Corporate execs turned entrepreneurs find yoga provides healing touch

BY Stan Simpson
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Richard Mercer and his wife Laurie Krause are former technology and banking executives, respectively, who opened their own Bikram yoga studio after benefitting from its healing effects.

By the Numbers: Yoga in America

36.7M The number of yoga participants in the

United States in 2016, up from 20.4 million

in 2012.

72% The percentage of the 36.7 million yoga

participants who are female.

79% The percentage of yoga participants who

also engage in other forms of exercise

such as running, cycling and weight lifting

$16.8B The amount yoga participants spend on

classes, yoga clothing, equipment and accessories,

up from $6.1 billion since 2012.

Source: Survey conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal

Richard Mercer's first experience with Bikram yoga 14 years ago left him conflicted.

As a muscle-bound former college football player, he found himself stretching (and sweating profusely) in a Glastonbury studio for 90 minutes in 105-degree heat.

"I hated it," Mercer said. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done. But I knew I was going to do it for the rest of my life. I was tight and I knew that if anything could make me more limber, yoga could."

Unbeknownst to Mercer, his determination to get more flexible would lead him not only to the practice of yoga, but the business side as well.

He and wife Laurie Krause have been running Bikram Yoga Simsbury for the last eight years at their Deer Park Road studio. Their mission is to help others achieve goals, such as losing weight, recovering from an injury, illness or ailment, reducing stress or simply to get more fit.

Both Mercer and Krause are former corporate executives, with Connecticut roots, who served in senior leadership roles in technology and banking, respectively. Each describe yoga with fascination, appreciation and candor.

"I'm not in love with this yoga," Krause cracked. "But I'm afraid not to (continue to) do it."

Yoga, the couple insists, transformed their lives and improved their quality of life.

As a running back with the University of Cincinnati in the late 1970s, Mercer was 6-1 and 197 pounds. He could bench press 400 pounds, leg press 1,000 pounds and run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds. His waist size was 29 inches, but he wore a size 48 to accommodate his hefty thighs.

In 2003, however, Mercer was closing in on 50. He was now a stiff, middle-aged former jock who could not lift his arms fully over his head. It took three years of yoga for him to be able to touch his ears with his arms, while his palms were clasped overhead.

Now, both he and Krause are certified instructors. There are six others at the studio.

It was a 2003 Bikram certification retreat in Hawaii that inspired Mercer to make yoga a career. First step was to call Krause, whom he would marry in 2015.

"I'll tell you exactly what I said," Krause recalls. "I finally met a guy who can support himself and the first thing he does is quit his job — and become a yoga teacher.''

Krause had been struggling with a series of ailments when Mercer encouraged her to give Bikram a try in 2004. She could not bend over and touch her fingers to the floor and was on eight different medications for Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and some auto-immune maladies.

Two years later, after participating in yoga three to four times a week, Krause, an avid horseback rider, said she had no more pain and no longer needed medication. She's much closer now to touching the ground with her fingers and also attributes her accelerated recovery to an organic nutritional plan and naturopathic remedies.

Krause describes her first yoga session as "mortifying."

"But once you get your ego out of it," she said, you "realize this is what is going to change you."

Bikram yoga, invented by Bikram Choudhury of India, involves the execution of 26 teacher-directed poses in a prescribed order. The poses and stifling heat are designed to warm, stretch and strengthen muscles, ligaments and tendons.

There are many "hot yoga"-style studios in the industry; and there are hot studios that only use the Bikram methodology. Both have the same goal. "The heat relaxes your whole body," Krause, 57, said. "Your muscles relax; so do your joints, so it allows your mind to get un-tight, but also your body to loosen up."

Choudhury is a highly controversial figure, but not for his yoga. His moral character has been questioned, the result of a series of sexual-assault allegations against him from women in recent years.

"As a man, he is not someone I support,'' Mercer, 61, said firmly. "But his yoga is amazing."

Bikram Yoga Simsbury, which also sells yoga mats, clothes, towels and nutritional shakes and liquids, is open seven days a week. There are more than 400 active customers, about 30 percent are men. Customers can choose from various packages, including: $20 for a drop-in visit; $180 for 30-day unlimited; $450 for 3-month unlimited; $1,400 for a year, with unlimited classes.

As an interracial couple, Mercer and Krause said it is important to them that their business culture reflects respect for people of all backgrounds. Personal attention to their clients is what they believe separates them from the competition.

"We're truly helping people,'' Mercer said. "To me, its' more real living."

The keys to seeing results in the studio, he says, are commitment; frequency; and "appropriate intensity" — knowing when to push yourself and when to pull back.

The yoga business stretched these former corporate leaders in more ways than they imagined.

Stan Simpson is the principal of Stan Simpson Enterprises LLC, a strategic communications consulting firm. He is also host of "The Stan Simpson Show," on Fox 61.