Patrons sip on mugs of herbal tea, nibble scones and line up to order specialty sandwiches at Darwin’s Ltd. on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge. A light murmur of coffee-fueled socializing circulates the café and sandwich shop at lunchtime.
“People come here not just for the food, but for something else,” says owner Steven Darwin. “You can ask them what that is, and a lot of them don’t know.”
Darwin thinks he knows what it is, though. He attributes the business’s popularity to life changes made 15 years ago, when he faced major personal and professional crises. Darwin overhauled his diet, attitude and beliefs, and started a regular yoga practice. The results helped improve his work life and his marriage.
“I don’t think that Darwin’s would have survived as a business if I did not discover yoga,” the 49-year-old business owner says.
In 1993, Darwin and his wife, Isabel, opened the sandwich shop, and eventually expanded the space to accommodate a café. Another Darwin’s Ltd. thrives on Cambridge Street on the opposite side of Harvard Square, and a third will open on Massachusetts Avenue near MIT later this year.
After opening the first store, where Isabel initially worked as the head chef, the couple struggled to share a tiny work space. Tensions mounted and Darwin’s physical and mental health declined. In 1998, while on a camping trip with his wife and college friends, Darwin suffered a nervous breakdown, causing him to consider ending both his marriage and his business.
“I wasn’t healing because nothing was congruent,” Darwin says. “Everything was a reflection of what I was, which sucked at the time.”
He explains that ‘namaste,’ a common term used in yoga, is like a mirror image. It can reflect the positive aspects or the darkness and negativity, depending on whatever emanates from the individual at the time.
“Namaste means ‘the light in me reflects the light in you,’” Darwin says. “Or it could be the asshole in me reflects the asshole in you. It could be anything. [It’s] my energetic person that dictates my business.”
Darwin decided to change his approach to business and life, and he sought help from friends, conventional doctors and alternative healers. One acquaintance introduced him to rolfing, a type of forceful massage therapy that repositions tissue under the skin. The rolfer encouraged Darwin to take regular yoga classes between sessions to maintain a level of openness.
Shortly after his daughter, Chelsea, was born in 1998, Darwin took that advice and worked yoga into his daily routine. He explored different yoga types and found the classes at Baptiste Yoga in Porter Square––when owner Baron Baptiste charged only $10 per class and taught them himself––the most helpful.
Baptiste told students that one or two classes per week would make them feel better, but that practicing yoga five times per week would change their lives, Darwin recalls. Three months into his own practice, Darwin felt that his life began to transform in positive ways, but he still struggled with health problems. His medical doctor referred him to Ron Cruickshank, a Cambridge-based homeopathic healer and acupuncturist.
Cruickshank, a fan of Darwin’s Ltd. and its menu, nonetheless placed Darwin on an austere dietary regimen––restricting for one year all forms of caffeine, dairy products, refined sugar, processed foods, drugs and alcohol––claiming that the plan was to crash Darwin’s system and, ultimately, shake up his life. Cruickshank predicted that the internal changes would affect his patient’s external environment, notably with a massive turnover of employees.
Darwin, skeptical of the restrictions, asked Cruickshank incredulously, “Do you know what I do for a living?” Most items at Darwin’s Ltd. contain at least one of those ingredients.
Cruickshank emphasized the importance of trusting in universal principles, regardless of how unlikely his predictions seemed at the time. Darwin reluctantly acquiesced, but noticed almost immediate results. He says that within one month of this drastic shift, 15 to 20 of his employees left voluntarily, and new, more qualified workers replaced them.
“My energetic level changed, resulting in a new dynamic,” Darwin says. “There was a crescendoing effect. It was no longer the environment it once was, and people were dropping like flies.”
Shortly thereafter, he expanded his business on Mount Auburn Street. The growth felt easier and more natural after the internal cleansing process. Everything, Darwin says, ran more smoothly, and the concrete results encouraged him to take yoga more seriously. He upgraded from a casual practitioner to a yoga teacher, and underwent a four-year teacher study project while running his business. Eventually, Darwin worked as an instructor at Karma and be. in Union yoga studios.
He admits to approaching the discipline with a more ego-driven attitude than he does now. Practicing alongside younger, less athletic students and instructors, Darwin felt tempted to push himself beyond reasonable physical limits.
“I thought, ‘If this scrawny 21-year-old can do it, so can I,’” he says. “It was self-induced and required a a trip to the chiropractor.”
He has less to prove now, but that process has occurred over several years. Isabel believes that her husband’s ego initially prompted him to teach yoga, and it provided a humbling experience. After receiving honest feedback from his yoga peers, she says, Darwin began to see himself differently.
“Steve’s motivation to become a teacher was about ego, about receiving the attention and admiration that a teacher receives from his students,” she says.
Isabel thinks that he grew less controlling and more accepting as a result of teaching yoga. According to Darwin, his wife and his staff, he now delegates more responsibility to his managers, trusting their abilities and judgment in a way he didn’t before.
In the basement office of the Mount Auburn shop, Darwin describes some of the more recent challenges––plumbing, grease traps, coffee machines––plaguing his business. The phone rings, as it often does. Employees swoop in and out of the office. Pandemonium ensues, yet Darwin smiles and sits calmly at the center of the chaos.
His general manager, Joetta Maue, a former yoga instructor and longtime practitioner herself, says that she has seen changes in both the store and her boss since meeting him 11 years ago. In 2003 she started working for Darwin, when he had a regular yoga practice but hadn’t yet begun teaching it. After more than two years at Darwin’s Ltd., Maue left Boston. She returned to the city and her job at the store in 2012, and observed a newfound calmness in her boss.
“I notice a difference when he’s attending more yoga classes,” she says.
Maue notes that Darwin is now more aware of the need to let go and trust the people he has trained. During her first stint at the store, she sensed that he had was more anxious and controlling.
The two remind each other when they need to attend more yoga, she says. Such prompts encourage Darwin to continue his practice, but he attends fewer classes now than he has in the past. Fearing that absorbing any more might make him dogmatic and obnoxious, he has scaled back on the physical routine. Too much of anything, he says, is just too much.
Still with Isabel, who has been his partner for 29 years, Darwin now manages his marriage, work and life with less stress. He stopped teaching yoga last summer and spends more time rock climbing, mountain biking and skiing with his wife. Darwin focuses more on the expansion of his stores, which has become a full-time venture. He still applies yoga to every facet of his life, though.
“I had to really trust that these principles do work, and then reposition myself as believing this,” he says. “Even though in Scientific American terminology there’s no proof of any of this shit.”