lights down, sound up, namaste: how the owner of y7 studio found her flow
At just 28 years old, Sarah Levey disrupted the yoga industry by turning the lights down and creating a sweat-dripping, beat-bumping experience like no other. Sarah knew that something was missing in her typical yoga practice and took the leap to shatter the standards of this typically bright and tranquil exercise by bringing upbeat, badass hip-hop music to the traditional vinyasa class. Enter: Y7, the original hip-hop yoga studio, co-founded by Levey and her husband in 2013.
y7 started as a pop-up studio in williamsburg, brooklyn that was only meant to last one month. but with tons of interest and a loyal fan base, the concept grew to nine (soon to be 10) locations across new york and la. y7 does things differently, but they are clearly doing it right. we got the chance to chat with sarah and find out how this idea came to be, the personal struggles that she continues to work through and the power of music in yoga (and everyday life!).
the void: The practice of yoga is all about calmness, peacefulness and a strong mental focus. How did you find out that hip-hop music and yoga could be the perfect marriage?
Sarah levey: Everyone has these preconceived ideas about yoga: that it is supposed to be in this beautiful, bright setting, that everyone has to be quiet around you, that no one can bother you and that you should be super focused on your breathing. But, that’s just not realistic for everybody and definitely wasn’t realistic for me.
“the real goal with yoga is really to let go of your ego.”
Yoga is about being open, accepting, inclusive and being adaptable to change. the real goal with yoga is to let go of your ego -- and however you want to get there is ok. I just happen to love hip-hop music. I’m a terrible dancer, but it’s what I gravitate towards. It’s what moves me and what I like to work out to.
For me, if there is no music, yoga is too slow and I would lose count of my breath. I would either be focused so hard on looking the correct way in a pose that I forgot to breathe or I was focusing so hard on timing my breathing that I wasn’t doing the pose correctly. I think when you have that hip-hop beat behind you, it almost becomes second nature -- you do what you’re supposed to do, which is focus on yourself.
the void: Tell us about your journey with the concept of y7 -- from the idea to the pop-up studio and growing your business. Did you know you wanted to get to where you are today?
“it was never intended to be this.”
Sarah: It was never intended to be this – I’m in shock every day! For me, I was never like: “I’m going to quit my job and get funding and here’s what my five year business plan is going to look like.” I actually really liked my previous job and I had a pretty great career. I didn’t make a ton of money - I worked in fashion - but I really liked it and I was having a great time!
The way we actually built this was very, very slowly. We started as a pop-up studio and it was supposed to be just for a month. We rented a space in Williamsburg for two hours to hold two classes on Saturdays and two classes on Sundays. It was all free. Then, someone at the end of the month was like: “I want to buy a package!” And I was like, “Oh, cool. We’re just figuring out our lease right now and finding permanent space,” pretty much just lying through my teeth, but I got so excited that someone was that interested!
My husband, who was in finance at the time, just has this incredible business brain. I’m pretty sure he has like 20 LLCs that he has registered throughout the last 15 years, so he encouraged me to find a place. We ended up finding this great little 300 square foot artist loft in Williamsburg. We held four classes a day there, and sometimes no one would show up, but that was ok. We were able to eventually grow it really organically because Williamsburg is such an incredible neighborhood; word of mouth helped our concept spread pretty quickly. After about three months, we outgrew the space and had to find a bigger one.
At that point, we moved into Manhattan. I cashed in my savings bonds to pay my two months rent and security deposit for a new place. And then we found a space in flatiron that we could afford and we got that space. After opening that location, which was in late spring of 2015, it became really apparent to us that this could be something and people were really enjoying it. We wanted to make it a better experience, so it was evident that one of us had to leave our jobs. So, I left and I started focusing on Y7 full-time. About four or five months later, my husband left his job as well. We’ve been continuing to grow from there.
the void: What sets Y7 apart is the atmosphere you create. It’s candlelit, there are no mirrors, and you can go in there as a beginner and not feel anxious like you do in a lot of other typical fitness classes. What was your thought process behind that?
Sarah: Honestly, it really came from my own insecurities. I started going to classes, and particularly being here in New York, a lot of people are dancers or actresses, and I was in these beautifully lit rooms with these really fit girls who looked insane in those poses. Then, there was me who would go into chair pose and look constipated. I’m staring at myself in the mirror with this awful face and I’m like “Oh my god, relax your face! Does anyone else look like this?” I’d feel like I was the only one struggling and the only one sweating and then I would do a chair twist and look down and see a big row of rolls. I was practicing in front of all these people and I was judging myself and I felt like they were judging me (which I know they probably weren’t). It became such a superficial thing to me. But, at the end of the day, that’s my body. I’m never going to have a six pack and I’m totally cool with that.
So, with Y7, by taking out the mirrors and making the room candlelit, we forced all of our clients to concentrate on what they were feeling. We wanted to take out all of the distractions and make our clients focus on themselves and remind them why they are there. You’re not there to be seen, you’re there for whatever reason you’re there for.
”I just love that we have created an environment that everyone feels comfortable
and safe to express their practice in the way that they want to.”
What I love about our community and the environment that we created is that if you walk into any of our studios and you enter the room and look around, every person in that room -- no matter what shape or size or what kind of fitness level they are at -- every girl is practicing in a sports bra and every guy has their shirt off -- and I love that! You don’t see that kind of self-confidence everywhere. I just love that we have created an environment that everyone feels comfortable and safe to express their practice in the way that they want to.
the void: some people mask their personal challenges and internal battles. What do you think your personal challenge has been and how did you overcome it or continue to overcome it?
Sarah: Oh my gosh, I have so many challenges. I’m really, really sensitive. I pretend that I’m not, but every negative review that we have gotten, I’ve taken to heart. We’ve also had clients open competitive studios and I took that really, really personally. I felt like it was a personal attack on me -- I was so focused on what they were doing and seeing if we should do that too. But if I’m so focused on what they’re doing, I can’t focus on what I’m doing. It really took away from the genius of what Y7 is.
I had to realize that I have to stay focused on what we believe in, our goals and the experience that we want to create. Everything we do at Y7 is very intentional and there’s a reason behind it and nobody can take that away from me. While I’m still getting over that and I’m still very sensitive to it, I have to realize that not everyone is going to like me and not everyone is going to like the studio, and that’s ok. You can’t fight every Yelp review, it’s too much energy.
the void: We read a lot about your mantra: “it’s like this now.” We’re interested to hear the story behind that and how these words have changed your outlook.
Sarah: I was really just trying to grow this business. I was getting so frustrated and so tired and letting little things get to me -- things that happened throughout day that I couldn’t control. So one day, one of our Y7 instructors (who has become a very good friend) was like: “You know what? You can’t do anything about it anymore. It’s over. It happened and this is how it is now and you can only move forward with what you have.” And that really resonated with me, because what’s the point of dwelling on things of the past or things you can’t change? You can only move forward with the situation at hand.
I think over time I have become a little more adaptable. I think, especially as new and young business owner, I had a lot of ideas about how things were supposed to be, and that just wasn’t the reality. Keeping this idea in my head that “it’s like this now” helps me to see that I can only do the best with what I have. I might have to change my thought process, I might have to change the plan a little bit, but this is what I have now and it has to work.
the void: A big part of the void is how the power of music can inspire and motivate people, and you talked a bit about using the power of music in Y7 classes too. Tell us more about how music impacted has impacted your life.
Sarah: I can hear certain songs and immediately burst out in tears. I am so affected by music. It really has the power to motivate me, calm me, or even change my outlook. When I was starting to get into yoga, I would go to the 7am class and it would be this slow music. I would be so tired that I couldn’t even do anything. I would literally lay on the floor and think to myself: “I feel like I’m going back to bed right now.” It really affected my mood and how I motivated myself. I need that beat to get me going and that’s where the music component of Y7 came in.
“No one is going to make you do better except for yourself.”
I think yoga is really interesting because it’s one of the only fitness concepts that you’re relying on your mental strength. There is not resistance to turn up, no heart rate to look at, no heavy set of weights. This is your own body. You’re in charge of how long you hold that plank for. No one is going to make you do better except for yourself. And when you’re in a tough pose like that, it’s helpful to have great music in the background to help push you through, to help you kind of forget where you are and how hard you’re working.