From Action Hero to Promoter of Accessibility
photos by David Young-Wolff
“Choose your own adventure,” Jay Co tells the class as his silent footfalls cover the perimeter of the main studio at yogaraj, the studio he has helmed for over a year now. He has the voice you would order if you were selecting your ideal yoga teacher: simultaneously resonant—it fills the room—yet with a soft soothing cadence. It’s a voice you might expect to hear from a monk in a cave or a modern-day version of a martial arts master leading kids through their first practice. Patient, kind, yet firm. His kind approach to the practice is evident as he teaches.
Jay had been teaching at the Hub since it opened in 2009. So, when Hub owner Lauri Ashworth wanted to sell, he was ready to manifest his studio ideal in the same space. His vision included a commitment to making sure yoga was accessible to everyone who wanted to try out the practice and that included implementing a different business plan than the typical membership or class series model or the donation-based option.
The studio’s investors were businesspeople who were already practicing regularly at the Hub and value the service-based ethos of yoga, so they were willing to give it a go. After an all-night session running numbers and just eight weeks after the management team met, yogaraj opened in the space that had Lauri’s design aesthetic had created for the Hub. If you’ve practiced in that space before, you’ll notice that many of the former studio’s elements are intact, such as the pebbled stone floors, airy spacious feel and even the wood carving in the second intimate studio. The changes yogaraj made to make the space their own include a chalkboard wall that invites students to write messages and affirmations—and most noticeably, the removal of the front desk in the sunny greeting area.
The open space without a front desk—or the staff—is one of the things that makes the model of $10-flat-rate classes work. Jay says the arrangement serves in part to increase the accessibility of the teachers, who hang out on the bench in the front room greeting students as they drop their payments in a basket or swipe their cards. Even though there are no membership packages, there are incentives; the studio is a member of the Belly reward network and seasonal incentives encourage students to commit to studio classes.
Yogaraj’s model is influenced by the legacy of donation-based classes shared by Bryan Kest and a number of his proteges, which makes sense since Kest’s donation-based Power Yoga is where Jay Co began his personal practice. Jay took his first class in 1998, a year after he graduated with a degree in biology from Georgetown. Growing up in Jersey and spending his childhood seriously training in karate and competing in the martial arts, his next step post-degree was to move to LA and try his hand in front of the camera acting in action flicks and doing stunt and commercial work. Since the body takes a beating in those arenas, a friend suggested yoga. “I don’t want to stretch for an hour and a half,” he thought. Yoga sounded weird until he finally gave in. “I was hooked immediately; it felt like martial arts—with the same mindset, but a different expression.” For four years, Jay was an avid regular in Kest’s classes above Radio Shack on Santa Monica Boulevard. “I didn’t even realize there was other yoga.”
In his mid-twenties, Jay’s attendance at Power Yoga was interrupted by a tour through Asia. He lived in Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, acting, modeling, doing action movies and some stunt work. He studied himself in the martial arts of whatever country he was in at the time. In Hong Kong, for example, he found a guy who was teaching Kung Fu on the third floor of an abandoned school building with broken windows. “Ten guys who just got off work would take off their ties, roll up their shirt sleeves, and push the desks aside. No one spoke English. It was a cool experience.”
On his return to LA, Bryan Kest gave Jay Co his first yoga teaching job when Power Yoga’s West Studio opened. Jay loved joining a community of supportive teachers, including Govind Das, Anuswara, Ashley Turner, and Rudy Mettia. Martial arts were still a part of his life (as they remain today), and Asia called again. Beginning in 2007, Jay Co spent another year and a half in Thailand, writing action movies for a studio there. While he recalls his fondly, another cool experience, he missed teaching yoga so when he returned to LA, he taught a lot and realized that teaching yoga is something he wants to do forever.
Jay had more than once contemplated opening a studio before everything aligned for yogaraj. Running a studio with a renegade model hasn’t been Jay’s only foray into business. Four years ago, an idea for a piece of software led him to work with engineers and immerse himself in the tech world for what he describes as a shotgun education in business principles. He said that working in this volatile world is one of the hardest things he’s ever done: “One day you feel you’re going to rule the world; another day you feel, ‘We’re all going to die’.” The benefit? According to Jay, “It prepared me for this.”
“This” is yogaraj. What’s behind the name? It was chosen to be easy to remember, while at the same time evoking the notion of yoga being so widespread that it encompasses a kingdom or empire. (The word “raj” in Sanskrit means kingdom.) Jay affirms, “The more people who do yoga, the better the world is.” Jay’s contribution to this global empire is running studio that offers an affordable pricing structure at $10 per class. It’s part of his commitment to providing a means for more people to try out the practice; accessibility and affordability are two of his core values.
While pursuing his passion for teaching, running a studio with a community of supportive and innovative teachers, and working in tech, he has maintained immersion in the martial arts community, finding camaraderie in neighborhood studios near yogaraj. He still writes action movies. And, he encourages his students to choose their own adventures.