‘What is the name of your company?” seems the simplest question to start my interview with Bryan Kest, pioneer of Power Yoga Santa Monica. But as he preaches to the hundreds of yogis who attend his dynamic classes, simply doesn’t necessarily mean easy.
“It’s either Santa Monica Power Yoga or PowerYoga.com, but I’m not sure,” he responds in his characteristically nonchalant manner. He refers the question to his business partner, Christine Fang, who agrees to get back to me with a response.
Let’s you assume that Bryan is a flaky yogi, think again. This exchange is merely symbolic of his unique and non-traditional approach to life, which has enabled his company to evolve organically, without attachment to ego, results, fancy logos, or trademarks.
Regardless of its name, however, there is no denying the power behind Kest Yoga (the name they ultimately settle upon, delivered as promised the following day). At Santa Monica Power Yoga, a team of nine employees oversees his thriving yoga organization with diverse and synergistic revenue streams. Two donation-based studio locations in Santa Monica, worldwide workshops, retreats, and teacher training, web-based and in-studio retail stores, DVDs, video and audio media products, as well as an international distribution and operations infrastructure being utilized to incubate growing businesses.
It’s quite impressive for someone who admits that he has “never had a vision in my life. I still don’t have a vision. I don’t even know what I want to be when I grow up.”
Now fifty-eight, Kest has been teaching yoga for the past four decades, becoming one of the most popular instructors in the industry. A native of Detroit, he began his yogic journey at the age of 15 at the insistence of his physician father, who felt so strongly about yoga’s benefits that he threatened to kick his young son out of the house if he didn’t try it.
The practice resonated with Bryan immediately. Before long, he moved to Maui and studied with renowned teachers David Williams and Brad Ramsey, and later traveled to Mysore, India, where he learned from Pattabhi Jois, founder of the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute.
His first teaching position presented itself shortly after Bryan moved to Los Angeles. He was contacted by a cousin whose wife had the idea of offering yoga to her patients struggling with eating disorders. Response to his energetic teaching style was contagious, and soon he was leading classes at gyms and studios all over Los Angeles.
The transition to starting his own business evolved naturally. The facilities at Yoga Works, where he was teaching at the time, were no longer able to accommodate all of the students who wanted to practice. “I got sick of turning people away, so I went out looking for my own place,” he recalls. And how did that translate into a business? “It was easy, I just put a box at the front of the room and that was my business.
”Kest’s decision to run his classes on donation demonstrates his early commitment to aligning his business practices with the teachings of yoga. The concept was inspired by his experience with Vipassana (insight meditation), which offers food, lodging, and instruction for its ten-day courses at no cost to its students across the globe. “Vipassana is a living, breathing example that generosity works; that you don’t have to be greedy to be prosperous.”
Kest’s desire is to provide everyone with access to yoga, regardless of financial capacity. “Yoga is like church,” he elaborates. “You shouldn’t be denied yoga simply because you can’t afford to go to a class.”
The donation-based model is also about trust. “Part of my yoga practice is trusting that the universe will provide for me and take care of me,” he says. “If there’s enough money in the box then I’ll be able to pay my rent and pay my mortgage at home and keep going. If there’s not, I guess that I have to start looking for something else to do.”
It’s also a vehicle to cultivate generosity and trust among students, who approach a large unlocked box full of cash at the end of every practice. “At one point or another, we are going to have to start saying ”˜I trust you.’ You are an adult and you’ll do what’s right.” And although they’ve experienced people stealing from the box, Kest says it doesn’t matter, “because there will be exactly the amount of money there that I am supposed to get.”
Trust is also the backbone of Kest’s relationship with his business partner, Christine Fang, who reluctantly came to Bryan’s yoga class in 2000 at the recommendation of her hair-dresser. She holds an undergraduate degree in business administration from Berkeley and an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School. Her experience in the traditional business world is extensive, including work at a New York investment bank, finance and strategic planning positions at large corporations such as Technicolor and Bugle Boy apparel, and as a business owner of a coffee house in LA which she built and later sold with her husband.
The business structure was created to capitalize on the population Kest has access to.
Unhappy in her job at an internet startup, Fang signed up for Bryan’s teacher training, and soon after approached him one morning following meditation about helping with his business. To start, Chris told him that she would only take a salary of $500 per month. This demonstrated to Bryan that she wasn’t in it for the money, but rather, to grow the business. “If you come to me with that mentality, then my desire is to give because I see that you are being generous and I want to be generous back.” Kest describes Fang as an “angel” whose “role is massive for Santa Monica Power Yoga…to have become what it has become.” He says that he couldn’t and wouldn’t have done it without her. Chris’s role with the company has naturally blossomed into the thriving partnership it is now, years later.
They are a compatible team, with mutual respect and different, but complementary skill sets. Each also has an understanding of the other’s expertise. “Bryan has taught yoga, and I have built a business,” says Chris, who now oversees the nuts and bolts of the operation. She enjoys applying the tools she learned in business school, and balancing that with this creative nature that we know life is all about, and finding this middle path.
Watch an interview with Bryan here below Power Yoga Santa Monica.
”Although Chris’ corporate experience has impacted the growth of Kest Yoga, the company’s approach remains fluid ” not dominated by formal business plans, budgets, or PowerPoint presentations. “When I feel like I want to do something, I do it,” Bryan remarks. “I don’t look at the market conditions.
Their business structure was created to capitalize on the population Kest has access to. The lines between revenue streams are blurred as the various businesses commingle and overlap. When Bryan travels for workshops, Chris makes products available from their retail store.
They are documenting Bryan’s teacher training, thereby creating additional media for distribution such as lectures, DVDs, and perhaps a book. And while Chris’s recent analysis of Santa Monica Power Yoga’s revenue streams showed that, outside of Bryan’s teaching, any one of these ancillary businesses might not survive on its own, it is the synergy between the activities that make everything work.
What begins as a conversation about “business” with the partners of Kest Yoga transforms into a fascinating philosophical discussion, in which distinctions and definitions of traditional concepts and terms are explored. What is a business? Success? Competition? How are the yogic principals of karma, impermanence, and non-attachment applied to the day-to-day functioning of a company?
They view business as an extension of yoga, which Kest describes as “the quality of your mind while partaking in any endeavor,” so anything one does with the qualities of “mindfulness, calmness, intention, focus, and consciousness” is yoga. Making the practice the priority, and allowing that to permeate all aspects of her life is what drives Fang, “so whatever we label business is just another aspect.
”Kest is careful to distinguish between the terms “prosperity” and “success,” because he explains, “our whole idea of success is tied up in this dollar sign.” So how does Kest measure success? “That I’m happy. And I can support myself, which actually you don’t have to say because that goes back to being happy.”
And what about the competition? “Yoga comes with certain laws,” explains Bryan, “and one of the laws is karma. And if you understand karma, then you understand that no matter what you can ever possibly do, you are gonna get yours. Nobody can hurt you. The universe is going to give you exactly what you need, to get the lessons you need to get, to become what you are becoming. So there is no such thing as competition. We made it up out of our own fear. It doesn’t exist. It’s a made-up idea.”
“When I feel like I want to do something, I do it. I don’t look at the market conditions.”
Bryan shares with us an old Cherokee story in which a grandfather tells his grandchildren about two wolves who are fighting fiercely in his head. One wolf represents greed, jealousy, competitiveness, fear, and malevolence; the other, love, compassion, honesty, generosity, and benevolence. ”˜Which one wins the fight?’ asks his grandson. ”˜The one you feed food to and make strong.’ “In other words,” Bryan explains, “we all have these two qualities in us. The one you give food to and make strong” is the one that will dominate your life.
“If you take refuge in money, then it will take you down the path of lying” adds Chris. “If you take refuge in other things, like your own happiness or honesty, then it will lead you down another path.” Honesty and generosity are the two driving forces behind Kest’s approach to his business. “Not being greedy, and not being fearful and being honest” are important concepts in yoga, he explains. “Even if that means losing money in order to maintain honesty, integrity is more valuable than money to me. It’s not worth sacrificing integrity for financial gain.
”The practical application of these philosophies demonstrates that these yogis practice what they preach. Although Kest Yoga operates two thriving studios, home to fifteen instructors, the model is not that of a traditional studio owner. Instead of paying teachers per class, or per head ” the common industry practices ” the instructors pay Kest an average of $55 in rent for each class they teach and retain 100% of the donations collected. Instructor Ashley Turner describes working in this independent environment as a “huge blessing” that is “empowering because we have responsibility and autonomy. [It’s] like running our individual businesses out of his yoga studio.”
Kest does not control what poses teachers can and cannot teach, and instructors appreciate the opportunity to explore their own styles. Ally Hamilton now teaches exclusively at Kest’s Santa Monica Power Yoga, after working at multiple studios in New York and Los Angeles. She compares this experience with other studios that have “a very rigid idea of how they want their classes taught” in which there is “a strict sequencing format” or studio politics, and feels that with these types of restraints, it’s impossible to “fully speak to your heart” as an instructor.
And while rent is charged on a sliding scale to enable new instructors to build their student base, Kest feels this model weeds out those who shouldn’t be teaching. “The teacher has to pay us rent. If he can’t get anybody to come to his class, then he’ll be losing money every class. Therefore, he’s not going to stay being a teacher for very long.
The fact that their instructors are supporting themselves, surviving, and even thriving is marketplace proof that their experimental model is working, Kest and Fang said. Empowering entrepreneurs has also motivated another experimental venture in which Kest Yoga acts as an “incubator” for Yogitoes, a product company that makes skidless towels for yoga. Using the operations and infrastructure created to distribute Kest’s media products has enabled this small business to grow rapidly.
“There is no such thing as competition. We made it up out of our own fear. It doesn’t exist. It’s a made-up idea.”
“Business is evolving,” says Chris. “A lot of what you learn in yoga is that things change. It’s impermanent. It’s a flow. But business too is changing and learning.” Chris manages a staff of nine, whose combined backgrounds in yoga and business mirror that of the partners. She runs weekly staff meetings, uses “normal business mechanisms” , and believes that communication is a key ingredient of effective management, as well as leading by example through practicing yoga daily. “If you fall off your practice, your principals become phony and the staff will detect that,” Chris explains.
Kest acknowledges the challenges inherent in managing employees with distinct personalities, and strives to maintain “a certain culture within the company, a certain vibration.” He views hiring, dealing with, and firing staff as an “art form.” In comparing other work environments with that of Kest Yoga, Chris notes that there “is a lot of clarity here. The energy flows a lot more freely, so if you don’t belong, it will be more obvious faster.
”What does the future hold for Kest and his team at Santa Monica Power Yoga? “One of our goals is to spread yoga and consciousness. So that tempers all the other goals.” They’ve discussed opening additional studios, or alternatively, using that energy to instead empower others to open donation-based studios. They periodically discuss the possibilities among themselves and decide on a direction, without attachment to the results of whatever those future plans might be.
Kest’s recommendation to others is “to do whatever you do honestly, socially consciously, and fearlessly. Don’t worry about what the result is,” he urges. “It will be what it is. But give it a try. If it doesn’t work out, then you’ll do something else.” He notes that “what works in business is the same thing that works in any aspect of life because we’re all human. Whether it’s government, whether it’s the law, whether it’s business, whether it’s yoga, whether it’s marriage, we all bring our human stuff into it.”
Therefore, there’s “no such thing as a business. It’s just you.”
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