HEALTH & FITNESS • BY KIRSTY GROFF
As people develop, they move through different stages in their lives. The names and terms for these stages can differ from culture to culture. Ancient Indian tradition groups life into four stages: student, householder, hermitage and renunciate.
Now that former Willow Street Yoga Center owner and director Suzie Hurley has sold the studio to her son and daughter-in-law, she can figure out how to make the transition from householder to hermitage in her own way.
Although day-to-day operations at Willow Street have been handed over to Joe and Natalie Miller, Suzie Hurley wants to be clear: she is not retired. “I just figured I’d do it [run the studio] until I got tired of it, but I’ve never gotten tired of it,” she says. “The truth is, I simply wanted to let go of the responsibility of owning and directing the studio.”
Hurley will continue to work with the studio, leading five classes a week and directing the teacher training program — “We plan to exploit her for many years to come as long as she wants to be teaching,” says Joe – as well as teaching workshops around the country and across the globe. She will soon teach in Jamaica and will teach in Mexico in October.
“Suzie’s vision always was to bring yoga to as many people as possible,” says Natalie, “and we share that and are looking to do that in ever-new and ever-unique ways.”
By co-directing and owning the studio, Joe and Natalie have been able to divide the responsibilities according to individual strengths. With 23 years of practice and 13 years of teaching at Willow Street, Joe has taken on the faculty and teaching aspects. Natalie started as a student at Willow Street, and has held almost every job available at the center; she deals more with student services.
The idea of Hurley selling the business to Joe and Natalie had been tossed around multiple times over several years, so the transition was relatively easy to manage. “Everyone sees it as a really big deal, and of course it is,” says Natalie, “but in reality we’ve pretty much been doing everything we’ve been doing. Nothing has really changed, because we had this lovely grace period.”
“In terms of organization and being this great family-oriented yoga center and high-level school at the same time, I feel we’re in a good place where there hasn’t been too much disruption,” adds Joe. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from our great students.”
Keeping the studio in the family has helped make for a seamless transition; Hurley has worked with the pair for several years in anticipation of the change. “It’s a done deal, and it feels good,” she says. “I love seeing them step up into their own power and make the changes they want to make. It’s worked out really well.”
“She founded the studio from nothing, from a class she was holding in her living room, and now we have five studios and generally about 1800 students enrolled at any one time,” Natalie adds. “That’s a really big baby, hard to give that away when you don’t intimately know the people who are going to take it.”
Hurley opened the first Willow Street Yoga Center in 1994 – less than 20 years after first beginning her instruction in yoga. She was introduced to the practice of yoga in England in the mid-70s, where she met a Catholic priest who taught her how to meditate. During her seven years practicing transcendental meditation, she learned basic postures; which developed into an interest in learning more about yoga.
Shortly after beginning instruction with a yoga teacher, Hurley moved back to the U.S. to an air force base in the early 1980s. Word got around that she meditated and knew yoga, and soon others were asking for lessons. “I basically just did it out of the book,” she says. “I started teaching on the air force base and my class really filled up, so I decided I’d better figure out where to learn more about what I was doing.”
She completed her first teacher training at Kripalu Holistic Health Center in Stockbridge, Mass. in 1985. In the years following she began giving lessons around the Silver Spring and Takoma Park area, traveling to area churches and schools to teach yoga in its various forms to local residents. It was these lessons that helped inspire her to open her own studio.
“I was teaching all over Takoma Park in people’s homes and churches, and people would not bring their mats and their blankets and their blocks and their straps, and I had to carry them all in – my car was full of yoga props,” Hurley says. “I just got tired of doing that.”
With the help of a friend, Hurley opened Willow Street Yoga Center in 1994 – the same year she met John Friend, the founder of the branch of yoga primarily taught in the Willow Street studios: Anusara.
“When I got into studying with John, I really loved the heart,” she says. “It was going deeper, and there was a real spiritual focus without it being sappy. It was also so uplifting and celebratory. It was taught from the heart, it pertained to your daily life, and it had the alignment,” the last important in opening the body up correctly to avoid getting hurt. “Anusara is a very alignment-based yoga. It was the combination of a heart-oriented practice with knowledgeable alignment and knowledge of the body.”
Hurley was Anusara-certified in 1999, and the tradition became central to the center. However, Hurley says that doesn’t mean Anusara is the way to go for everybody. “Every lineage and every tradition of yoga has something to offer,” she says. “One is not necessarily better than another, it’s really just what your body, your mind, your being really resonates with.”
The center has since grown from the initial Willow Street location to five studios in Takoma Park and Silver Spring along with an office space. But as long as Joe and Natalie run the business the same way they teach, Hurley says, they should be successful.
“I think my advice would be to run the business just as you run your class,” says Hurley. “You teach from your heart, you teach from what you know, and you align with the universal principles both physical and emotional and spiritual. If you continue to do that, your business will be a success and everything else will continue to grow and expand.”