When we last spoke to Alia Khan, she had built a successful platform to weave together her disparate passions and live a more authentic life. Over the past two years, she has made yet another change, and is now the proud owner of a thriving (and gorgeous!) yoga studio in Northeast Washington, D.C. We recently caught up with this lovely lady to hear all about how she created her dream job and what's next on the horizon...
Last time we talked, you had transitioned out of the legal world to pursue real estate, food writing, and yoga teaching. What made you take yet another bold step by opening a studio?
You know, opening a yoga studio was never an idea I’d even considered during my career change journey. But when the opportunity presented itself, all of the skills I had gathered up til that point clicked into place, and my gut told me - no, hollered at me - “Do This Now!!” Who was I to say no? Here’s how it happened: while I was in real estate, I was also helping my then-boyfriend start and manage his construction company and teaching yoga on the side. I was using my real estate license to look for office space for the construction business, and I stumbled across this space. When I walked into it I just knew I had to open a yoga studio: it was just too good of a business opportunity to pass up. Everything I knew about the yoga business and the neighborhood and the yoga market and my ability to negotiate my lease, my ability to handle all of the legal stuff, the fact that I was dating a contractor so the build out would come at a lower cost, everything kind of fell into place. It felt like it was aligning perfectly, and when I ran the numbers it seemed like a no brainer, so I went for it. I found the space December 12, 2014, and we opened for business February 16, 2015.
Yoga is incredibly popular in DC, and there is no shortage of studios in the area. How have you managed to distinguish East Side in this competitive market?
None of the other studios in our immediate neighborhood has anywhere close to the amount of space that I have, so I have been able to create an environment that is ideal for building community. East Side provides much more of a retreat-like experience than a room where you come in and do your yoga and leave. We're the only studio in the town that has our own dedicated rooftop space, and we practice outdoors and indoors - you don't feel like you're in D.C. anymore, which was my goal. We also do a lot of other little touches: we always have infused water, chocolate, and fresh local fruit for our clients to enjoy. It's really important to us that everybody feel welcome and included in our community here.
The quality of the yoga is also critical. I am very particular with my teacher team and have very specific guidelines to create consistency across our classes. We really value the culture here, which I only half-jokingly call, "anti-hippie-dippy." We try to respect everybody's personal spiritual beliefs. Instead of bringing religious elements into the way we teach, we talk about universal spiritual principles like kindness, compassion, and self-care.
We also hold a happy hour once a month and are coming up on the end of our rooftop concert series, where we practice outdoors to live music and enjoy desserts afterward. Clients really appreciate the community focus rather than just coming in for a workout.
It sounds like you are meeting a need in the community and have been able to bring all your talents and energies together to create something special. Have you finally found the perfect fit for you?
Yes - this really does finally feel like I found my calling. I am getting to use all of the various skill sets that I developed over the different chapters of my career path. It is interesting: as I did each new thing - practicing law, food writing, real estate, construction - I wasn't thinking about how to connect them. In retrospect, it all fits together really neatly. It's hard to have a lot of faith in yourself and your process when you're going through that period of self-exploration and trying out the things that resonate with you.
And there so much more I can do from where I am! I am going to launch a podcast. I'm going to start leading retreats. I hope to build out a corporate yoga program. This is just the beginning. I feel like it took me all of that work and that long journey just to get to square one and now I finally feel like I’m on the right path. And the great thing is, there is still a long way to go and a lot more adventures to have!
Tell us about your teachers. What does it take to be part of the East Side team?
My hiring process is pretty thorough, but the first "test" is whether a teacher bothers to come in and take a class before reaching out to me. I think that says a lot about the teacher and whether they recognize that each studio and teaching style is unique. A smart teacher comes to a studio and checks it out before wanting to join the team. I put so much effort into building a unique culture and philosophy, and frankly, it's one that only resonates with a small subset of the yoga teacher pool.
There's a studio for everyone, and I want to make sure the team consists of people whose vision lines up with my own and who are excited and want to be a part of it. Then the next step is an interview in which I get to know them and have a very frank conversation about our guidelines and our culture and what we're trying to build. It's really pretty obvious to me in that conversation whether the teacher is going to be a good fit culturally. We also have a technical discussion of our approach to teaching yoga. If that goes well then we do an audition.
So between the reality of this industry and the fairly unique and stringent guidelines I have, my team is on the smaller side as studios go, but I love them. They're like my family. I am so proud of the team that has joined me on this adventure.
With the work of managing a team and running a business, how are you able to stay mindful? What kind of things do you build into your routine to help you stay grounded?
I try to do the same things I recommend to my clients - like putting [yoga] practice in my calendar and making it a priority. Holding tight to my personal practice has been a key part of maintaining my sanity in many phases of my life. I started to practice yoga when I started practicing law, and the whole journey has been about learning how to really listen to my body and pay attention to it and the messages it's sending me. I try to impart that to my clients, and I try to practice what I preach. If I'm tired, I do my best to pause and ask myself why I'm tired and what I need to do to fix it. The corporate culture - and American work ethic in general - is built around this idea of not just ignoring the messages your body is sending you, but also offering tools to push past limits. "Here is all the coffee you could ever drink and here's a five hour energy drink and here's a Monster energy drink and here is how you can be connected all the freaking time and never unplug!” It's so unhealthy for us.
I'm also constantly reassessing my workload and my schedule. Over the last month, I started to notice that I've been exhausted on the weekends - but the thing is, weekends aren't actually a break for me because we're open Saturday and Sunday. So I need to find that down time during the week, which I wasn't doing because I still have that corporate lawyer work ethic ingrained in me.
That's great advice! Is there anything else you have learned in this process that you wish you could share with your younger self or somebody just starting out?
There have been so many lessons I've learned along the way. The biggest lesson is you never know how much time you're going to have on this planet, so why waste a moment doing something you don't absolutely love? Some people are happiest with the comfortable and familiar, which is great - don't question it. But if you always find yourself wanting a little bit more or constantly thinking about "What if?" - or dreaming about businesses or projects or jobs you wish you could have - then don't settle. Don't ignore that voice - pay attention to it, start to test it, start to ask questions around it, and seize the day and freaking do something about it!
I also want to be clear that I am not advocating a blind leap of faith. I'm not saying, "Take the leap - it's all sunshine and happiness! The universe will provide!" because that is not true. Save your money, take baby steps, try things out, and make educated jumps. Do something but don't do something stupid. Take stock of your life and what makes sense for you right now; for instance if you just had a brand new baby maybe now is not the time to launch your new business, and that's okay. It's important to have a plan. Things won't always go according to that plan, but it's important to have one.