, thirty-something professionals.“Just about every yoga class ends with savasana, also known as the corpse pose, in which you lay down as if you’re dead. You’re supposed to be totally relaxed,” says Rain. “The people working downtown have so much energy and have so much on their minds that they will start scratching themselves or looking around. They just can’t relax. But they eventually do, and the transformation is amazing.”

Relaxing is probably the furthest thing from Rain’s mind right now. Currently, she’s negotiating with her landlord to take over an adjoining 650-square-foot space, which would nearly double her capacity and necessitate hiring two more staff. She’s also contemplating opening a yoga retreat on the Big Island within the next three years, as well as eventually opening a studio in West Oahu.

“Two years ago, everyone thought I was crazy for wanting to move into Chinatown. ‘It’s all prostitutes and ice addicts,’ they told me,” says Rain, whose original location was on Maunakea Street. “But I had gone to First Friday, and I saw all the artists in the area and felt all this great energy. I’ve seen this [urban renewal] happen all the time in New York, so I wanted to get in now before the rents started going crazy.”

Rain’s little yoga boom is hardly limited to the suddenly hip and trendy Chinatown. According to “Yoga in America,” a 2005 study released by Yoga Journal magazine, Americans spend $2.95 billion a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, books and magazines. The 5,000-year-old Hindu discipline of contemplation and exercise is now practiced by more than 16.5 million people in the U.S., a 5.6 percent increase over the prior year and a 43 percent increase from 2002. Yoga’s fastest growing segment is the 18 to 24 age group, which increased by 46 percent in one year.

Rain believes the recent yoga surge is a reaction to increasingly hectic and complicated digital-based lifestyles. Working people, especially the younger generation, who are constantly connected to their workplace and the larger world, are finding yoga and unplugging their cell phones, iPods and the rest of their lives for a harmonious hour and a half.

“People are multitasking constantly. They never get a chance to decompress,” says Rain. “Even when you go to the gym the TVs are on, the music is blaring and everyone is checking you out. With yoga, it’s just you, the teacher and the mat.”

“My job can be stressful from time to time and yoga just takes you away from the whole day,” says Jeremy Watkins, a twenty-something naval officer who works in downtown Honolulu and has been practicing yoga for about a month. “With yoga, you get an hour or so of complete quiet.”

There are approximately two-dozen yoga studios on Oahu and an untold number of yoga instructors giving lessons in private clubs and public parks. There are no available statistics for the value of Hawaii’s yoga market or for the number of Island participants. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that Hawaii’s growing yoga world is mimicking the Mainland’s.

Like Open Space’s Rain, Rupali Embry is eyeing an adjoining space in her Kaimuki office building. In fact, she wouldn’t mind taking over the entire upper floor. The co-owner of Yoga Hawaii has been in business for eight years and has already expanded her 900-square-foot studio once. She, co-owner Tania Jo Ingrahm and their dozen or so instructors teach 27 classes a week and average approximately 300 to 400 different students a month. At Yoga Hawaii, classes cost $15 a session. Purchasing tickets for multiple classes will lower the cost to as little as $10 per session.

This year is shaping up to be Yoga Hawaii’s best ever. Although Embry declined to disclose specific revenue numbers, she did say that 2006’s gross sales from January through August were more than 50 percent higher than 2005’s numbers. While she hasn’t had time to do a thorough analysis, Embry believes that her company’s increases have been felt equally across the board (classes, workshops and retail). She also notes that two neighboring yoga studios are also thriving.

“We saw earlier on that if we increased a little more with each class, maybe as little as three more students each session, our overall numbers would increase noticeably,” says Embry. “In the last eight years, I’ve seen a drastic change in the demographics of yoga. It used to be just the hippies and freaks, of which I am one. But now, it’s much more mainstream.”

According to Embry, Yoga Hawaii’s biggest opportunity for growth comes from overseas, specifically Japan. Since 2004, Embry has been training and certifying yoga instructors from Japan. She conducts three month-long workshops three times a year. Each class has 20 students from Japan. A fourth workshop is for English-speaking students.

Embry says that her contacts in Japan have repeatedly offered to send more students to Hawaii, but she’s had to turn them down, because of a lack of space.

“If you think yoga is big here, in Japan it’s going crazy. I’ve had students who I’ve just trained, who don’t have much experience at all, turn around and open up a studio back in Japan,” says Embry. “Somehow we got in the good graces of the Japanese tour companies. They found us. Since then our connections have grown stronger and stronger. It’s probably going to be what fuels our growth in the future.”

Japan’s newfound love affair with yoga may also profoundly affect the bottom line of another Kaimuki business, just a half-a-block away from Yoga Hawaii.

Vanessa Beaton opened the yoga store Off the Mat three years ago, with about $50,000 in personal savings and a dream of owning her own business. At first thought, opening a yoga store seemed like a contradiction in terms for Beaton. Yoga, after all, is a discipline that stresses simplicity and nonattachment, both on and off the mat.

“I was very nervous about the whole thing, because the very idea of business goes against the spirit of yoga,” says Beaton. “But there was so much yoga-inspired fitness wear and products, such as CDs, DVDs and accessories all over the Internet. I just wanted to bring them all under one roof.”

According to Beaton, Off the Mat’s first days were lonely ones. Running the store by herself, her gross sales averaged from between $5,000 and $6,000 a month. But word of her store, the only one of its kind on the island, spread along with the popularity of yoga. Today, Off the Mat’s sales have quadrupled and Beaton has two part-time staff, who help her man the cash register. In addition, this year’s gross sales are on track to be 20 percent higher than 2005’s. Next year’s sales will, in all likelihood, exceed 2006’s impressive numbers.

Early this fall, Beaton signed a contract with a Japanese distribution company to develop a line of active wear over the next three years. The company distributes its products in more than 1,800 stores in Japan.

“The Japanese found me. They just started coming to the store. Now, I get contacted almost weekly by a different Japanese magazine wanting to do some editorial on our store,” says Beaton. “It’s all very exciting. We have visions of opening more stores, maybe on the Neighbor Islands, but I want to see how this thing with Japan goes.”

Even though business is going well, Beaton has one regret. She hasn’t been able to do much yoga lately. “At one point I was going three to five times a week. But right now I have an infant, so I practice at home,” says Beaton. “There is a lot more that I can do, but it’s been a business that I’ve gone slow with. When I opened the store, my intention was to spread the practice of yoga, not get rich, which I’m not. So I try not to focus too much on our revenues, otherwise I’d be stressed out all the time.”


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