Kelli Harrington confesses that she was one of those "gigglers" in yoga class. Always engaged in some sort of outdoor cardio — running, skiing, sledding, hiking — the contrast of slow-moving yoga was a jolt to her system.
"My first yoga class, it was so slow it was like torture," she said. "I remember going and I would break out laughing. It just felt uncomfortable to go that slow. I needed to move. It was almost like running me, like I was a puppy or a dog."
She ultimately found her calling with yoga, opening a studio at the Monroe YMCA before taking three 200-hour teacher trainings. One of those was led by Jonny Kest in Birmingham, also attended by now-business partner, Nicole Ferguson.
"We both were placed in Ann Arbor when (Center for Yoga) opened up the new location," Kelli recalls. "Everybody in Ann Arbor seemed to be more comfortable with Iyengar style — more guided ashtanga. There was a huge yoga community in Ann Arbor, but this kind of hot yoga — like go on your own — was so new."
Center for Yoga ultimately closed its Ann Arbor location, leaving the newly-converted hot yoga fanatics in the area without a place to practice.
"There were students that approached us to get together and open a studio, and we thought, 'Why not?'"
Two Years Strong
It's been two years since Nicole and Kelli opened their studio together — an experience that has forged a lasting friendship.
"We have become great friends ever since this," said Kelli. "I couldn't ask for a better partner. Total opposites in so many ways, but then, we're not. It's funny what you see when you get to know somebody. We complement each other very well."
For Kelli, the journey of Red Yoga has been all about humility. With a vibrant, larger-than-life personality, she says the biggest thing yoga has taught her is that she can't beat it.
"I have always been able to go to a class whether it was Tae Bo or kickboxing or step aerobics, and I could memorize the routine after one time," she said. "It just came easy to me. At age eight doing 'The Firm' tapes with my sister.
"So every time I would go through a training, it would excite me to learn more."
She is also humbled by the students who attend Red Yoga — everyone from college students to physicians at University of Michigan hospital. When Kelli does take a class (and she says Nicole pulls out all the stops when she does), she realizes just what her own students are able to do.
"I can hold postures forever," she said, "it's very hard to get me to drop my knees just because I've been teaching for 20-something years. But, man, that heat.
"During a recent class, I had to keep telling myself, 'Oh my god, you can not ask these people to do these Logs for you if you drop your knees.' So, for me, it was an uplifting, humbling experience, because I held it just on that pure fact that I expect that from my students. To get out of their comfort zone."
Inspired by Community
In the two years that Red Yoga has been in existence, Kelli and Nicole have created a genuine community. One or the other (sometimes both) comes to the studio every day and they get to know the people who walk through the door.
"Our students know they can come talk to us," said Kelli. "You see either Nicole or I every day. People know there's always someone they can call. If someone can't afford yoga, there's somebody that can. We have scholarships. We have students that give money just for people to have teacher training that can't afford it, and they don't want anybody to know.
"There are a lot of little things that happen behind the scenes that are really cool. It's a good studio."
Kelli and Nicole are looking to expand that community as they continue their partnership, growing to other studios and other cities. While they are looking to open more studios in the future, the first step is moving to a bigger space -- from the west side of Ann Arbor to Downtown.
"While our space will change, our community is going to stay the same: we are the yoga studio for young -- and seasoned -- professionals," said Kelli. "We will have a lot more space, more showers, and be around restaurants coffee shops downtown. It will be an adjustment for our current clientele at first, but we truly believe the benefits will outweigh the growing pains."
Kelli is also excited to launch the studio's first teacher training at the new place, beginning January 13. The 2,000-hour commitment deepens the students' understanding of yoga and is an experience Kelli recommends to all serious yogis.
"There is nothing like teacher training," she said. "It's an opportunity to get more serious about yoga, community, and create lasting friendships."
Sign up for yoga teacher training to get started January 13.
When Nicole Ferguson attended her first yoga class, she didn't really love it or understand it. It was a "girls' night out" and, frankly, she was bored by the practice.
Still, she knew there was something beneficial there.
"So then I joined this YMCA class and it was funny because I always had to pass Zingerman's on my way home," she said, "and what I found was every week all I was doing was looking forward to getting a latte and a croissant on my way home.
"So I gained five pounds going to this yoga class, and this great appreciation for croissants at Zingerman's Deli."
She would eventually fall in love with yoga. It happened when she was taking a Pilates class in a woman's basement. Her teacher suggested they take a "field trip" to Jonny Kest's studio in Birmingham.
"Instantly, a couple minutes in, I just knew that this was my home — this was my calling," she said. "It was hard — that's what I loved, the intensity. There was a spiritual message. I cried. It moved me in a way I've never been moved.
"It was probably the worst thing our Pilates instructor could have done, because we all cancelled our Pilates memberships and joined Center for Yoga immediately!"
From Practice to Business
Nicole continued taking classes, eventually landing at a teacher training with Kelli Harrington.
Both were placed at the Center for Yoga in Ann Arbor. When that studio moved, Nicole and Kelli — at the time merely acquaintances — were urged to start their own studio.
They went ahead with that plan and, ultimately, became friends as well as business partners.
"We're really tight and close," said Nicole. "That was — and still is — the main component. We each see that we need each other to have this really successful business."
Ultimately, the business she and Kelli have built is something Nicole calls, "one of the greatest gifts" she's ever received.
"If anything, I wish I would have done it 10 years ago," she said.
The Yoga Journey
Yoga has been more than exercise for Nicole. In fact, exercise is the toughest part of the practice for her. Compassion, tolerance, and mindfulness all come naturally to her — it's the physical journey that has been the biggest hill to climb.
"I know it's a necessary quality and that's what I always have to work on for my classes," she said.
Away from the mat, yoga has both helped her cope with life transitions and helped her help others. It is the ability to change another person's life that drives her as a teacher.
"Yoga changed who I was," she said. "It made me a better person, it made me a better mom, made me more present. I got over addictions and obstacles that I don't think I would have without yoga.
"On a daily basis, when people come up and share their journeys and say how much this has changed their lives — that's why I continue to do it."
Continuing Down the Path
Two years into their business, Nicole and Kelli aren't slowing down. They have built a community of students they make a point to get to know from the first day they walk through the studio door.
"The relationships with students is what keeps us going," said Nicole. "I'd say that that is the paycheck. I think both Kelli and I, that's what we have that maybe some other teachers don't: it's always been relational.
"If it wasn't for the relationships I had with the students I wouldn't want to do this every day."
Not only does she want to continue doing this every day, she sees endless possibilities.
"I see us expanding and growing, not just in Ann Arbor but here in Michigan," she said. "I think Red could go as far as Red wants to go."
Want to take a class with Nicole? Check out the Red Yoga schedule and sign up today.
Kelli Harrington and Nicole Ferguson didn't set out to own a business together. In fact, when they first met, they didn't even immediately become a part of the other's "inner circle."
"Kelli and I were both working at Center for Yoga," recalls Nicole. "We were the lead teachers here, we both had a great following. But we weren't really tight. I respected her, would drop into a class, but we didn't really know each other."
For anyone who currently practices at Red Yoga — the studio owned by Kelli and Nicole since August of 2015 — the idea that the two started out as mere acquaintances is probably difficult to believe.
Like yin and yang, the two complement one another beautifully, both in business and as yoga teachers.
"It's funny what you see when you get to know somebody," said Kelli. "It's a whole different personality. It's nice. It mixes well. We complement each other very well."
Coming Together by Chance
It wasn't even Nicole or Kelli that initiated their business partnership. It was a mutual friend, Dave Patterson, who saw something special between the two of them.
"(He) pulled us in the parking lot one day and he just said: I don't know whether you guys gathered or not but you're really good and you have what it takes," said Nicole. "He said, ‘You're the yin and she's the yang, and you guys have a synergy together.'
"He told us to get to know each other, get over our differences, and become friends."
The two women did exactly that and, on August 1, 2015, opened Red Yoga, an infrared yoga studio on the west side of Ann Arbor.
They offer vinyasa classes in 80-100-degree heat, providing a cardiovascular workout that builds strength and flexibility.
"We're told every single day when people come to Red that they think there's no other studio out there like it," said Nicole. "We are in Southeast Michigan, which is close to Jonny Kest, and it's really Jonny that developed the style of vinyasa that links the breath to the movement with the music.
"I think what Red has that many studios don't is that we have the intensity. Kelli and I are not afraid to push people, and we have incredibly strong students, and we feed off of that energy.
"We never baby our students. We don't teach to the modification. We both know how important it is to teach to the intensification."
Who Fits Red Yoga?
Nicole will tell her students that she and teacher Meggie Riegel once joked that Red Yoga is "varsity yoga." The individuals who attend the classes there are intense, Type A go-getters who want to better themselves.
It's that mentality that creates a different vibe within the studio.
"Our clientele are doctors, lawyers, professionals," said Kelli. "They're driving their Tesla to work. They're type A, they're go-getters. They want a 5:30 in the morning class so they can get it done and work and be a mom and be a dad and run their business.
"That kind of personality needs to almost wear out to even be able to hold or be in a yoga class."
Both Nicole and Kelli believe that Red Yoga students need to be physically challenged so they keep coming back.
"It's people who are ready to conquer the world," said Kelli. "We attract that type, but it all ends up being yoga in the end. Whether we are a stepping stone for them to go on for whatever personal practice they have or we are their primary practice, it's all about that growth.
"There should never be an end."
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