Though she's given to a lot of self-evaluation, Kira Ryder tries not to take herself too seriously. The name of her Ojai yoga studio, Lulu Bandha's, is a case in point. It's a goof on mula bandha, the Sanskrit term for a contraction of the pelvic region, and it's meant to be silly. "It isn't that I'm such a bandha fan," explains Ryder. "But Lulu Bandha's sounded like a 1950s beauty parlor community place, and I just liked that. People say, 'You know that studio, Lulu Babababa,' and that sounds better to me than 'The Yoga Center of Ojai' or 'Moving Stillness.' " Yoga, she says, is already serious enough.
Ryder is in her early 30s, comfortably fit, with brown eyes, a firm chin and tousled dark brown hair. She has a playful grin and a deep, throaty laugh, both of which she employs frequently. She greets everyone with a big, warm hug.
But beneath her relaxed, gregarious manner is a focused intensity, a commitment to engaging in her work to the fullest. When she squats before first-time visitors, grabs them by the wrist, looks into their eyes, and says, "This is your yoga practice," she means business. For Ryder, the goal of teaching yoga is to create an atmosphere where her students — "practitioners" as she calls them — can own their own practice, find their inner yoga teacher and learn to trust that guide.
If its name is often botched, that hasn't stopped Lulu Bandha's from attracting a devoted following, even in a town saturated with yoga instruction. The teachers Ryder has hired were all first-time yoga teachers — people from the community. "The most important thing to me is that they're able to offer the space of love and compassion and listening," she says. "And I place more value on that than their résumé, or who they've trained with."
Ryder herself teaches several levels of Vinyasa yoga. Ironically, given that Ryder's background is in a vigorous, athletic practice, her most popular class is the least strenuous. She created Stiff White Guys especially for her husband Eric Ryder, who'd never done an asana (or yoga pose) before, and now it's become Lulu's trademark class. Besides the requisite Rotary Club members, female tri-athletes come, and dads bring their football-playing sons. A 10-year-old boy tried every class at Lulu's until he settled on Stiff White Guys, and then he started bringing his little sister.
Those who regularly practice at Lulu's seem to own not only their asanas, but also the studio, too. People hang around and chat after class, and they look for ways to help. One student, a landscape architect, tends the garden. Another, an environmental activist, has taken it upon herself to wash the used water glasses so that paper cups aren't wasted. Somebody gives the floor a thorough sweeping. When Lulu's moved from Main Street to its current location in a Mission-style cottage on Matilija Street, Ryder was surprised to find people sprucing up the neglected frontyard with plants they'd uprooted from their own gardens. The same thing happened when the frost knocked out the lavenders and the Mexican sages. During Lulu's recent remodel, the guy who painted the L-shaped studio room refused payment. Ryder still doesn't know who is behind the weekly deliveries of ever more elaborate floral bouquets. They've been appearing on the front steps, each in a new vase, for a year.
Eric Ryder, who helped launch Lulu's and continues to assist with the business, is casual. "It's like that with yoga studios," he says. "People feel better when they do yoga, and they associate that good feeling with the place and the person who's teaching." Maybe. But it's difficult to imagine the anonymously donated orchids as typical.
About the same time that they opened the studio, Ryder and her husband began organizing the Ojai Valley Yoga Crib, an annual three-day retreat that brings in some of the top yoga teachers in the country, including Erich Schiffmann, Dana Flynn, Saul David Raye, Paul Grilley and Joel Kramer, plus the hundreds of attendees who want to study with them. "The Crib puts Ojai on the yoga map," observes Olivia Chase, of The Farmer and the Cook, who caters the event.
The Yoga Crib also draws together Ojai's disparate spiritual elements. Inspired by the format of the Ojai Valley Tennis Tournament, in which players compete in private courts throughout the valley, Ryder schedules yoga sessions in numerous spiritual centers. This October will be the first time all the major spiritual centers in the valley are included. "It's a unification that's never happened for them," says Ryder.
The Yoga Crib is an ambitious venture, but for the rest of the year, Ryder is content with the small, intimate community that's collected around Lulu's, and she has no plans to open a second studio. Instead, she's expanding Luluville virtually, with her online projects: Lulu Vu, a Web site of yoga video clips, which will soon begin broadcasting classes online; and a yoga video search site called Channel Yoga. In collaboration with friend and photographer Kari Hunt, she's also begun work on a book of local stories, recipes and yoga sequences, tentatively titled Luluville: A Love Story.
The way in
Ryder came to yoga when she was diagnosed with endometriosis as a senior at Stanford. She was in a lot of pain, and then-boyfriend Eric recommended yoga. ("I still don't know where he got that idea," Ryder muses.) Her first Bikram class in Palo Alto had her instantly hooked. After only three months, she was asked to sub, and a year later she taught her first Vinyasa class. But Ryder had a promising career in high tech in the San Francisco Bay Area, and she didn't suppose that yoga could occupy a central role in her life. She taught for five years on the side without any formal training.
Then, in 1999, she took a workshop from Sarah Powers. The first thing Powers did was ask the class to sit still and meditate for 20 minutes. Ryder was floored. In five years of yoga, no one had ever asked her to meditate before, and after she got over her initial discomfort, she realized that Powers had something to offer. At the start of 2000, she embarked on a six-month weekend teacher's course with Powers in Mill Valley.
Long before Ryder was sold on the idea of teaching yoga full time, her husband was fantasizing about a famous yoga studio that would attract students from all over the world. While she was training in Mill Valley, he was pushing for a move to a small town, one with idyllic scenery, and not too far from an airport, to accommodate all the important visitors they would have. Even though his wife continued to demur, Eric had no doubts. "It was always clear to me how compelled she was to do yoga," he says. "And just knowing her — there's no halfway with Kira."
The two quit their jobs and moved Ojai in April 2001. Ryder began teaching wherever she could find a class, in Ojai and beyond. And a year later, she launched the studio. Lulu's was an immediate success. "I feel so grateful, because the community was just like, 'Thank you,' " says Ryder. Somewhere along the way, Ryder's approach to her work has shifted. Whereas she was initially drawn to teachers who challenged her, she was drawn to her current mentor for the opposite reason. When she met Erich Schiffman — who became her first Yoga Crib recruit — she felt like she'd already been teaching like him for a long time. "Here was a teacher who was telling me I was fine the way I was."
Ryder conveys the same sentiment to her students, and perhaps that is why her classes are so popular.
The teacher within
For all her success with Lulu Bandha's and the Ojai Yoga Crib, for all her big-name contacts in the yoga world, and for all the appreciative support of her community, Kira Ryder is a model of humility. She talks about how much Ojai has given her, and she credits the Stiff White Guys class with showing her the real purpose of an asana. She doesn't want to teach anyone the way so much as show them that they can find the way themselves.
That's the purpose of the Yoga Crib, too. Ryder deliberately invites yogis of differing philosophies and persuasions to teach, in the hopes of demonstrating that there's no one right way, and that the path is there for us all to find. Fan mail comes in for months after every retreat, but Ryder's favorite letters say this: "I finally understand that the teacher is within me." During a recent sunny lunchtime on the patio at the Farmer and the Cook, she says her job as a teacher is to make herself obsolete. People stop by the table to say hello, and to tell Ryder how great her yoga makes them feel. Ryder’s simple reply? "It's because you showed up.”