Yoga Alliance Works to Serve Teachers and Studios in Hosting the Business of Yoga Conference
The Yoga Alliance is hosting its first big conference to build community and serve yoga teachers and studios. Elephant Journal spoke with the President Richard Karpel and Sarah Fishman, who assisted in planning this event, to better understand how this came about and what the goals of the conference are.
Read on to get to know Richard a little better and see what this weekend offers to all of us who teach and work in the yoga community.
How does the upcoming conference fulfill your vision for the Yoga Alliance?
RK: Yoga Alliance has always been a credentialing organization and now we’re also making it a nonprofit association for yoga teachers, schools and studios. The most important role an association serves—more important even than things like member benefits and government relations—is to build a community that professionals can tap into to learn from their peers and receive support and emotional sustenance.
For Yoga Alliance, the community will eventually take many forms—local, national international as well as virtual and face-to-face. The Business of Yoga Conference will be the primary annual event for our national, face-to-face community.
The Conference is also one of our first big opportunities to begin serving yoga studio owners and managers. They have a tough job and they need help. If we’re going to fulfill our mission of spreading the power of yoga, we need to have as many yoga studios as possible providing their customers with an enriching, transformative experience. We need them to be making enough money to be able to support themselves and their families and to pay good wages to yoga teachers. We need them to understand marketing and sales and administration and all of the other things one needs to know to build a sustainable business.
The Business of Yoga Conference will be our first big opportunity to do that.
How did you decide who will present? Was there an application? Any specific criteria?
RK: For a number of reasons, we didn’t have much time to put the program together this year. So we didn’t have a formal application process, which we will have for next year’s conference. But we did a member survey asking for feedback, and we received a lot of great ideas and general programming direction from our Schools and Studios Committee—they came up with the idea for our Studio Makeover contest and session, for instance. Then we turned it all over to Sarah Fishman and said: Make this happen! How did you make it happen Sarah?
SF: Well, given the conference goal to elevate the business practices and increase the profitability of yoga teachers and studio owners, the focus for all conference presentations had to be on the unique challenges of being a yoga professional, and how “career yogis” may better spread the practice of yoga and develop a sustainable and thriving yoga school, studio, or personal business.
We started by reaching out to the presenters that the Schools and Studios Committee had suggested, and from the committee and the member survey we also had a solid directive about specific topics we wanted to cover. We considered and accepted proposals from all over the country—many people contacted us directly after hearing about the conference—but we also made an effort to engage and highlight the talents of local yogis and businesspeople right here in the DC area and along the east coast.
Do you foresee doing an annual conference or one every few years?
RK: Yes, we will do an annual conference, and as part of that conference we will have a membership meeting during which we present the organization’s strategic plan, financials and other important issues—and the members will have an opportunity to respond and provide feedback to me and the board of directors. That is basic Trade Association 101 kind of stuff. And when we look back in 20 years, there will be a group of Yoga Alliance members who will be able to say, “I’ve been to every Yoga Alliance annual conference. Haven’t missed one in 20 years.”
Those will be the leaders and the core members of the organization. I’ve been leading membership associations for over 25 years; in the immortal words of Montell Jordan, This is How We Do It. It will take some time to develop a membership culture within Yoga Alliance, but I have absolutely no doubt that we will get there.
By the way, I’m also convinced that our Business of Yoga conference is going to be huge. It will also take some time to build, but I will be surprised if within five years everyone in the yoga community is aware of the conference and we don’t have thousands of attendees and a huge trade show.
What is your hope for the conference? What do you hope attendees will leave with from the experience?
RK: I hope that attendees will leave with additional business skills and at least one great idea that will repay their investment in the conference a hundred times over. I also hope they get their batteries recharged and return to work inspired and with a head of steam that helps them grow their business and spread the power of yoga to those who don’t get it yet. And I hope those who feel queasy about mixing yoga and business leave with the understanding that when business is conducted properly the two can be a beautiful match.
SF: If yoga professionals can find a sustainable, profitable way to run a business that does not compromise the essence of yoga itself, we can be leaders and set an example for the business world. There are many different ways to approach this, and our goal is to present several different perspectives and methods so conference attendees can find the right fit for them and for their business, and have a chance to network and talk it all out with others dealing with the same challenges. My hope is that all who attend will be inspired, and leave this conference with a better sense of community, the knowledge that they are a part of something bigger, and a new kit of tools to enhance the amazing work they are doing in their own communities.
How long was this in the making? Tell me what seed inspired this event?
RK: The great majority of yoga teachers and studio owners who have made yoga their business or profession have done so due to their passion for yoga, not to make a killing in business. When I joined the organization last year, it quickly became clear to me that many of them could use more support to better operate their businesses and more effectively share yoga with the world. It was also clear that the need wasn’t being served by any other organization and that as the trade and professional association for yoga, we were in a unique position to provide that support. When I began to float the idea of doing a business conference, the support was unanimous, which kind of surprised me. Lots of people in the yoga community thought it was a good idea whose time has come. So we decided to do it.
Tell me what yoga means to you.
RK: For me, it is a way to clear my mind, make my body feel better and inspire me to be a better person and work on all of the great ideas I get during my practice when I should be clearing my mind and not thinking about great ideas!
SF: Yoga is unrelenting self-examination and devoted self-care; the balance of effort and ease; receiving, giving back and letting go and a chance to unite and serve others. Regardless of what branch of the yoga family tree you hail from, you won’t get far as a yoga practitioner or teacher, or running a business in yoga, if you are not consistently applying these principles to both your asana, meditation and business practices.
To me, being in a position of leadership within a community increases your potential to change people’s lives for the better, and it also increases your responsibility to do so.
There’s a long list of exhibitors and sponsors. Did you receive a lot of support from the sponsors? What was the response of those you reached out to for the event?
RK: Charlotte Raich, our business development manager, has done a great job of connecting with our exhibitors and sponsors. In fact, we’re now sold out and have a waiting list to exhibit. I should also note that we have a number of returning exhibitors and sponsors from previous YA conferences, and many of them are now also our approved business partners and/or Yoga Alliance associate members, so they have already established a relationship with our organization and the yoga community.
By the way, I asked Charlotte to answer these questions and she told me: “We offer options for our sponsors to directly support our conference in many different ways including receptions, meals, tea breaks, media, conference materials and donations towards a raffle prizes for attendees. Since we offer a diverse range of sponsorship opportunities, we received a great response. Our exhibitors and sponsors recognize that our conference is a great way to connect with and share products with our members and yoga business owners, which is why our exhibit spaces are in such high demand.”
I see you are testing the new website while there with members. What are you hoping to learn?
RK: The firm that we are working with to build the website uses the agile development process. Agile development puts a premium on frequent user testing. So in part, the beta testing we’re doing at the conference is part of a larger process of having as many users as possible kicking the tires on the thing so we can find the bugs and improve the user experience before we launch later this year.
The new site will be the engine of some vast changes in how we do things, and the beta testing at the conference is also part of a larger plan to begin introducing some of these changes to the community. The site is going to have a huge positive impact on our credentialing processes and on our ability to provide oversight of and feedback to the yoga schools and teachers who are registered with us. It will also offer a much-improved system for new members and existing members to register, manage their profiles, and market themselves in a meaningful way on our directory. The process of introducing these changes will continue after we launch the site, but we wanted to get started on it as soon as practicable, and the conference offers a high-profile way to do that.
Tell me more about the video contest. Whose idea was that? And was there a committee who reviewed the videos to decide upon the winner?
RK: Actually, it’s an interesting story. We offered our keynote speaker, Tom Gardner, a $1,000 honorarium. Tom told me that rather than accept the honorarium he would rather have us think of a creative way to use the money to serve the organization or our members. So he left it up to us and we landed on this video contest. It made a ton of sense because Tom’s theme will be “Conscious Capitalism,” so we thought, why not ask contestants to tell us about how they practice capitalism consciously—i.e., to express in video form how their businesses serve the greater good. This is certainly a theme that aligns with the vision of many yoga teachers and studios. We received over 20 submissions, and had our staff vote on several finalists. You can view the winning video and runners-up on our website. We look forward to hosting Regine and Lizandra of Project Zen in Haiti at the conference next month.
There are many ways for writers and studios and others to market the conference. How well is that working out? Did many step up to join in and be a part of the conference?
RK: As I mentioned earlier, we got a late start on developing the program, which meant we got a late start on marketing as well. So our marketing team—Public Affairs Manager Katie Desmond and Communications Manager Laura Burch—decided to put an emphasis on leveraging the community and social media to spread the word and hope for a little virality. So we developed these programs for yoga writers and studio owners to help us promote the event and receive a discount for their support. We think it’s a great trade-off and are happy to get the community involved. A number of media outlets and studios have taken advantage of these programs, and we hope to build on the concept in future years. We also leveraged our presenters, most of who are running or consulting successful yoga businesses and are the experts at marketing in this industry. We are grateful for their support and enthusiasm for the conference.
Seems like getting involved is the method of the Alliance, for members and studios. My guess is you are hoping this conference will strengthen the bonds in the community with the Alliance. Please comment.
RK: Exactly. You hit the nail on the head. You can’t build a community from the top down. You need people to be involved at every level for a community to flourish, and my hope is that a light bulb will go off for the people who attend the conference and they’ll begin to understand our vision for what it means to create a membership association.
Richard Karpel is president and CEO of Yoga Alliance, the charitable organization that provides yoga-training credentials, and Yoga Alliance Registry, a nonprofit association representing yoga schools and teachers. Prior to joining Yoga Alliance in July 2012, he was executive director of the American Society of News Editors, which represents daily newspaper editors and other news leaders. Karpel also was the executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and executive vice president of the Video Software Dealers Association. He received a BS in Business Administration from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and a Juris Doctorate from Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Sarah Fishman is Special Projects Manager at Yoga Alliance, and led the program development for the 2013 conference, The Business of Yoga. Before joining the team at Yoga Alliance, she spent several years teaching yoga full-time and offering “Karmic Consulting” for yoga and wellness businesses in the DC area. Sarah received a BFA in Musical Theatre from Syracuse University, and first discovered the joy and healing powers of yoga there, while rehabilitating dance injuries. She has also served as the assistant Certification Director for the Institute of Hazardous Materials Management, a not-for-profit certification organization based in Rockville, MD.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise