After barely surviving a 15-month shutdown because of the pandemic, Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor is seeking to regain its footing with new protocols designed to make students breathe easy about returning to group classes.
"This is my heart and soul, this is my baby, this is my community," said Colleen Saidman Yee, who founded the studio nearly 23 years ago and runs it with her husband and fellow yogi, Rodney Yee.
The studio closed on March 17, 2020, a day that is etched into her memory. "I remember exactly what I was wearing, I remember exactly who was in the class, and I remember how hard I cried," said Ms. Saidman Yee. When it became clear that the pandemic was going to drag on, she permanently closed the Yoga Shanti branch in New York City, and considered shuttering the Sag Harbor studio as well. "Every month that went by, I just thought, there's no way we can reopen. Even though I have a generous landlord who's giving me a break on rent, there's still a lot of other expenses."
The studio held daily classes in Mashashimuet Park last summer, and began offering live-stream classes, but business wasn't anywhere near pre-pandemic levels. To make up for the loss of income, the couple repeatedly rented out their homes in Sag Harbor and the city, and sometimes had to find temporary housing. "We moved eight times during the pandemic," Ms. Saidman Yee said. "It was all about letting go, and shifting with the times. I gave away about 90 percent of my clothing, and I was a fashion model for 35 years, so I accumulated a ton of clothes." They now live in an apartment above the studio.
The landlord had given her an April deadline to decide whether to sign a new lease, and, although she continued to waver, loyal customers convinced her to give it a go. "I'd run into people on the street and they were like, "We miss you so much. You're reopening, right?"
"It seemed like it meant so much to the community that I decided I had to hang on, and as soon as I made that decision, I got excited."
Before reopening on May 28, she had an air filtration system installed, and bought "top of the line" air purifiers. The windows and doors are kept open during class, and students must preregister, and either take their own mats and props or buy new ones. To allow for social distancing, there's a new check-in process. People now enter at the front of the building, and must choose one of 29 demarcated spaces to place a mat. The studio had accommodated up to 75 people before the pandemic, but is now operating at 40 percent capacity.
"Even though we're allowed to do more, we just want students to ease back in and feel completely comfortable," said Ms. Saidman Yee. For those who are not vaccinated, masks must be worn at all times, but fully vaccinated people can remove their masks while on the mat. The studio offers four in-person and several live-stream classes every day. "So, we're full on," she said.
She'd been worried that people might not return to practice at the studio, but the classes have been popular. "The first time I taught, it was full, and I chanted 'Om' and I started weeping," she said. "Then I looked up and there were about 15 other people crying, and every class we've taught since then, people clap at the end. They're so grateful and so happy."
Still, she added, "The business is not going to be in the black for a long time."
The service Yoga Shanti provides for the community has become especially clear since its reopening, she said. "You don't even realize how traumatized you are by the pandemic, and that's what I'm seeing in the yoga classroom -- people come in, and then the shell starts to melt a little bit. You come into the studio, and there's love and peace and safety and connection."