Building a Brand and Breaking Barriers in Yoga
Building a Brand and Breaking Barriers in Yoga

"Your yoga process is about you and working where you are at." 

- Sarah Larson Levey

Join Elizabeth in this week's episode as she chats with Sarah Larson Levey, the CEO and Founder of Y7, a popular New York-based yoga studio with a devoted following on social media and in-person. Y7 is known for its unique combination of traditional yoga poses set to hip hop music, in a setting that features heat, candlelit rooms, and no mirrors. Sarah shares her personal journey, from being a fashion executive in New York to becoming a registered yoga instructor, health coach, and successful entrepreneur. She talks about the inspiration behind co-founding Y7 with her husband in 2013, driven by her own search for a yoga class she truly enjoyed, and how she aims to inspire others to prioritize their growth over their appearance. Sarah also discusses the benefits of daily movement for all ages and athletic levels, the inclusivity of Y7, and her insights on building a successful lifestyle brand.


    Elizabeth Stein 00:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is live purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey. This week's guest is Sarah Larson Levey, founder and CEO of Y7, the New York based yoga studio with a cult following that features traditional yoga moves in a non traditional setting of beat pumping hip hop music, sweat dripping heat and candlelit rooms and no mirrors. Sarah is an innovator, entrepreneur, 200 hour registered yoga instructor, author, mom and Certified Health Coach. In this episode, we talk about Sarah's beginnings as a New York based fashion executive to co founding Y7 with her husband in 2013 as a pop up in Williamsburg out of her own desire to find a yoga class she loves. Sarah shares about her mission, core values of inclusivity, the journey through and post COVID, lessons she's learned throughout her 10 years and the keys to success for building a lifestyle brand. Keep listening to learn all about Sarah and Y7. If you haven't had the chance to try our grain free granolas yet, head on over to Walmart to now find them in the gluten free Healthy Living aisle in select Walmart locations. Our grain free granolas have crunchy clusters of nuts, superfood seeds and creamy nut butters all baked with organic coconut oil and sweetened with coconut sugar. They are gluten free paleo and keto certified. Use the link in the notes section to find purely Elizabeth products at a Walmart store near you. Sarah, welcome to the podcast. It's such a pleasure to have you on I'm such a fan of your brand and your yoga class.

    Sarah Larson Levey 01:52
    Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here. I've been a huge fan of your brand for years. The purely Elizabeth oatmeal is in my Thrive Market like reorder box every month we go through it so quick. So I'm very excited to be here with you.

    Elizabeth Stein 02:13
    Love it. Before jumping into inspiration for starting Y7, back up a little bit. What were you doing beforehand, you were living in New York.

    Sarah Larson Levey 02:22
    I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. And I went to University of Wisconsin for college. And I graduated in 2009. So a little bit of a economic crisis time. And I moved back to Michigan for like six months. I was like, I don't know what I'm doing. My parents were like, We love you. We're not gonna move you to any city. If you don't have a job. And I was like, oh, no, no, no, no free rent in New York.

    Elizabeth Stein 02:51
    What about that?

    Sarah Larson Levey 02:52
    They're like, that's hilarious. We just..

    Elizabeth Stein 02:53
    What did you major in?

    Sarah Larson Levey 02:54
    I was a consumer science major with a focus on retail wholesale management

    Elizabeth Stein 03:00

    Sarah Larson Levey 03:01
    Yeah. And I have a business certificate in kind of like business like management. Yeah, Wisconsin has some really, really cool programs when it comes to picking kind of like a little bit more developed, like real world like niches when it comes to that. So target actually sponsors a big portion of their retail program, because they're also headquartered in Wisconsin. So we have a big partnership with target. And so we've been really, really great, like, retail, like wholesale management program there. So from there, I was back in Michigan for a couple of months and took some interviews in New York and LA and I ended up in New York and I actually did exactly what I went to college for. I was one of those.

    Elizabeth Stein 03:42
    Wow, shocking!

    Sarah Larson Levey 03:44
    So I feel like it's so rare like I worked for a contemporary womenswear brand called Addison and I worked in house as a sales manager. So I was overseeing both of our showrooms on east and west coast and working with our discounters and some of our smaller major department sites. So the Revolves, the Shop Bops, and I was working with Rue La La with Gilt Groupe, working with the private label that we did for anthro and Urban Outfitters. So I was like, it was great. And I loved I loved it. I like I was one of those who, you know, I didn't start Y7 because I hated my job I actually really loved I loved my job so much,

    Elizabeth Stein 04:23
    Which is also a really good lesson, because I feel like, you don't hear that often.

    Sarah Larson Levey 04:28
    I know and I always think that you know, as I kind of think about like our trajectory and you know, what we built with Y7 it was always so funny, because anytime I kind of talked about like my origin story, or like Y7's origin story, it was really like, Y7 was born out of such a personal need for something that I was craving, and it was never intended to be business like, the goal of it was never like, Oh, I'm gonna do this so I can like make money and have my own business and all this all the things that we think come with owning a business.

    Elizabeth Stein 04:59
    Which I think that's how a lot of the best ideas do start, you know, sometimes you don't have a business plan and you just go.

    Sarah Larson Levey 05:05
    Yeah, and it was and I think. I, it's exactly like you just said that so many successful businesses, the greatest businesses are those that come out of just like this. I wanted this. And so I started it.

    Elizabeth Stein 05:17
    And why did you want it? What was the...

    Sarah Larson Levey 05:19
    So, I actually pinched my sciatic nerve in late 2012. And I'm someone who also like, you know, for better or worse, I think, like, in my brain, I'm like, 25, I'm like, Oh, I don't have to stretch before I do anything. Warm up, why would I want What do you mean? And so I tend, I mean, I tend to, like go after, like physical activity as I would when I was like, 18, 19, 20, which is not the case, I'm 36. And I need to, you know, kind of reconcile that in my brain. But I was never someone who like loved working out, I really went worked out so I could kind of eat and drink and do all of that, and still be in the shape that I wanted to be in. And so in 2012, I pinched my sciatic nerve, and my doctor was like you like, enough with like the treadmill, he was like, no more, no spinning, nothing, you need to do Pilates or yoga, like gentle movement, something that's really gonna focus on core strength. And like, you have to start to rebuild your body from the ground up, really. And I was like, okay, and I was, I was 25 at the time, so I couldn't really afford to be honest. Um, I was young and working in fashion. And it just, I didn't, I couldn't afford it. And so there were a lot more yoga studios at the time than Pilates studios so I was doing first class free or like, just like trying to find somewhere that I could like, really knew that I could commit to

    Elizabeth Stein 06:50
    Had you done yoga before or this was your first

    Sarah Larson Levey 06:52
    I had my mom is Japanese and has a very regular yoga practice. And so it was always just prevalent in kind of my household and in her her routine throughout my childhood growing up, but it was just never I wanted something like I played sports growing up. So for me, I wanted that kind of like intensity, right? That feeling of like, I know, I'm getting a workout, I was sore. And I know this is doing something. I had done it like here and there. But I was never able to get out of my head when I was in yoga. It was this silence created and all of this noise personally for me, I started going through my to do list in my head, I would look around and get super distracted. And there was a lot of for me, when I started going to studios a lot of comparison, physical comparison, you know, for better or worse, a lot of the studios that I tried, were brightly lit, and so beautifully to die and, and lots of mirrors and a lot of demoing a lot of this like beautiful instructor tall, thin, with an incredible practice being like, see how I am in this pose? And I was like, I sure do. And I don't know, if that's for me and there were a multitude of factors that kind of led me to every time I left class, I would feel a lot worse about myself and I did better. And as I kind of sat with that and started to think I was like that's really like the complete opposite of what you're supposed to get out of your yoga practice. Your yoga practice is about you. It's about you feeling at home in your body, you working on things from where you're at. It's not about keeping up with everybody else. It's not about looking like somebody else in a pose. And it really kind of got to me and I wanted a space where I could practice and feel really comfortable. So Y7 is it's dark, it's candlelit. 98% of our classes are the same format, our we flow hard format. They're always 60 minutes, and we flow to the beat and music and all of those things, you know, we were done really intentionally they weren't done to be like cool or like sexy or new. It ends up being like a really sexy fun vibe. ButElizabeth Stein 09:05
    It turns out it is that.

    Sarah Larson Levey 09:07
    Yeah yeah, and it was but it was I wanted it dark and candlelit because for me, I wanted, I wanted this sense of safety that nobody was gonna be looking at me that if I went a little deeper into my chair and listen, like when I go into Chair Pose, and I go a little bit deeper, like I look constipated, like I'm really I'm really working here. Right? And I wanted to know that if I was like, trying really hard or making a face or sweating or like whatever, not looking perfect in a pose that I could feel like no one was looking at me and like honestly, no one ever was probably but it was that kind of self judgment and self doubt that led to kind of this creation of this really safe space where it is dim, you know even if you are looking around like you can't really see what anyone else is doing. So it really forces you to pull that focus back onto yourself. I wanted to heat it because I wanted it to feel like a workout. Like I wanted to leave the class dripping sweat. And I wanted it to feel intense. And like I was really working. And so the infrared heat is this other little added bonus of kind of what you get in the classroom where you're kind of enhancing that detoxification process through the technology. And, again, no mirrors in the music, and I wanted it to be fun. Like they said, I'm like, not someone who like loves working out like, ah can't wait about a 10 mile run I just really, really love this. I wish I was. I'm not like that, though. And I wanted it to be fun and a little bit more lighthearted than what I had experienced in the past I think we can get so in our heads and I wanted to really, truly create a space where it was just about movement for your own body, and where you're at, and the darkness and the portion of we have a portion of class called flow on your own, where you take the sequence on your own. And that space is really just meant for you to like the sequence is a suggestion that time is for you. It is I'm very aware of the fact that our clients are not only spending money to spend time with us, it's their time. And I want to make sure that they're getting the most out of that time that they're enjoying themselves in that time, right. We're all so busy. Now, there doesn't seem to ever be enough time in the day. And so when we do consciously make that decision to do something for ourselves, I want it to be an experience that our clients can count on that they know like if they're going at 7am 7pm noon, it is going to be a 60 minute class, you are going to flow three times, and you're going to flow hard, you're gonna listen to great music, and you're going to sweat. And I think that's really important.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:52
    Well, I used to live in New York, as I said, beginning but when I have come to New York over the years, I've come and taken the class and just absolutely loved all those elements. And I'm definitely someone a who wants to come and sweat and feel like I got a work out B I loved not having a mirror because I do always think that that's like such a strange thing in yoga that it is all about you and this moment, and then there's a mirror that you're looking at. I always felt awkward

    Sarah Larson Levey 12:20
    Yeah, it's and it's so funny because we're gonna look different in poses. Forget, like, our physical history or anything like that. It's just anatomy, like, our arms are gonna be different lengths. Our spines are gonna be different lengths, like, there's no way we're ever going to look the same in a pose. So why are we using that as the metric of like success, or like, oh, look like this. It's never that's completely unrealistic, just from an anatomical point of view, right? There's always this thing that I truly believe in. This happened to me when I first got my my headstand, it was like something just clicked. And it was a feeling it wasn't like, Oh, I know exactly where like, my hands are exactly six inches apart. And my fingers are super super spread. It was just like something just like hit and I was like, that's what that's what I want to get back. It's the feeling. And I think that's, that's what we missed when we have the mirrors, I think they can definitely be helpful. But I think that's an element that's really overlooked when you're so focused on kind of the outward image.

    Elizabeth Stein 12:54
    I also love that you say fun and I think that music piece of it. And I don't know if is all the music hip hop or some of it?

    Sarah Larson Levey 13:36
    We've always been like super music focused music was like music is a huge motivator for me. And like I also have a playlist for everything. Like weird like niche thing. Washing the dishes, this is my like morning walk playlist. This is my like afternoon, I have a getting ready playlist. I have like separate getting ready playlists if I'm going like out out or just to dinner. So I have like a... Yeah, that for me. It was like I want something fun and upbeat. And I love I love hip hop. And we've been super fortunate in this last year to be able to partner with Universal Music Group. They become a small equity partner. So we are doing a ton of artists partnerships with them.

    Elizabeth Stein 14:18
    Oh, that's so cool, congratulations.

    Sarah Larson Levey 14:19
    A lot, yeah. Thank you. We have a lot coming up with them. But it's something our customers really resonated with too. We have. We have so many themed classes because we love it. You know, our teachers are like, Can I do this class? Like one of my instructors in LA for the holidays was like, may I please do a Mariah Carey Christmas special class and I was like, I was like, absolutely. I was like, I was like iconic and I Yes. 10,000% And it was just it was so fun. We did like we did a boy band like one hit wonder class which was you know, just like, this is going to date me so bad but like LFO like summer girls just like all like the funny, like, you know, when it's it's fun and it brings lightness to a practice. And it also for me, like, makes the class just fly by, where I always taught myself in yoga classes being like, looking for a clock. I was like, where is it? How much longer? What am I doing? You know, and when you're holding like a plank or a chair and like, you hear that song, come on, you're like, Oh, I just hold the plank for a minute. Like surprise, you know, it becomes joyful. And I think something to celebrate. Yes, we've always really allowed for the clients and our staff and our team to and our community to really like dictate and help us decide like what we're listening to and all those things.

    Elizabeth Stein 14:23
    That's so fun. I think it's so important a adding more joy into our lives. So a great way to be doing that. The B also love that I think both bringing the music aspect and the darkness slash no mirror feels like it makes yoga so much more accessible, where it's really something that can be pretty intimidating, if you haven't done and I'm sure that was part of your experience, or first go into those classes of like, I don't know how to do this, or

    Sarah Larson Levey 16:10
    Yeah, and all those studios had so many different levels. And it was like, I'm not really a beginner. Like I know, like, I know, you know, I wasn't aware of how to get into a crow pose when I first started, but like, I know how to, you know, warrior one down dog like all of those things. Like I knew what they were like, I didn't need to be in a beginner class where I was actually forced to take one at one studio because they wouldn't they they decided to dictate where you are in your practice. And I was like huh, and my beginner class it I literally sat the whole time and did wrist exercises. For me. I was like, well, now I feel like I have to go to the gym or do something to move my body. And this is what I was counting on. And I couldn't, you know, I couldn't do that. And I think still there are so many of these preconceived barriers to yoga, which is I'm not I'm not flexible enough. I don't know enough. And you don't have to come into the practice like that. Right? Like, you gain flexibility by coming. Yeah, you gain knowledge by coming to class, like no one goes in like that. But that's how it's always been presented, right? Like, I mean, there's still out there. But there was a time when the yoga industry but like a couple years before COVID Like everyone was opening a yoga studio. And you started to see like all of these, they call them like yoga-leberties, which are like these just incredible yoga instructors are basically like, contortionist, like scorpion pose, all those things like, I will probably never get their like, my back just is not gonna do that. And like, that's okay. Like, that's not for me. Like, that's not the end goal for me, like, as I age and like I've gone through two pregnancies, like my goal is just to have a really strong and healthy body, and to be able to move it in the way that I want to and anything that needs to be more of the focus than these like perfect poses.

    Elizabeth Stein 18:05
    Totally. So on that topic, I guess, what are some of the ways that well a like, what is your yoga practice over the years look like? Are you doing, once a week, twice a week or whatever? And then how have you really seen the impact of yoga practice on your life?

    Sarah Larson Levey 18:24
    Yeah, so I'm definitely practicing. Less than I have in the past. But I think before I got pregnant with my son, in 2019, I was practicing, like, probably two, three times a week that was like my, that was like, a good cadence for me enough where like, I don't know, I think sometimes when you do something like too much you just burn out on it. Like no matter how much you love it at a point, like your favorite song, kind of you listen to it too much. And like, all of a sudden, you're like, I hate this. And I never want to hear it again. So two, three times a week was really like my like, happy spot. And when I was pregnant, I kind of dropped down to I had horrible morning sickness, both my pregnancies so I was pretty much doing nothing for those times. But as I kind of ramped up, I would I would be going once or twice a week. But it just depends on like the phases of of life where you're at, I think there's a lot of different things but I love for me, like it's not just physical for me, it's become more and more of a mental thing for me. So there's so many times where I've walked into that studio and just had so much on my mind so much going on and through like the sweat and the movement and the heat. When I leave that room an hour later. It's a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. And I don't know if that's from working so hard physically during the class and just being tired or just simply being able to be in a space where like, this is where I am for the next hour. It's truly like it doesn't matter what's going on outside of that room like this is where I am. And, again, I think the way that we intentionally design the studio without the mirrors and really this idea of just like, it is you and your mat, like, that is so impactful, because you're not looking at what everyone, like, you know, I've been in spin classes before we would like look at your neighbor's like, you know, little gauge thing and then turn yours up one more, and I'm ew I don't want to do that right now. So there is something very freeing about just being there for yourself.

    Elizabeth Stein 20:35
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    Sarah Larson Levey 21:36
    We had 15 going into COVID across four different cities. We were in Los Angeles, New York. We had opened Chicago for three days. And we had one in Portland, Oregon, on the Nike campus through a partnership with them, which was really fast. Yeah, but I oh gosh from the beginning. Um, my now husband, who was my boyfriend at the time is my co founder. And I think truly he just got sick of hearing me complain about like, how I couldn't find any way to practice yoga. And it's funny because he was like, way more into it than I was at the time. Like he was like, he was going to yoga with people a ton. And like, I was like, I don't want to become too hot, like, too hot. They yell at me. And they make me do the same 11 poses. He's like, Well, yeah, that'd be from us. And I was like, but what if I want to sit down? He's like, you can't. Okay. I don't want to do that. And so we we ended up finding this incredible like, we found it on Craigslist, it was actually a recording studio, above the Roebling Tea Room in Williamsburg. And we lived in Williamsburg at the time. And they didn't use it on the weekends. And it was perfect. It was a dark room with no windows. And so we rented that for four hours, and Saturdays and Sundays. We hired teachers off of Craigslist as well. Kind of told them what we wanted what we were thinking and like was that at the time I wasn't certified. And we started as a pop up. And after like a month of a pop up and like just free fun like, classes someone asked to buy a package. And I was like, Oh, let me get let me let me get back to on that. We were like, like, we were kind of looking at between our jobs. And New York was like at the time this was oh my gosh, this was 2013 this was the summer of 2013 and it was like New York. And LA is like this too. And so many cities are like this now but at the time New York was really like kind of at the forefront of this like co working like month to month spaces kind of thing. So we found this building in Williamsburg on 88 North first and it had a bunch of like, it probably had about 10 300 square foot like rooms basically like they call them artists lofts. The woman like next door to us used it as like her ceramic studio. She had like her wheel and like all her clay and stuff and someone like down the hall use it for voice lessons gave like voice lessons there. Someone else did eyelashes. And it was really cool. We found it. It was like 1,000 bucks a month, month to month. All utilities included. We were like, all right. Like, you know, we'll be tight but we can afford this and we it was month to month so we took that lease and the studio held about 10 people maximum. And that's how we started. Mary one of the founders of ClassPass. She was one of our first clients and it was when ClassPass was classtivity. And she was like, Do you guys want to try out this platform?

    Elizabeth Stein 21:39
    Did she randomly come to the class? Or did you know?

    Sarah Larson Levey 24:51
    Yeah, no, she randomly she also lived in Williamsburg and heard there was a new studio and was like, do you guys want to try this thing? We're like, Sure, great. We don't have any money for marketing or advertising or anything like that. And so we were one of the very first ClassPass studios. So we've like really grown up together with them. And we quickly grew out of that space in my gosh, like six months, moved into a different space. And slowly kind of grew from there. And when we opened our third studio, which was flat iron, in the spring of 2015, that was when you know, my husband, I kind of sat down, we're like, alright, like, should we like, do is this like a thing? Like, should we like, try, like, try this? Because we were both still working full time jobs and like, opening the studio going to work, leaving, closing the studio, like, really just like, I have no idea. And people were like, how do you do that? Like, I literally have no idea. I was like, I blacked out. Like, I do one thing now. And I'm like, tired. So very confused by my husband's in digital advertising with more money than I did. So I was like, Alright, I was like, listen, like, I'm also like, in sales and account management, like I can go back with that skill. Like, if it's not in passion, that skill is like, pretty transferable. So I left my job in March of 2015. And he ended up leaving his and August of 2015. And we went on to open Union Square that year, and West Hollywood, at the very top of 2016. And we secured our private equity round, we raised at the end of 2016. And they're still just our single private equity partner that we have. Yeah.

    Elizabeth Stein 26:56
    That's amazing. What do you think was really the moment? I mean, it sounds like obviously, ClassPass was very influential in that startup phase and getting the word out. Were there other like super pivotal moments that really shine? And you were like, Okay, we've made it like, I feel really good about leaving my job. And..

    Sarah Larson Levey 27:17
    Yeah, yeah, I think it was just like, we started to see like, real numbers. And my, both my husband and I have worked since we were like 15, and had part time jobs. And we both worked through college, so for us, it was to not have something consistent was a little scary, which is why we kind of staggered it. And again, why we worked like full time and this was at the like the very beginning of boutique fitness. SoulCycle was just a couple years old, like Barrys was like, yeah, like flywheel like, that was like the big three. And that was really it. You didn't see I mean, there was Yoga works. Yoga works was really like, we didn't have core power in New York. Yeah, at the time, but it was really just like Yoga works and like, all these other things, and it was like, is there space for something else in an already overcrowded market? And it's not like I am, like, we didn't invent, like new yoga poses, people have like, free flowing parts of class and, you know, in other studios too we didn't do anything, you know, kind of that was brand brand new, but I think it's the way that I'm the customer. And that's a reason why I don't really teach, I can I did get certified in 2015, it was important to me that when I was speaking to my instructors, and about the studio, that I was able to speak on it from that lens also, you know, especially when it comes to how we want to format the classes and what that's like, but I'm the customer. And I think sometimes that people lose sight of that, know who's coming to the studio, who is talking about the studio, and it's your consumers and it's your clients. And so I've always felt really strongly about making sure that the experience is still resonating from a consumer point of view, because I think you can, you know, from the teaching and operational side you can get so lost in like the details and pick apart every little thing but at the end of the day, like when I'm in class, like I'm half listening, you know, I mean, like I like I'm like kinda like you know, I'm listening like I'm doing you know, the poses but it's not like I'm tearing you know, tearing apart every little word they're saying or sentence or things like that. But when you're the one talking and teaching you can like get really wrapped up in like those little things or like, oh, that sentence didn't really make sens

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