CLEARWATER — Some may remember Gabriella "Gabby" Esposito, a 2002 graduate of Countryside High, as the fearless flier on the school's cheerleading team. She was the petite blond with a megawatt smile, even as she was bounded high into the air.
A decade later, she's a 26-year-old newlywed with a last name of Falkenbach.
She's still fearless. And smiling. This time, as a business owner opening up a hot yoga studio in the midst of a shaky economy with business partner Tatianna Fedorchak, 30, a 1999 graduate of Dunedin High School.
On April 4, the two opened Pure Yoga and Fitness, a 3,400-square-foot studio in Countryside Plaza at 2440 State Road 580, Suite 3.
It's where some — well, most — like it hot.
The space features two mirrored workout rooms — the Lotus and the Warrior — both equipped with a special air system that can heat the room to 105 degrees. Not all classes are performed in such conditions; the temperature is determined by the class type.
The first day, 75 yoga practitioners showed up for three classes. By the end of their first week, the partners had sold 115 monthly memberships. In the month since they've opened, they've attracted more than 300 members.
"This is better than we expected by far," said Falkenbach. "We really weren't sure what to expect, but we figured the first week would be slow and we'd have to build from there."
Many of the students are pony-tailed, fresh-faced millennials, a.k.a. generation Y or echo boomers, typically described as those born after 1980 to baby boomer parents.
Now seeking their own brand of health and fitness, many of these 20-somethings are drawn to the benefits of hot yoga, where poses are practiced in toasty temps. Proponents say it helps cleanse the body of toxins and also allows for deeper stretches and greater flexibility.
"Working in the heat burns twice as many as calories," said Falkenbach.
And the millennials are bringing their 50- and 60-something parents along, too, some of whom grew up practicing yoga when it was more of a meditative form. Other boomers are just starting out as beginners.
Last June, Falkenbach was laid off from her full-time job as a project coordinator for a grocery case refurbishing company.
"It freaked me out," she said, "but it was probably a good thing."
It gave her the impetus to parlay her part-time job as a yoga instructor at another studio into a full-time position where she used Facebook to build a loyal following. That success, in turn, gave her confidence to journey down the road of entrepreneurship.
The Great Recession has been particularly hard on the millennials as they try to gain traction in their careers. According to a Pew Research Center study released in 2010, 37 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were jobless or underemployed.
But the study also described the generation as confident, upbeat, and digitally savvy — often treating their hand-held gadgets like extra appendages.
Many are going back to school or college. Others are part of a brave new breed of young entrepreneurs who are creating their own ideal jobs — and using social networking tools to help spread the word.
That's what Falkenbach and Fedorchak have done. The longtime friends pooled together $30,000 and set out to transform their passion for hot yoga into what they hope is a long-term career.
"It is scary," said Fedorchak, a makeup artist who is working on her 200-hour yoga certification. "But at the same time, it's so amazing to follow your dream."
Here is what the women say is working for them:
Facebook: Falkenbach used Facebook to build her fan base, posting information about her yoga classes and sending it to 1,200 "friends" via Facebook's News Feed feature. When she left her former studio, many of her digitally connected clientele knew where to find her.
Website: Their site, www.pureyogaandfitness.com, is interactive, featuring places for members to log in, post comments, ask questions and reserve classes .
Landlord: The women say Michael Greenwell, owner of Countryside Plaza, has saved them tons of money by sharing his expertise and doing much of the demolition/construction work himself. The space, a former realty office, housed 10 enclosed offices and 32 cubicles that needed to be removed. Greenwell recycles and reuses things like steel studs, doors and wiring. Leftovers will go to help future tenants.
Enlisting the help of friends and family: The partners turned to their loved ones for things like logo design, painting, artwork, electrical work and Web page design.
Varied offerings: Classes include hot yoga for beginners through advanced, hot booty burn (yoga, Pilates and ballet), a body sculpting class with weights, and yoga for moms with a movie for children. Piloxing, a cardio workout which includes both Pilates and boxing, is offered and other types are coming soon.
Complementary business: The women are subletting space to another business owner who sells spa products and yoga outfits. It's a convenience for customers and helps pay the rent.
Little extras: Complimentary teas, fruits and organic muffins.