WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
As many journeys in the wellness and fitness spaces do, Y7 started with an injury. In 2012, founder Sarah Levey pinched her sciatic nerve, experienced intense pain, and suddenly the exercise she had been doing – spin, brisk treadmill walking, the occasional class – was out of the question.
Yoga, said her doctor, was the only thing that would help.
So Sarah started going to classes all over the city – but every class was vastly different: blankets and chanting here, super beginner classes there, kundalini over there.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t have any direction, and it was really hard to find a consistent practice and a place where I was comfortable practicing at,” she explains, adding, “Plus, next to all the dancers and models in those classes, I kept judging myself. I never found the so-called peace promised by yoga.”
In 2013, with the help of her husband Mason, Sarah created a Y7 (incidentally, the “Y” stands for yoga and “7” represents the seven chakras in the body) pop-up: it was only supposed to be for the weekend and it was totally free. But, at the end of it, people were asking to buy packages and for their permanent schedule.
So in September of that year, they found a 300-square foot artist’s loft space that they paid for month to month in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In those first days, Y7 had a mere eight spots in the four classes a day they held. Sarah dutifully signed clients in for the two early morning classes and rushed off to work, and then came back to do the same for the evening classes at 7 and 8:15 p.m.
As a foil to her frustrating early experiences with yoga, everything about Y7 was intentional: it was dark, mirrorless, and candlelit. Each class was just the client and their mat.
The other elements – Vinyasa style (one breath, one movement) yoga and infrared heat – existed to bridge the gap between the mental, emotional and spiritual benefits of yoga and a solid, amplified workout.
Sarah’s passion for music also showed up in the Y7 experience.
“The music was my trick to getting through the workouts: I need to tune out and be in my body – lose myself in the music and the movement,” she explains, noting that “A lot of yoga classes are very serious and too much. Music really brings an element of joy and lightness.”
PICKING UP THE PACE OF GROWTH
All of Y7’s unique facets clearly resonated with yogis and skeptics alike, because things started to accelerate with the Y7 growth trajectory.
In January 2015, they popped up in Monster Cycle in SoHo for six months and simultaneously opened their Flatiron (Manhattan) location.
And for Sarah, that was the pivotal moment:
“I said to myself, ‘This is really a thing now, and it’s a business, and I need to work on this full-time.’” Which she did, leaving her job in fashion that year, followed shortly thereafter by Mason, who left his job in digital advertising to help her grow the business as co-founder.
In 2016, Y7 opened their West Hollywood (LA), Union Square (Manhattan) and Upper East Side (Manhattan) locations in quick succession.
Until then, they’d been entirely self-funded, paying for studios with surplus revenue from their already (very successfully) operating locations.
Later that year, they partnered with Karp Reilly private equity firm, which helped them open eight more locations between 2017 and 2019: a bigger location in Williamsburg and also Park Slope, both in Brooklyn; Bryant Park, Meatpacking, Tribeca, and the East Village, all in Manhattan; and Silver Lake in LA. Chicago opened in March of 2020.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
Y7 had become known in the fitness space for their Hip Hop Wednesdays, certainly a novelty and niche pairing in the yoga world.
“It came from a true and deep appreciation,” Sarah says, explaining further, “but it morphed into appropriation, and it had never been addressed – with the killing of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests, we decided it was time to address it.”
Most important to Sarah was that the conversation had to start within her company, with clients and especially staff (pre-Covid clocking in at 300 people), a large number of whom were black and directly and deeply impacted by the current conversations and protests around racial justice.
Sarah and the Y7 leadership team did town halls with staff, talking to them in-depth and asking what they thought, and what they wanted to see happen.
Those conversations led to the public apology Sarah published in June of 2020.
“People thought it was performative, that it was a marketing ploy,” Sarah says. “But they didn’t realize that since 2018, we’d been working with a professor from Adelphi University on diversity and inclusion and other adjacent topics. It’s always been a hugely important focus at our company.”
Stepping down, closing Y7’s doors, or otherwise removing herself from the tough conversations didn’t make sense – and doesn’t solve anything – in Sarah’s mind.
“It’s about sitting in moments of discomfort and the willingness to have conversations…and to listen,” she says.
“I’m not perfect and will continue to make mistakes, but we’re doing our best to be open – and to continue to do the work.”