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Assuming the Profit Position

Times Staff Writer

When software was hot, they worked at an educational software company for kids. And when the Internet went wild, they worked together at one of the earliest search engines. When that boom busted, entrepreneurs George Lichter and Rob Wrubel went searching for the next big thing.

They looked for a wide-open market, ripe to be plucked. And all the while they worked through their own stress-related ailments with deep breathing, sun salutations and downward-facing dogs.

Then it hit them what their next business should be: yoga.

That was 2001. With a group of investors, they began snapping up some of the nation’s oldest, most prestigious yoga studios, including Yoga Works in Santa Monica and the Center for Yoga in the Larchmont district, considered the first eclectic yoga studio in Los Angeles. They recently bought five studios in Manhattan, including four Be Yoga studios. That brings the total to 15 so far. They plan to open a new studio in West Hollywood this fall and are talking to studio owners across the country.

Their goal: a national chain of yoga studios that, they say, will feature well-trained teachers and high-quality classes while preserving the authentic, community feel of a neighborhood studio.

Lichter and Wrubel don’t offer many details of how they will go about that, however, and already some yogis -- as yoga practitioners are known -- are saying that the businessmen’s plan for a branded national chain marks the beginning of the end for yoga as they know it. A corporate yoga business, they say, could drive many small studios out of business, squelch the creativity of yoga instruction and fuel the growing commercialism of what for many students is an intensely spiritual practice.

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Their business is called Yoga Works, after the two Santa Monica studios they bought from Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty, two yoga pioneers who opened Yoga Works 18 years ago. Miller and Ezraty, who are moving to Hawaii, have trained some of the most prominent teachers in the country and are credited by many for setting the foundation for yoga in the United States.

Though athletic types may take up yoga to build buns of steel, many who gravitate to the discipline are spiritual seekers. Among other teachings, they cite the yoga sutras written in the 5th century BC by Patanjali, an Indian sage, which stress the importance of not giving in to greed and doing no harm to others. For frazzled urban dwellers, the yoga studio is often a calm retreat from a world of commercialism -- or at least it was.

When venture capitalists began calling yoga studios a few years ago, “you could see the writing on the wall,” says Trisha Lamb, associate director of the Arizona-based International Assn. of Yoga Therapists. “It’s America, after all,” she says. “We commodify things here. We franchise.”

Lichter says he understands. “Our biggest battle is the concept other people have of corporatization,” he says. “We agree with them, and dislike that ourselves. It sounds hokey, but what we want is for people to check their fears about corporations at the door and pick up their hopes and dreams about what the future can be.”

According to Yoga Journal magazine, 15 million people practice yoga in the United States, and market studies show that lots more want to try it.

Yoga is a 5,000-year-old physical and philosophical discipline from India that joins the mind and body together through breath work, or pranayama, and postures, or asanas. Diet, ethics, concentration and meditation are all components.

The number of gurus visiting from India, such as B.K.S. Iyengar, accelerated dramatically in the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s. Some studios were run like small ashrams, the place where Indians go to meditate and practice yoga. Often teachers were volunteers and classes were free; some owners lived on-site, cooking community meals.

These days, yoga seems more about fashion, comely figures and pop culture. L.A. women bound about town in form-fitting yoga garb from Lululemon, designer mats slung over their shoulders like chic accessories. Pop diva Madonna choreographed yoga poses into her recent Re-Invention tour. And Madison Avenue shows fit yoga moms piling the kids into Honda Odysseys.

Many yoga purists blame a guru named Bikram Choudhury for helping to strip American yoga of its spiritual dimensions. For nearly three decades Choudhury has taught his trademarked brand of sweaty yoga, in which practitioners execute a scripted sequence of 26 poses in rooms heated above 100 degrees. There are now 1,200 Bikram studios internationally, all independently owned and operated.

Choudhury, a native of India, has been teaching his form of yoga in the United States since the 1970s.

“I am doing it in America,” says Choudhury. “So I am doing big business and selling it the American way.”

When Choudhury organized the first World Yoga Championship in Los Angeles last year, awarding a two-week vacation and a $3,000 cash prize to the competitor with the best poses, many yogis were dismayed.

“Yoga is not a mass practice,” says Deborah Willoughby, founding editor of Yoga International magazine. “It is a direct transmission from teacher to student. And asana [the physical practice] is only one part of it.”

It’s not surprising that yoga is attracting increasing corporate attention, given its demographics. People who practice yoga tend to be affluent, well educated and predominantly female: 30% of yoga practitioners have an annual income of $75,000 or more, according to a 2003 market survey by Yoga Journal magazine.

Although independent market statistics are hard to come by, an article in 2002 in Yoga Journal estimated that the average yoga practitioner spends $1,500 a year on instruction, mats, clothing, weekend retreats, CDs and videos. And many people see the market for yoga expanding as research bears out what many yogis have long claimed: that the practice can help reduce symptoms of such medical conditions as asthma, back pain, depression and heart disease. Indeed, mainstream physicians are more likely today to recommend yoga to patients as a potentially helpful therapy.

Opening a yoga studio requires little overhead. Teachers do not need much more than an empty room and some mats, blankets, ropes and blocks. Classes usually range from $11 to $16 a session; the teachers themselves may earn as little as $25 a class. A studio with popular teachers and well-attended classes might have a market value of as much as $400,000, a price that often does not include the property itself.

But the typical independent studio owner, while passionate about yoga, may not have the skills for balancing the books or managing a group of instructors. Studios open and close, making it difficult for yoga instructors -- a number of whom in L.A. are underemployed actors and actresses -- to get steady work.

“Yoga is like the new ‘waiting tables,’ ” says Anthony Benenati, owner of City Yoga in West Hollywood.

Most yogis agree that a shakedown is occurring in the yoga world, especially as more gyms offer yoga classes with membership.

Into this Darwinian environment enter Lichter and Wrubel, who first met at Knowledge Adventure, an educational software firm. There they helped create the highly successful “Jumpstart” computer software for preschoolers and school-age children. Later they went to work for Ask Jeeves, one of the first Internet search engines. Wrubel was the company’s chief executive when the firm initially sold stock to the public, and Lichter headed the company’s international operations.

By the end of their run at Ask Jeeves, Lichter was hobbled by low-back pain; Wrubel’s weight had soared to 200 pounds and he had developed high blood pressure. After trying a variety of alternative therapies, they discovered yoga, which they credit with helping to change their lives.

Now they contend that their company will change other people’s lives and make the world a better place. Their goal, they say, is to bring more yoga to more people.

“If you believe in yoga as passionately as we do, you want to eliminate all factors that keep people from doing this,” says Lichter. “We are evangelical about this.”

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Lichter, 53, and Wrubel, 43, are almost studiously laid-back, and they dress the part for their foray into the yoga world. They are fit and look younger than their ages. During meetings with a reporter, Lichter, a former entertainment lawyer, wore Prana pants and a turtle pendant on a leather cord around his neck. Wrubel has an open face and the rumpled look of a perpetual graduate student that belies his business savvy.

After Yoga Works acquired the Center for Yoga, Lichter and Wrubel tried to assuage fears and preempt the questions and rumors they knew would come.

“Do we have plans on becoming a Wal-Mart or Starbucks of Yoga?” they asked rhetorically in a four-page, single-spaced letter to students at the Center for Yoga. “Definitely not. This is probably the hardest thing for us to hear.”

That has not stopped some students and teachers from grumbling about the coming of McYoga.

“To have a brand is to be recognizable,” says Mark Stephens, who invited Lichter and Wrubel to buy his financially troubled L.A. Yoga Center this spring. “McDonald’s has the golden arches, Bikram has 26 poses, and Yoga Works has a blend. Yoga is becoming hardened. What was once fun becomes homogenized.”

Yoga Works bought the studio, but Stephens had to sign a contract not to teach yoga in Los Angeles County for two years.

At the Center for Yoga, changes can already be seen. The studio store is slicker and better stocked, there is a new station where patrons can listen to CDs, and walls and tables are papered with advertisements for Yoga Works events.

Most instructors will have to go through Yoga Works teacher training, even those who have taught for decades. The intensive training includes the Yoga Works approaches to anatomy and philosophy and how to teach and sequence a class and read a student’s body.

“If they make this a standardized practice with a box mentality, I don’t think they will produce free-spirited teachers,” says Subhadra Griffiths, a teacher at Yoga Works and founder of Yoga Angels, a program that provides instruction for children. “I don’t think they will produce people who are self-empowered and strong and [who] will take yoga -- the art -- to the next level.”

Lichter and Wrubel are “really nice guys,” says Frank White, 84, a teacher at the Center for Yoga known for his enthusiasm and devoted following. But, he adds, “I have the feeling that if Mr. Iyengar himself came from India, they would probably have him go to teacher training.”

Wrubel says, “It is not like people will have to retrain from the beginning. It will be more like a professional course, modified and adapted to the experience of these teachers.”

Ganga White, the founder of the Center for Yoga in 1967, says “a lot remains to be seen.”

“Yoga is a lot about the teacher-student relationship,” he says. “When you are a big business and a big corporation, a lot of times the bottom line is drawn above the heart.”

Lichter and Wrubel say their efforts have helped keep some financially struggling studios afloat such as Westwood’s L.A. Yoga Center, and the Center for Yoga in Larchmont.

Even yogis such as Randi Beck of Orange County and Alan Finger in New York, whose studios were doing well, say they were relieved to sell to Lichter and Wrubel.

“It is too hard to be a complete yogi and help people and direct them and help them evolve, and to think about how to pay the rent and how to fix the floors,” said Finger, a patriarch of the yoga movement who is often referred to as the first yoga millionaire.

Many studios would likely welcome a buyout offer, says Julie Deife, publisher of L.A. Yoga magazine. “With the economy the way it is,” she says, “I don’t think there are a lot of studios that, if they were given a big, fat check, wouldn’t take it.”

Lichter and Wrubel declined to discuss how much they paid for studios. As a condition of their contracts, studio owners are forbidden to disclose the financial details of their sale or say anything negative to the media, according to one ex-owner who asked to remain anonymous.

Some teachers have chosen to leave rather than work for a chain. “I am completely for anyone trying to bring more yoga to more people,” says Christine Burke, who left Yoga Works to open Liberation Yoga at Y.M.I. with her husband, Gary McCleery, a few miles away on La Brea Avenue.

“But when you start to create a super-competitive market, you are starting to get into a sketchy area -- if you are trying to align that with the principles of yoga.”

Wrubel and Lichter liken their business model to Whole Foods, the health food chain that brought organic produce to many communities.

“In some ways, I feel like we are pioneers,” says Wrubel. “We are trying to figure this out on the fly, set against a backdrop of globalization and a lot of other things. We are part of a revolutionary change in America, in the business and cultural world.”

Ganga White, now owner of the White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, has watched the transformation of yoga in the United States since the 1970s and believes the practice is better than ever today, because of the constant change.

“Yoga is an evolving, changing science,” he says. “I think it will grow into something far beyond anything we can envision. We are in the caterpillar stage, and we have a butterfly growing. I’m sure Yoga Works thinks they are the butterfly. But we don’t know that yet.”


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