Ava Taylor is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of YAMA Talent and the GM of Bodynova North America. She is a dedicated yogi, and a tenacious + creative entrepreneur with her finger on the pulse of the rapidly expanding yoga industry. Ava is well-connected, in the ‘right place at the right time,’ and the go-to strategist for top professional yoga teachers, studios, and brands looking to increase their relevance in the yoga space. Since 2010, Ava has collaborated with an extremely high caliber of clientele, co-produced the annual Yoga Garden at The White House as well as both of the world’s largest yoga classes. As the creator of The Catalyst: Online Business School for Yogis, Ava brings fellow entrepreneurs the necessary tools and techniques to support and cultivate their own businesses in the yoga and wellness space. Her latest offering, Yoga Business by Human Kinetics will be released in Fall 2022. We are beyond grateful to catch up with this amazing being here and share some of her life experiences, light, and wisdom!
Can you share a bit about your yoga and life journey?
I grew up in a fit household. My mom was a 1980’s gym rat, complete with leotard, thong, and leg warmers. I spent a lot of time in childcare at the gym, and we were a sports family, so I was often throwing the football around and stuff like that. I always had an athletic background and played competitive volleyball, basketball, and just really loved to be moving. And, so yoga came into my life I guess in my early 20’s. I was probably 20 or 21.
One of my really good friends, who is still my best friend, was my first influencer, and actually took me to a yoga class. And she was so ahead of things. She was already green. She was already plant based. She was already eco conscious and recycling, and just really aware of things. She already had a wellness mindset, but I just thought she was kind of weird at the time, and so did everyone else, actually. And again, this was 20 something years ago.
We were living in Los Angeles at a tiny bungalow apartment complex called The Princess Grace. You could walk down the hill to Hollywood Boulevard, and there was a little yoga studio there called Just Insight Yoga. And the teacher’s name was Justin. I guess he was the studio owner as well. It was a really small place, but I loved it. Even though I thought it was weird, my very first yoga class I loved, and just sort of added it to my workout regimen. I was doing the stairs in Santa Monica, running Runyon Canyon, and just being an L.A. girl and doing all the L.A. things. I would do yoga on the weekend, usually on Sundays, which usually meant I was hungover from Saturday night’s festivities. But I loved it, and I just sort of started adding it to my week.
In 2007, my grandmother died, and she was my rock. I was having a really hard time processing her passing, and dealing with this loss and this grief that I was experiencing. It became really clear to me at that moment that I had a choice for myself. I could either choose to use the tools for coping that my family used for generations (alcohol and substances), or, I could choose to get on this little black sticky mat and practice yoga and keep myself safe. I chose the black sticky mat, and I’m still shocked to this day that I had enough awareness in myself to know that I had a decision to make at that moment, let alone that I actually made that decision.
In 2007, I committed myself to the practice of yoga. When I realized how powerful it was for me in being able to make better decisions for myself, that was when I committed to wanting to spend as much time practicing as I could, and figure out a way to share this practice because I knew, that if it can work for me and help me make better choices when I am completely predisposed to make other choices, that it was just something that I had to share with the world. So that’s sort of a little bit about my yoga and life journey…..
How did the idea for YAMA Talent come about? And what services does YAMA offer?
Right on the heels of me having that awakening and making a decision for myself, I decided I was going to commit my life to yoga, and so I quit my salaried job working at an advertising in Los Angeles, and started working at Lululemon in their second store in North America at the time. There were literally only two stores in America and 10 stores in Canada. These were the very early days of Lululemon, and no one had ever heard of the company before. They would only hire folks who they could start on the floor, so as an educator, $10 an hour folding pants. I took the leap, I knew that they were going to move me up into a mid level marketing role, but still had to take the jump, had to make the leap.
So I left my advertising job making a really nice salary and started folding pants, black stretchy pants, and just surrounding myself with the practice and doing as much yoga as I possibly could, and of course knowing that there were some longer term goals that would be realized for me there at Lululemon, which at that time, no one could even pronounce the name. My dad thought that I was crazy and was like, “Are you sure about this?” And I was like, “I just have a really good feeling about this company.”
Within the 18 months that I was with the company, we went from two stores in America to 116 stores, I believe. And this was also the time during which we did the IPO, and Lululemon became a publicly traded company. So what my job was when I moved into that mid level role was basically to be responsible for taking the Canadian ambassador program and making it digestible for the U.S. palate and figuring out how to bring on the best athletes in Southern California from dance, yoga, pilates, training. It was exciting! I was working out a ton, drinking a lot of coffee, driving my car everywhere, and really just selling people on this incredible new brand that existed, where we were looking to build relationships and to create a win-win between ourselves and these athletes in our community.
I was out there, I was loving my job, getting to know these incredible athletes, and especially the yoga teachers. Yoga really took the front seat, the front placement, and was just my thing. So I was particularly close to the yoga teachers who were in Los Angeles at that time. And if I gave you a who’s who of who those teachers were, you’ll just laugh because they were some of the most well known teachers in the world right now. We were all kind of coming up together and just geeking out and practicing, and sleeping on each other’s couches, and it was just really this organic moment, where a lot of people were in the same place at the same time, with the same passion.
And so eventually, as I really got to know those teachers, I found out that many of them were struggling to pay their rent, had no health insurance, and here I was, selling them into this grassroots marketing, this win-win type of arrangement between them and Lululemon. And then in the middle, going to the cash register and cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, selling millions of dollars of black stretchy pants, literally off the backs of these teachers. I began to say to myself, “This is weird.” Even though I was the one that was selling them into the program to begin with, maybe ironically this wasn’t the best business decision for them. Right? I lived in Los Angeles. All of my friends outside of the yoga world were in Hollywood, many were actors who had managers. They had people who were helping them manage the business of their business. All of the relationships between talent and a brand were compensated for. And here I was giving everybody a tank top, when all they really needed was money to pay their rent. And I’m simplifying it for the sake of now.
We did a lot of things to help goal set, and we did a lot that helped the teachers achieve those goals. There was definitely an exchange between Lululemon and the artists, I call them artists, and the athletes that we represented. But it wasn’t trickling down the way that it should have. And that’s where I got the idea for YAMA because I was asking these teachers, “Who’s helping you make these business decisions? Who’s advocating for you? Who is helping you strategize? Who is helping you think ahead? Who is helping you negotiate? Who is helping you build a business?”
Because there is a business, right? This is around 2008 now, so this is around the emergence of online yoga, Instagram…..Yoga was already a business before, but it really began to take on a certain trajectory, a certain pace. There was a quickness to it in 2008 because the internet just made everything get so big and so wide so fast. Not only did teachers not have anyone helping them manage a business that they were running, many of them didn’t realize that they were businesses at this time.
Many things at that time were completely, completely taboo. Here I was, friends with these incredible teachers, watching Lululemon take advantage of them at that point. I was the one that was doing it. Finding out from them that they had no one helping them to make good business decisions, and then all of a sudden, things got crazy. So my friends were getting called from other brands, from other companies who were looking to make deals with them, and looking to monetize, looking to partner, looking to create opportunities, and having no idea what to charge, how to negotiate, and really being focused on trying to be a great teacher, which is a very different skill set, honing your craft and developing an amazing product. It doesn’t mean you can’t be good at both, but something very different from negotiating and managing logistics, and travel, and contacts, and just this whole other sort of administrative operational side of your career.
Everything seemed to start swirling at once. I was already helping my friends after hours. I would get off work at Lululemon, go to class, go home, and my phone would be ringing. I’d be taking calls from someone in L.A., and I’d be taking calls from someone in New York. And there were a lot of people asking for help. So I finally just said yes and started to do it full-time. A lot of those things that I described are the services that we provide at YAMA. We are a representation agency, so we’re looking out for our teachers’ brands 360 degrees; marketing, negotiating, logistics, brand building, negotiating contracts, pitching for additional opportunities, short-term and long-term goals, and planning.
We also have a really healthy, very exciting strategic advising department. The strategic advising is something that I love and started developing in 2013 because obviously, there is a huge pool of yoga talent, and not everyone needs a manager. Right? Not everyone needs an agent. But everyone needs to be better business people. Right? We are all entrepreneurs. Every yoga teacher is a yoga business. And so through our strategic advising, which is one to one consulting, there’s an online business school. I have a book coming out called Yoga Business with Human Kinetics. We’ve got a whole slew of tools, professional tools, to help you be a better yoga business owner.
That’s just a little blurb about how I got started, what the original problem was that I was solving. Our mission is the same. We’re here to advocate for teachers and to be a catalyst for better living, and in doing so, to help the tools of wellness reach communities of all kinds. And we accomplished that goal through a variety of tools and providing infrastructure for the rapidly expanding yoga space, which I don’t really think has slowed down a whole lot since those early days. Although, COVID has thrown a bit of a kink in the wrench….
Over the past decade, there has been massive growth in the number of yoga teachers. Do you see any gaps within current yoga teacher training models? How do you feel the yoga community can evolve within this realm?
Yes, there’s been an explosion of teacher training programs, which doesn’t bother me at all. I do not believe in saturation. I believe that every teacher is unique and has just as much possibility to become successful, whatever their definition of success is, as any other teacher that’s on the planet. Right? It takes time. It takes guts, dedication, and hard work.
It also takes having a plan and knowing what you’re doing, which is where I think a lot of the teacher training models or programs are actually not serving their trainees as well as they could be. You basically graduate and it’s like, “So you’re a yoga teacher. Now what? What do I do? How do I actually begin to … How do I start my business? How do I start my career? How do I operate? How do I grow?” All of those are normal parts of the lifecycle for a yoga teacher. But most yoga teacher training programs do not prepare their trainees at all for that reality.
I think there is a huge area of opportunity. Of course, we have solutions for that. I’m very excited to actually be working with the Yoga Alliance Foundation on an incredible offering of business support services, education, tools, coaching, and mentorship, to cater to precisely this issue. So I think this is evolution. We’re finally realizing and acknowledging the fact that not only do we have businesses, but we need to be business owners. We need to run healthy small businesses. We need to treat ourselves as entrepreneurs, equally as yoga teachers.
What does redefining wellness mean to you?
Redefining wellness to me means that we continue to break down barriers around what these tools are, meaning yoga and the practices, and who it’s for. When I started practicing, I was most often the only person of color in the room. When I started booking and representing talent, I would be the only person of color in the boardroom, in the office, talking to the media. And certainly would be asking for the very few, if any, sponsor seats at the table that could be given to a teacher of color at the time.
And it’s not just a teacher of color. Right? It’s every kind of other. Whether it’s race, age, sex, body type, abilities, all of these isms, these ways that we have made yoga not for everyone, this is what redefining wellness is to me. And so that’s part of our original tagline. We’re a catalyst for better living, and we’re here to bring the tools of wellness to communities of all kinds. Since 2009 when I started YAMA, I’ve been doing everything that I could to fight for those opportunities, whether it was a media opportunity, a cover, an article, a teaching spot at an event, and really just making sure that as people in positions of power, such as media, such as bookers, such as teacher trainers, who are bringing in talent, and also training new people in yoga and the practices, that yoga really, truly is for everyone.
I think that there’s a lot more that we could be doing to push further into this space. That’s what redefining wellness is to me. It’s making sure that the practices are accessible and that they are as broad and as beautiful as humankind is. One of my favorite quotes from one of my most beloved teachers is, “There are as many yogas as there are you.” I think she said, “Yous,” actually. There are as many yogas as there are yous. And that for me is what redefining wellness is all about.
How have the past couple of years affected you, your practice, your community, and your business? What have you learned?
COVID was incredibly devastating for the yoga space, and particularly the roles that we played in the yoga space. So within that representation side of our business, we were doing a lot of booking and touring for our teachers, somewhere upwards of 200 gigs a year, meaning we were working with teachers on traveling and teaching in different engagements around the world, whether that’s a yoga school, or a yoga conference, or festival, whether that’s booking a modeling shoot, all of the different kinds of ways that a teacher can be making their career. We did about 200+ gigs in 2019. We did about 20 in 2020 and we did about 4 of those gigs in 2021. So the business was just devastated. A lot of the venues have closed. A lot of the events no longer exist.
Anything which requires travel and live music space, those are going to be two of the industries that are going to be the last to recover. And so what we were doing within YAMA was basically a mashup of both of those things. We were doing the big classes with 200 people, 500 people, 1000 people, 10,000 people, sending 10 tours out on a weekend for our teachers to go and be in different communities that they’d been cultivating through their social media and email marketing, to actually go and be on the ground in Japan, or …..oh, my goodness. We were touring everywhere, China, South America, Canada, Western Europe, just everywhere you could imagine, we basically had teachers.
We’ve sent a teacher everywhere so the business has really been devastated. There’s been a lot of loss, so I’ve watched a lot of friends, peers, colleagues, and fellow business owners nurture their businesses to exits, closing their shops up, so that’s been very bittersweet. For some of them, it was overdue. For some of them, it was unexpected. For all of them and all of us, there is an actual, physical, tangible, a real loss. I live here in New York City now, so you can count the studios that have closed and the studios that are still open, and it’s real. When you walk down a street and you know where a place used to be that you could just pop into at any time to take a class.
There’s a tremendous amount of grieving that people are still going through right now. And again, I think that everything is bittersweet. I am very much aware of the opportunities that COVID has also created. Within all of the destruction, there’s an opportunity to rebuild. There’s an opportunity to create new, old pathways that used to be set of how things were done are broken. Those established businesses that were there before are gone, so there’s a tremendous amount of opportunity in this moment, as well as a tremendous amount of loss.
On one hand, I’m grieving for the way that things were. And I hope that everyone is okay with me saying grieving because grieving is really important right now for us to be able to move forward and to be able to move on, and to be able to start visioning and thinking ahead for what’s coming next. Many of us have been so busy juggling, and trying to pivot and building our businesses online, and just trying to figure out how to survive, that we haven’t given ourselves a chance to reflect on what we’ve been through. And so now that we’re getting to this moment where things are starting to reopen, and you have a chance to look at the rubble, if we want to use this destruction metaphor, there’s all this rubble around.
So what are we going to do with it? Who’s going to pick up and rebuild? But if you haven’t properly reflected what you’d been through, it makes it a lot harder to have the energy, the stamina, the vision to be able to pick up the pieces and lead in the recovery. So what have I learned? Wow, I would say the biggest thing that I’ve learned because of COVID is to always think about the negative outcomes, and the positive outcomes.
Normally when we go into business in the yoga space, we’re in love. It’s a honeymoon. We are in love with yoga so we want to become a teacher. We’re in love with a friend, or maybe even an intimate partner, literally in love with someone and we decide that we’re going to create a business together. We have an idea and we’re going to work on it together. We rarely ever think of the divorce. We rarely ever think of what can go wrong. And so I have found that while you can’t predict the future, none of us saw COVID coming, although it had crossed my mind for a couple of years before that my business was too volatile because even though we hadn’t suffered a global pandemic, which caused the entire market to shut down, we had instances happen.
There was a teacher in Japan when the tsunami hit. There was a teacher in Istanbul when the referendum happened. There was a big political, unstable political moment. We’ve been in positions before, on a case by case basis, where the shit hit the fan, and the gig was canceled. And we were out the travel money, and we were out the administrative money that we’d put in, in advance, before the gig, or maybe where we couldn’t receive a deposit back from a venue. So we had seen some things happen.
We’d had teachers get sick and not be able to travel. It wasn’t because of COVID, but we had that happen before, where an artist wasn’t able to make the trip. So perhaps there was a little way to have anticipated what COVID showed me were my business’s weaknesses. So I’d already seen it, but I didn’t do anything about it. I did a little something, but I didn’t really let myself think, “What if the shit hits the fan? What if everything goes wrong?”
When we are engaging in our businesses, we will think about what happens when everything goes right. And how can I cultivate more of what I need to make more things go right? And what happens if things go wrong? What happens if the shit hits the fan? Am I safe? Do I have backup? Am I covered? How can I minimize the damage? So that’s when probably my biggest business lesson is really understanding the value in thinking through both positive and negative outcomes.
Personally, I’ve learned to rest more. I have really reset my day to day schedule. I take naps, which I’m very excited about. I love my naps. I’m definitely a smarter planner. I’m a more efficient worker, so I’ve really tightened up how I spend my days, and have prioritized things that make me feel good, that make me happy, and that are worth the value of my time. So those things have definitely shifted. I’ve slowed down considerably, both because I had to and because once I did, I realized how good it felt.
But with that extra time and space that I have developed and created for myself, I’m also using it to do some juicy things. Thinking about spending my time more wisely, and certainly placing a greater importance on being honest. I really feel like everybody got honest. I have gotten very honest. I think a lot of folks in business and probably in the regular world, or personal lives as well, put on a lot of pretense. We put on a lot of pretense, and I definitely learned to keep it 100% real because I didn’t have the energy, for one thing, during the pandemic, the early days. What are we, two years in at this point?
I just didn’t have the energy to not be honest, but I felt like we all got broken in such a way that everyone let themselves be honest. And I have found that very, very, very refreshing.
What is the most important thing you think every new yoga teacher should know?
I think the most important thing for every new yoga teacher to know is that you can reach your definition of success, and that it is not easy, and that it takes time, but that it can be done. I think one of the most tricky parts, the most dangerous parts of students who become teachers, and then enter the world, is that we already know that most haven’t been trained properly in what to expect, let alone how to execute on it.
But just in really knowing what to expect, when you don’t know what to expect, then you make it up in your mind. And when you make it up in your mind and it doesn’t match what happens in the real world, then you are very disappointed by those mismatched expectations. So that’s what I would say, it’s not easy, and it can be done, and that it takes time.
Do you have a book and/or podcast recommendation for creative wellness entrepreneurs?
I’m going to plug my own book, Yoga Business with Human Kinetics, which is out in the fall of this year, 2022. And also, there are a tremendous amount of tools at Yoga Alliance. We’re again working on building them up and building them out, but even now, there’s already a ton of tools that are there to help you on your professional path.
What are you most jazzed about right now?
I am very excited to be working on the recovery. I’m here to help. I started YAMA to advocate for teachers and to help create thriving businesses. And so we’ve been through the wringer and I’m really excited about picking up these pieces and finding partners who are going to be who I’ll collaborate with right in this rebuild of our industry. I’m very excited about the recovery, actually. I’m excited to see what new businesses will take the place of ones that we lost. I’m excited to see who will step up and into new roles that exist. I’m excited that the definition of wellness is continuing to expand, and that daily I feel like I see a broader, more beautiful definition of what wellness is, and that really excites me.
Anything else you would like to share?
I’m looking forward to this next phase of life. I think that the learnings that we all had from the lockdown and from the pandemic are true learnings. And I hope that as the world fully reopens, that we can keep that perspective that we had and use it well. I hope that we can do that both in a personal manner and in a professional manner; really looking at the lessons that we learned, to help us thrive in the future and in moving forward.
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