BYSJ owner and founder Michele Vennard shares her memories and insights on the evolution of BYSJ at the 20th anniversary celebration on January 21, 2023.
Bikram Yoga San Jose is this beautiful container of people with so much diversity among us. We believe in this yoga, which already diminishes our differences as we “see” something the same; it makes other conflicts less charged, knowing that we are taking yoga together. In that sense, we’ve already laid down defenses and instead laid a foundation of oneness.
That’s the start of a community that wins people, not points. We rally for each other whether we’re new or have practiced thousands of times, illustrating what the Bible defines as peace, “peace IN relationships.”Our culture might have us avoid or dominate. But with yoga, our gardening tools cultivate inclusion and sameness. These are the ingredients of true peace from the heart, lasting and furthering within our community and the other communities in which we participate. I notice it every day and even tonight.
I don’t know myself to prioritize numbers, especially over these 20 years. Good or bad, I don’t know the number of classes I taught, the number of classes I’ve taken, or even the number of people that took our first class. Ask my team; I had difficulty remembering the exact day we opened. But I remember several teacher meetings before we first opened and the conversations we had to bring to life; yoga was heard as yogurt.
I still remember failing our third inspection for plumbing, heading yet again to Home Depot frustrated and upset, coming back and seeing Chacho, our contractor, and his subs praying in a circle to get the studio up “for a dream that Michele had.”
I recall vividly a moment I walked into the first studio early on, seeing several of our members huddled in different areas of this small tight studio, talking and laughing. For a moment, time stood still; I SAW this beautiful community in the making.
These are the things that I remember
Fussy about how things were run, as in my previous world at Il Fornaio restaurants, silverware was polished, lipstick on, and now it’s show time for the hundreds to come in for dinner that evening. So you can imagine my reaction when I walked into the first studio and saw several members folding our towels with Chris at the helm, showing them how to do it properly to fit in our shelving unit. What I saw was not Chris; I saw RED. And then, my face and heart began to melt as the silent sound of “contribution” stopped me from screaming.
It was just one of the bigger lessons to come from owning BYSJ. Maybe as I reflect, it was THE moment, with ego reduced, when I gave up control and became a real leader and listener.
Listen! What a profound takeaway for all of us, particularly those who do or want to run a business, host a community, and do well in relationships – listen.
Our first few anniversary parties in that tiny studio were so big, centering the yoga lobby with a long captain’s table to handle all the home-cooked delicious food. I was shocked at how many people came each time and the AMOUNT of food people brought in, proud to share their cultural favorites. Plates overflowing and still more food coming in, Sahid comes up to me and says, “I’ll be right back. I’m going home to get more tables.” Staring at him, I just said, “Okay, mi casa; su casa” – listening, what I really heard was, “I’m comfortable here, and I’d like to give you more of me.” And there was Sasha, who injured his knee in a skiing accident, came in limping, and used the yoga to heal his knee; a tough Russian with tears in his eyes as he could do what he loved again, ski.
Watching Rod and Satya talk before class, girls always giggling in the bathroom, and a Fire team coming together to have dinners, they told me that this place connects people that otherwise would have never met. Our circles, our cultures, and our customs are different. Yet are we different? “No,” I said to myself, and a further responsibility hit me; we were doing good things for a more peaceful world.
Back then, teachers and work trade, as we called it then, overlapped in the duties of checking people in, doing chores, and answering the phone. Lalena was a popular teacher and a dear friend to me and anyone who ever met her. She has an infectious smile and an incredible voice; she could sell ice to Eskimos. She was our retail point person. Answering a solicitation call, Lalena answered a few questions about the need for tampons at the studio. Always enthusiastic, she shared that we have “thousands of women” at this fitness studio. Unaware of this conversation, Chris, our BYSJ Manager, now friends with every UPS delivery person, calls me to tell me that we have a UPS truck outside filled with sample tampons and asks where I would like him to put them. I wasn’t going to share this story, but it tells a few things: one, Lalena is a hoot and a half, and if you know her, you are laughing here with me, and two, it shows the remarkably witty and oh-so-funny and sarcastic Chris, our BYSJ Manager of 10 years. He instantly knew that Lalena was behind this; he loved her dearly, and while he used this as comic material with his family and me, he wouldn’t with Lalena.
Love; we always started there, and while Chris and I fought, we ended there too. I loved how he disagreed with me many times, but if I felt strongly about it, he was in, too – no more questions, no backlash, and he was entirely behind the decision. I can’t explain our partnership; God sent him this way for ten glorious years. It’s as if he and I made a contract in the heavens way before we were each born. Our halo lights here started as meditation lights in the second studio. They were to be a surprise to our members. Before we officially opened, Chris and I tested these lights and decided to keep them off and maybe use them for a party; they seemed so disco. Little did we know the importance they’d come to have. We turned them on 24/7 to help pray and show support for Chris during his diagnosis, and when he passed, they became his spirit upon us, watching over us like he always did. As you can see, he’s here now too. Lights on!
Building a second bigger studio with Chris had so much excitement. Bursting at the seams in the first studio, we kept the inside of the second studio a secret. We desperately wanted to give this community something special; no more pig or dumbo; at least a second shower for the men, a second toilet for the women, and maybe some real chairs to sit on. We had one opening day tour, and the members were in awe at the Taj Mahal of it all. Jorge Helmer sat at our community table, quiet and mesmerized, and Mark Townsend, as usual, went into the 2,500 square-foot yoga room and just stood in front of the mirrors for what seemed like an eternity as if a class was going to start in a few minutes.
If you are wondering where the clap after class came from, it’s this. The overwhelming gratitude of having a studio so divinely given needed an outward expression of gratitude, and you members chose to do it after class with a clap. It’s never stopped.
The second studio of eight years is a bit more of a blur for me. I remember certainly but so much runs together because it was a high-running machine in every way! We were so busy right away; we converted to Mindbody, and everyone now has key tags for checking in. Groupon was on the scene, and we went for it, bringing in hundreds of new people each month. Our heating system was overwhelmingly hot and underbuilt, so it was a constant issue to address. We packed people in, electrifying the energy, and had many guest teachers. Workshops became popular, and we hosted several. Facebook and social media took off and became crucial to our business strategies. We hosted yoga competitions and helped Ryan and Izzy open a sister studio in Folsom – phew!
Yet, soon into the new studio, Chris was diagnosed with stage four brain cancer. The expenses were so high, with the new studio having to pay off the climbing costs of the build-out. And then the disturbing issues swirling around Bikram started to overshadow the good we were doing. And then, a small fire on our roof came from our heating system, and the one person who could help was arrested at nearly the same time. Honestly, I was numb to most of this except to Chris – having lost my mom, it all came back again, and there I was, in a daze, focused on his survival.
It was uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable just saying it now. I didn’t see any urgency because what I saw then is still what I see today.
In a recent podcast, this pastor stated how he has the best job in the world, seeing people change. I thought, no, sorry, I have the best job! Each day I get to literally “see” people change their bodies and change their life. When stress is high and clarity is needed, I always go back to a key phrase I learned from Oprah, “what do I know for sure?” I know, and knew then, that even amid trouble, this yoga works. I never had the urge to change what we were doing, never to deny what we held true to countless thousands from the day we opened. Isn’t that what yoga teaches us? Shouldn’t I, above all, practice what I preach? If I gave in to a situation, swayed by circumstances, wouldn’t I have missed The Point? Time to be resilient; there was a power coming through in staying put!
In my 20-year journey, I recall two compelling moments when I was asked to put a stake in the ground as to who we are. A situation arose three years in, making our identity a bit cloudy, and I felt it. The truth is, if the leader is not decisive in action, nothing else is either. The action I needed to take was to make a firm declaration that we were going to stay a true Bikram Yoga studio. The clarity was in the air, with no reservation or hesitation. BYSJ locked the knee!
The second compelling moment was well into our second studio amidst all the concerns. It’s like a good yoga practice, and then an injury occurs. You’re not sure if the yoga suits you anymore, your schedule changes or pressures at work and responsibilities at home intensify, and maybe it’s okay to let the yoga fade for a while – time to listen again, Michele.
And what I heard was all of you
Brad Fire came in to light up the house with his energy and fire, igniting a community that was hurting from the loss of Chris. Michelle Pryor stepped in, owning all the membership concerns. Jen, Natalie, and Geoff graciously offered their homes to me. The sign-up sheets to take turns driving Chris to appointments and getting him food. And a flooding in of money; hundreds and thousands from this community with story after story of what this yoga has done for you. When he started this practice, Chris, our biggest skeptic, shared that his only regret was not doing this yoga more. Enough said – I wasn’t just in; you were too. That means I’ll step into any fire, whether people agree or disagree. It only takes bulldog determination; knowing and withstanding the heat is easier.
Aubrey Malphurs, the author of Being Leaders, says, “mission is the direction the business will go; vision is the compelling picture of what that direction looks like. It communicates not just what is; but what can be.”
So here comes Josh Biro, helping us in sales; Matt and Sarah Newman reorganizing our front desk operations and reenergizing the teaching body. Jessica and her commitment to getting the message out the right way, even when pregnant; Shirley getting our financials in order; bringing on Michael, Amelia, Tonni, Aicha, and Jill.
People: The compelling picture of people who believe and people who rally around and revitalize why we were here in the first place. Like yoga, alignment is key; go back and start from scratch with all your experience and let go of more to become more. Question everything; are “palms together tight like the glue,” “no room for light or air,” “nothing hanging, nothing loose,” and “don’t lose the grip.” In other words, BYSJ, as a yoga community, has been doing our yoga too.
This practice was always the core, the heart and soul of you, me, and BYSJ.
Twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises, done every day in a hot room, is the recipe for a realized life. Self-realization is the end-all, meaning it is the completion of living out a full “satisfaction of living” type of life. It’s individual, yet done better together. It can’t be summed up, yet it has strict instructions. You won’t get it in decades of practice, but you’ll feel it after one class. It’s the toughest thing you’ll ever do, but you won’t stop thinking about your next class. It can’t be destroyed; it’s infinite, even though the practice requires a body that lives a finite amount of time.
You may not like it, but you’ll do it anyway. You may find it boring at first, and then you’ll mature soon enough and realize it’s peace-filling. Toxicity will leave you, and you won’t want the same food, entertainment, or conversations. You can look fear in the face even though it’s hard. Your blood pressure will normalize, your good sleep will return, and you’ll wonder why you’re crying seeing the same sunset as if for the first time. You’ve awakened, and even though you are completely different, you look the same.
Can I push the gas a little more?
Dialog is the lamp, and how you choose to express each posture is the light. Discern the wise counsel, and you will prosper brightly. Yoga has no room for wishy-washy. Hardship in life and struggle in your postures are synonymous, with the latter softening the former. Would you rather suffer 90 minutes or 90 years? Good answer. In other words, Bikram Yoga proclaims a promising vision of a life for you to encounter, free of fear, and empowers you to live with gratitude and courage. Like Aubrey Malphurs states, your mission, your direction here at BYSJ, is to accept the journey in this classroom every day, in each moment, no matter what, manifesting not just what is but what could be.
What’s more, things start to happen when you make up your mind and pour on the conviction, the no-choice mentality.
Heather, VP of the company that owns our shopping center, walked into the second studio one day and asked if she could talk me through an idea they have for the center. Puzzled, she opened up plans for a complete overhaul of the center to include moving us. Ironically, not long before, Matt Newman and I met, and he expressed his wish to build out a yoga room one day, an ideal yoga room using his engineering genius. Not only did Matt do that, but he was the project manager for the entire studio, working closely with the general contractor every day.
Each Monday evening starting at 6:00 pm, 11 of us would discuss the next steps and go through ideas; details; budget; samples; concerns; strategies that would make this studio the best given our experience with the first and second versions.
A community needs a purpose, and a purpose needs a community, so if the first studio introduced us to our purpose, the second studio grew our community. So, it’s this third one, right here, that brought both together: a community that serves a purpose and a purpose that serves a community! Like yoga, these two are equal and simultaneous.
This well-orchestrated studio came together and opened in January 2020. A beautiful opening, anniversary party, lots of you hugging up the dialed-in room, thoughtfully constructed living wall, and the super-delicious “where has this been all my life?” Flowater. All cylinders were rolling efficiently, with a dream in place for a year filled with education – more knowledge and opportunities for you members, and it all came to a screeching halt on March 16th. I’ll never forget our staff meeting on that Monday for as long as I live; with shock, tension, and communion, in what seemed like an instant, there we were, creating and pouring out ideas to keep this studio going during an unprecedented worldwide pandemic.
It wasn’t stated, but our collaborative mindset was that we weren’t out of business; we just didn’t have a building.
We have a community (check), a purpose with a great product (check), and the third leg in this stool: Trust (check.) You see, like yoga, over the years, that’s what we have been building. As Tony Robbins says, “our growth is never a straight line; look at nature; like a tree with crooked limbs and knobby roots, we still grow up and move forward.” Never would I have agreed to do yoga outside on pavement so dirty, lying next to bird poop; never did I think we could teach this yoga through a camera with people at home trying to move and stretch in spaces no larger than the size of a small bathroom. Looking back, I can’t believe we attracted countless Bikram Yoga teachers from around the globe for eight months to lead us in Pranayama each day, live on Facebook.
BYSJ shows that yes, we can be strong but flexible too. BYSJ grew when many businesses shut down, using the situation, not blaming the situation. No one wants such a time, but how you respond IS the yoga. It’s not what but HOW! Many of you today thank me for all we did during the pandemic. “I’m so glad you didn’t close.” “I still use livestream; it helps me when I travel, so thanks for not giving it up.” I love the audio classes on Youtube; they keep me connected to the community when I can’t get in.
It’s 2023, and we are here. More of you have returned. More new people are coming in curious and aware of their lungs for maybe the first time. Guess what? We’re here and always will be. And your thanks IS your being here. I mean that, and I represent every staff member when I say your gratitude for that decision to be here is that you truly show up.
It takes a village!
I know I spoke a lot tonight; thank you for allowing me to go down memory lane these past few weeks and pull out the gems from the 20 years we’ve had together.
I am going to leave with this:
We often say that yoga is a means to an end, but I say yoga is a means to a beginning. It’s this yoga, Bikram Yoga, available to everybody at any time. The repetition will instill a healthy body, not perfect, but healthy; a clearer mind, not perfect, but stable. Together, mind and body unite. By trying these postures the right way, you will become more disciplined and begin to discern what’s working for you and what’s not. It’s the repetition that if you endure as BYSJ has, you too will be so consumed with peace, so gradual that you won’t know it along the way. Still, it will permeate your entire being, and your life will be one of freedom, contentment, constant love, and an eager willingness to give. You’ll want to know why you are here on this earth. You’ll want to know your creator, and please hear me on this; in so doing, you will eliminate, not even suggest, anxiety and depression. As our late Emmy Cleaves stated, “everything else will fall into its proper place.”
At my church, they hosted a series on handling depression, specific to Silicon Valley post-Covid. In this place of pressure, today, two out of three people are pessimistic about their future, whereas, in 2014, two out of three were positive.
I’m so glad BYSJ is right here in Silicon Valley. BYSJ knows why it is here, and it knows its purpose. May it continue to serve you in the way you need, and we gather together again in another 20 years!