When Beloved Yoga lost its lease in 2016, owner and founder Maryam Ovissi had a critical decision to make. Should she close her popular, 12-year-old yoga studio and sanctuary, or should she start afresh not only in a new location but also with a new iteration to the practice of yoga? Sitting recently in Beloved Yoga’s welcoming lounge area, Ovissi recalled what prompted her to choose the latter.
Happening around the same time as the 2016 presidential election, the country, she sensed, was going through a “collective trauma.” As a “business owner” and “a woman,” she asked herself “what can I do.”
Formalizing a program that Ovissi calls “Befriending Therapeutic Yoga,” her answer was to create a sanctuary where people would feel safe and could be “seen, heard and touched with value … and where you can be present so you can be present for others.”
The program’s core, she explained, is based on “Polyvagal theory,” which is an understanding of how the nervous system responds to threat and trauma and how that understanding may be used in meditation, calming and healing. She observed, “In order to function optimally, we need to feel safe, need social engagement and need to befriend our bodies. … Yoga is utilized for dealing with any imbalance—emotional, structural, neurological.”
Integrating breath with movement is essential, too, Ovissi said, further explaining that proper breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which complements the sympathetic nervous system. While the sympathetic nervous system activates the body during emergencies (“fight-or-flight”), the parasympathetic system (“rest-and-digest”), along with the vagus nerve (as in polyvagal), is calming and reduces anxiety.
She added: “We are bombarded with so much information; we need to learn to focus again, to gather the mind, the person, to be present in the moment. … the body gives feedback to the mind when engaging in movement with the appropriate amount of effort and with a sustainable amount of ease.”
Ovissi also shifted her business model to be more inclusive. Rather than her previous single ownership, while maintaining majority ownership, she created an investment pool—including longtime students, teachers and other staff—“to share the wealth.” She said, “I opened it up to shift the model; to grow, you need to open things up to have optimal impact.”
Buoyed by a report that noted 80 million people in the United States have never done yoga but are interested in doing it sometime and by the belief that every age group could benefit—working with consultants, her staff and other team members—she decided to “create something extraordinary.”
Open since this past Feb. 12, Beloved Yoga’s new 6,500-square-foot sanctuary, off Sunset Hills Road, has four large spacious studios, three more intimate “well-being” rooms and a lounge for informal gatherings as well as community talks and events.
Designed by Mitchell Freedman, a founder of the M Group architectural and interior design firm, Beloved Yoga—“a meditative space for the mind, body and spirit”—is constructed from natural materials like concrete, glass and natural woods and uses a purposely muted color palette that conveys a sense of serene, uncluttered openness.
The boldest color is found in the lounge, which is decorated simply with a vibrant oriental carpet and throw cushions as well as a vivid green accent wall/fountain overlaid with a reaching branches. At the entrance is a floor-level trough filled with shells. Ovissi explained that in India and the Hindu religion, the sound of the conch shell is associated with “beginnings,” with the “first sound of creation.” Each room is named after a chapter in the “Yoga Sutra,” the authoritative text on the theory and practice of yoga.
Currently, Beloved Yoga counts about 9,000 students overall with approximately 3,000 taking classes there on a monthly basis. Intentionally not overfilling classes, there are now 77 classes offered each week for all ages and abilities. Teachers come from “different lineages” to offer “a well-balanced practice.” Rated five stars by students in a Yoga Alliance poll, Beloved Yoga’s teacher training, according to Ovissi, sells out every year. Acknowledging that yoga might be expensive for some, she emphasized that financial support is available to those to need.
Ovissi, whose long-range hope is to build other Beloved Yoga sanctuaries across the country, using Reston’s flagship as the model, enthused, “We can challenge the most adept athletes, and we can support the most vulnerable beings … adults, children, athletes, business executives, anyone who seeks peace. … We are a sanctuary for all, emphasis on all.”
Beloved Yoga will participate in the 10th annual “Love Your Body Yoga Festival” on Sunday, June 17, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Reston Town Center. The event, founded by Ovissi to “connect the yoga community in a celebratory way,” will feature free yoga classes in the town center pavilion conducted by teachers from a variety of different Northern Virginia studios. Booths, featuring wellness-based businesses, also will be set up all along Market Street.
The festival, Ovissi noted, was created “as a way for the community to easily access yoga.” Dubbed by her “a Northern Virginia love fest,” it usually attracts about 5,000 attendees. Held rain or shine, in its 10 years, it has never rained. “But rain,” she insisted, “won’t dampen us.”
Community outreach is nothing new to Ovissi, who, on behalf of Beloved Yoga, was the 2016 Best of Reston “Small Business Leader” honoree for “inviting everyone to enjoy wellbeing” and her ongoing pro bono community contributions, including various school enrichment programs. A Reston resident since she was middle-school age, she said at the time that Beloved Yoga’s outreach is “grounded in Reston’s history” and the vision of Reston founder Robert E. Simon Jr. “From the beginning, giving back always was an essential element,” she said.
One of Ovissi’s recent outreach “initiatives” was the four-week “Ultimate Student Tool Kit” program, offered at Reston YMCA’s Teen Center. The program, which will be offered again in the fall, “empowers” its teen participants with yoga tools. The mother of two son, ages 22 and 14, she explained, “Part of the program recognizes that schools are not the same [safe] spaces anymore. It helps them learn how to deal with tension, anxiety and stress … how to ground themselves. …. [In school] they learn academic tools but not necessarily life-skill tools.”
Ovissi—who had a successful career in arts management prior to founding Beloved Yoga and serves on the Greater Reston Arts Center’s Board of Directors—also regularly partners with GRACE in a series called “Contemplate Art.” Using the yoga tools of meditation and breath work, participants contemplate the works of exhibiting artists in a different way.
“Yoga,” Ovissi emphasized, “is not a religion. It’s a practice, a process and a philosophy of finding peace.”