Business Briefing: From Castro start, yoga practice spreads across SF

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 9, 2023
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Folk Yoga's David Nelson stands in one of his studios. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Folk Yoga's David Nelson stands in one of his studios. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Twenty-five years ago David Nelson got his start as a yoga proprietor when he opened his first studio in San Francisco's LGBTQ Castro district in 1998 with co-owner Darren Main. It was simply called Castro Yoga.

They then acquired a building on Divisadero Street in NOPA, short for North of the Panhandle, in 2004 and relocated their business. They also renamed it Yoga Garden due to the tranquil outdoor environs at the new space.

"For a quarter-century, our yoga studio has been a beacon of mindfulness and self-exploration in the vibrant heart of San Francisco," Nelson recently reflected on marking the milestone anniversary for the business. Of its early days, he cherishes "the memories of intimate classes in the 1990s, where yoga was not yet a trend, and people embraced the practice with curiosity and wonder."

Main eventually departed as a co-owner, though he still teaches classes, leaving Nelson in charge as CEO. When the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020, Nelson quickly moved to an online-only format for the yoga classes since they couldn't be offered in person. While it helped keep his company afloat, Nelson knew remaining a virtual business wasn't economically feasible because the video yoga classes weren't bringing in the same revenue as in-person offerings had.

With the global health crisis ebbing last year due to the rollout of vaccines for the coronavirus, Nelson took a chance in acquiring another yoga studio, Moxie, that March. It brought six additional yoga studio locations in the city under his management just as he and his instructors were returning to in-person sessions.

"I took a bet that was the direction the community was moving in and that people were not going to stay in their apartments forever, so it was a gamble" said Nelson, 67, who lives in Tiburon. "It has been a slow build. It is definitely not back to where it was. We are at 50% overall, though some classes are packed."

Earlier this year Nelson rebranded his seven yoga studios around San Francisco under the name of Folk Yoga. In addition to the NOPA location, the others are in Noe Valley, Nob Hill, the Mission, Bernal, the Richmond, and the Sunset.

He also had a designer create a new logo that includes a stylized version of a person. It is reminiscent of the people found in the artwork and graffiti of the famed late gay artist Keith Haring.

"As we looked at what made us and what we are, it boiled down to people and relationships with people," explained Nelson of the new name and imagery. "What makes us what we are is the people."

A special yoga class for queer and transgender practitioners takes place Thursday evenings at the Noe Valley studio on 24th Street. It is taught by one of the several out teachers whom Nelson employs.

"We wanted to create a safe space for people who wanted sensitivity and to know it is a safe space for them, especially nonbinary or transgender people," explained Nelson, himself a gay man.

While he came out in his late teens, Nelson ended up falling in love and marrying a woman with whom he had two daughters. His oldest studies art in college and the younger one is still in high school. The couple eventually divorced, leaving Nelson single again at the age of 59.

Before switching his career focus to yoga, Nelson formerly worked as the budget director at the University of San Francisco. A fitness buff and award-winning rower with the South End Rowing Club of San Francisco, Nelson took up yoga in the 1990s for his own health reasons.

"I started for my back and it has been doing wonders for me," he said.

Some other classes offered at Folk Yoga's various locations include Foundations Yoga, which focuses on yoga asana (posture) and pranayama (breath regulation), and Prenatal Yoga geared for those at any point in their pregnancy. In addition to yoga, Nelson now also provides classes that incorporate weight training equipment and calisthenics aimed at building up participants' body strength and mobility.

"This business has reflected the changes in my own life," said Nelson. "We did prenatal yoga when we had our kids, and as I got older it became really important to take care of my body. We added fitness classes and strength-based classes for people of any age but at different difficulty levels."

Need for instructors

One of the biggest challenges Nelson faces at the moment is hiring enough yoga teachers to meet the growing demand for classes. At the start of the summer he had 80 teachers offering a combined 200 classes a week at the various Folk locations, which could accommodate much more with an increased staff.

"The number of people we are hiring has just been crazy," said Nelson, who particularly would like to employ more people of color and LGBTQ individuals as instructors. "We need around 150 people at minimum."

To help fill the positions Folk Yoga runs a school to train instructors out of its NOPA location, with its fall course kicking off September 10. The trainings run a total of 200 hours and graduates gain listing on an industry registry for certified yoga teachers. (The state of California doesn't have a license for yoga teachers as it does for other professions.)

Nelson has had to adapt his operations due to the hiring shortage. At the Noe Valley location, for example, no one works full-time there, since all payments and class signups are now handled online. Different yoga instructors will cycle in and out throughout the day, opening up the space for their classes. Walk-ins are currently not allowed.

"We do require pre-signups. It keeps it so much simpler," said Nelson. "Everything is done online and you pay ahead of time."

At the moment he has no plans to further expand since he can't meet the current demand for classes at his present locations. Nelson had looked at returning to the Castro, but another yoga practitioner ended up renting the space he had also eyed.

One advantage for his business, ironically, is a faltering local economy, noted Nelson, who pointed out taking a yoga class is less expensive than going out to dinner with friends. Thus, he isn't concerned about the recent wave of layoffs at local tech companies hurting his bottom line.

"It is the same thing with movies, when the economy tanks doing yoga is a relatively cheap activity," said Nelson.

Folk Yoga offers a special deal of $15 for a person's first class, and if they want to come back, they can apply it toward the cost of its All Access Membership that costs $79 for the first month and $199 thereafter. Single classes normally run $30, though a 10-class pass that must be used within 90 days can be purchased for $260.

Classes are offered seven days a week, though the locations, times and focus for them vary.

To learn more about Folk Yoga, its class schedule and teacher training program, visit its website at

Got a tip on LGBTQ business news? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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