Emma Magenta is the bubbly and beautiful owner and head teacher of South Mountain Yoga, who every week provides our community with opportunities for a rewarding physical and emotional workout, but peppers her class with enough snarky and amusing observations to ensure that no one takes their yoga, or themselves, too seriously. I sat down with Emma to talk about a range of issues that she must manage in her multiple professional capacities which, some might be surprised to know, are not all that different from those of more traditional businesses. (Let’s leave aside the fact that many schools of yoga are estimated to be multiple millennia old, making it about as “traditional” as you can get)
Emma began her yoga teaching as a freelancer, while still holding down a corporate job in the internet division of a marketing company. Having been involved in the formation of someone else’s studio, she ultimately decided to strike out on her own, with the help of her husband Chris, and pursue a similar path as a full-time livelihood. First she had to choose a site. Her selection of the South Orange space was influenced by its downtown location, which enables many to walk to class and combine yoga with other errands and appointments around town. It is also very close to the NJ Transit train station, which enables students and instructors living in New York City to come without requiring the use of cars. Emma also felt that her market research suggested this area was very likely to have unmet demand for the kind of service she was providing.
The space has large windows at both ends, allowing natural sunlight to fill the studio and very minimal use of installed light (primarily for evening classes). It was also exactly the right size, so it is frequently filled to capacity. It did require some work to convert it from a relatively empty shell into a warm and energetic habitat for our practice. A partition was removed to allow more efficient use of the space. Bamboo was selected to replace the industrial tile flooring. Emma wanted natural material so that students would have a visual and tactile reminder of their connection to nature, and serve as a cultural reference to yoga’s roots in the East. She chose bamboo over hardwood, knowing that it was a more sustainable alternative, given that bamboo forests can be cultivated and managed far more effectively than slow-growing hardwoods. She was also specific in choosing solid bamboo, as opposed to laminated particle board, which frequently involves the use of toxic adhesives in its manufacturing. The puja (Sanskrit word referring to the act of honoring or revering, but can also be used to mean a type of shrine) in the studio is made of reclaimed wood from Emma’s father’s barn, making it both environmentally friendly and endowing it with an added layer of personality. Lastly, several lessons were learned from the application of two types of paint to the walls and ceiling. The studio was initially painted green, in coordination with the nature motif. The paint was selected primarily based on cost, as is often a necessity when starting up a small business, but had the unfortunate result of significant off-gassing due to its formulation. This was done before the studio opened for business and the smell had subsided by the time classes were held. After classes were in full swing, the decision was made to repaint with a brighter, warmer color, to better reflect the atmosphere desired. At this point, not wanting to subject students to new paint fumes, and having the benefit of an income stream, Emma chose a warm yellow paint specifically formulated to not emit volatile organic compounds and other toxins. Though it was more expensive, I am pretty sure that all who study here continue to reap the benefits, especially considering the importance of deep breathing for an effective practice.
With a home in place, we then turned to the matters of creating, offering and refining services. Emma was quick to point out that, for all the spiritual aspects fostered by the establishment of a place to practice yoga, it is still a business. This involves setting boundaries, having things that are negotiable and others that are not. She initially felt uncomfortable even mentioning this side of things with staff or customers, but realized that there was limited value in providing the things she and her stakeholders wanted if she could not ensure that the studio would have the fundamental basics (like cash flow) to function and grow, not to mention provide her entire source of income heretofore. This dilemma will sound familiar to companies who want to embark on a new course incorporating sustainability, but have not yet identified how to integrate it into the core of their business and ensure that the financial bottom line is not sacrificed in favor of other measurements.
Emma’s sense of control and direction provides a framework for considering many of the challenges she faces. In the 1970s, it was common for yoga studios to sell classes as sessions. In this arrangement, classes were held as a series at fixed times, and if you missed any you were probably out that money. Because demand for yoga was not as widespread as now, this was primarily done to ensure income for studios. Fitting with current trends, Emma’s classes are offered as drop-in (per use payment) or class packages (prepaid tickets for attendance that can be used at any class, are transferrable among family members, and never expire), and unlimited passes. Still, not all are satisfied with this arrangement and have voiced complaint. Emma is always open for recommendations, during class, by email and through Chris (who greets you at the door and manages bookkeeping), but has yet to receive an alternative, viable option.
Emma employs other teachers to scale up to the volume needed to support the studio. Like Emma during her days as a freelance teacher, many of these individuals worked for multiple studios in order to generate enough income. They would come to teach at South Mountain and open or close class by handing out cards and advertisements for their other teaching engagements. Initially, Emma was reluctant to take action about the behavior, but realizing that it was not supporting the community and sanctuary environment she was trying to cultivate, she held a meeting where she explained to the teachers that, while she respected and understood their respective needs to make a living, she needed this behavior to stop. I haven’t seen a card in the whole time I’ve been coming here.
She has a strict policy of not allowing late arrivals to join the class until after the introduction is complete and we begin moving around. This is to prevent distraction during the critical point when she is setting up the atmosphere and expectations for the class, and wants the undivided attention of participants. She has had students that do not agree with this policy and asked for Emma to reconsider her stance. Though Emma feels very strongly about this and is not likely to change the policy, she always gives her full attention to those that wish to make objections. We learn that yoga is not just about how we move our bodies, but how we carry ourselves in life, in our attitudes and interactions with others. By respectfully listening to and talking through the requests of others, Emma demonstrates a manifestation of the same kind of principles she teaches others. Emma says her willingness to engage in these conversations stems from her interest and use of conflict management skills in her previous professional experience. I would add that it is also a natural ability of those who are thoughtful and considerate of others.
Transparency is yet another enabler of a successful and evolving business model for Emma. When they opened the studio, they did not announce teacher substitutions, for fear that students, upon finding out that their regular teacher would not be running class that day, would choose not to come. She thought that it was important for students to appreciate the good in any teacher, and did not want to add what she thought was substantial risk to the studio’s income. What she found was that students were actually more frustrated at the surprise of finding a substitute teacher at the moment they arrived for class, so she and Chris changed the approach to announcing substitutions on the website as soon as the information was available. While there is inevitably some upfront loss in attendance from students deciding not to come a particular day, she is filling a reservoir of goodwill that enhances her brand and likely extends or intensifies the interest of her customers.
When I first started several years ago I was not yet sure, but am now convinced that after our practice, we take what we learn in yoga to the other parts of our lives. The class I attended today was one of the few advanced sessions, taught by another teacher, Sarah. Emma took advantage of down time to take this class, setting up her mat next to mine. No pressure there. Somewhere in the middle of our class, Sarah shared a thought from her teacher. “The world is revealed to us by how we choose to perceive it.” Pretty wild stuff. Hopefully I haven’t lost too many of you. What Sarah was getting at was that if we approach a challenging task (physical or otherwise) with a pessimistic attitude, we will only see the difficulties and negative consequences. If I cannot, or do not, envision that my handstand will be strong and in alignment, then it probably won’t. If we only think that abatement of carbon emissions will be financially painful, stunt growth and have doubtful success, we will probably fail to achieve all of the positive things it can enable.
Sustainability professionals are constantly learning and teaching others to consider all parts of a company as a system, rather than a set of independent, unrelated components. In a simplified example of designing a building, if natural lighting and ventilation are insufficient, the building will require more lights, which draw power and generate more heat, and a larger, more energy intensive HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) system to combat the effects of both. I frequently resent my chronically tight hamstrings, which throw my back out of alignment, the compensation for which causes my shoulders to hurt. Emma would prefer I not take such a standoffish approach to my hamstrings, but we’ll leave that for another post.
I seem to be developing an unhealthy penchant for multitasking. In addition to a full-time job search I am conducting research for the Corporate Eco Forum, which will inform its annual report and an in-development book, this on top of my normal routine of daily Mandarin practice and keeping abreast of the news (green and otherwise). Unfortunately, I tend to try doing at least several at once, which I know is rather ineffective, but spending large amounts of the day working solitary can make it challenging to observe yourself in the act. I think that I do this because I want to be well rounded, and need to achieve a sufficient amount of depth in a number of related, but discreet areas. What does yoga have to say about this? Our classes are structured around a series of asanas (poses). Each works on specific areas of the body and with defined goals. It is true that some asanas are quite comprehensive and could cover the gamut of strength, balance, flexibility, focus and calmness. But it’s still just one pose. You do not do handstand, triangle, crow and downward dog all at the same time. The boundaries Emma mentioned in creating a sustainable business are the same that make for a successful practice, and offer a lot of hints as to how we best go about our own personal development. As I conclude this post, I want to thank Emma for being such a good sport about revealing the side of her work that most do not see, and I will move on to the other goals I have for this day. Though, I ought to make sure that I am not trying to do more than one asana at a time.