State of the studio: Deb Sommerhalder makes small-town Midwestern yoga work with a slower pace and aerials

In this new series, SNEWS Yoga talks to studio owners around the nation about their business, their successes, challenges and opportunities ahead.
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In 2004, Deb Sommerhalder was driving home from her job working in admin for the local parks and rec and had a vision that she was supposed to open a yoga studio. That might be no big deal in San Francisco or Boulder, Colo. but in Oshkosh, Wis., it was a different proposition.

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Sommerhalder, who had already been trained as a yoga teacher and comes from a family of entrepreneurs, was undeterred. She named the studio Inner Sun because she wanted to keep it in one with the spiritual tradition of yoga. She envisioned a safe, nurturing space that would offer a physical form of yoga and appeal to diverse levels of practitioners.

Inner Sun offers Hatha flow yoga, but it’s not a power studio: “For my community, people want to slow down. They’re so busy. They look at yoga as a way to take a break. They want it to be physical but not necessarily hot,” she tells us. The studio also offers aerial courses, which Sommerhalder sees as a way to make the practice easier rather than a circus challenge.

Is it difficult to run a yoga studio in the middle of the country?
I’m an entrepreneur. I can’t see myself going back to anything corporate. The studio is a lot of work but, as a studio owner, you have to have a certain drive. The business has its up and downs, especially where I live since we are driven by the weather. The business peaks November through March. Over five years, it’s actually done pretty well — every year I see growth, not huge growth, but a slow steady climb. That’s fine by me. We don’t have 30-40 people in a class, but that means you can really connect with the students.

How do you build yoga community?
It’s really hard, at least where I am. I go out and do corporate yoga sessions when they have wellness days. I have a booth and talk about yoga, but I very rarely get people from those events to come in. So for this studio referrals are still the best. When people are ready, they will come. If someone makes them come in they won’t come in. To go out and spend a lot of time and energy on the general public can be a waste of time and energy. I’m better off being in studio and working with my community, making them advocates.

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What new trends are working for you?
Here, gentle energy works, flow, things that are accessible to the general population. I think people back off from the extreme yoga. We are old, married people — our bodies can’t do that. I have also been really driven to Bhakti Yoga. I think that is a trend. It feels so good just to sing. And I think there are ways now to make it more accessible. You can bring in English to explain a bit more. It can also be more mainstream with pop music. It can be fun and dance not overly serious chants. The younger generation can relate, too. There can be a disco light and big parties. Aerial yoga has been a big success. The teachers all ring so much energy. They are all so willing to come to the classes, to assist, to learn more. Aerial has just been fantastic. I invested to set it all up and couldn’t be happier. It sounds extreme but it can be quite soothing — you can get into poses in the air, like inversions, that you can’t on the ground, without forcing anything.

What’s your biggest challenge?
Just retaining clients. People come and go and you feel sad when they leave. You try not to take personally. We all love yoga so it’s hard to understand why someone would not. There are so many studios and the majority of people don’t do it or won’t because, you know, this is a blue-collar community. Competition is tough. When someone else starts offering free yoga, well, I’m not going there. We don’t do hot power and it seems everyone wants hot power. It’s, sadly, a competition.

Have you found any unique ways to bring people in?
One thing we have been doing is flash mobs around town, flash-mob mediations in random places. People are rally responding well to that. You have to find the right places to be open to that but often if people see you they say to themselves, “hey, that person is so happy, so calm.”

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What works best for you in retail?
A lot of trial and error. I have been though many mats, and have stuck with selling just one brand. As far as clothes go, it’s hard. You need the right sizes and the markup is tough. I do some logo wear but, again, it’s hard to order sizes. It’s important to carry mats though because eventually new students realize that cheap mat won’t do.

How do you find your teachers?
That’s a tough one, especially here. You get a good team of experienced practitioners, you get attached to them, and then they move on. Sometimes they start their own studios. Replacing them is tough. It’s a small community so there aren’t a lot of teachers knocking on the door. I wish there were more. I end up teaching more classes than I want to — I mean, seriously, no one can sub? Where I live, the teachers just do it as a little extra job. Most have full-time jobs outside of yoga, which means they have a limited schedule. And I don’t want teachers right out of yoga school or teachers who teach so much they don’t have time for their own practice. The aerial teachers are different, though. I haven’t seen such energy in a long time.

--Doug Schnitzspahn

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