Making Drunk Yoga into a Business
Like most entrepreneurs that Hatch Tribe helps fund through Kiva loans, Eli Walker had a vision. Only hers involved yoga and wine!
Since February 2016, Hatch Tribe has pledged to invest a portion of all profits into other women-owned businesses via Kiva, a non-profit dedicated to connecting people through lending to alleviate poverty. And we’re proud to say that Drunk Yoga is one of the businesses that not only reached its funding goal but has expanded into a successful franchise.
A common misconception is that Drunk Yoga is about getting "drunk" and doing yoga, or that it's all about the wine. It's actually not! After the first several weeks of sold out classes, Eli Walker quickly realized what people love about Drunk Yoga—and what keeps them coming back for more. It's not the wine, but rather the feeling of "permission" the wine gives people to let their guard down and have fun moving their bodies around strangers, for the very purpose of having an uplifting experience. In other words, Walker realized she’d struck a chord with a societal need to be social and connect.
Everyone wants to make new friends, but sometimes they need a little help. Especially in a yoga class, where convention tells us to be quiet and that respect means not disturbing others' space. So whether they use wine, beer, coffee, kombucha, tea, or juice in classes as a beverage, it doesn't seem to matter. It's the way Drunk Yoga has constructed the class, through games, music, and interactive poses WITH beverage in-hand that makes people feel so intoxicated with joy.
Read on for our Q&A with Eli Walker, founder of Drunk Yoga and entrepreneur extraordinaire.
Founder: Eli Walker
Year founded - 2017
Company mission - Drunk Yoga is a social, interactive yoga experience hosted in bars, cafes, office spaces, and other unconventional settings. We help newbies experience yoga without fear, and seasoned yogis reconnect with yoga sans pressure to be perfect. Our mission is to inspire joy, cultivate community, and bring you back to yourself. We invite you to let your hair down, have some fun and enjoy this potent union of yoga and social ritual.
What made you decide to use Kiva to help fund your business?
Kiva was recommended to me highly by several female founder friends. What a great way to kickstart boot-strapping entrepreneurial endeavors! I am loving my experience and support from the Kiva community.
What ignited the spark in you to start your business?
I've always had a passion for finding uniquely creative ways to bring yoga to "non-yogis" in unconventional settings. Particularly, I'm interested in how to integrate my experience in interactive performance with yoga to teach people the art of joy through self-empowerment. This all sounds rather esoteric, I know! However, when I simplified my search for the perfect combination of "performance" and "yoga" that would allow me to carve out a niche for myself in both the acting industry and yoga world, I found, quite serendipitously, that if I added wine to a yoga class and hosted them in bars and other unconventional settings, the results were magical.
Here's the story: when I was at Grey Lady catching up with the owner, who I used to work for, he said, "Oh, you're a yoga teacher now? You should teach me yoga. I can't even touch my toes." And then of course, he did...and to which he replied, "Oh. I guess I can do it when I'm drunk." I jokingly said, "Well let's just do Drunk Yoga!"
Cue lightbulb moment!
I immediately asked him if I could teach a yoga class with wine in-hand in the back of the bar. He said, "sure," and thus began my Drunk Yoga journey! I realized that by turning yoga into a party of sorts by ritualizing the practice through a happy hour--making it a social event--made yoga less intimidating to newbies. When I saw the joy that my Drunk Yoga class brought to students, I turned it into a multi-faceted lifestyle business.
Tell us about one big hurdle you've faced.
I received a lot of backlash from the yoga community. For obvious reasons the words "Drunk" and "Yoga" together are very triggering for those who have found a cleansing refuge in the spiritual, sobering practice. When Drunk Yoga went viral from press in November 2017, I received quite a lot of hate-mail from yogis who had strong reactions to my new and subversive movement. Of course, I didn't mean to upset anyone, so I was taken aback. It forced me to introspect and make sure that I knew exactly what I was doing, and why I was doing it.
Once I was resolved in my decision to move forward with my company and establish my brand as an alternative, social yoga practice--however "offensive" it might appear at face-value to the purist yogis in our industry--it resulted in my being ostracized from a handful of yoga studios that I had previously had connections to. Owners of studios I used to work for asked me to not tell anyone where I was trained or worked, and I was taken off of the sub-list of a couple of other studios, as they didn't want to associate with "hashtag drunk yoga girl." So this, atop massive press, followed by a slew of hateful emails and social media messages from yogis around the world was a huge mental and emotional hurdle for me.
Thankfully, I didn't feel alone for long. The majority of friends, families, and those who know me well in our NYC yoga world were incredibly supportive of my quest to bring yoga to all through wine and socializing. Ultimately, I'm grateful that I stuck to my guns, and moved forward, because it was the right thing to do--for me, and all of the beginner-yogis I'm giving a voice to. It took a lot of strength to step away from the teachers and healers who had helped me get this far to do something so unconventional. But now, a year later, emotions of simmered, and I feel almost nothing but support.
What is your favorite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love the problem-solving! Starting a company requires deep-soul-diving to discover what you want, why you want it, and how you're going to manifest it. Then it's about figuring out the obstacles in your way in order to achieve your goals, and then it's figuring out how overcome those obstacles. And that requires all of me--everything I've ever learned about...everything. Myself, how to manage others, how to cultivate a positive work culture amongst my team, how to take care of my health so I can make intelligent short term and long term business decisions, how to be frugal, how to graciously make mistakes, how to admit when I'm wrong, how to admit when I'm right, how to push forward through fear and adversity, how to time manage, how to network...And then, when you keep moving forward and don't give up, you slowly start to see your dreams come to fruition.
It's truly magical. Exhausting...but magical.
What do you wish you had known earlier about running a business?
NOBODY knows what they're doing. There are no mysterious answers out there and no single key to success. Every business owner is just doing their best, learning as they go. In other words, it's okay not to have all the answers, because nobody does. As long as you're ambitious, gracious, and keep moving forward through all of the bumps, twists and turns, you'll grow.
What is one resource you couldn't manage your business without?
Support from community. I have an amazing team of people working for me, and beyond that, an incredible support system in my friends and family, always encouraging and believing in me. I don't think all of this struggle, hustle, and these sleepless nights would be worth it if I didn't feel like I was doing it for a larger cause--beyond myself. My community cheering me on, letting me know that my efforts inspire them, make it all feel purposeful.
When you're not working, what do you like to do?
Work-life balance is still something I still struggle with. Before Drunk Yoga took off, I loved to do acro yoga in Central Park on the weekends. It brought me so much joy. But in the last year, I haven't made time for it as I've built my business. I'd like to make a point of prioritizing a few hours of Acro yoga again this summer for personal joy, now that my business has more structure that allows me some free time.
Also--it sounds perhaps a little weird--but I love simply being in nature and indulging existential quandaries. (Hashtag yoga teacher problems). I like to recharge by myself, indulging philosophical thoughts on a long hike. It's my own personal spiritual ritual, and it makes me feel connected to myself, my purpose, and the universe at large.
Also painting, dancing, and binge-watching great shows on a rainy day...with popcorn, obviously.
Where do you most want to travel and why?
I love Bali. My heart has a second home there. I like to go every winter to decompress and enjoy a different pace of life that New York simply can't afford. That is to say: to slow down. I would also like to travel to South Africa. Accordingly, I'm planning our next Drunk Yoga retreat near wine vineyards outside of Cape Town for 2020. (One of the many reasons I love being an entrepreneur!)
About Eli Walker:
Eli Walker is a woman with a mission to challenge social norms and provide her students with tools for self-empowerment to cultivate personal joy. Equipped with a BFA in Acting from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Eli has been teaching yoga classes and private clients as a 500 RYT certified instructor since 2014, with additional training from the Himalayan Iyengar Institute in India and Katonah Yoga in New York. As CEO and lead instructor, she continues to expand Drunk Yoga® in New York and around the world through classes, events, merchandise, and a soon-to-launch online video series.
Connect with Eli and drunk yoga:
Paying it Forward
Hatch Tribe currently invests in interest-free loans for entrepreneurs through Kiva, a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. Leveraging the internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.
Since February 2016, we have issued over 155 loans to women-owned businesses in 66 countries across 6 continents. The list of businesses we’ve supported keeps growing and we couldn’t do it without you!
We invite you to join the Hatch Tribe Lending Team to pay it forward for women entrepreneurs everywhere!
All photos from Eli Walker // Drunk Yoga