Social Enterprise Meets Ashtanga: Yoga Shala West

Pranidhi Varshney yoga shala west social enterprise

Social Enterprise Meets Ashtanga: Yoga Shala West

If you are in Los Angeles, join Interconnected Strategy Meetup group to exchange marketing ideas with other entrepreneurs and community-building visionaries, especially if you are interested in social enterprise. Our first meeting is on February 28 in Culver City.

Pranidhi Varshney founded Yoga Shala West to move away from the transactional and image-driven nature of contemporary yoga, opting instead for an alternative fee structure and community-based social enterprise model. We talked about her journey, and what it takes to build a social enterprise based on inclusiveness rather than just profit. Pranidhi writes regularly, has released an album of Sanskrit chanting, and is active in the global yoga community. She serves as a Yoga Gives Back ambassador, sits on the advisory board of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, and works with Service Space to continue to ignite transformation in herself and others. Through all her work, she aims to inspire, provoke, build community, and ultimately touch the heart.

Pranidhi Varshney yoga shala west social enterprise

Aurora Meneghello: How did you get into Ashtanga Yoga?

Pranidhi Varshney: I first started practicing at my local gym when I was in college just outside of Chicago. The class met once a week in the evenings and it was called ‘power yoga’ or something to that effect. It was different than any other type of yoga that I had done before and I loved it! As I learned more, I discovered that what was being taught was the primary series of ashtanga yoga, and then I found a studio in the city where I started to attend class a couple times a week. It was around that time that I also had the great fortune of meeting Manju Jois, Pattabhi Jois’ son, for the first time. He comes to Chicago every summer to teach a workshop and I decided to go without having much practice under my belt! Needless to say, he’s a master, and has been my teacher ever since.

Aurora: Mysore Ashtanga is one of the most traditional types of yoga, can you explain how it is different from other practices?

Pranidhi: The first thing I want to say is that any yoga practice, done with dedication and correct intent, can be beneficial for the body, mind, and spirit. We have a tendency to focus on divisions more so than on what unites us. That being said, there are a few points of emphasis in Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga that make it unique. The first is the intimate relationship of breath, bandhas (energy locks), drsti (gazing point), and asana (physical position). The second is the format and dedication of practice. Each student is practicing and progressing through the sequence at her own pace with the support of the community. Most students are coming for practice 3-6 times per week. The third key element of this practice is the relationship between student and teacher. Because practitioners are coming for practice regularly, there’s an opportunity to cultivate deep relationship, and for that relationship to nourish both the student and the teacher.

Aurora: What prompted you to start your own studio and how did you overcome the fear of starting your own business?

Pranidhi: I was inspired to start my own shala because I felt I had the unique ability to create an environment for practice that was inclusive to all people, regardless of financial barriers. I also wanted to hold space for practitioners looking for a less rigid approach to the practice, honoring the methodology of my teacher, Manju, and also cultivating a more feminine energy.

Of course there was fear at the beginning- the fear of scarcity. I think this is the fear that many in the yoga industry feel. I was fortunate to have had significant financial support to help birth the shala, which allowed us to operate from a feeling of abundance rather than scarcity, and to lead with values. Our fee structure is designed to move us from transaction to trust, and that’s something that I decided I was not going to compromise on. I was not going to compromise on my mission to make this practice inclusive. So at the beginning, we gave ourselves x number of years to ‘break even’ and if at the end of that time, we hadn’t done so, then it would be time to move on. Fortunately, the community has responded in an incredible way and we are thriving on many levels.

Aurora: Yoga Shala West is not just a studio, but a community. You broke away from some business conventions to instill Yoga Shala West with values anchored in true yoga practice and philosophy. Can you tell us more? What are some things you do differently when creating and running a social enterprise?

Pranidhi: The heart of our model is our fee structure. We took great care in the language used to describe it, so I will share an excerpt from our website:
‘The mission of Yoga Shala West is to build and sustain a community of dedicated practitioners, and to instill in us all a love for the practice and for each other. This requires a fundamental shift in how we view practice fees. The practice of yoga is essentially priceless, but there are costs involved in holding a space for us to come together…At YSW, each student is not paying for his or her own practice. Rather, all students are contributing what they can to the community so that all of us may thrive in practice. The fee structure is set up in a flexible manner. In this way, we are moving from transaction to trust. We trust that the shala will be sustained by each student’s honesty in what they can contribute, and our collective integrity. Please assess how much you can comfortably contribute and choose a monthly fee between $100 and $200. Our intention is to upset the transactional nature of contemporary yoga culture. We encourage our students to think not about getting the best deal, but about allocating capital in a way that aligns with their core values.’

The other key design element we implement at the shala is our on-boarding procedure for students brand new to Ashtanga yoga. In order to give each new student ample care and attention, we take one new student per week per program (morning and afternoon). New students are encouraged to commit to daily practice for their first two weeks, and required to come to the shala at least 3 times per week. During this time, they begin to learn the method and experience its benefits. These first two weeks are offered as a gift, after which they are invited to join the shala as a contributing member. So from the beginning, we are removing financial transaction from the picture and giving our energy to each new student with the trust that if the practice resonates, they will join us. In return, each new student is developing discipline based on the merits of practice and the blossoming relationship with their teacher, without the influence of financial capital.

Aurora: What are some challenges and advantages of running a social enterprise business?

Pranidhi: Running a value-based business is so much more profitable than running a business based purely on financial capital, because the rewards can be seen, felt, and experienced in multiple forms. The challenging part is that this is not yet the norm and there’s a risk of falling into the comparison game by measuring success based on extrinsic factors. For example, I made the decision to veer away from image-based marketing and focus on content-based outreach, like this interview. That has reaped rewards for our community, as we have a diverse set of bodies coming in the door everyday. When I hop on Facebook, though, it can be challenging to scroll through my feed and see images of sexy yoga poses and packed classrooms, and not fall victim to the frailty of the ego. This is where a personal practice is of supreme importance. As teachers and studio owners, we must maintain a strong practice, for it’s through our practice that we continue to learn the lessons of equanimity and keep our egos in check.

Aurora: Any favorite resource on learning more about alternative approaches to business? 

Pranidhi: These links give a good introduction to three elements that were instrumental in shaping the shala:
Creative Constraints
Design
Multiple Forms of Capital

I’ve also written some of my thoughts on the business of teaching yoga here, and for those interested in diving deeper, I’d encourage reading the archives and signing up for Service Space’s ‘Work and Transformation’ newsletter and also applying for a Laddership circle.

Aurora: Do you have any advice for social enterprise founders who want to do good along with making a profit?

Pranidhi: Clarity of purpose is essential. There are so many ways that we can serve, and it’s beneficial to be clear about what we’re uniquely poised to offer. When we lead with the knowledge that we are fulfilling our purpose, we develop the stamina and self-care practices to stay in it for the long haul, day in and day out, through the joys and challenges. I also think it’s important to redefine profit so that we’re no longer basing our self-worth on financial capital alone. Financial capital is significant. It gives us sustenance and allows us to do the work, but it alone does not fuel the work. Love, community, relationship- these are the forms of capital that fuel me to keep practicing, teaching, and co-creating the healing energy at Yoga Shala West. Lastly, I would advise anyone one looking to operate their business outside the status quo to connect to a support system- online and offline. We are the company we keep, and a strong support system inspires us to continue this work hand in hand.

Looking for more social enterprise inspiration? Connect with Interconnected Strategy on Facebook and Twitter. And don’t forget to follow Yoga Shala West on Facebook and YouTube!

1Comment
  • Suzy Shelton
    Posted at 15:42h, 23 February Reply

    A heartfelt approach to yoga and business. Reading about Pranidhi made my morning.. I hope the yoga community reads this interview and becomes inspired to shift at least a bit toward this inclusive and compassionate direction.

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