What I’ve learnt from building The Yoga School
Reflections from Dawn Chan, Founder of The Yoga School.
“The Yoga School started on the back of a napkin,” recounts Founder Dawn Chan. The year was 2016. In the midst of the Chinese New Year festivities, she sat down with architect Bobby Cheng (of Brewin Design Office) at the lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, watching Cheng sketch the expansive windows of a yoga studio that perfectly framed the Central Business District skyline.
“I told him that I wanted something based on the five koshas. Something warm, welcoming, inviting, and comforting – a cocoon where you could leave all your troubles at the door,” recalls Chan.
Four years on, The Yoga School in all its stillness and grace, is a living embodiment of its very tagline – ‘A Sanctuary in the Sky’. From the 39th floor of the OCBC Centre, the 5,000 square feet space not only rises tall above the city, but occupies a unique position in the saturated landscape of wellness studios. Luxurious interiors and amenities aside, the boutique yoga studio offers highly personalised service, intimate sessions led by thoroughly-vetted instructors, and a comprehensive roster of classes aimed at helping guests to deepen their yoga and Pilates practice.
All of which is Chan’s vision, one she was driven to realise after she was unable to find such a studio in Singapore. So in October 2016, she started her own.
Four years on, in the wake of a pandemic and shadow of a Covid-triggered recession, Chan has made the difficult decision to discontinue regular operations at The Yoga School. “For a very long time, I had wanted to run a yoga studio and having four years to do so has been such a blessing,” says Chan, whose personal yoga practice spans close to two decades.
Below, she shares more about the insights gleaned from her journey as founder of The Yoga School.
Starting a yoga studio was something I wanted to do for a very long time since my 20s. I thought it was such a nice thing to have a yoga studio, be a yoga teacher, and share the yoga practice with others.
In 2015, I had been doing yoga for about 15 years. But there wasn’t a studio in Singapore where I wanted to practise at regularly, so I thought of opening a small space without the hard sell. That’s something I’ve always emphasised to the team – no hard sell. I don’t want to pass a juice fridge or rack of clothing before I even get to the locker to change for class. At The Yoga School, we keep the retail element out of sight. It’s there if you want it but it’s not in your face. Also, I wouldn’t like a consultant to ignore me for two years only to contact me again just a month before my package expires. I also wanted a studio that was professionally-run, where guests felt like they were looked after. They wouldn’t have to second-guess when the mats were last cleaned or find 10 people waiting in line for one shower.
I’ve been kicked in the head during a yoga inversions workshop while I was assisting someone larger and heavier than me. Unfortunately, the person fell off the wall and her leg slammed into the side of my head. I slid across the floor and hit the wall opposite. There were two very basic things that I should have been told – the fact that students should be paired according to size, and that students should stand to the side when assisting a partner. I became quite afraid of inversions after this incident. There was also another time where a teacher had encouraged me to do an inversion, and when he took his eye off me, I fell and slammed my heel into the floor. I had trouble walking for four months. After these two accidents, I didn’t feel safe in class. Because of my personal experience, I wanted students to feel safe when they practised with us at The Yoga School.
My teacher Noah Mazé told me something I’ll always remember: You’re a yoga teacher, not a therapist or a life coach. You’re just there to make sure people are safe in yoga poses. And that’s all you’re there to do. You’re not there to tell people how to live their lives or answer their burning questions about existentialism. So don’t make yourself out to be a guru or something that you’re not. You need to have very clear boundaries. I think it’s very dangerous if you start to say you’re trying to transform or enhance lives, because you’re then trying to say that your lifestyle is better than theirs and that you’re giving them something superior to what they already have. So we want to be very clear that at The Yoga School, we’re here to offer yoga and Pilates. These are tools that you can use to enhance your life if it works for you. The power is completely with the guest. What they choose to take away is entirely up to them. We don’t mess with your free will.
We cleanse our studio energetically because sometimes, emotional release happens in class. What you work on on the physical level will affect the mental and energetic levels. So when you let go of tension in the body, it affects the other layers as it exits the body. We don’t want the residue left in the space to affect the next class, so we cleanse the studio with Reiki and place orgonite crystal pyramids – which are energy filters – in the space.
One lesson in this business that I’ve had to learn over and over again is that you’re only as good as your team. I believe that’s quite universal too and not something that applies to just yoga studios. I’m not here all the time and I rely on my team. When we first opened the studio, I tried to do everything myself for the first three weeks and ended up falling ill. Our general manager Nissa Rashid was one of my first teachers and she said: “You have to let me do my job. That’s what I’m here to do.” I am very lucky to have Nissa because she’s very good with people, has very clear ideas, and is able to read and assess situations. She can also provide feedback in a very compassionate yet firm manner. You need people like that. It’s a skill not everyone has.
It’s important to have harmony in the team. If it doesn’t exist, the tension builds up and the slightest thing can set off a conflict. We’re not looking for homogeneity but rather people with different strengths who are also respectful of each other. There are different styles of yoga – everyone has their own place and is valued for their strengths.
You have to trust the body. This is a lesson I’ve learnt from Andrei Ram in his latest workshop. The body has its own intelligence. For example, we can walk without thinking because the innate intelligence of the feet is there. By extension, you have to trust the intelligence of the body when it comes to people. If you don’t feel comfortable with that person or if something feels off, don’t try to override that feeling. You might not be able to see or touch it – but something is wrong.
It almost seems like talk of money is taboo in yoga, and to pay attention to money is to detract from your experience or enlightenment. In 2014, at the end of a workshop with Andrei Ram, he sat us down in a circle and said: “Thank you all for your money because it puts food on the table for me and my family. So my family and I thank you.” This was the first time anyone said the word “money” in class. So during a private session with him, I asked about his perspective on money. He told me that money is a form of energy. Like all forms of energy, you give it the appropriate amount of attention it deserves. Nothing more. Nothing less. So over the past four years, I’ve paid people fairly because it’s an energy exchange. It has to be equitable.
Yoga is very freeing. It can create space in the body. If you’re sitting for hours, your body gets tight because there’s not enough movement in the joints. When you do yoga and start moving your body in different ways, that’s when you scan it for tightness. You breathe into it and you let it go. You feel refreshed after because you’ve released so much tension you have unknowingly held onto. This year, it’s sad that people need yoga more than ever but are not coming back because of fear – of finances or of the virus.
I remind our team to treat our guests nicely. There are 168 hours in a week. If a guest comes in for one or two hours, it’s me-time for them. Outside of that, they might be working or playing the role of daughter, mother, wife, or sister. These two hours might be the only time they have for themselves.
A memorable moment at the studio involved a guest who was putting on his shoes after class. When Rae offered him a seat, he said “I don’t need a chair! I do yoga now!” and proceeded to demonstrate how much freedom of movement he had gained!
It’s important to have clouds of fear because it creates awareness of the fear itself. It’s better than unconsciously holding onto fear and not being able to address it. If there’s any benefit that comes out of the pandemic, it is perhaps the opportunity to raise awareness and create consciousness. When you’re aware of something, you can then do something about it. Take for example the plight of migrant workers in Singapore. It surfaced during the Circuit Breaker period and became impossible to ignore.
Auntie, our cleaning lady, has been with us from day one. She saw how we had almost zero footfall in the beginning, how we started having waitlisted classes, our expansion to almost half the floor, then Circuit Breaker, and now Phase Two where classes are capped at a maximum of five. She has seen the whole cycle and has also joined us for classes.
Yoga is really about balance. What’s beautiful about it is that it’s very personal. So everyone’s yoga practice is going to be different. And it doesn’t matter what it looks like and what it feels like as long as it feels right to you. It’s not static either. It can evolve.
One of my proudest moments is seeing a write-up of The Yoga School in the Louis Vuitton City Guide Singapore. I first saw it at the gift shop of Frank Gehry’s – one of my favourite architects – Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and it was such a surprise because I didn’t even know they were going to include The Yoga School.
Even though we’re closing, we had a wonderful four years, and I’m incredibly grateful for the years of freedom, learning, and growth. That’s very special. At the end of the day, when one thing goes, something else will spring up in its place. Everything has its time and place.