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Is This the End of the New York Yoga Studio?

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On an afternoon in late July, Amy Quinn Suplina met two of her longtime employees in an airy street-front room in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to box up her 12-year-old business. Sitting on balance balls to deflate them, the three reminisced while arranging straps, blankets and bolsters for storage.

Since opening Bend & Bloom Yoga in a 1920s firehouse on a residential block in 2008, she had turned it into neighborhood fixture, providing an oasis for yogis of all levels in a striving, strident city.

But the pandemic brought all that to a halt. And after five months paying rent, utilities, and other expenses for a space she couldn’t use, Ms. Suplina decided to forfeit her security deposit and get out.

She isn’t alone. Packed indoor classes focusing on breath, touch and togetherness are not exactly happening these days. In response, yogis have embraced virtual instruction, leaving New York’s physical studios struggling for relevance. Since March, dozens of them have permanently closed, from major corporate chains to independent shops.

Many owners say the pandemic was the final straw for an increasingly untenable business, where even crowded classes could no longer cover astronomical rents. Some studios and teachers are trying to recreate themselves as online brands but face an already saturated market, where celebrity YouTube instructors have millions of followers.

Some well-known yoga instructors dominate the online market. Adriene Mishler’s YouTube channel has more than eight million subscribers.

“It’s a really hard time, and communities need yoga and mindfulness practices more than ever,” said Ms. Suplina, who was inspired to open Bend & Bloom after relocating from Washington, D.C., where a studio she attended had given her a sense of belonging. As the lingering pandemic strains New Yorkers mentally and spiritually, physical spaces offering them this kind of sanctuary may become harder to find.

Public assistance programs have been little help to studio owners, most of whom hire teachers as independent contractors rather than employees. This means that studios could not use funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to cover their payrolls. Ms. Suplina said she received only a small loan for her administrative staff.

And unlike other businesses that were eventually given dates for reopening, yoga studios and other fitness centers were left out of New York’s plans for months. Last month, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued 17 pages of guidelines for gyms to incorporate before reopening, Mayor Bill de Blasio excluded group classes. Martin Kerestes, who has run two yoga studios in Queens with his wife since 2003, said there was “no light at the end of the tunnel.”

But many owners say the coronavirus outbreak merely exacerbated a deeper problem, the imbalance between revenue and rent. A few older studios, like Integral Yoga Institute on West 13th Street, own their own buildings and are less exposed to the rising price of real estate. But most studios rent their spaces and are in competition with ventures that can more easily guarantee, say, $20,000 a month. The pandemic merely pushed Ms. Suplina out of her space a few months early; her landlord intended to sell the building to a condominium developer at the end of the year.

ImageSince March, dozens of yoga studios in New York have permanently closed, from major corporate chains to independent shops.
Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Add that to an overdue reckoning with inappropriate touching and abuse at a few well-known establishments that left some students leery of in-person classes, as well as disruptive platforms like ClassPass, and it’s easy to understand why yoga studios were starting to disappear well before the coronavirus outbreak. But the health requirements necessitated by the pandemic — including physical distancing, especially indoors — have robbed studios of their lifeblood: rooms full of people.

“Our business depended on volume to survive, and now if we say instead of putting 50 people in a room the most we can put is 10 to 12, there’s just no viable way for the model to work,” said Michael Patton, who left a job on Wall Street during the 2008 financial crisis to start Yoga Vida, which had four locations in the city.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Mr. Patton was paying around $95,000 in monthly rent. He has since broken all his leases and is riding out the pandemic in an empty rural retreat he was developing upstate near New Paltz, for which he is now seeking a partner or a buyer.

“The bigger you are, the bigger the problems,” said Brian Cooper, the chief executive of YogaWorks, a national chain that permanently closed all of its New York City locations in April and is now offering online classes.

The pandemic has been equally tough on smaller studios. Nueva Alma, which Erica Garcia opened on the northern edge of the Bronx in 2012, would have been limited to seven students under physical distancing guidelines. So Ms. Garcia locked the doors for the last time on June 1 and is now teaching Zoom classes. “I’m not in it for the money, but I’m not in it to lose money, either,” she said.

Yoga requires only a clear mind and a few square feet of space, so it is easily converted to remote instruction. But it’s all about community, and seeing the light in others, which can be hard to do through screens.

The disappearance of physical studios means fewer places for “satsang,” a Sanskrit term for sacred gathering spaces, said Sharon Gannon, who co-founded one of the city’s most venerable studios, Jivamukti Yoga, and ran it for 30 years before closing it in 2017. “But yoga practice itself makes one self-reliant,” she continued. “Yogis are good at adapting to change.”

The data bear this out. According to Mindbody, a booking software company for the wellness industry, its active users quickly embraced online yoga. Last year, one in five users said they had taken streamed or prerecorded classes, but by this June, more than four of five said they were doing so.

Credit…Kevin Bigger

Studios that once resisted virtual instruction are now embracing it. For the first time in its nearly 60-year history, the city’s oldest yoga school, Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center on West 24th Street, is offering online classes. “One way or another, we will make sure the teachings of yoga are available to those who want them,” said Neeti Bhatia, the studio’s manager.

Meanwhile, teachers who have lost their studio gigs are breaking out on their own. Before the pandemic, Kevin Bigger crisscrossed the city to teach at nine different studios and for a handful of private clients. Now all but two of his former employers have furloughed him or gone out of business, so he has begun teaching online.

The transition required a hefty investment: Mr. Bigger bought a camera, lights and monitors. It has also been a bit awkward to convert his railroad-style Brooklyn apartment into a sacred space. “In order to teach a live class right now, I have to move half the furniture in my living room and lock the boyfriend in our bedroom and ask him to be quiet the whole time,” he said.

But there are benefits. He is saving time by not commuting and now keeps nearly 80 percent of the revenue, whereas he usually took home less than 30 percent working for studios. Former students who had moved away have returned to the fold. And because he knows his clientele, he can charge them on a sliding scale, he said. “My unemployed students get discount codes, and the investment bankers don’t.”

Sherman Morris, an instructor whose arduous classes at YogaWorks stretched to nearly two hours and attracted a committed following, said teaching online was “the antithesis” of his former practice. But his loyal students have followed him to Zoom. He recalled one, a surgical nurse, who logged in from a tent in the middle of a desert in Afghanistan. “It was priceless,” he said. “How could I not continue with this?”

Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Since many teachers are cutting out the middleman as they organize their own classes and build personal brands, studio affiliations also seem to be losing their cachet.

Adrianna Naomi, who moved to the city from Puerto Rico in 2013, said she was grateful when she found a stable job as a manager of the Flatiron location of CorePower Yoga, a chain. So when Ms. Naomi, 30, was laid off early in the pandemic, she worried about losing her salary and the community she had fostered there. Since then, she and other “instructors have had to take matters into their own hands,” she said.

In late July she began teaching on Zoom six times a week. And on Sunday mornings, Ms. Naomi runs an in-person class on the rooftop of her Williamsburg apartment building, often having to clear beer bottles left by neighbors the night before. She caps the class at 10 students and charges $15. Everyone must undergo a temperature check, sign a health waiver and wear a mask. Overwhelmed by demand, she added a second rooftop class on Monday nights, but she doesn’t know how long she can continue once the weather turns colder.

Although Ms. Naomi’s new schedule hasn’t made up for her lost salary, it has kept her afloat. But marketing herself on social media requires constant hustle. Now, instead of competing with other neighborhood instructors for students, she is doing so with yogis around the globe. “You open up Instagram at any time of day and there’s somebody doing a free class,” Ms. Naomi said.

Ms. Naomi has also focused on her social media game since losing her job with a yoga studio.

Some teachers are trying to build their online followings through strength in numbers. Mr. Bigger and three other instructors recently launched Single Point Yoga, a website that bundles their classes together, sort of as a studio would have done in the past.

Ms. Suplina has not given up on the old model. She continues to employ about half of Bend & Bloom’s teaching staff for online and outdoor classes while she figures out her next move. The intimacy and reverence that occur in a studio are essential, she said. “It’s another expression of church,” she explained. “The reason we teach yoga is that alchemy of having bodies together breathing and moving in a room, and seeing people, and connecting and sharing that experience.”

She plans to open a new physical space as soon as she can.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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