Ode to Joy: When Rachel Roberts found yoga, she found a path to success


You’ve probably heard a bit of this quote from Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward … you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
 
Rachel Roberts, owner of The Yoga Bar studios in Over-the-Rhine and Newport, is a good example of how that works.
 
Leaving Cincinnati after high school, she studied photojournalism, went back to school for a business degree and worked in marketing, event planning and public relations, action sports and as an adventure guide.
 
“There was this part of me that was like: ‘Why can’t I find a singular career path?’” Roberts says.
 
She left a life in Colorado to travel and to study yoga.
 
“At the beginning of it, I thought it would be a path of self-exploration, I didn’t necessarily see it as a career path or a career change,” she says. “I just had the unique opportunity and the resources at the time to travel and heal myself. And so I did.”
 
The “epiphany” — that she should open her own yoga studio — came after years of on-and-off study.

“Once I did my teacher training and started formulating the idea of opening a studio,” she says, “I understood I would need all those skills from every job I ever had.”
 
 
Growing her business, growing community
 
Five years after opening her first studio, Roberts can attract 450 people to Washington Park for free Yoga on the Green on Tuesday evenings. With 50 classes a week during the busy season, she has more than 1,000 students a month and 16 different teachers. Her teacher training institute recently graduated a fifth class.
 
When she started in 2010 with a single downtown studio at 825 Main St., Roberts offered 15 classes a week. She taught 14 of them. To succeed, she knew she’d have to keep overhead low.
 
“I didn’t ever want to be the kind of person or studio owner who sees everyone walking through the door as a walking $20 bill and I need 10 of them or I’m doomed to fail,” she says.
 
She started with three main goals:
• For students to be inspired by the space they practiced in;
• For students to become connected to each other as community (the “bar” in The Yoga Bar); and
• For the community to be drawn to a traditional style of yoga in which the physical aspect is just one part of a larger philosophy.
 
Roberts opened her second studio, 701 Park Ave. in the Mansion Hill District in Newport, in 2013 and by then was looking for space in Over-the-Rhine. The studio at 14th and Republic streets opened in January, and in its first six months the number of students has grown 30 percent.
 
“Marketing has been almost entirely social media, word of mouth and then specifically the PR events we do,” Roberts says.
 
The community events, like Yoga on the Green and the one-day “Namaste Dey” at Paul Brown Stadium in June — which sold out at 600 people and raised 18,000 meals for the FreeStore Food Bank — connect Roberts with like-minded Cincinnatians, some of whom become students at her studios.

Back when Washington Park was new and hosted its first free yoga classes, neither Roberts nor her 3CDC program partners knew what kind of response they’d get. But after hundreds of people filled the event lawn each week in 2013, the energy led Roberts to start thinking of business expansion and led Washington Park to increase its free health and wellness programming.
 
 
Falling backing in love with a hometown
 
Roberts’ desire to take yoga out of the studio and into the city — in places like the Contemporary Arts Center, Krohn Conservatory, Taft Museum and Union Terminal, the outdoor deck at Kaze restaurant and a church lawn in Newport — aren’t just a marketing plan but a byproduct of a new-found love for her hometown.
 
“I love when we have the opportunity to practice in really compelling spaces and just remind people how special home is,” she says. “You forget the beauty in your own backyard.”
 
She left Cincinnati after high school without ever expecting to return. The city had just gone through the Mapplethorpe trial.
 
“As an 18-year-old idealist, it didn’t seem very possible for me to stay here,” she says. “When I started traveling, the only thing I could have told you with absolute certainty is that I wouldn’t come here at the end of my travels. Literally every other place in the world was up for grabs.”
 
But family would bring Roberts back to visit, and eventually she began to see Cincinnati differently.
 
“The places I would love in foreign countries were almost always river cities or cities with that natural water feature,” she says. “I never appreciated that when I grew up here. So I’d come back with these tourist eyes and walk around downtown and see all of this amazing art deco architecture and the Italianate architecture down here (in Over-the-Rhine). I saw the city with new eyes.”
 
She also began to meet people who were more progressive-minded, more community-focused.
 
“I just wanted to be involved in that,” she says.
 
Roberts also realized that she could afford to open a studio in Cincinnati. Starting a studio in her former home of Aspen, Colo. would have been far more expensive.
 
“As soon as I made the decision to come back to Cincinnati, things unfolded really quickly and quite easily,” she says.
 
 
Finding balance, grace in growth
 
Roberts offers two pieces of advice to people thinking of starting their own business.
 
First, get overhead as low as possible so you don’t have fear.
 
“Fear for a small business owner will do you in,” she says. “The better foundation you’re able to lay that way, the more brave you’ll be able to be.”
 
Second: “If you can do it on your own and not have partners, you’re more agile and only beholden to yourself. When I mess up, I can beat myself up for a second and then move on.”
 
In 2014, Roberts won the top prize of a $25,000 guaranteed low-interest loan from Bad Girl Ventures.
 
Carlin Stamm, who coordinates the mentor program for Bad Girl Ventures, says about Roberts, “She has this persona of being the yogi. Inside there somewhere is an MBA. She has a good head for business.”
 
With business growth come new challenges, of course. The leap of faith required moving into new spaces, dealing with contractors, depending on others.
 
Yoga Bar teacher Sarah Crabtree says it can be difficult to handle some challenges with the grace of a yogi, but she’s watched Roberts do just that.
 
Part of what Roberts didn’t plan for was the responsibility she would have for helping others develop.
 
“Now that the studio is successful enough and stable enough, I really have this opportunity,” she says. “Climb and tuck” is a guiding phrase she attributes to the YWCA.
 
Crabtree — one of The Yoga Bar’s most popular teachers and the voice behind the company’s social media presence — met Roberts three years ago when Roberts was considering teacher training. Crabtree isn’t sure where she’d be today without her support.
 
“She’s made things happen for me,” Crabtree says. “As she rises and gains opportunities, she turns right around and shares them with others when she could easily just keep them to herself.  She pulls all of us up right along with her.”
 
Stamm says he doesn’t believe Roberts herself has yet “reached her conclusion or where she’s headed.”
 
“I think Rachel is always going to be one of those people doing one thing then looking toward the next thing,” Stamm says.
 
Along those lines, Roberts recently started a small business marketing strategy firm, RAKE Strategy.
 
In the meantime, she’s passing on starting a third Yoga Bar studio for now, staying focused on growing students for the two studios, expanding the number of retreats she and her teachers lead and offering advanced training under the umbrella of Yoga University.
 
“What we are able to show people here is that there are no quick and easy answers,” Roberts says. “In my life, there was no quick and easy answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had this path I had to follow, and at the time the path was really confusing and I certainly couldn’t see the end game.
 
“But the work is on your mat or it’s in your daily life or it’s in the present moment. And if you just continuously show up and do the work, then your dharma, your calling, your joy will become obvious to you.”
 

Read more articles by Julie Engebrecht.

Julie Engebrecht is a Cincinnati writer, editor, strategist, collaborator, project leader, connector and coach with a long journalism career, most recently in arts writing and news editing at The Cincinnati Enquirer. You can follow her on Twitter at @jengebrecht.
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