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Interview: Michelle Sarchiapone- The People’s Yoga

Interview with Michelle Sarchiapone, owner of The People’s Yoga 6/9/10

RS: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is the accessibility of yoga. It’s become an industry and pastime that has an image attached to it that tends to appeal mostly to certain demographics, yet at its heart it’s a practice that could be beneficial to everyone. Beyond all the products attached to it, which really aren’t necessary to own in order to practice, I think that most teachers and studio owners want to make classes appealing and available to everyone without veering too far away from the core principles of yoga philosophy. How do you as a studio owner and proponent of community priced yoga address that?

MS: I kind of see the yoga industry as a reflection of everything else that is going on in society. A few years ago when there was a boom in real estate and the financial industry and everything was becoming commercially marketed, yoga was one of those things. All of a sudden it just exploded and became very popular and there was a lot of money to be made. So the idea of yoga became something that was packaged and marketed and sold to the public in a way that happened to be fairly expensive…

People came to expect certain things in yoga studios; they wanted bamboo floors, a giant buddha statue, a sauna, showers, tea…  And that’s all great. It’s amazing to walk in to your yoga studio and feel like you’re on retreat or something, but then essentially the studio is pricing for a lot more than just the classes, and that price tag will exclude a lot of the community and in some ways I think the image of it all moves away from the essential purpose of the practice in the first place. I had dreamed of opening a low-cost studio for years, sans all the marketability and the stuff that came with it.

My original intention was to open a studio in Baltimore, or on the east coast in more needy, more impoverished cities and to make it accessible to people of color, transgendered people, spanish-speaking communities and the segments of the society that definitely were not being served by the popular model of yoga studios at that time. I carried around that vision for years and I asked people to participate with me and lots of people were supportive but no one really wanted to get into it. Then I did my teacher training at Yoga Pearl and when I finished I just didn’t know where I wanted to be or where I wanted to teach. I personally have felt like an outsider in many studios for whatever reason, I’ve had a pretty colorful past… And so I carried that with me and I never quite felt a sense of belonging, but I was looking for it.

One day I was walking along with a friend and I said “I’m just gonna do it, I’m just going to open a studio.” I found a space on Alberta (street) and luckily the landlord was a hippy who didn’t care if I didn’t know a thing about business, and didn’t make me pay a security deposit and just let me move in, and that’s how we came to be. I mean I knew nothing about making it work, I just knew what I wanted to charge and who I wanted to serve and I was extraordinarily idealistic, I thought everyone was going to really appreciate what I was doing, even the other yoga studios I thought would really appreciate it, and then I came to realize that was not the case, because it’s threatening. You know other studios have worked really hard to build their client base and then I came in offering yoga at half their price, and there was this fear that I would take the students. But actually that didn’t happen and my original intention did happen- the people that previously were unable to take classes came, there were artists and musicians and minorities and all these people who also hadn’t felt like they belonged in other studios and that’s not to say that’s right or wrong, but that’s just the way it was… and we’ve created our own little space and now there are lots of people who say “I feel like this is home for me, I really feel like I belong here. I can walk in here and feel like this is my place.” so I’ve done my purpose i guess.

RS: How did you start to practice yoga?

MS: I had spent most of my twenties severely depressed and extraordinarily angry and I started practicing because my friend who had been struggling with an addiction for a long time had gone to a retreat and had learned some yoga. She came back and she told me about it and kept saying “You should really do this.” Finally I found this $5 drop-in studio and I started going there. I was naturally flexible and I found it really easy right away so when I began I was very competitive with myself, and for maybe the first three years I was pretty much focused on the poses and trying to perfect them.

After I began to practice I noticed that I wasn’t as reactive to things, I wasn’t as depressed or having as many severe depressive episodes and I felt like I could get some distance between my myself and what was going on for me emotionally. It just kind of lessoned what was going on at that time which was a lot of depression, anxiety… It wasn’t all better, but it was definitely more manageable than it had been before and it wasn’t consuming me anymore. For the first few years I was just there, or I thought I was just there to exercise. I really wasn’t even doing anything else at the time, I wasn’t studying philosophy or meditating. I don’t think I even understood the breathing for a few years, I was just doing the asana and I was there for exercise and to perfect poses. But the other benefits came anyway and I remember that when I started doing it all the time I started telling everyone about it. It was such a grounding influence in my life.

Three years later I moved to Portland I was exposed to a lot of different teachers and teaching styles, but even before that that I was noticing other kinds of changes. I was more capable of dealing with stress and I became calmer, less angry and less depressed. None of that happened because I was making any attempt to do any of it, it just came from practicing.

RS: How has being a teacher or a studio owner affected your practice?

MS: Simply studying so much and taking a path that requires so much self-study has really transformed the way I practice and teach. Having the opportunity to look at students bodies and to observe them… You know sometimes there are have things about ourselves that we have a hard time admitting or seeing, but when we see it in someone else then we can say, “Hey wait a second, that feels really familiar, I can relate to that.” And so we learn a lot about ourselves watching other people. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my practice from my students.
Being a studio owner has been interesting in that I have learned what I value in teachers and what I admire, and I have adopted a lot of that in my own practice.

RS: What about the aspect of karma yoga (selfless service), do you feel that there is an element of that with the studio?

MS: Oh yeah! I didn’t get paid for a year and a half! and even now we’re not really bringing that much in. But I’m thrilled every day that we’re doing it. I’m so happy to be in this space, I’m so happy to feel like I’ve found some balance between financially supporting myself and staying true to my original intention and I feel like I’ve stayed on track and it’s been amazing. I feel really lucky.

RS: What was your vision for the future of People’s Yoga?

MS: I really like what we’re doing now! I would eventually like to be able to offer a teacher training at lower cost. I would really like to have guest teachers come in and offer their time and do workshops that are also at a lower cost. But for the time being I really just like what we’re doing and I just want it be sustainable and what will come will come and I’ll know it when it meets me.

RS: What is your vision for the future of community yoga studios in general?

MS: It’s interesting because I get contacted all the time now from people starting studios. When we started, I searched the internet and I searched all over to find other studios that were doing similar things and found like, four. I mean, it was really slim pickings. I had one woman in Arizona from Tuscan Yoga who kind of mentored me through the process and since then I’ve had all these people contacting me from all over the country and asking me to mentor them, so it seems to be growing and everybody wants to know ‘how to do it’.

I don’t really know how… I mean, I think it’s got to be unique to each place. But I think we’re seeing a movement away from a mass commercialization of yoga and I think that in the future there’s going to be a seesawing where people will be trying to find their place, their financial footing, and trying to figure out how to stay alive as a business and still stay in-line with the values that yoga imparts. I think it will all wash out in a few years and we’ll find a middle ground, but I’m not really sure what that looks like yet.

I think that everyone who’s doing the community yoga right now is trying different things and eventually they’ll settle on a model that works. In the meantime there are some successes and some failures, some studios do donation or they do $6, $8 or $10 drop-ins or scholarships. Everyone is doing different things and we’ll find what works best eventually. At The Peoples Yoga our price was originally $6, then I went to sliding-scale ($6-$8), now it’s $8 to drop in, but people can become members for $55 a month and come as much as they want or we do discounted class cards if people buy 5 or 10 classes at a time, and we have scholarships available for people who can’t afford those options.

Have you had that many people apply for scholarships?

MS: We have some regular students that we support every month through scholarship and trade. I probably give out five or six scholarships a month. I haven’t had to turn anybody away, which is great, and everyone that has gotten one has used it.

RS: What is entailed in a scholarship? And what do you trade?

MS: They’re awarded on basis of need. Pretty much they’ll get $40-$50 and they can choose to purchase a 10-class card with that or an unlimited monthly membership. So if they purchase an unlimited monthly then it will cost them $5. If they don’t come as often and then want a 10-class card then it’s $20. So they get that option and they’ll get that credit for every month that they apply for it.

Pretty much all the services that we need that we can trade, we trade; our construction, web design, photography… You name it, I’ll trade it! That means it takes months to get things done, but it does get done!  And since we’re doing yoga then we’re also practicing patience and contentment while we wait!

The People’s Yoga is located at 3016 NE Killingsworth St. in Portland, OR
All classes are $8. Scholarships are available.

The yoga industry is booming. In 2009 Americans spent an estimated $5.7 Billion on yoga and yoga related products like clothes, DVDs and books, that’s a figure that’s up 87% from 2004. 72% of those spending are women, 71% are college educated and 44% have household incomes of $75,000 or more. (From the “Yoga in America” Survey conducted by Harris Interactive Service Bureau on behalf of Yoga Journal)

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