At the end of February, RA YOGA in Newport Beach will celebrate its two-year anniversary. There might be balloons (but probably not) there might be cake (although that too is questionable) and really, plans to commemorate the milestone are about as up in the air as your hips should be on a proper downward dog.
“We may do a combined birthday,” Robert Kittleman, co-owner at RA YOGA explains to me. There’s an almost audible shrug in his voice and then, the topic is dropped. This lack of fanfare, the shunning of extraneous pomp is exactly right for the studio, launched by Kittleman and Jenny Vande Hei—a longtime practicing yogi and yoga teacher—with the simple mission to embrace three fundamental concepts: creativity, authenticity and community.
And while some establishments may just frame their mission statement and hang it with removable sticky tape on a wall, RA YOGA exemplifies these words wholeheartedly, from requiring its prospective teachers to offer free community yoga classes, to nurturing a distinctive counter-culture of edginess that reverberates around every corner of the thoughtfully decorated space. (For reference, RA YOGA is situated in a sleek and modern building on Westcliff Drive, tucked between popular healthy eateries Cafe Gratitude and Kit Coffee.)
The low-key yet strategic philosophy at RA YOGA isn’t just a differentiator in a Newport Beach market saturated by yoga studios, it’s also wildly effective. In September 2016, RA YOGA served more than 12,000 customers in one month. Today, as its current Costa Mesa and Newport Beach locations thrive, Kittleman and Vande Hei are preparing to open a third studio in Long Beach.
Recently, I spoke with Kittleman and Vande Hei to find out exactly how the duo built their unique—and growing—business and why this two-year anniversary is just part of a budding yoga legacy that’s only just begun.
WEST OCEANFRONT EDITORS: After the success of your RA YOGA studio in Costa Mesa, what made you decide to open in Newport Beach two years ago?
KITTLEMAN: It boils down to always looking for opportunities as they present themselves. There was a big remodel happening on a building in Newport Beach and the developer opening the space had two daughters who had been practicing yoga with us for years. They’d drive all the way from the [Balboa] Peninsula out to Costa Mesa and passed a bunch of other studios just to be at ours. The developer was also creating a space inspired by fitness and wellness and it was exciting to be part of that.
VANDE HEI: When we first moved in Costa Mesa there was no neighborhood next to us. With Newport, we got excited with the idea of having a community next to Café Gratitude and having a landlord who was inspired by who we are and our emphasis on creating community.
It sounds like a few happy coincidences landed your next studio in Newport Beach. But what makes RA YOGA different from the other options around town?
VANDE HEI: I think it’s because we have a ton of variety. Anyone who comes to the studio can take any level and a bunch of different styles; we are a little bit of everything. We offer 14 different styles, which helps as people progress in practice. Certain weeks you need a restorative class or certain weeks you need to get your butt kicked and you can find all that in abundance at our studio.
So, lots of different classes. Is that why people return day after day, year after year?
KITTLEMAN: Jenny and I often wonder why people like us. Other business owners think they’re the best Jenny and I come from a place of generally being surprised and shocked that people like us. While we are polished and put together and we are contemplative, we’re a little bit of a counter-culture and a little more edgy than some of what you would find on the Peninsula. We’re rough around the edges and I think originally, when the developer asks us to join his space, he wanted to do something that had a little more heart. Our competitive advantage is also in our three pillars—creativity, authenticity and community—and that ties with all of our dynamic class offerings. Our teachers feel inspired. It’s not Jenny sitting here and dictating a bunch of rules and stipulations about how to teach Level 1. We honor our teachers.
Do you think your flexibility (no pun intended) is a large factor to your success?
VANDE HEI: I think it’s why people would choose to come to RA but it’s also for the heart or edginess Bobby [Kittleman] talked about.
We are real and basic and imperfect and accessible, and especially in Orange County where there is a standard of perfection, we are not that. We are like, “Hey come out. do your yoga with us. You don’t have to have an Instagram-perfect down dog.”
At RA, it feels like home. The pressure is taken out of yoga. We’ve started this language around yoga and there is a specific way to do it and [yoga teacher] David Miller said, “Don’t let yoga be another thing we hit people over the head with,” and RA doesn’t do that. It’s refreshing.
In other words, you’re not dictating what yoga should mean to those who practice it?
KITTLEMAN: We stay mindful of our language and how we talk about the practice to really not be exclusionary or exclusive. When you say, “we do it this way” inherently you mean “other people do it that way and that way isn’t good.” We try to stay out of the judgment game.
Is that hard to do with the pervasiveness of social media? It seems like teaching yoga on Instagram is becoming such big business.
KITTLEMAN: For the last week I have been contemplating whether RA YOGA can abandon social media in general. RA YOGA is on Instagram and we do post content but what I seem to see in the yoga world with Instagram is that it’s a lot about a single person being on a pedestal in some way, shape or form and at RA YOGA we try to stay with principles. We are always trying to tell a story around a principle and it’s not telling a story around how Jenny is amazing because she lives by those principles. As a brand, we’re just trying to educate and cultivate.
How do you specifically bring those principles to the Newport Beach community?
VANDE HEI: When our teachers go through RA YOGA training they are strongly encouraged to do a three-month community project separate from curriculum to serve someone in their community—in Newport Beach—who wouldn’t otherwise come to RA or to any studio but would benefit from doing yoga. Sometimes this three-month yoga service happens in a recovery home, sober living home, retirement home, hospice care or women’s and children’s homes. The principle behind yoga is to really be of service not necessarily to be saying, “Look at me, look at what I can do and how cool and bendy my body is”
As a yoga teacher, we look at these people who can’t even be on all fours and ask how we can encourage them with movement.
KITTLEMAN: I often talk about how the money side is really important because it’s expensive to live here and you have to pay rent.
You can’t continue to create opportunities to be of service to others if you’re not open but being of service to others has to be placed ahead of the idea of making money.
Do you weave your service-first philosophy into the classes you offer?
KITTLEMAN: It’s funny because I don’t go to Wahoo’s Fish Tacos to learn a philosophy on life but people go to yoga and there’s an expectation to get inspired by life and maybe even start making some major life philosophy changes … nutrition changes, spiritual changes. We try to stay focused on the idea of being authentic and creative. We want people to be the best version of themselves. For me that’s the highest service one can offer. We tell people, come here to get inspired. We’ll do our best.