Early yoga masters relied on parampara, an oral tradition meant to pass teachings from teachers to students, to ensure that their practices endured.
Today, there are tens of thousands of yoga teachers in North America, and many of them consider themselves to be mentors of a sort, providing physical, mental, and spiritual guidance for their students.
For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I interviewed two veteran yoga teachers based in Washington, D.C., Betsy Poos and Alyson Shade. Poos, who has taught yoga for 17 years, mentored Shade at the studio she owned. Five years later, the two have decided to go into business together, opening a new yoga studio on Capitol Hill.
I talked with Poos and Shade about how their relationship has changed over the years, and how they have navigated becoming business partners. The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: Alyson, when you started going to Betsy’s classes, did you feel that you were getting something out of that relationship immediately?
Alyson Shade: Oh, yes. I quickly realized that Betsy was a teacher I needed to learn from. I knew I needed to stick around not just for her words and her pose knowledge, but also for the way that she holds the space.
Kitchener: What do you mean by that?
Shade: Betsy creates a happy, friendly community. When you go to her classes, you can’t get people to simmer down. You need to let everyone catch up and say hi and give hugs. The whole community comes together, and when I first started at Betsy’s studio, I was really missing that in my life.
Kitchener: How did you start seeing Betsy as your mentor?
Shade: It was probably when she started asking me to teach her classes. I felt really honored that Betsy would trust me with her students.
Betsy Poos: Did you teach prenatal for me?
Shade: I will never do it again.
Poos: You must really love me.
Kitchener: At what point did the mentorship in yoga transition to a mentorship in business ownership?
Shade: I really admired the way Betsy ran the studio. She was always there to clean or greet people or fold the blankets or wash the towels or make a video about how to roll the mats. She was very present, very engaging, and very professional without being standoffish. You could tell that she knew how to be efficient and command respect, but also let you joke around.
I enjoyed bouncing around from studio to studio, teaching a class here, a class there—but eventually I started craving stillness and my own space. So I started refining my business plans, starting to create my own programs.
Poos: This was where our mentoring relationship really started to solidify. Alyson reached out to me as she was considering all of this.
Shade: When I started thinking about whether or not to buy a studio, I immediately knew that I needed to talk to Betsy.
Kitchener: Why was she the first person who came to mind?
Shade: Because of the level of encouragement I had from her in the past, I knew that she would be a big supporter. She was someone I could trust enough to say, “These are my fears, these are my desires, I’m going crazy. You’ve been there, you’ve done that. Help me organize and make sense of this.”
Kitchener: So how did you jump from that solo endeavor to starting a studio together?
Poos: This spring we found out that our old studio was closing. At that point, I had given up ownership—I was just teaching there. A few days after I heard it was closing, I got a call from the landlord at the old studio and she said, “This space is going to be available. You were my previous tenant and you were awesome. Will you come back?” And I said, “No, but you know who will?” And the landlord said, “Will you do it together?” I think I just needed that little push.
Shade: So then I got this text from Betsy: “BREAKING NEWS, CALL ME.” We had to decide then and there if Betsy was willing to come in as a co-owner, and how we would figure out this partnership thing. I knew that Betsy’s priorities were with her family, and her other (non-yoga) job. So I wanted to be very respectful of those boundaries. I didn’t want to ask her to over-commit to me, just because I’m this new young thing who is so ready to open her own studio.
Kitchener: Why were you willing to make that commitment to Alyson in that moment?
Poos: I just see so much of myself in Alyson. It’s a natural thing—you want to help those people you see yourself in. If I go back eight years, I was about Alyson’s age, in her place, getting ready to open my own studio. I had bright eyes about what all of that meant. It’s been nice for me to be able to say, “This is what running your own studio is really like. Is that what you really want?”
Shade: And I’m like, “Yes! Sign me up! I can’t wait.”
Kitchener: Now the person who has always been your mentor has become your business partner. That’s not something that usually happens. Has that been exciting? Scary?
Shade: It’s definitely pushing me to step it up a notch and put on the boss pants. It’s not a 50-50 ownership—I am the founder, and Betsy is helping me out in a partner role. So I have to get myself out of the habit of asking permission. I constantly want to ask her, “Do you think this is okay?’’ Instead, I have to be like, “No, this is what I want to do,” and then whisper to Betsy, “Do you think this will work?” I need to own my decisions first, and then present them to Betsy as someone who will offer a second opinion. But I also know that, if I am ever totally off-base, she will call me out on it.
Poos: In yoga, we call our paths our dharma. That’s our life’s purpose. I have always thought that my dharma is to be a gentle leader. I want to teach by lifting others up. Sometimes it can be a little bit about you, but it’s about you to get to them—your students. And this to me feels like the perfect role to see us all rise.
Kitchener: As a yoga teacher, do you see yourself as a mentor to your students?
Poos: Yes. It happens whether you want it to or not. I’ve learned to embrace the role. If I can make you feel better about yourself because you can feel strong in Warrior Two, or because you can actually rest at the end of the class, I’m happy.
Shade: It was an unexpected role. I never really envisioned the role of mentor for myself. Yes, I’m here, I’m teaching—but I’m just the channel. But you can tell when students look at you a certain way. They have a certain level of respect for what you have just given them.
Poos: It’s kind of mind-blowing and awesome. I was in my early 20s, teaching classes where the majority of folks were older than me, and I would think, “How can I possibly pass on anything to you? I need your wisdom and your knowledge.” To have 70-year-old students come up to me when I was 23 and say, “You’ve given me so much”—that honor was so intense.