Pure Determination: Q & A with the owners of Pure Yoga Texas
Mardy and Jeff Chen, owners of Pure Yoga Texas, are on a mission to heal the world through yoga. Find out how they blend a marriage, business, and charity with their ambitious goals.
foundingAustin: Tell us a little about your business.
Mardy Chen: We teach the purest form of Bikram yoga, which is a beginner's series. It's 26 postures and two breathing exercises taught in a hot room with a mirror and carpet. Our goal is to serve the community, helping people feel better and take control of their health, which is what we’ve been doing since we opened our first studio in 2003.
fA: What made you start this business?
Mardy Chen: Jeff and I worked in finance in New York City for decades and did yoga during our free time. Yoga was what kept me sane living in New York and working in that high-stress environment. When 9/11 happened and I watched, it made me question what I was doing with my life. I knew that I was meant for something else. I decided to stop talking about what I loved and go do it. I went to teacher training in Los Angeles in 2002 and Jeff went to teacher training in 2008 in Acapulco.
Jeff Chen: We've always had entrepreneurial spirits, so coming here and starting a yoga studio sounded like a lot of fun. When we moved here, I was still working from home in my finance job so I was able to watch Mardy start the business. I was a silent partner on the side, helping her here and there. Then I joined her in 2008.
fA: Did you have any trepidation when you first started?
Mardy Chen: There was a lot of fear and a lot of insecurity. I had such faith in the yoga and what it had done for me personally, in terms of helping me with my anxiety, depression, and thyroid issues. I knew that if I could get out of my own way and just teach as I was taught to teach, people would keep coming. Of course, there were times I would stand at the front desk and stare out the door, praying that someone would walk through. There were definitely those moments.
fA: At what point did you feel more confident that you were doing things right, business-wise?
Mardy Chen: About six months in. I was very fortunate too. Bikram yoga is a well-known style of yoga and there were people moving into Austin from all over who knew what it was. That helped quite a bit.
fA: Is there a lot of competition in your space?
fA: Do you feel that you have to change people’s perceptions of yoga?
Mardy Chen: I think most of the people who come in to try a class are pretty savvy. They've taken other classes, they've researched hot yoga, they've heard of Bikram yoga, they know it's really hard. My job is to just welcome them, be positive, and tell them to take it easy. I think the tendency is for people to push too hard and wipe themselves out after that first class. Then they don't want to come back.
fA: Who is your ideal client?
Jeff Chen: Everyone. Right now, the key demographic that we're seeing is middle-aged men. But we have all kinds of students. Our older students are in their 80s while our younger students are 8 and 10 years old.
Mardy Chen: People come in with back pain and they've tried medications, chiropractic, and physical therapy—which can be good for short term but long term, you have to build the strength. You're sitting at a desk, hunched over all day, you're stretching the back muscles too much and then the abdominal muscles are weak. Nothing's going to improve that other than back bending and strengthening the core. For long-term relief, long-term health, you have to do something that keeps strengthening those muscles.
fA: Tell us more about your charity.
Jeff Chen: In 2010, we founded the nonprofit, Pure Action, as a way to research the benefits of yoga.
Mardy Chen: We were inspired, in part, by a trip to Ethiopia where we were part of the organization, Glimmer of Hope. We transformed these rural villages by building hospitals for them, bringing them fresh water, and building schools. Going there and having that experience, we saw their communities and how there were no distractions or materialism. I thought, "We need to cultivate that in our yoga community in Austin, in Texas, worldwide." Pure Action is our way to embark on community outreach and heal the world with yoga.
Jeff Chen: At Pure Action, we focus on three pillars. The first is scientific research in yoga. The second is education, because research is nothing without dissemination of that work. The third prong is community. We want to bring yoga to underserved populations in Austin. Now, we’re working with Benchmark Recovery, an in-patient addiction recovery center. We went there twice a week and served the residents before they transferred out into a sober living facility.
We found that the impact of a yoga class in their regimen was profound. After they did a 45-minute class, they laid so still. So many of them told us that this was the first time they could actually just lay still.
We also do a class every Saturday called One Posture at a Time. All the proceeds from these classes go to fund our community programs. Right now we're in four different recovery centers in Austin and we're also in four low-income housing communities that have just started opening up in Austin. Again, our goal is to bring yoga to people who normally don't have access to something like this and who could benefit greatly from it.
fA: Where will you be in five years? What's your vision?
Jeff Chen: Our vision is to heal the world with yoga. We'll be here in Austin, but we'll have a larger social media presence through what we call our Pure Action Yoga Talks. These are inspired by TEDx. We held our first one this past July, at ZACH Theater. Our goal is to inform and inspire people about the myriad benefits of a yoga practice.
We believe that, through social media and our Pure Action TEDx-style talks that we can create much greater exposure to yoga, educating not just those who have the means, but also those who don’t.
We want to really penetrate the addiction recovery community. I think that is where we have some serious, serious problems in the United States. We've had so many personal experiences with students who tell us they are “Friends with Bill,” which is the phrase people use when they’re in recovery. To see the rollercoaster that some of them go through, it's just heart breaking. We believe that something like this can really be the therapy that they need while also giving them a sense of community.
fA: What are some of the biggest personal adjustments you’ve had to make as entrepreneurs?
Mardy Chen: I've become better at being a control freak. When it was just me in the one studio, it was manageable. I could handle managing three, four teachers. When Jeff came on board, we were in a growth position. I had to learn to let go of a lot and empower people to take care of certain responsibilities. I couldn't do everything.
fA: What would you say to a person who’s reading this magazine and wants to start their own business?
Jeff Chen: I would say seek advice from somebody with a financial background, somebody with a real estate background, and somebody with an entrepreneurial background. Also, read the book the E-Myth by Michael E. Gerber. When it comes to business, you have to know how to run a business. It takes a lot more than the passion.
Mardy Chen: On the outside, what we're doing maybe looks glamorous, but at the end of the day, I'm fixing the toilet, I'm scrubbing the floor, I'm cleaning the mats. There's so much behind the scenes stuff that has to be done to make the business run properly. A lot of that you don't see and I think it's really important to know what you're getting into before you sign a lease, before you hire people.
The more you can educate yourself and connect with someone in a similar position, the better. Do what you love, but do your research. The universe will provide but it takes a lot of hard work.
Jeff Chen: There is. When we opened downtown in 2009, there were a lot more people than there were yoga studios. Nowadays, the ratio of people to studios is very low. There are lots and lots of yoga studios per capita, and lots of yoga teachers.