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Finding Their Yoga Center: Teachers Turn Their Passion and Practice Into a Business

  • Angie Follensbee-Hall, of Cornish, left, calls her daughter Isabella, 11, right, outside her business, Flowing Forms Yoga, in Newport before starting an evening class. Follensbee-Hall opened Flowing Forms in early June with business partner Joseph Theriault. This fall, she will lead a yoga teacher training effort through her home business. Valley News — James M. Patterson

    Angie Follensbee-Hall, of Cornish, left, calls her daughter Isabella, 11, right, outside her business, Flowing Forms Yoga, in Newport before starting an evening class. Follensbee-Hall opened Flowing Forms in early June with business partner Joseph Theriault. This fall, she will lead a yoga teacher training effort through her home business. Valley News — James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • At a prenatal yoga class at Ancient Healing Arts Yoga Studio  in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 16, 2013, expectant  mothers from left, Maureen Gartner, of Lebanon, and Kaitlyn Knapp, of Perkinsville, Vt., do  partner work in class.  <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    At a prenatal yoga class at Ancient Healing Arts Yoga Studio in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 16, 2013, expectant mothers from left, Maureen Gartner, of Lebanon, and Kaitlyn Knapp, of Perkinsville, Vt., do partner work in class.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • At the Ancient Healing Arts Yoga Studio in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 16, 2013,  Christine Bill, of Orford, N.H., relaxes towards the end of her prenatal yoga class. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    At the Ancient Healing Arts Yoga Studio in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 16, 2013, Christine Bill, of Orford, N.H., relaxes towards the end of her prenatal yoga class.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Angie Follensbee-Hall leads her class, including Christina Kramer, left, through a series of poses as her husband, guitarist Joshua Hall, middle, sets the mood in Newport, N.H. Thrusday, September 19, 2013. Hall began playing for his wife's yoga classes a couple years ago after she was inspired by attending a class with live music. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Angie Follensbee-Hall leads her class, including Christina Kramer, left, through a series of poses as her husband, guitarist Joshua Hall, middle, sets the mood in Newport, N.H. Thrusday, September 19, 2013. Hall began playing for his wife's yoga classes a couple years ago after she was inspired by attending a class with live music. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Angie Follensbee-Hall, of Cornish, left, calls her daughter Isabella, 11, right, outside her business, Flowing Forms Yoga, in Newport before starting an evening class. Follensbee-Hall opened Flowing Forms in early June with business partner Joseph Theriault. This fall, she will lead a yoga teacher training effort through her home business. Valley News — James M. Patterson
  • At a prenatal yoga class at Ancient Healing Arts Yoga Studio  in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 16, 2013, expectant  mothers from left, Maureen Gartner, of Lebanon, and Kaitlyn Knapp, of Perkinsville, Vt., do  partner work in class.  <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • At the Ancient Healing Arts Yoga Studio in Lebanon, N.H., on Sept. 16, 2013,  Christine Bill, of Orford, N.H., relaxes towards the end of her prenatal yoga class. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Angie Follensbee-Hall leads her class, including Christina Kramer, left, through a series of poses as her husband, guitarist Joshua Hall, middle, sets the mood in Newport, N.H. Thrusday, September 19, 2013. Hall began playing for his wife's yoga classes a couple years ago after she was inspired by attending a class with live music. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

With their soothing music, encouraging teachers, and airy, open feel, yoga studios can be places of profound growth and deep peace for eager students. So it’s no wonder many yogis dream of opening studios of their own. But turning a passion for yoga into a livelihood takes more than strong triceps, great balance and a knack for demonstrating down dog.

“A lot of us yogis think, ‘Oh, I can open a studio,’ ” said Maeghan Finnigan, a former English teacher who owns Bikram Yoga Upper Valley. “It was a huge learning curve.”

Finnigan, 33, spent several years as an itinerant yoga instructor before buying the White River Junction business in 2011. Her schedule was hectic — some evenings she’d arrive home late at night after teaching in Massachusetts, only to leave seven hours later for a class in Concord.

“Looking back, in some ways it was so much easier,” the Manchester native said with a laugh. “There were so many things I didn’t know about.”

Hers is one of at least 10 studios that have popped up in the Upper Valley during the past several years, part of a nationwide trend that has seen an explosion in yoga’s popularity, even through the recession.

During the downturn, Leslie Carleton, the owner of Upper Valley Yoga in White River Junction, “kept waiting for the bottom to fall out.” But it never did.

“People maybe weren’t buying mats or pricier yoga clothing as much, but they continued to show up (for class),” Carleton said. “It’s not a huge amount to pay to get some peace of mind.”

According to a recent study by Yoga Journal, between 2008 and 2012, the number of Americans practicing yoga jumped by almost a third, from 15.8 million to 20.4 million. It’s not clear how many studios are in operation across the country — more than 2,100 schools are registered with the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit trade association that represents yoga teachers, schools and studios.

Carleton, who marks her 10th year as a studio owner this fall, remembers when just a handful of studios operated locally. The yoga scene has “certainly blossomed” since then, she said.

And it seems the market is still growing. Over the years, Carleton’s seen a wider range of people getting involved — younger students, people geared to a particular style of yoga, and those who are brand new to the practice, she said. “There are people who have never been to a class.”

Getting Hooked

Yoga instructors often come to the field in roundabout ways. Angie Follensbee-Hall, of Cornish, arrived via a college gym class.

Between the breathwork, chanting and postures, “I was instantly hooked,” said Follensbee-Hall, who co-owns Flowing Forms Yoga in Newport, N.H., with fellow teacher Joe Theriault.

For others, health problems led them to what has become their life’s work.

Jill Johnson, who co-owns Ancient Healing Arts Yoga Studio in Lebanon, was studying to become a physical therapist when she discovered she had scoliosis. One of her teachers suggested she take a class in Iyengar yoga, a type of yoga that emphasizes correct physical alignment in the asanas, or postures. The practice helped straighten the curve in her spine.

“Within a year I was 11/2 inches taller,” said Johnson, who was in her 30s at the time. “I’ve been growing ever since.”

She kept up her yoga practice after becoming a physical therapist, and her medical knowledge and yoga training have enabled her to help with yoga-medical classes in Pune, India, the home of Iyengar yoga. In 1990, she accompanied a man with an inoperable brain tumor to one of the classes, which are designed for people with medical problems.

It’s impossible to say exactly why, but after the man changed to a macrobiotic diet and adopted a yoga practice, the tumor disappeared, she said. “That sold me on yoga.”

Back problems also brought Finnigan and Theriault to yoga.

Theriault, now 35, once had aspirations of becoming a fitness model. He was big on bodybuilding, but weight lifting was hard on his lower back. He took a yoga class, which helped his back and his state of mind. For Theriault, a divorced father of one, “it was like starting a new path.”

“I have a tendency to fly off and be dramatic. Life’s ending!” he said, smiling. “Whenever something gets bad for me, I find myself going deeper into yoga.”

Finnigan, who grew up riding horses and running, had worn a brace following a series of stress fractures in her back. She learned about Bikram yoga from her mother, who found it relieved her carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow. Initially, the fact that Bikram is taught in a humid, 105-degree room was a turnoff for Finnigan.

“That’s gross,” she remembers thinking. But at her mother’s urging, she bought a 10-day pass to a New Hampshire studio.

“The first or second day, I kind of knew I was going to teach it,” said Finnigan, whose back rarely troubles her these days.

Making the Leap

Making the transition from student to studio owner isn’t easy. Teacher trainings cost thousands of dollars and require hundreds of hours of class time. But sometimes a life-changing event makes the move seem inevitable.

After she had her daughters, Follensbee-Hall’s personal yoga practice fell off. But when one of the girls was temporarily hospitalized with an e-coli infection, she found her way back.

“You start re-evaluating everything,” she said. “It was hard to see the world as a safe place.”

She started off slowly, doing 10 or 20 minutes at a time while her children napped, and in 2007, she earned her first yoga teaching certification. At the time, Follensbee-Hall was working mostly as an art teacher and professional paper artist. But soon, she found herself moving her art materials to make space for a home yoga studio.

She started out teaching in her home studio. Later, she taught in rented spaces and local studios, including Upper Valley Yoga, where she still teaches a class, accompanied by her husband, Joshua Hall, on classical guitar. The money was “padding the edges” financially, but she wanted to take the next step. She started looking at possible studio sites, where she could teach and offer teacher training courses.

She and Theriault met when he began taking her classes and kept bumping into each other in the yoga community. They discovered their shared a dream of opening a studio, and in June, they made it happen. Together, they invested about $5,000 to renovate the Main Street space, which now boasts new wood floors, freshly painted yellow and burgundy walls, and a big statue of a Buddha in the front window.

Like many studios, Flowing Forms is more than just yoga.

Follensbee-Hall, 37, also offers Reiki therapy and ayurveda, a natural healing system that originated in India. This fall, she is leading a yoga teacher training program through her home business. And she and Hall perform locally with Pure Kirtan, the musical group they founded a few years ago. Kirtan is devotional chanting that includes call and response between the performers and the audience.

“It’s what I need to offer,” said Follensbee-Hall, who drives a black Honda Fit with the word “GNesh” on the license plate. “Money is not where my thought was. It’s a whole lifestyle.”

For Johnson, formerly of Madison, Wis., the turning point came while she was working as a physical therapist. Insurance rules prevented her from giving patients the amount of time she thought they needed, she said.

She trained and started teaching yoga in Madison, and in 1999, after moving to the Upper Valley, tapped some of her savings to open a studio in Lyme. She taught yoga and saw physical therapy patients in a rented space, part of what was then the Northeast Center for Integrative Health, where acupuncturist Charles Meyers also worked. After a few years, she was ready to make the leap. In 2002, she and Meyers moved their business into a building on the Lebanon mall.

“I’m a pretty conservative business person,” said Johnson, 61. “We had an established following. We knew it could work.”

The past several years have been terrific for the yoga industry. According to the Yoga Journal report, annual spending on yoga classes and products nearly doubled between 2008 and 2012, from $5.7 billion to $10.3 billion.

Not that it’s necessarily making studio owners rich.

Like many of her colleagues, Johnson offers group and private classes in the studio and other venues. After paying rent — nearly $2,000 a month — utilities, payroll and liability insurance, she makes a living, she said. It’s not easy, but it’s what she needed to do.

“Letting go of your day job is huge,” Johnson said. But, “the more you study yoga, the more you feel strongly about your dharma. When you feel strongly about something, you make it work.”

And along the way, she’s also had some help from the universe.

When she needed a hand, someone would appear, she said. “That’s when you know you are doing the right thing.”

Being the Boss

As any business owner knows, independence brings both challenges and rewards.

Finnigan works “a lot,” and teaches almost as often as she did before buying the business, she said. Instead of just teaching, she also oversees the day-to-day operations, like maintenance, cleaning and bookkeeping.

Marketing, especially social media, poses its own challenge, she said. “Just trying to learn Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.”

And even professional yogis can have trouble letting go.

“I can’t be there all the time,” said Finnigan, adding that she sometimes worries about the studio when she’s not there. “Even with the most wonderful teachers in the world, when something is your own,” she said, trailing off.

For her, the rewards include seeing students commit to practicing, then reap the benefits.

“Work, a mortgage, car payments, I know how hard it is to get in the room and turn it off,” she said. But chance to meditate for 90 minutes, with “no cell phones, no kids,” can be transformative.

A former student who recently opened a restaurant in Concord told Finnigan the idea “all started with those 6 a.m. yoga classes.”

“It doesn’t mean Bikram yoga made her a business owner, but her confidence changed,” Finnigan said.

Sometimes, longing for a paid vacation, Christmas bonus or work-free weekends, Johnson thinks about going back to working for someone else, she said. “Then, you remember what it’s like.”

The studio is flexible, and teachers sub for each other when they need time away. When she wants time off to see her grandson, “I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission,” she said.

Johnson has not maintained her certification in physical therapy, but she incorporates her medical knowledge into her teaching. And she’s able to give students all the time they need, she said. “I feel I can give quality care here.”

More than a decade after opening the Lebanon studio, Johnson is still “fired up about it.”

“I’m only on this planet for a short time,” she said. “So, it’s important to do what you want to do, to do what feeds you.”

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com or 603-727-3210.