"Virtual" yoga studio could also benefit suppliers, retailers

With the unveiling of an online yoga "studio" that supplies nearly everything a brick-and-mortar studio might, SNEWS® decided to find out if it's a new trend that's here to stay and how purveyors of education and product think it might affect their business.
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With the unveiling of an online yoga "studio" that supplies nearly everything a brick-and-mortar studio might, SNEWS® decided to find out if it's a new trend that's here to stay and how purveyors of education and product think it might affect their business.

The Yoga Learning Center (YLC - www.yogalearningcenter.com) is the first online site to offer unlimited access to a library of videos, articles and advice, as well as an interactive forum and asana (posture) information -- all for a monthly fee equivalent to the price of a single video. Live since January, YLC is leading the charge into a new virtual fitness market that could bump growth of yoga participation and related retail sales beyond their already impressive numbers.

According to Yoga Journal, over 15 million Americans were practicing yoga by summer 2003, a 30 percent increase from summer 2002. YLC founder Mia Taylor saw the trend, envisioned the virtual possibilities, and seized the opportunity to embark on her entrepreneurial venture.

"Online yoga is a new idea for us," said Mike Hill, marketing director at Prana, yoga clothing and accessory manufacturer. "If it gives new practitioners the chance to get their feet wet, it's a great service…though the community aspect of yoga, the physical, emotional, human connection of everybody in one room is really important to us."

Although a new teacher herself, Taylor is committed to bringing people to yoga through various venues, including the classroom and her own virtual video library. The questions remain, how big will virtual yoga become and who will reap the benefits? YLC was the first, but there are others entering the marketplace. As far as yoga study, Hill thinks virtual yoga could support local studios by bringing in new students who got their intro online. As far as product sales, Hill can only imagine the eventual effects.

"We prefer to work with local shops and studios to bring our product to yogis," Hill said. "Right now, we use online sales to fill the gaps."

But not all manufacturers are as committed to specialty retailers. And Hill leaves the door open, even for Prana.

"As far as yoga product, it's carried by outdoor and fitness retailers. But there isn't an EMS or Sports Authority type retailer that specializes in yoga gear," he said. "It's likely someone will fill this niche. If online yoga becomes the next big thing, it's likely that niche will be filled by an e-tailer."

Not to say that other possibilities aren't open for partnerships. If a brick-and-mortar studio can carry books, clothes and other fitness paraphernalia to support its business and add a convenience and value to its customers, so could an online teaching venue. Already, YLC sells educational products, such as DVDs and music and YLC-branded sticky mats made by U.S.-based Nu-Source Inc. Taylor and her partner/husband plan to expand into a proprietary private label line of apparel and other yoga lifestyle e-tail goods, but right now are restricted by storage and fulfillment capacity.

"The avenues leading to yoga are widening," said Dana Macy, Yoga Journal's communications director. "It can only mean that yoga sales will go up. But how much online yoga will impact retail sales is anyone's guess. It's so new, we just don't know."

SNEWS® View: YLC could be poised for success. If Taylor watches what she says (in the yoga world, respect for senior teachers is of the utmost importance), adds depth to her collection of yoga videos, and opens her mind to popular mainstream forms, she'll have her business leg behind her head before others can touch their yoga website toes. With the ever-expanding horizons of online possibilities, this could be the start of an educational trend, just as some are dabbling with online personal training. Plus, it's an opportunity for creative retailers and manufacturers who understand how yogis may use online studios and the gear that they'll need to practice.

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