We were thrilled to learn that Yoga Tree, a downtown staple for fellow friends and young professionals alike, had recently opened a location in our frequent stomping ground at Yonge and Eglinton, adding a fourth location to its existing three. The Midtown location opened its doors on December 15th to the delight of midtown YPs, with its welcoming vibe and three large studios. The Sun Studio, made for hot yoga, feels serene, an escape from the outside world without windows or outside sound. The Flow Studio faces north and features bright windows and soothing deep purple walls. Finally, there is the pristine Chakra Studio. The space boasts ample room for changing and, unlike many studios, includes lockers and two showers.
Inviting wood paneling outside the door welcomes guests and the space is rich with frosted glass and deep purples throughout. Of course, it features Yoga Tree’s signature counter with lemon water and Graham Slam Black Tea. The Midtown location joins Yoga Tree’s downtown location (at Richmond and Spadina), with two more in Thornhill and Richmond Hill.
All Yoga Tree locations are designed to reflect the surrounding community. The same architect designed all four spaces so the look and feel is the same, but with different aesthetics. Yoga Tree offers a variety of yoga practices, including hot yoga, reduced heat (set at 28 degrees), Hatha, restorative and Iyengar, as well as transferrable class passes to all locations.
What we didn’t know was the unique and inspirational entrepreneurial story behind the successful endeavor. Yoga Tree is a resonating example of a young entrepreneurial success story; the owners Jason Lu and his now-wife Debbie Fung were in their early twenties when they opened their first location and took risks and pay cuts (not to mention social sacrifices) to make it happen. Now Yoga Tree is the largest independently owned studio in Toronto, and they aren’t even 30 years old yet.
At 23 years old, Jason was working a well-paid job as a partner at a successful Internet start up company and Debbie enjoyed a comfortable job as a buyer at Canadian Tire. Like many YPs, Jason experienced an early-20s revelation and subsequent quest for self-discovery when he realized that, though exceptionally lucrative, his job wasn’t fulfilling and that he actually wasn’t a computer person after all.
It was around that time that then-girlfriend Debbie suggest that Jason try yoga for the persistent pain in his shoulder. Like many YP males we know, however, Jason stubbornly saw yoga as “girly” and “easy,” and a poor substitute to the muscle-burning workout he was used to. Debbie managed to slowly introduce him to it, and before long his flexible schedule meant that he was practicing alone without Debbie. He had found his passion. Jason’s practice took him to India and Debbie joined shortly after, devoting her time to the study of natural health and healing remedies at the Charkrapani Global Ayurvedic Centre in Jaipur for training and research. It was after this trip that plans for Yoga Tree were quickly put into place.
Jason explains that the most difficult part of starting the business was the pay sacrifice; he went from making over six figures at 23 to having zero salary for the first few years. Furthermore, potential landlords did not take the two of them seriously at the beginning, not only because of their age, but also due to a lack of understanding about yoga and the revenue generated from the blossoming Internet marketing industry.
Nonetheless, they didn’t give up and the first location (Thornhill) opened in 2007. Jason and Debbie built it themselves over a two-month span, with the help of Jason’s contractor father. It was met with instant success and eight months later the Richmond Hill location was constructed to accommodate the growing demand for suburban yoga enthusiasts. Just a few years later, at the advice of the students, may of whom work downtown, the downtown location opened this past March. Oh, and their baby boy was born in April.
When asked about their husband/wife/business partner relationship, Jason says that him and Debbie set specific boundaries and have clearly defined roles that make them accountable to one another. Gone are the days of dancing around issues or trying to guess what one another is thinking. If there is an issue or problem, it is to be addressed immediately. Debbie is in charge of the marketing, admin, and accounting. Jason teaches 13 classes a week at the different locations but also leads the Teacher Training Program, which includes two six-month training sessions per year as well as a summer intensive one for the full month of July. The days are long, as the evening is the busiest time for a yoga studio, and the two typically travel to at least two different studios per day.
What stands out about Yoga Tree is Jason and Debbie’s hands-on approach and attention to detail, which is reflected at each location. Debbie designs all of the soaps herself; they are natural and aloe-based, infused with essential oils like lemongrass and anti-septic. Soaps in a yoga studio are very important, Jason explains, because hot yoga opens pores and things absorb faster. Regular soaps contain paraffin and sulphate, which are harmful for people and the environment alike. A self-proclaimed neat freak, Debbie stresses cleanliness, which, as far as we are concerned, makes or breaks a yoga studio.
The future looks bright for this duo as they have their sights set on expanding the teacher training programs, which see currently full every session. We can also expect to see more locations in Toronto and York Region based on the overwhelming reception from Yoga Tree’s students.