How a Small Town Survives a Pandemic: Lauren Robinson of Sierra Shanti Yoga & Wellness Studio
On a windy February evening, Lauren Robinson and I donned our winter hats and took a walk on the canals. Lauren is the owner of Sierra Shanti, Bishop’s very own yoga and wellness studio. I’ve been taking classes at Sierra Shanti since it opened in 2013. When classes went online at the start of the first shutdown, I found solace in a familiar ritual. While the cows milled around us and the sun set behind the Sierra, Lauren told me what it’s been like keeping her business afloat, and what the future holds for Sierra Shanti.
Kendra: How did it feel, as a business owner, when you first started to sense the impending shutdown?
Lauren: It was so abrupt. My initial reaction was to focus on how I could keep the studio alive. We immediately started going online. Emotion went out the window, and I went into auto-pilot-action-mode. I had to, to survive! Of course the emotions came later. It’s been really hard—I never anticipated the rolling shutdowns lasting this long.
Kendra: You moved to Bishop just a year and a half before the pandemic started. It must have been incredibly difficult to face this at a time that was so vulnerable, both in your own life and for your business.
Lauren: I’d started a lot of exciting new things at Sierra Shanti, and the pandemic hit right when the business was in an upswing. February of 2020 was a really successful month, which was so exciting for me and for the community.
…And then March happened. But I had been hoping to start offering online classes anyway, and the crisis fast-tracked that.
Kendra: How have you saved your business so far?
Lauren: Hybrid classes: a combo of in-person and online. We want to be in service for people for safe, masked, in-person classes, when that’s allowed. We also want to serve people who don’t want to be inside the studio at all during this time. So we offer online and outdoor classes, also. And anyone who signs up for class, whether they can attend livestream or not, receives a copy of the class recording, valid for seven days. So really, anyone can practice from anywhere, anytime they want.
Kendra: What role does Sierra Shanti play in the local community, now as well as before the pandemic?
Lauren: I think now more than ever is the time to be focused on movement, wellness, and natural health solutions, all of which the studio offers. We also strive to create greater awareness and access to healing methods such as reiki, which is energy healing.
I’ve been working hard to evolve our studio into a place for overall wellness and a community center. It’s a location, a place to come back to, to foster that sense of support that we’ve all missed so much over the last year. It’s necessary for us as humans. We’ve been doing our best to continue to offer that throughout the pandemic. And we’ll be here for the community when we can all come together again. In these ways, Sierra Shanti is essential.
Kendra: Will you keep some of the changes you’ve made once we can all go back to normal?
Lauren: Absolutely. We can’t wait to reopen the studio in person, and we won’t be taking away online classes.
Right before the shutdown, Sierra Shanti had started hosting guest teachers who offered special workshops. Learning to host them virtually has opened up a whole realm of connections I’m really excited because we have a lot of fun stuff planned for 2021 already.
Kendra: So, hybrid classes and workshops is a bit of a silver lining, since it allows a bigger variety of people to participate in yoga classes. I mean, let’s face it, there is some amount of falling over for some of us (yes, me). And stuff like being afraid to get into plow pose.
Lauren: Yes! I had someone tell me today that she prefers the Zoom format. Some people are telling me they’re practicing more than ever, because they can just roll out of bed. We can also invite friends who live elsewhere to a virtual yoga class. We’ve got students in North Carolina participating. Another teacher’s mother-in-law has joined from her home in Israel.
Kendra: That’s a good reminder for me that Zoom isn’t all evil! Still, yoga is such a tactile activity. You get a lot from hearing the other students in the class breathe, seeing the subtleties of the teacher’s movements. How have you and the other teachers handled the dissonance of teaching such an intimate activity through the cold lens of technology?
Lauren: First I had to get over being camera shy! It’s been a major learning experience and challenge to remain authentically connected to my students through the screen. It would be easy just to go through the motions, if you will. But I don’t want to lose that sense of connection and subtlety, so throughout the practice I get up close to the screen and try to offer individualized support to students.
It’s not quite the same. I miss teaching in person very much. But this is the way things have to be right now.
Kendra: The virtual classes have been a balm this year, even for a grouchy luddite like me. Before the pandemic I always took a Saturday morning yoga class at Sierra Shanti with Ranae, one of your phenomenal teachers. As soon as that was up and running virtually, it was really nice to have some semblance of a ritual I remembered from my life before—even though it was in my house, by myself. It was comforting. And I knew the people in the class.
Lauren: Right, and you can see them!
Kendra: Yeah! I don’t have any desire to do YouTube yoga—but I like Sierra Shanti’s live online classes. They’re filmed in the beautiful studio, with people I know. They make me get out of bed on Saturday mornings!
Lauren: And there’s that precious and rare feeling of doing something together.
Kendra: Exactly. Everyone checks in at the end of the class and shares ice skating reports and weekend plans. So, in a way, it’s like when you used to bring Great Basin coffee to the studio after class and everyone hung out.
That’s one of my favorite things about yoga—the community feeling behind it, and that’s carried over into your online format. And I believe Sierra Shanti has collaborated with others even during the pandemic, is that right? Have you made any surprising friendships?
Lauren: Absolutely. Together with Mountain Rambler Brewery we hosted a fundraiser for the studio called “Beer Yoga,” which I think you attended!
Kendra: I did! But I didn’t understand that we were supposed to have a can beer of with us during the class to hold during different poses. So I did the whole thing holding a large rock. That was a new experience!
Lauren: It was super fun! So many people said that’s exactly what they needed: something easy and lighthearted. The Mountain Rambler Brewery is such a great friend to all.
We also collaborate with the fairgrounds, who allow us to host ongoing outdoor classes there. On Sundays we have a $5 community class with Tiffany at the fairgrounds. And that’s happening currently, because we have some dedicated yogis who don’t care what the temperature is and just need to get their yoga on!
Kendra: So, why Bishop? How did we get so lucky as to snag you?
Lauren: Bishop had been calling me for years. I was living in San Diego before this. About five years ago, on Christmas Eve, I decided I’d like to travel somewhere and take a prana vinyasa yoga class. I started looking up places, and that’s how I found Bishop, and Kelley Doyle, the founder. Me being from the east coast, I was very much craving mountains and seasons that change.
So I decided on a whim to drive up! I called Kelley, asked her if she was teaching a Christmas Eve class, and she welcomed me. We were instant kindred friends, and after that I returned to assist her with some teacher trainings. Later she sold the studio to Meredith Jabis, who is also a dear, dear friend. Meredith knew how much I adored the studio. To my surprise, two years later she called and told me she was ready to make a transition, and asked me if I wanted to move to Bishop and buy the studio. I knew in my soul that I had to say yes.
Kendra: So many people have these serendipitous stories that brought them here, or brought them back. It’s such a special place.
Lauren: It’s been hard through the pandemic to own a small business. But I wouldn’t want to ride out the pandemic in any other place. Truly.
Kendra Atleework lives in Bishop. Her book, Miracle Country, is all about the Eastern Sierra, California, and the desert West. It’s available at Spellbinder, Booky Joint, ESIA visitor centers, and everywhere books are sold. Sign up for her newsletter at Atleework.com—and learn about a bunch of upcoming outdoor book signings where you can meet the author. (Follow her on Instagram here.)