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Yoga instructors: 'We are basically starting from scratch as an industry'

Yoga studio owners say social distancing will stretch the sector to its limits.

Masked-up yogis at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Masked-up yogis at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin
Image: DPA/PA Images

WHEN TRICIA FLEMING first began teaching yoga in Ireland in the early noughties, there was perception that it was just a gentle exercise for “old ladies in church halls,” she says.

Fast forward to just before the pandemic and you would have been hard-pressed to walk down any street at lunchtime in the capital without seeing at least one person, young or old, toting a yoga mat. Even our septuagenarian head of state, President Michael D Higgins, and his wife Sabina have publicly extolled its virtues.

Today is International Yoga Day, which falls this year at a time of huge uncertainty, not just for the Irish yoga sector but for the fitness industry generally.

Although some yoga instructors are eyeing up a 29 June restart date, in accordance with Phase Three of the government’s reopening plan, the pandemic has created an existential crisis for many businesses in the wider fitness world.

But has it also created some opportunities?

Tricia Fleming and Anne Leonard seem to think so.

Fleming, who began teaching yoga in 2003, owns and operates Hot Yoga Athlone, County Roscommon Leonard, who opened the first Bikram Yoga studio in Ireland in the same year, runs Bikram Yoga Dublin in Harold’s Cross, D12.

The two women have joined forces along with around 100 fellow travellers, Leonard says, to form the Association of Irish Yoga Studios. They believe that they are lobbying for the survival of the industry, focusing their attention for the time being on a campaign to have the VAT rate for yoga studios cut from 13.5% to 9%.

Smartphone apps and YouTube

When the government announced the first round of business restrictions in March, life and business could have ground to a halt for the two yogis.

Like most business owners, Fleming and Leonard had to be, well, flexible.

“I taught my last class on March 15, and I closed the doors, and having never done anything online before, I jumped in with both feet at the deep end,” Fleming says.

“On Monday, 16 March, I live-streamed my first class ever.”

“I live in the country, and I live in a house with very thick walls and small rooms. So my issue was I had very weak broadband.

“But I didn’t want any of my students — some of whom have been with me since the day I started — I didn’t want a day to go by that they didn’t have access to a class. And so, as I said, I jumped in straight away.”

Yoga smartphone apps and YouTube channels like Yoga with Adriene have certainly filled a gap for practitioners and perhaps even created new ones during lockdown.

Both Leonard and Fleming see an opportunity to combine their newfound tech skills with traditional studio classes in the post-lockdown environment to give students more choice. But say online classes are no substitute for the real thing.

“At the moment we are basically starting from scratch as an industry,” says Leonard.

“We’ve been knocked off our yoga perches for three months now. Yes, we have been conducting Zoom classes online… but it’s not the same.”

Leonard is itching to get back to her studio.

Although she admits that one positive development during shutdown has been her ability to collaborate and teach classes with colleagues in Europe and Australia via Zoom, Leonard believes there are material as well as philosophical problems with conducting classes online.

In yoga, there’s a thing called ‘satsang’. It’s a kind of group, communal energy of doing the same thing at the same time, and it really carries the class. It’s a lot more difficult to do it by yourself.

For hot yoga enthusiasts, there is also the small matter of the heating bill.

Leonard explains, “You’ll never get your house up to 40 degrees and people’s bills are skyrocketing. We had one student on Zoom whose heating bill went up to €250, which is spectacular.”

According to the government’s reopening plan, “behind closed doors sporting activities where arrangements are in place to enable participants to maintain social distancing” can resume on 29 June.

Leonard and Fleming are planning to lift their respective shutters on that date but like all businesses, they will have to put those new rules and regulations into practice.

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Protective visors

Leonard explains that the most dangerous person in the class is the instructor. They have to speak and instruct the students during the exercises, meaning there’s an increased risk of spreading the virus through droplet transmission.

For the safety of students, instructors will have to wear protective visors. Hand sanitiser will also have to be provided.

But along with declining revenues and stagnant overheads, tailoring their business spaces to social distancing rules is going to create the biggest set of challenges for yoga studio owners.

While Leonard currently has builders in her studio working to raise the ceiling to create more space for social distanced classes, Fleming — who operates a large studio in Athlone — believes that smaller operators are going to suffer.

“I think what’s going to come out of this is that smaller studios aren’t going to survive”, she says.

A lot of instructors who would normally be able to maybe get 15 people into their class will only get four or five. That won’t allow those smaller studios to survive.

To highlight the risks to the industry, Leonard and Fleming have been helped to set up the Association of Irish Yoga Instructors. In a press statement last week, the Association called for the minister of finance to “act now to save the industry”.

In 2011, when the government introduced the second VAT rate of 9%, yoga businesses were categorised as ‘health studios’ and have continued to pay the tax at the higher 13.5% rate ever since.

This is despite the fact that, as Leonard points out, commercial gyms, many of which are now offering free yoga classes to members, were moved to the lower rate.

“Not only does that make us uncompetitive, but we’re starting from a different starting point when we open our doors,” says Leonard.

Fleming believes that the future of the industry rests on how the government proceeds in the coming weeks.

“There’s probably a lot of studios that aren’t going to open again,” she says.

“The ones that are going to be open to need the government to work with us, and we need VAT reduction, and we need whatever help we can get.”

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