The Corner Office: Sarah Levey, Co-Founder of Y7 Studio
Words: Julian Mitchell
Images: Andrew Kung
Images: Andrew Kung
Some of the most successful people in the game refused to follow the rules to make it happen, they did it their own way. Welcome to the Corner Office.
Although it’s a culture fueled by emotion and movement, Hip-Hop has historically been hesitant to explore issues of health and wellness. When Sarah Levey decided to develop a Hip-Hop Yoga studio, the idea initially received skepticism. Hip-Hop on its face may seem like the antithesis of yoga but Sarah saw the connections, not the conflicts. They are both cultures of inclusion driven by a strong sense of community. Her idea evolved into Y7, a studio that combines traditional yoga practices with the non-traditional elements of Hip-Hop creating a hybrid capable of breaking down the barriers between two diametrically opposed cultures.
Known for their black and white color scheme, modern design and minimal aesthetic, Y7 is rooted in balance and simplicity. Each studio is designed to create a comforting environment where clients can take a break from daily demands, release stress and focus on working through whatever individual challenges they face. Her studio provides flexible schedules and affordable prices to insure classes are accessible. She currently manages a growing team of trained instructors in New York and Los Angeles. With ten existing locations, Levey plans to expand Y7 into even more major markets across the country.
I spoke with Sarah Levey about the vision behind Y7, taking an unconventional approach to Yoga, and the benefits of infusing Hip-Hop into the practice.
"I'm proud of the fact that we’ve made yoga accessible to people who never would have thought it was for them. Yoga is for everybody, no matter your background or walk of life."
From the idea behind Y7 to the experience you’ve created -- What makes Hip-Hop and Yoga work so well together?
Sarah Levey: For me, it’s all about movement. I have always been drawn to Hip-Hop -- from the beat, to the liveliness of the culture and the community. So, it’s been really amazing to practice this ancient tradition of yoga and blend it with something more contemporary and engaging to our generation. What we do that's a little different is time the breath of the movements to the beat. We use rap music to drive and motivate people throughout the class. A session may start out with a more mellow beat that sets the tone at the beginning of the class. Then, by the third flow, your heart is racing and you’re really moving.
It’s fun and adds a refreshing energy to every class. One of the frustrations I had when taking traditional classes was that I would get bored. Instead of feeling in the moment, I was always looking at the clock, counting down the time until class was over. I don't find myself doing that when I have great music and a more immersive experience. It really allows me to lose myself, get out of my head, and become more invested into the practice. It’s music that I love to move to, and it happens to have all of these amazing qualities that bring so much more out of people who take our classes. It really works, and our clients see real results.
What about the experience separates your classes from traditional practices and how would you describe the specific benefits Hip-Hop yoga provides?
Sarah Levey: When you take a Hip-Hop yoga class, you lose yourself in the music. You're transported to this place where you're not just focusing on what you look like or how skilled you are. You’re more focused on how you're moving. The experience feels fluid, because you're naturally moving your body. It wouldn’t seem like a Hip-Hop yoga class would have a profoundly deep transformative power to it, but it does. I think that has to do with the intimate environment we've created in the space. There are no mirrors, and classes are often taught in darkness. We want to make our clients feel like they are in their own isolated world. They don't have to worry about people looking at them, or comparing themselves to others. But, at the same time, you still feel that great sense of support from the rest of the class, knowing that everyone else is trying just as hard as you to hold a position. I also love hearing stories about how people have been going through a hard time and found themselves crying by the end of class. They learn to be free and let sh*t go.
What specific feeling do you want people to experience or take away from your classes?
Sarah Levey: Life is about showing up. That's what I want people to realize. The more that you show up, the better you're going to be. Make the effort to be there. Maybe it wasn't your best class. Maybe you fell attempting a balancing pose. Maybe you simply couldn’t do it that day. But, you came to class, that’s what's important – not being perfect, but showing up and being present. To me, that's enough.
What were some of those challenges you faced getting this idea off the ground and getting people to buy into your vision?
Sarah Levey: We started as a pop-up. That was a hidden advantage, because the whole experience was tailored to what I wanted. Even though I am certified to teach, one of the reasons why I don't is because I always felt like the person who wasn't good enough for a traditional studio. I didn't know all the Sanskrit terms or what the symbols were. As a result, I didn't feel comfortable enough to push myself. If you don’t understand that world, a lot of teachers will intimidate you. If you don’t study yoga, it’s easy to feel like you don’t belong. You become self-conscious because you don’t really know what they're talking about and it becomes a barrier. We've been able to break down that barrier with our unique approach and deliver an experience that's translatable to anyone.
Is it challenging to overcome doubt and skepticism from traditional instructors and studios?
Sarah Levey: As we continue to grow there's been a lot of criticism from the the yoga community at-large. But, I understand where it comes from. If you know anything about yoga, it’s all about detaching from your ego. It’s amazing to see how our approach to the practice has been somewhat of a more accepted gateway to yoga for so many people who wouldn’t normally embrace the practice. I've had clients who have never practiced before in their lives, who not only enjoy trying it out but now they're monthly members, and have been practicing with us for a year. I'm proud of the fact that we’ve made yoga accessible to people who never would have thought it was for them. Yoga is for everybody, no matter your background or walk of life.
How would you describe your audience and the community you’ve been able to develop through Y7?
Sarah Levey: Our clients are driven. Regardless of what they faced during the day, once they step into our studio, they let it go. They're in class for themselves, which I think is different. We try to make the yoga experience about the client. They don't come because they heard a teacher is great. They come for themselves.
"There isn’t a sense of class, or a feeling of people being divided based on experience. People feel equal, which makes our studios special spaces that allow clients to be empowered. Knowing that everyone feels like it’s such a safe space, each person is motivated to work as hard as they want to without judgement."
Does that make it more difficult to find the right instructors to teach classes?
Sarah Levey: Absolutely, especially in the world of boutique fitness. We’re seeing the rise of the celebrity instructor. People are really idolizing yoga teachers now. While I think this is great in some ways, and brings more attention to the practice, that's not really what yoga is about. We're focused on the client experience and their reasons for being there. We have a specific format we want everyone to teach. We pour a lot of focus into the consistency of our classes. We know people are busy. So, if you miss the early evening class because you got stuck at work, I want you to be able to attend the following class knowing there will be an amazing experience for you, regardless of who the instructor is. I don't want people to feel like if they miss one class, they are thrown off for the week.
Where did your passion for Hip-Hop really develop and what impact has it made on your both personally and professionally?
Sarah Levey: I just really love music. I remember trying so hard to make the dance team in High School. Unfortunately, I'm not that coordinated, but I just loved it. Music makes me happy. That’s why I dance in the shower and throughout my apartment. There’s a genuine love for music and movement that keeps me going every day. For some reason, music has always been a powerful force of energy that motivates and drives me. It was in High School when I truly started to explore Hip-Hop and dive deeper into the culture. It has obviously made a profound impact on me, and the business I operate today. We had A Tribe Called Quest reach out to us, which was a lot of fun. They basically took over every studio as a surprise for our clients, and let them have a first-listen of their latest album before it dropped. It’s cool that they recognize what we’re doing and how valuable it is. They all are passionate about both conversations and action around health and wellness becoming a bigger part of the culture, because it isn’t something that is talked about often enough.
Mental health and substance abuse are focal points in Hip-Hop now, but conversations about health and wellness are often overlooked --– How do you think this should be addressed within the culture?
Sarah Levey: We’re in the information age. Everything is about access and convenience. When I was 10 years-old, I couldn't buy CDs or access my favorite music instantly. More so, if you weren’t 18 yet, you had to have a parent purchase a CD for you. Now, with music being so accessible, I think it’s about teaching kids and helping them realize the difference between what's portrayed to them and what is reality. If we take the time to do this, kids are not taking literal cues from songs and thinking about what artists are saying as real life. But, I also think we have to remember that music is about creative expression. Music is how a lot of people choose to express themselves and channel their energy. When they are having a hard time, they write. For others, they play sports and so forth. It’s just about seeing music as a creative outlet, while also investing in educating people about what is real, so that they can make smart and healthy decisions in their own lives.
What philosophy or set of principles do you live by that shape the way you approach running your business?
Sarah Levey: One philosophy I live by and implement in my daily life is to follow my own truth. For example, this week has been the week of copycats. We've seen people opening competitive studios, mirroring our look, message and approach to teaching. But, I have to block that out and stay focused on our mission. Everything we do at Y7 has a reason and a purpose. As long as I remember that and stay true to those founding principles, nobody can touch the community that we've created, because it comes from such a place of care and thoughtfulness.
What does Y7 stand for? What message do you want the brand to symbolize?
Sarah Levey: The ‘Y’ stands for yoga, and the ‘7’ represents the seven chakras. But, it really represents the principles of openness and inclusivity. I had no idea this would ever become a company. It was actually two years into first starting Y7 that I quit my job. I had a full-time job until March of 2015, then I left my career to do this full-time.
How do you balance the practice and creating great experiences with being a business owner and managing the brand?
Sarah Levey: I've learned a ton so far, and I’m still learning daily. Managing people is the hardest thing I've ever done. I worked in the fashion industry before, so I was used to always working with a really small team. We have a front desk representative, studio managers, a cleaning staff, yoga instructors and a corporate team as well. There are so many different elements to our operation, and I'm still learning how to handle everything. More importantly, I’m learning how to run the company in a way that is sustainable for both the business and the employees. I think that's a difficult thing to do. You want to keep prices at a point where it remains accessible, but you still want to grow revenue. I also have to make sure it is sustainable for our instructors teaching classes. We're still learning that balance and what that looks like as we grow. Growth always presents challenges, seen and unseen, but it’s about being able to adjust and make the most out of what comes.
From your experience, what are the key lessons anyone looking to launch a business should know before making the jump?
Sarah Levey: You need to know that you will f**k up, and it is totally fine. You need to be ready and adaptable. That's a lesson that everyone can learn, because it’s not always going to go as you plan it. You have to learn how to pivot, evaluate what's happening now and devise the best plan to move forward. We started a little differently. We didn't have a business plan, which was also a challenge in some ways. But, you may not need one. In the end, I think you just have to trust yourself and go for it. You're never going to be fully prepared. You're never going to be fully ready. There's always going to be something you're learning. Instead of allowing that to scare you, embrace it as a way to make your better.
How have you managed to adapt and stay ahead in a space that is becoming more trendy and evolving quickly?
Sarah Levey: We're not trying to be the newest, coolest thing. My class format will not change. I will not be adding new classes with a structure resistance band or a booty band. We're not going to bring in props. We're not going to bring in the newest equipment. It’s not going to happen. We have a proven product, and it is going to stay the same. The experience is what sets us apart from other studios. We work really hard at being consistent and being a studio people can rely on. You can also clearly tell there's a brand being established. I think design is so important to building a brand. We've kept everything simple, with a black and white color scheme. I like really clean lines. Think about when you walk into a brightly lit space with an abundance of colors. It feels like the brightness is being thrown at you, which can be a little jarring for people. What we want to go for is a calm, minimal aesthetic.
What about scaling – How do you assure this model is both scalable and sustainable?
Sarah Levey: Scaling is tough. When you're opening brick and mortar spaces, it’s a real estate business. So, that's been very tough -- finding the right spaces. We've also capped our studios at a certain number of students, so it doesn't seem overcrowded. I've been to studios where it feels like you're mat to mat, pushed right up against someone the entire time. That can be uncomfortable. So, we have to make sure that when we're looking at spaces, we consider the comfort of our clients. We know we also can’t carry a $30,000 rent a month in New York. We just can’t, because there's only 30 spots in class. As a result, we have to be very conscious of real estate, which makes it challenging to scale quickly because locations have to be able to generate enough profit to make sense. It’s also about finding the right teachers, which is hard. For a lot of instructors, teaching yoga isn’t a full-time job. They are actresses, dancers and the like. I'm not going to tell someone that they can’t go audition for [a Broadway show] because they have to teach their noon class. So, it’s critical to have a roster of teachers to fill those sub-spots so that we're not canceling classes.
How do you see Y7 evolving and what impact do you hope to make on the industry as your footprint expands?
Sarah Levey: We are working really hard to bring our studios to different cities this year. I see it becoming more of a lifestyle. We're working on starting a health coaching aspect, to add an education and training element to our business. What I've noticed through our clients, and being in the studios, is that no matter what kind of shape somebody is in, or what their body looks like, everyone is in that room. Girls are always in their sports bras only and guys show up with their shirts off. It’s amazing to see. There isn’t a sense of class, or a feeling of people being divided based on experience. People feel equal, which makes our studios special spaces that allow clients to be empowered. Knowing that everyone feels like it’s such a safe space, each person is motivated to work as hard as they want to without judgement.