A different approach to the enterprise of feeling good at Openfloor studio

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - 10:04am

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Prashanth Panicker / DAILY

The wellness industry is booming. Brands like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and Jessica Alba’s Honest Company have made the act of being healthy, whatever that may mean to you, into both an experience and an aesthetic. An outfit consisting of a sweatshirt and yoga pants can be chic and stylish — it shows you’re taking care of yourself while also not taking yourself too seriously. A bare-faced look can work, too — show them how you radiate that healthy glow. The popularity of brands like Lululemon and Glossier reflects this trend toward the seemingly natural and unselfconscious.

Because there is no “right” way to be well, however, different brands can impose a multitude of standards on the public. Going to the gym Monday through Thursday in his old, white New Balances might be enough for your dad, but for a younger demographic, the optics are a little more important. Behind a trip to the gym is a planned outfit, followed by a smoothie, taken from a recipe on a wellness blog, and then maybe a shower and a couple of steps in a skincare routine.

For those who can afford it, being healthy is as easy as building that wardrobe or shopping for the right ingredients. For those who can’t, wellness is constantly just out of reach, hidden behind a high price tag or someone asking you to buy a fitness plan. Paltrow herself, in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, has said, “‘It’s crucial to me that we remain aspirational. Our stuff is beautiful. The ingredients are beautiful. You can’t get that at a lower price point. You can’t make these things mass-market.’”

Openfloor Studio, located on State Street, seeks to change that approach. Upstairs, between Totoro and The Getup Vintage, the studio is a wide, long, rectangular room with white walls. There are three air conditioners, three mirrors on the wall opposite the door and three window panes from which sunlight from the street pours in. It’s one of those perfectly nondescript spaces that you want to stand in: bright, open, bigger than it seems. When I arrive to talk with Zack Lennon and Gjergji Prendi, two of the founders of Openfloor, one of their renters is meditating alone with the blinds closed. I decide not to disturb her.

My initial impression of Openfloor was that it was a yoga studio only, but Lennon and Prendi are quick to refine my definition.

“The vision that we have is to build this ever-changing calendar of local events, local instructors and to provide a variety of classes in one space that are affordable for students and instructors,” Lennon said. “To have a variety, we’re pushing for this start-up idea for instructors, so if there’s a new student here that recently got certified in yoga and wants to start their own movement. This gives them the opportunity without signing a lease or signing their life away.”

The space, however, did start with a yoga emphasis.

“It was a blank slate,” Lennon said. “We got the space before we had the final business plan sorted. We had a full yoga schedule and that put the vision of Openfloor in the wrong direction.”

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Prashanth Panicker / DAILY

Part of redirecting the vision of Openfloor involved putting an emphasis on classes outside of yoga. Currently, its monthly schedule includes Tango, Bachata and Kizomba dance classes, on top of a regular schedule of yoga classes taught by a group of instructors called Nak*d Yoga.

Kara Porter, a member of Nak*d Yoga, spoke about her experience at Openfloor.

“It’s a very mellow atmosphere. You can just tell the vibes are different,” she said. “Other studios, you show up and everyone has Lululemon and crazy expensive stuff. There’s a lot of pressure. There’s a complete release of pressure (at Openfloor). It’s really nice.”

Another member of Nak*d Yoga, Ruby Siada, joined The Daily in a phone interview to speak about her time developing the group within the community of Openfloor. Siada emphasized how Nak*d Yoga’s donation-based approach to the art assists the way that she teaches.

“You could have a class that’s filled and only make it out with $20, or have a class of two and come out with $100,” Siada said. “It’s very variable, but the amazing thing is it allows you to meet people where they’re at instead of forcing people to come to you. The opportunity to spend $0 to have yoga be a part of their life is huge.”

Nak*d Yoga’s approach to wellness, then, is markedly different from most health and wellness centers. Most gyms or studios requires purchasing a package or membership, which for some impose a price on wellness before they even engage with it, and thus builds a barrier. With the pursuit of profit comes branding and marketing strategies, which isn’t to say that Nak*d Yoga isn’t building a business. Rather, it’s just that the group’s business doesn’t come before the space and the practice. The walls of Openfloor studio are a stark white, and the only thing that comes close to branded merchandise is a small table that is covered in class schedules and business cards. Otherwise, the space is begging for something to take place.

“The entire point of Nak*d Yoga is to strip yoga to its roots, so we don’t realy have merchandise, membership fees, walk-in fees, contracts or continuously pushing ourselves onto people,” Siada said. It also facilitates collaboration between teachers and tenants instead of competition. “We have some people working full-time, others working in their professions, we have some students. Our decisions are very much influenced by different perspectives. It’s pretty cool for our studio. We’re all on the same status level, though — we have no lead teachers or anything.”

It’s that freedom of the studio that Siada finds important to her practice.

“You can take the space and use it to create whatever atmosphere you want, whatever vibe you want,” Siada explained. “It is one of those things, you know, if the studio is run by the right people then the practice that comes out of it is going to be the practice you want. There’s no ego involved in Openfloor.”

Prendi echoed Siada’s feelings.

“Our motto is ‘The floor is yours,’” Prendi said. “Everyone that has an idea can use our space to come and start their idea with as much support as we can provide. As a concept, we’re not trying to narrow it down to one thing. We do know that some people just want to do yoga here, and Openfloor is just a starting point. We try to build a community vibe around here, because usually (patrons) follow the instructor, not the studio.”

The community vibe is essential at Openfloor. Lennon, Prendi, Porter and Siada all emphasized the escape from ego that comes with the create-your-own-pace attitude of Openfloor. Prendi mentioned how eager he and Lennon are to make new accommodations for those that rent. “We’re 24/7, too. We’ve had tango at 1:00 a.m … You provide a time, we provide access.”

As much as the studio is about cultivating a good vibe for those that stick around, there is an element of business to it. The studio adjacent to Openfloor, Créateur Studio, provides some guidance.

“The Créateur Studio supports Openfloor’s marketing and branding. We have these two studios that work together to empower people and their passions,” Prendi said.

Créateur Studio’s approach to marketing is manifold.

“We walk them through the early steps as we’ve developed this business and others, so we can give that support as well,” Lennon said. “We help them with marketing and curating their content for social media. We do some professional photography as well. The whole idea would be to support these local startups and give them whatever assistance they need.”

The business acumen of Créateur shines, then, in the way that its tenants are allowed to approach their students and the topic of wellness.

The eagerness of Openfloor for new business and opportunity is related by Lennon and Prendi’s entrepreneurial approach. Throughout our conversation, Prendi underscored how those who come to use the space are teachers and entrepreneurs.

“(Openfloor) is actually entrepreneurship,” Prendi said. “More than yoga, it’s a space (that) provides all the amenities. Not everyone wants to become an entrepreneur or start their own business, but with us, they can. Everyone that joins here has the passion to practice their art.”

While yoga classes do seem like Openfloor’s most conscious and deliberate projects, the flexibility of the space keeps everyone around. Siada mentioned how the freedom of the studio keeps things light and fun.

“The kind of students that come to Nak*d Yoga are people from the community, students, people who have practiced yoga for ages that want to come to a place and those don’t want to feel like they have to join a studio that promotes a cult.”

As mentioned previously, Openfloor’s concept has matured over a year and a half. By and large, most of its business comes from tenants that sign on for an extended period of time, but Lennon mentions a few one-off events that were unique.

“There was a juggling class over the summer that was experimental …  mixed with various other exercises that were off the cuff. (The hosts) brought pool noodles in and jousted with them,” Lennon said.

Throughout this process, Lennon and Prendi agree that journey has taught them to be resilient.

“Once our instructors start meeting one another, it’s stronger than doing it alone. In an industry like yoga or dance, it’s not always beautiful days,” Prendi said. “We’re trying to build that resiliency. Success does not come in one day. It’s about doing the right thing and we’re here to help.”

Lennon agreed. “We’re learning every day and trying to progress.”

The best way to approach personal health and wellness, then, is to calculate the costs and benefits of your current options, and spot the opportunities to innovate based on your own personal needs. Part of the brand of stylish wellness that has developed over the past few years is about conforming to a certain standard (Paltrow would gently call it “aspiring”), but it doesn’t have to be like that.

Some instructors, like Porter and Siada, agree the current brand of wellness impedes the vibe of a class and makes the space self-conscious instead of self-determined.

“The collaborative nature of our group is the kind of community is what we want to build. We don’t want any competition,” Siada said.

I stepped out onto State Street feeling refreshed, invigorated by the openness of the studio and the attitudes of Prendi and Lennon. A gym membership suddenly felt a lot like a marriage certificate — and why would I commit to something while I’m so young? Perhaps, like a healthy attitude about love, wellness should be thought of as an ongoing experience, not an objective.

“Everything else,” Siada said, referring to Nak*d Yoga as we were wrapping up over the phone, “extra branding or money, that’s all sometimes nice but unnecessary and, a lot of times — completely irrelevant.”