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Welcome to special edition of Better Know a Store Owner, a weekly Racked feature focusing on the people who run our favorite boutiques around the city.Photos by Rebecca Dale
Over the past few months, Williamsburg has been on the receiving end of a fitness boom, with studios from SoulCycle to Torque setting up shop in the neighborhood. But then there's SYNCSTUDIO: the first to plant the flag and the leader in terms of playlists. Instead of rigorous positions and themed rides, classes at SYNC involve bouncing out of the saddle to beats from Rihanna, Drake, and whatever else co-founders Ashley Lively and Karla Misjan are into at the moment.
Lively founded the first SYNCSTUDIO in Durham, North Carolina, before moving to Williamsburg to open on South 2nd Street just minutes away from Karla's old apartment. They approach fitness with a sense of humor—a "Broga" workshop, which would be yoga for bros—is on the schedule for later this month. As Lively puts it, the boutique studio is for "normal people who live normal lives and are active"—a place for all of the neighborhood's 9-5ers, freelancers, and bartenders to find common ground and sweat their asses off.
How did you both get into the fitness industry, and how did that segue into opening the studio?
Ashley: When I was younger I swam year-round competitively. I was really serious about it—swimming like nine times a week, waking up at 4am, going to school, then going back to swim practice after school, and getting home at 9pm. Needless to say, my grades and social life were definitely suffering. I turned 15 and I had to switch swim teams, and there were a lot of changes happening in my life personally so I made the decision to quit.
My mom was terrified that I was going to gain a ton of weight, because swimmers are notorious for gaining a lot of weight when they quit—you're so muscular and you're just consuming calories on calories, and you don't lose your appetite when you quit. My mom was taking this psychotic class at her gym where she would literally come home drenched from head to toe in sweat and her face would be beet red. So I walked into her cycling class and there's this woman on a bike just raging at you, drill sergeant style. The music was blaring and I thought the speakers were going to fall off the wall. I thought, "Wow, this is actually cool." I was by far the youngest person there by 20 years.
Karla: Ashley made me go to a class, and afterwards I couldn't walk; I couldn't go down the stairs, I couldn't go to ballet class for, like, four days. It was terrible–I hated it.
Ashley: I started mentoring under the teacher, sitting right next to her in all our classes, and became really obsessed with it. I think that happens to me a lot in life though—I find something that I like and then I just get obsessed with it. I started training under her, and then I started subbing and then I started teaching. It wasn't as much of a fitness thing as I loved it and had so much fun doing it. I kind of quit teaching when I went to college, but I was still really into running and stuff like that. I went to China for a year and when I came back I was living at home. My mom was like, "Rent is going to be writing a business plan." And that was Syncstudio.
Karla: So how I got into yoga; I was a ballet dancer, so all of our teachers wanted us to supplement our dancing with other things, so we did Pilates once a week. Pretty much all of my other dancer friends loved Pilates and I hated it. And then we did yoga and I really enjoyed it.
Ashley: Karla made me go to Bikram with her.
Karla: I didn't really continue with Vinyasa yoga. I started going to Bikram and I continued doing it in college at the University of Georgia, which is in Athens and about an hour away from Atlanta. Since I didn't have a studio in Athens, during my senior year I would drive an hour to Atlanta to take an hour and a half class, and then I would drive an hour back. I guess you could say that I got a little bit obsessive too.
After college, during the time that it was really hard for anyone to get a job, I was thinking about what I wanted to do. I got into fashion PR and did that for three and half years, and while I was doing that the idea of doing teacher training came up again. I had started practicing at Yoga Works and that style just really fit in with my life and where I wanted to go at that point, so I did my first teacher training. It was 200 hours and it's three months long and about halfway through that I felt so passionately about yoga and how it changed my life that I knew I wanted to incorporate it into my life in a much bigger way.
Around that time Ashley wanted to make a life change as well. The timing is vague, but at some point we sat down and had a lot of wine and decided, "Let's open up a studio in Williamsburg." I'd been living here and there was nothing like this concept. Ashley is good at business and we knew that if we worked together, we could do it. And we did.
How long have you guys known each other?
Ashley: We've known each other since we were ten, but we've been best friends since we were in sixth grade. It was hard because we both had such weird schedules. So we were really good friends during school, but we didn't have a lot of time outside of school to hang out until I quit swimming.
Karla: We were really good friends in 7th grade, but in 9th grade we were inseparable.
Ashley: Then I went to college in Seattle and she went to school at UGA, and when I got back from China there was a year period when I didn't really talk to anyone and was just doing my thing and just trying to figure out what the hell I was doing with my life—starting this studio [in Durham], cycling. During Thanksgiving that year we hung out and it was like no time had passed. Our friendship started right where it left off.
When you guys opened there wasn't much fitness beyond yoga going on in Williamsburg, correct?
Karla: Oh no, that's why we thought it would work. Because I'd been living here for two years and we really felt an absence of not just fitness, but places where people could be social and healthy and have fun and exercise.
Ashley: With people who aren't psychotic. Normal people who live normal lives and are active. That's pretty much what we are–normal 26-year-old girls who lead active lives. I think there's an absence of that, and not just in Brooklyn or Williamsburg. We were just about to sign our lease and then SoulCycle announced their location in Brooklyn. That was the push, like, "We're really doing this." Once we found the location, we realized they were going to open really close to the location that we found.
The cycling that you do is definitely really different from what a lot of the other places are doing.
Ashley: It's not intentional. It's funny because for me, the whole class is planned based around the music and the playlist. I think that's truly what the difference is and so that also makes it really hard to find people that can teach this style of cycling. You have to be really fit and you have to really understand music and understand beats, and you also have to understand how to have fun to music and make people sweat. They also have to love to dance, which, all of that together, can be hard to find.
It's not like I'm intentionally thinking, "What's the next big thing that we can do?" to separate ourselves. For me, it's all about how to get a whole room to move together and what kind of movements can you do and how can you keep people moving the whole time? Because I love to dance all the time, and that's the only way that I would keep cycling. The only reason I kept taking that class was that I didn't have to sit down in it and the whole time the music was on, we kept moving and we were basically dancing.
Why do you think other places shy away from that?
Ashley: There's the history behind spinning, which was originally created by this guy named Johnny G. He was trying to simulate road biking for people to train off-season. It's a really cool story; he built the bike with his friend and then he started building other ones and holding classes in his garage. But he was trying to simulate the feel of a road bike, so that's why there's a weighted flywheel, that's why there's a fixed gear, that's why there's a chain, that's why there's tension—to get the feel of riding on the road. On a road bike, you can't move like this. You don't stand up, and you're definitely not raging out to music.
It wasn't really until the eighties that spinning classes went into gyms. That was revolutionary. People weren't sure—you know, what could you do on a bike? What was good for the bike, what was good for the body?—but over time and after years they saw that you can stand up on these bikes and you can move around. I think it's just time. Fitness evolved, things come and go. There's Zumba, Body Pump–different things that come and go. But for spinning, the reason why I think the classes are so rigid is just because they're really trying to simulate biking, which I'm not trying to do at all.
Was yoga always offered at the Durham studio?
Ashley: Yea. We wanted to take group fitness and make it fun. And make it cool. Why a lot of people join gyms, especially women, is to take group fitness classes.
Karla A lot of them end up being really cheesy.
Ashley: They're horrible! It's the same music over and over. But people go for group fitness. It's motivating. People meet people. You always hope that there's a cute guy in there. We recognized that because the gyms around us in Durham were like that.
Karla: Gyms are centered around memberships. They don't care if you keep coming or not, as long as you have a membership, so they don't care if their group fitness classes suck. We wanted to take group fitness, keep it cool, keep it fun and fresh and changing all the time, but operate a strong business where you listen to customer feedback and keep your classes really good and maintain quality.
Is there any other exercise program that you would want to incorporate besides cycling and yoga?
Ashley: Originally we were cycling and yoga and personal training, but then we started realizing training classes could be really cool so we incorporated TRX and strength training. But super simple—we're not using weighted machines or crazy equipment. We just introduced a combo class with cycling plus circuit training.
Who do you think is coming to your classes?
Karla: I think the neighborhood is changing a lot. But at the same time, it's full of creative individuals and you really can't pinpoint a person. There are so many people here with 9-6 jobs, but then there are freelancers, musicians, artists, and bartenders. We have to take so many people and so many schedules into consideration, because not everyone wakes up at 6am or 7am. We have classes that reflect that, a 9am cycling class or a 10am yoga class–those are definitely gaining in popularity. But I think if you could give a couple words about our customer, it'd be fun, creative, motivated, a little bit laid back.
Karla: And I think that's why people keep coming, because we do have a personal relationship with our clients. And I think people enjoy coming in because they like talking to us and the other teachers and students.
Ashley: We're really close with all the instructors, and it's easy for people to feel that when they walk in, and then I think it's easier for them to feel included in the group. Everybody is so different. And Durham is funny, we have people from 20 to 70. It's hard to say who is your customer or your student. They just have to be more of a personality.
Karla: They're spirited.
Would you ever consider opening another studio outside of this one and Durham? In New York again?
Ashley: Yeah. Why not?
Karla: We are open to all sorts of possibilities.
Ashley: We have ideas of where to go. I mean, this studio is built on the fact that I wanted to move up here and Karla was here and we love living here. We were like, "This market could work, let's do it."
Karla: In the future, if and when we open up more studios, we want them all to have a very neighborhood feel to them and throw parties like the one we had last weekend [to celebrate our six month anniversary], where, if 150 people show up, they're all psyched.
Ashley: Yeah, someone asked me if I knew everybody that came, and at first I said no. But then I thought about it and realized I did pretty much know everyone.
I saw via Instagram there was also a lot of guys there too.
Ashley There are actually a lot of guys that come to our studio! That's why we're doing a "Broga" workshop, because we realized that there are a lot of men that are coming to yoga and there are the instructors that they like to take, and some of our classes are only men.
Karla: Especially since people have these preconceived notions of yoga, like, I have to be flexible, I have to be not-stressed–but that's actually why you need it.
Okay, time for the lightening round. Green juice or orange juice?
Whiskey or tequila?
8am or 8 pm?
Both: 8 pm.
Ashley: Pizza! Bread!
Karla: Ice cream? Does that count?
Ashley: That's like a carb and a fat and a sugar.
Beach or mountains?
Favorite travel destination?
Ashley: That we've been to or that we want to go to?
Either, it can be fantasy or somewhere you've been.
Ashley: I really want to go ride an elephant, or go see an elephant, in Africa.
Karla: Santorini, Greece.
Ashley: Oh damn. I love that place.
Would you rather be friends with Beyoncé or Rihanna?
Ashley: Oh God. That's evil.
Karla: That's really hard.
Ashley: Beyoncé has a baby so I 'm going to have to say Rihanna.
Karla: I think I'm going to have to go with Beyoncé for her dance moves.
Ashley: Girl, Rihanna's got it too.
Karla: But Beyoncé's choreography is like on another level. She really brings it all together.
What if Beyoncé took a class at Sync?