Neighborhood Fitness Studios Persist Amidst Challenging Environment

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Forced to navigate COVID variants, shifting mask mandates, and cautious students, neighborhood fitness studios have experienced a rocky two years, in a time when maintaining well bodies and minds is as crucial as ever.

Potrero Hill resident Gizella Donald opened Yoga Mayu at Mission and Harrison streets in 2008, launching a second location in Noe Valley in 2014. She lost both locations during the pandemic as demand diminished due to shelter-in-place orders. An 18-year Hill dweller—Donald lives on Arkansas Street—last summer she found the perfect space for a rejuvenated Yoga Mayu, at the corner of 20th and Missouri streets. 

Having long eyed the space—formerly a nail salon—Donald thought the cozy setting would help her create an intimate connection with students and their practice.

“I wanted to translate what a yoga practice means in the modern world, without the dogma,” she said. “Everyone has different religions, so Yoga Mayu cultivates a neutral, progressive connection to body and mind with a focus on breathing, well-being, and alignment that is relevant to today’s life.”

Donald opened the studio last summer, after installing new floors and plumbing. Without advertising, she attracted up to 15 participants a class, welcoming previous students, walk-ins, and neighbors through word of mouth. Yoga Mayu offers vinyasa flow-based lessons, as well as workshops on yin yoga, restorative yoga, and aromatherapy.

“I want people to walk away feeling they can go further from here,” she said. “Less is more, and simple can be super hard. Our classes are more about teaching people to understand their bodies when it comes to basic alignment or awareness. It’s not about survival of the fittest.”

A yoga sculpt class incorporates traditional vinyasa with cardio burst, using body weight to tone muscle. A yoga teacher training is planned for this spring.

Opening during the pandemic was a challenge—in particular recruiting teachers, and retaining students as people moved out of the City—but Donald is optimistic about building her business in her long-time neighborhood.

“We are an easygoing, non-judgmental community here,” she said. “We’re super down-to-earth and personable, and know each other’s names and talk to each other.”

Down the hill from Yoga Mayu is Club Pilates, located at 635 Eighth Street. The studio launched at the wrong moment, March 2019, and shutdown a year later due to the pandemic. Although it held rooftop classes during the latter half of 2020, it didn’t reopen indoors until March 2021.

Seema Srivastava—who owns the franchise along with husband Amit—was introduced to the pilates reformer at a Club Pilates six years ago, and immediately fell in love with how different it was from a “big box gym experience.”

“I remember the entirely different experience I had; 50 minutes of complete focus on slow, precise movements that left my ab muscles sore in a good way. My entire body, particularly my back and ab muscles had gotten a massage on the inside,” she said.

She and her husband decided to become a Club Pilates franchisee. Most San Francisco neighborhoods don’t permit franchise stores to open in their commercial area. During their eighteen-month search for a location, two realtors quit on them, citing long and complicated permitting processes. They found a place in Mission Bay, but an eight-month negotiation between the leasing agent and landlord failed to reach an agreement. 

One day, as Amit biked to the CalTrain station on his way home to Sunnyvale, he spotted a new development on Brannan Street, and met the manager. After directly negotiating the lease, the husband-wife team embarked on an almost two-year process of permitting, constructing and opening a 1,500-square foot studio, which now features floor-to-ceiling glass windows, twelve Pilates Reformer stations, and other workout equipment. A host of classes are offered, the most popular of which is Reformer Flow. 

“There’s a class type and level for everyone,” said Srivastava. “People often come here with an injury or prior illness that makes exercising difficult. We also offer personal one-on-one training when group classes aren’t the right option for a client. New clients often begin with Level 1 Reformer Flow classes, but after four to six classes, know if they’re ready to advance to the next level. Offering our members’ the very best experience is our top priority. As soon as you walk in, you experience a focused but calm energy.” 

Other fitness offerings in Mission Bay include CorePower Yoga, at 1200 4th Street, and Lagree Fit 415, at 112 Channel Street. Photo: A Club Pilates client uses a reformer machine. Photo: Vivien Wang