State of the studio: Kathleen Holm talks Yoga Flow SF and the goal of creating 400 million yogis

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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On September 11, 2001, Kathleen Holm was working as a graphic designer in Jersey City, just across the Hudson from Manhattan. She witnessed the second plane hit the World Trade Center from here office. Four days later, she was laid off from work.

The only solace she found was in her yoga practice and within a month, she was working for the famed Jivamukti Yoga School and teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life. Her yoga experience had been limited up to that point, but she immersed herself in the practice, working to become a teacher and then the operations manager of a studio within a year.

Kathleen Holm with her husband Steven and two children.

Kathleen Holm with her husband Steven and two children.

In 2005, she and her husband Steven, a firefighter who had also re-immersed himself in yoga practice, moved to San Francisco, where Kathleen took a job as general manager of the Yoga Tree studios. In 2011, the couple got the opportunity to buy Aha Yoga Studio on Union. Their dream to “help create 400 million yogis by the year 2020 was afoot. By 2012 the couple purchased a second studio, Yoga Flow SF Ocean, with the goal of building a franchise model with the mission of giving all those yogis a daily practice. Aha has now changed its name to Yoga Flow SF Union and Kathleen is a popular speaker at the Yoga Journal Conference.

She took the time to talk to SNEWS, while in the midst of managing the studios and watching her two young children, about what it takes to build a business with that type of commitment.

How much work has it taken to get the business running over the past four years?
It’s constantly growing. Aha was poorly managed before we took over. It was a great location with fabulous teachers, but it wasn’t managed well at all from the business end. I think that as we grown, it’s important to remember that what we are selling here is not just a purchase decision, like in most businesses, but a lifestyle habit. Doing it on out own has been incredibly challenging. The most important thing has been to listen to our students and then share who we are and what we stand for.

We are lucky, too, because the Yoga Flow SF Ocean studio is in an incredibly beautiful building. It was originally a Masonic hall. It’s 2,100 square with high ceilings. We have programmable LED lighting, so that we can change the lights with a color wheel. We have infrared radiant heat and two subwoofers. We also offer childcare, which has been amazing for the community. We just want to make sure the kids have a great experience while the moms and dads get their chance to practice.

 Yoga Flow SF - Ocean

Yoga Flow SF - Ocean

Where do you see new energy coming in to yoga?
Festivals. There are yoga festivals every weekend. I think that’s great. Every day we gather new students through online deals. It’s a double-edged sword, but our space holds 120 people at the Ocean location. I might not make money from Groupon, but it’s marketing.

What challenges do yoga studios face these days?
Just staying ahead of the competition. I think there are seven studios on Union St. within a half mile. The biggest challenge becomes keeping your teachers happy and keeping your vision clean and unique. From a business end, it’s pivotal to develop your operations and processes. You need to outline everything for every person every time of day. Even though we are a mom-and-pop business, we need to create accountability. It creates a cluster if you are too laid back. A yoga studio is a business.

How do you keep the teachers happy?
We pay them well. We listen to them. We market them. We allow them to use our space — we split it with them, but offer them the space to explore other areas of teaching and be inspired. We are also developing an iPhone app with video content. So that’s something unique for them. I have interviewed over 500 potential teachers and once the teaching baseline has been established (200-500 hours of training, taught for a couple years) it’s just about their energy and attitude. I know within 30 seconds if they are there right fit.

Teacher Mike Richardson leads a class at Yoga Flow SF - Ocean.

Teacher Mike Richardson leads a class at Yoga Flow SF - Ocean.

Tell us about your 400 million yogis goal for the practice.
You hear so much uproar about how mainstream and watered down yoga is becoming. We want to cast a wider net to attract more people with 400 million yogis by the year 2020. As far as I am concerned, yoga always comes back to the basic elements: connect to breath and be mindful of movement. As long as you do that, then it’s yoga. I don’t care if it’s yoga and chocolate or yoga and rafting. Maybe you will become distracted but I want to distract you with something that inspires you and then bring you back to your self.

So we are just starting to scratch the surface on who does yoga. To get that feeling you need to practice three to five to seven days a week. You need community. When it comes down to it I would love to see as many yoga studios as fast food chains. My husband likes to say yoga should be as popular as brushing your teeth — you need to move your body to get it clean.

Any advice for someone who is thinking about starting their own yoga studio?
The most important thing is that buying an existing student base is a lot easier than starting from scratch. And if you do that, it’s important that the student base be in the same lineage of yoga you provide. Don’t buy an Iyengar studio and change it to Vinyassa. Another important thing for me, personally, has been to realize that to run the business and to teach is incredibly hard. When you focus on teaching you get a lot more connected to you and what you are offering instead of all the classes and all the teachers. It’s really important to step back and let other people teach. My role is support. Another big thing to keep in mind — if you are entering an LLC or other partnerships, spend money on a good attorney. It will be worth it. The same with a good accountant. You need someone who can handle the day-to-day books in order to know how to grow your business.

--Doug Schnitzspahn

Know of a yoga studio business SNEWS Yoga should profile? Let us know! We're looking for studio owners who want to share their story and perspective.

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