Unity Yoga is turning the yoga industry upside down with their inclusive business model. By Leksey Maltzman Photography by Melissa Kelly Photography (melissakellyphotography.com)
When Arielle and Robert Ashford decided to open Unity Yoga, they knew they were going to do it their way, even if it wasn’t necessarily the most traditional. They saw what was lacking in the western yoga community and made it their mission to create an environment welcoming to anyone and everyone.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Arielle said. “You have a home here.”
“Everyone who walks through the door should feel like this can be their community no matter what,” Robert added. “That is in every decision we make from a business standpoint and mission standpoint.”
Part of creating an environment for everyone to feel comfortable is being trauma-informed, which is something Unity Yoga places an emphasis on in all of their classes.
“The whole idea of being trauma-informed is recognizing and being aware of people coming in with various types of trauma and we need to be sensitive and responsive to that fact,” Robert explained.
“We are mindful of language and music,” Arielle added. “We have consent cards, so no one is getting touched who doesn’t want to be touched.”
On the maximum level of being trauma-informed are Unity Yoga’s recovery yoga classes, which are practiced in a circle rather than in rows, there is no heat, and each class begins with a time for a group check-in.
“The idea is to create a space outside a therapist’s office or a 12-step meeting where people can just focus on themselves in a community environment,” Robert shared.
Recovery classes are not just limited to those in recovery from substance misuse but also disordered eating, trauma, mental health, and other forms of process addictions. There are even people in attendance who are not in recovery, but just want to learn more or offer their support as allies.
Recovery is a big part of Arielle and Robert’s lives. They are both in long-term recovery, and their work outside of Unity Yoga is in the recovery and mental health field. They even met at an event in 2015 focused on healthcare and recovery support where Arielle was keynoting in Washington D.C.
“I walk in and there’s this woman taking pictures with a Barbie doll, and I’m thinking, ‘What is going on?’” Robert said. “It ended up being Arielle.” “It was Advocacy Barbie!” Arielle defended.
“Advocacy Barbie also made an appearance at our engagement dinner,” Robert laughed. “It’s a running joke — now we have Advocacy Ken, too!”
Robert and Arielle spent the beginning of their relationship long-distance in several different states across the country, which introduced them to a variety of different yoga studios and practices they brought to Unity Yoga. One of the main things they brought back was using infrared heat instead of forced air.
“Infrared would be like practicing yoga in Arizona’s dry heat, compared to outside in Philly in July,” Arielle described. “Infrared is cleaner, more natural, and better for the environment.”
“Forced air is really loud and can make it difficult to shut the world out,” Robert added.
If the heat isn’t your thing, don’t worry because only half of the 42 classes offered each week are heated. In addition to their All Levels Vinyasa and Advanced Vinyasa classes, Unity Yoga offers other specialty classes including Pre/Post Natal, Yin, Restorative, Candlelight and more.
Other ways Robert and Arielle are making Unity Yoga more accessible to everyone are keeping their prices low, offering multiple free classes each month, and never charging someone for their first class. Additionally, every new student can get 30 days unlimited for $30 and any student can borrow their high-end mats for free when they come to practice.
“It’s all about cultivating that experience and making it accessible,” Robert said. “The mats you can borrow are the same ones we sell in retail. Really all you need to do is bring yourself and we’ve got the rest.”
Another aspect of making yoga more accessible to everyone is destigmatizing the traditional yoga marketing we see everyday, particularly regarding the target audience for yoga. Robert explained how he felt that for many years that he would not fit in or be welcomed into the yoga community.
“I always thought yoga is not for me because I don’t fit the stereotypical mold,” Robert explained. “I’m male, I’m covered in tattoos, and I thought I would be embarrassed.”
After years of trying to persuade him, eventually, Arielle brought Robert into a yoga class at a studio that advertised they welcomed everyone no matter your gender, color, size, or experience level. Their experience at this inclusive studio strongly informed the mission of Unity Yoga.
“We are working to change that narrative and we are competing against years of mass marketing from big companies that say it’s got to be this one way, or you have to look a particular way to be welcome,” Robert said. Being in a community that supported Unity Yoga’s mission was extremely important to Arielle and Robert, which is why it took them two years to finally find the perfect location.
“The only place we found that we could see ourselves fitting in and making the community and the world a better place was Manayunk,” Robert said. “There were lots of places that we could have been, but the community feel we could only find here.”
“I don’t know if you want to say our mission was tailor-made for Manayunk, or Manayunk was tailor-made for our mission,” Arielle said. “Some sort of synergy is there.”
The name Unity Yoga fits perfectly with their mission, but it also has a personal connection for Arielle.
“Finally, someone asked me about the name!” Arielle exclaimed. “I am slightly obsessed with the band 311 and their summer tour every year is called the Unity Tour, so that’s where I got the name Unity Yoga.”
“As we built this, it naturally fit,” Robert elaborated. “Yes, it did come from 311, but it also fits really nicely with who we are.”
Robert and Arielle were right when they felt Manayunk has the community vibe they were looking for. Since opening in the studio in August of 2019, they’ve created a great connection with the other fitness studios in Manayunk. In particular, they’ve found their Restorative and Yin classes compliment the other studios’ high intensity cardio classes.
“The partnerships with The Wall Cycling, Never Give Up Training, and RowZone have all been great in creating a really nice community,” Robert said. “Manayunk is becoming the little fitness capital of Philadelphia.”
As for their goals for the future, Robert and Arielle are keeping their mission in mind.
“I think our biggest goal is how do we continue to drive that narrative differently, that nobody is stigmatized, discriminated against, oppressed, or judged,” Robert shared. “We will play our small part here at Unity Yoga to continue to do that and we know we have more to do to live up to our mission.”