Finding Love, Sweat and Community in a Hot Yoga Studio

My name is Kathryn Keown. I washed up on the shores of San Francisco after my last really big two-year bender in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I had fled to the Caribbean after a brief marriage to a wealthy businessman in Denver, Colorado. He was older, serious and intense — I was young, irresponsible and goofy. Together we were going to be like a madcap rom-com in which we each made the other better people.

We did not. 

While partying, and trying to blot out the humiliation of my failed marriage amongst Denver society on the idyllic island of St. John, a friend from Boulder sent me a mixtape from a radio station in San Francisco, KFOG. After two years of working my ass off as a DJ at a reggae radio station, a wedding planner, and as a sometimes model on visiting cruise ships in the sweltering Caribbean heat, I was desperate to get back to some sort of normal life. 

Somehow, I convinced the sales manager at KFOG that the above work history provided sound work experience for selling airtime. 

When I started at KFOG in the late ’90s, radio was at its zenith. From Steve Young to Ben Harper, David Bowie and Dave Matthews, you never knew who you might stumble into in the hallways. I understood that for me, at that time, the job was perfect. However, I also understood that my nightly drinking was troublesome. During my first year in San Francisco, I had no one and nothing in my life but that job at KFOG. I ran, I worked, and I drank.

One night in a moment of clarity, I realized that something was seriously wonky with my drinking. Growing up, my parents didn’t really drink much, and youthful college “partying” should have been way in my rearview mirror. The thought occurred to me that I was alone. I had no friends and no boyfriend. Just the constant long runs before work, trying to prove myself at the office, and drinking to black out at home alone. 

For some reason, I simply called Alcoholics Anonymous. The nice person on the phone suggested I go to a meeting the next night. I did. The rest, out of respect for brevity, is history. 

Early on in my sobriety, an acquaintance brought me to my first hot yoga class at Global Yoga in the Marina, an iconic studio that was the yoga gateway drug for many current Marin Yogis. On the Saturday morning of my first class I had gone for a long run to get a “real” workout in before going to what I was sure would be some weirdo yoga studio reeking of patchouli. 

Words cannot describe how much I hated that first hot yoga class. I got my ass handed to me. It was like someone poured a blinding bucket of sweat on me, then smashed the back of my head with a baseball bat. Nothing in my body worked in that heat, despite the fitness from running and years of ballet in college. I vowed never to return. 

About three months later, I woke up pudgy and puffy and feeling out of shape. Sitting in a cubicle can do that to a person, even a cubicle at a place as cool as KFOG. I went back to that studio, but this time with resolve. I approached the class more calmly, I allowed the sweat to flow off my body without trying to mop it up in a panic. I leaned into the heat. I listened to the instructor who told us that “suffering is optional.” After class I felt refreshed. I felt lighter, leaner and more clear than I had ever felt in my life. She told us that if we really wanted to change our bodies and minds, we should do 100 classes in 100 days. 

Being a good addict, albeit a sober one, I did just that. 

Hot Yoga Group

What I found at that studio changed my life. Yes, I got stronger, leaner and more flexible over years of practicing hot yoga. But more importantly, the excruciating loneliness that had hung over my entire life started to dissipate. By standing next to people every day, drenched in sweat, high on endorphins, vulnerable, I met so many wonderful people, people who are still my closest friends 25 years later. I found a place, a sober bar really, that guaranteed I never ever had to be lonely, or inauthentic, ever again.

In 2016 when I met my business partner, Jessica Smith, yoga was no longer an obsession, it was a calling. And in her, I recognized the same passion. Not only had yoga healed my loneliness, but practicing yoga with my yoga community had healed my broken femur, as well as a few blood-related issues from the massive blood transfusions that were necessary after that accident. My yoga community also provided me support through the devastating loss of my mom to breast cancer.

Jessica had practiced hot yoga to heal her knees after seven knee surgeries from injuring herself during her college soccer career. She too found real friendships and laughter in her yoga community. We both admitted that, against the advice of our male doctors, we had practiced hot yoga through our pregnancies, and subsequently had easy deliveries and fast recoveries. We were both back in the hot room two days after delivering each of our children.

In late 2019 Jessica and I signed a lease for the location of Hot Yoga Republic, we were set to finish our build-out and open around May of 2020. 

A lot has been said about how the Covid shutdown affected yoga and fitness studios in Marin and the Bay Area. For Jessica and I, we have come to understand that actually the pandemic provided us something very few new entrepreneurs and partners get to have… time together to communicate. When the shutdown hit, Hot Yoga Republic was still nothing more than a website and an unfinished yoga studio. During the shut down, in between trying to keep my day job, Jess and I would Zoom classes twice a day and then discuss every tiny hope and dream we had for the studio. From how we wanted our staff to feel, to how we would greet our guests, to what we wanted the place to smell like (mint!), no detail was too small or too unimportant. 

We put big white sheets of paper all around my tiny living room, which also became our Zoom “set” for more than 379 days. On these sheets of paper we wrote down our HYR Mission Statement, as well as the things we wanted to accomplish and contribute to our community. At the top of the list? We wanted to help alleviate loneliness.

Hot Yoga Community

It’s this foundation of trying to make the world a less lonely place that has attracted our incredible team of thoughtful, instinctively giving instructors. We are nothing without the HYR teaching staff, both Jess and I are clear on this. There was a moment in time when we had no money, and we had to choose between installing countertops in the bathrooms, or putting aside money to hire the best team in the market. We chose to invest in the people, and we still don’t have countertops. 

As for the health benefits of hot yoga, we are unshakable in our beliefs based on our own experiences, and the world of medicine and research is now starting to catch up. It is now commonly known that working out in a hot room increases caloric burn and metabolism, as well as improves vascular function, and reduces blood pressure. This in addition to the more visible benefits of glowing skin, leaner, stronger muscles and greater flexibility. There is even evidence that the increase of blood flow to the brain, stimulated by working out in the heat, can reduce the risk of dementia. 

Interpersonally, Jessica and I guard the health of our relationship as closely as we work on our physical health. We were given the advice early on to form an HYR Business Advisory Board, and to hire a really good business coach, our marriage counselor really, to keep our relationship open and clear of resentments. When Jess and I hit an impasse, rather than us tearing each other apart, these two entities act as tie-breakers. They have saved us over and over again from making huge financial and emotional mistakes.

We are fascinated by the founders of SoulCycle, Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler. They are two female entrepreneurs who admit that they are diametrically opposite in nature. Once again they have come together to form a new company, Peoplehood. Interestingly enough, their new company also focuses on helping people to stay connected. But what we find the most compelling about Rice and Cutler is their commitment to their own relationship. Having banked tens of millions of dollars, butted heads, fought, forgiven, and been seduced by other major brands, in the end, they’ve once again chosen each other. 

At this moment, my world feels so full with new and old friends, it literally takes my breath away. It is astounding the amount of joy and love around me, and it is all from the simple act of unrolling a yoga mat, in a hot room, one day at a time.