While the cost of a single yoga class in Laguna Beach can range from $12 for a community services class to $25 at the newly re-opened Pacific Blue studio in Boat Canyon, Cho’s Academy, which primarily teaches martial arts, offers five donation-based yoga classes per week.
Citing the positive impact yoga has had on his life, studio owner Jacob Cho says he began offering donation-based instruction last March to give everyone access to classes that are “pure teaching and reduce the business component.” He sees yoga as a natural complement to the disciplined athleticism of taekwondo and jiu jitsu and provides a home for a trio of teachers with different specialties as instructors. He teaches the gentle class on Wednesday himself.
A recent transplant to Laguna Beach from New York, Tiffanie Bederman came to Cho’s in response to a post about the studio’s plan to add yoga classes along with the martial arts lessons. “After meeting Jacob, seeing the space, and most of all experiencing the community, I knew it was something I wanted to be involved with,” said Bederman, who teaches the 11 a.m. flow class on Tuesdays. She holds a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon and began practicing yoga a decade ago to overcome snowboarding injuries and joint problems stemming from years of dance.
Indeed teachers and students seem drawn to Cho. Dava Shatz was 7 when he first met Cho while training with Cho’s father, Grandmaster Hee Il Cho, at his taekwondo studio in Santa Monica.
Shatz went on to earn a master’s in yoga studies at Loyola Marymount University and now teaches the Thursday flow class at Cho’s Academy because he respects its owner’s dedication. Shatz also teaches yoga to athletes at Cal State Dominquez Hills and is a black belt in taekwondo and hapkido, a Korean martial art.
Christine Crosby, 40, is a regular at classes taught by Shatz and Bederman. “Dava’s class tends to be more philosophical, with a positive message at the end of class, while [Bederman] is precise in her explanation of the pose. The integrity of the pose is what’s important; not how flexible you are,” says Crosby, who recently moved to Laguna from Boston. “Dava and Tiffanie are a wonderful balance; the yin and yang of Cho’s Academy,” she added.
The yoga classes at Cho’s usually are attended by two to eight students. “There are no deal-driven booms of suddenly packed classes that empty out after a month,” says Bederman. Though they are not an income generator for the studio, Cho donates a third of the donations to charity, pays teachers a third of the proceeds while the studio keeps the remainder. Cho says he’s looking to reduce the studio’s cut in the future. “I believe what we’re offering is an excellent service and people should know it’s available to them,” Cho said in reiterating his rationale for donation-based classes. Donations were made to Operation Underground Railroad, based in Anaheim and dedicated to fighting child slavery and sex trafficking.
Another donation-based yoga class, taught by Laguna local and registered Yoga Alliance instructor Carl Brown, takes place seven mornings a week at Treasure Island Park. All donations go to Tara Abbey in Nepal for the education of women.
Cho’s father, a winner of many competition titles and a trainer of military Special Forces in his native South Korea, trained his son. “Back then teachers didn’t cater to a child’s desire for fun. We were required to train hard and stay in line or there were consequences,” Cho recalls.
Upon reflection, he admits his father’s “old school” ways were difficult enough that he sometimes wanted to quit. “I now see more clearly what my father was doing for me,” said Cho.
Grandmaster Cho founded the Action International Martial Arts Association in 1980. Based in Hawaii, it serves as a unifying body for all styles of martial arts. In addition to producing 70 training videos, he is author of 11 books, has led nearly 300 seminars and has appeared in several martial arts films. Cho, 74, continues to teach in Honolulu.
At Cho’s Academy, Cher Mang teaches the Tuesday and Thursday Kundalini class. It is a blend of spiritual and physical practices, incorporating movement, breathing techniques, meditation, and chanting to build strength and increase consciousness. Kundalini yoga instruction involves seva. In Sanskrit, seva means work performed without any thought of reward or repayment. In ancient India, seva was believed to help one’s spiritual growth and at the same time contribute to the improvement of a community.
Mang said she was drawn to Cho’s community because she “likes Jacob’s intentions” and because of the “neighborhood-ish” feel at the studio. After working as a surgical and oncology nurse for 27 years, Mang was looking “to work with people in a different fashion.”
“As soon as you walk in you feel Cher’s energy,” says Laurie Paolone, 43, of Newport Coast, who is a regular in Mang’s class. “She explains everything step by step, with beautiful music, chanting, breathing techniques, poses, meditation and a gong that awakens your spirit. It’s a beautiful experience.” Twenty years ago, she also trained with Cho’s father. After moving to Orange County, she took up kickboxing because she was unable to find a taekwondo teacher she liked. “When I heard that Jacob Cho [had] opened a school in Laguna Beach, I signed myself up and have now been coming for over two years,” she said.
Stephanie Lusk found Cho’s after moving to Laguna a few years ago with her husband, who was looking for a jiu-jitsu studio. He told her about the donation-based yoga classes. “I was a little wary at first because I have been practicing yoga for years at other studios,” said Lusk, 40.
After attending both Shatz’and Bederman’s classes, she came away impressed. “Dava is an expert in the practice and theory of yoga, and [Tiffanie] is great because she imparts an understanding of the fundamentals and guides you to advance on that foundation,” she added.