Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Yoga Bubble

There are two sides to the proverbial yoga coin.  One side is this incredible, transformative, innately, and inevitably positive and powerful practice that is the birthright of every human being.

On the other side is a fiercely competitive hard-scrabble hustle where teachers find themselves pitted against each other, studio owners, even against students, in their efforts to do things like, pay their rent, and find a little time for their own yoga practice.

A lot of people don't like to think of yoga this way.  They prefer to focus on abundance, to trust that everything they need is coming their way from the generosity of the universe.  Which is fine.  I totally believe that stuff, too...but sometimes the abundance is a long time in coming, you know?  Sometimes the reasons why are staring you too hard in the face to be ignored. 

The truth of the matter is, there was a time when yoga was all one abundant and beautiful coin, but then it got imported to the land of the free where there is no free lunch.  And it doesn't do any good to complain about the westernization of yoga.  The geography didn't do this; we did.  We don't live in a society that recognizes leaving everything behind to live and beg in the countryside searching for spiritual meaning as a legitimate decision.  And if we did, would you have been content to keep plugging away in your cubicle for forty more years until it was your turn?  Because you can do that, actually.  We call it retirement.

Fair compensation for our efforts is a pretty important value around here, and I don't see that as a bad thing.  That means that yoga studio owners who kick ass working tons of hours want to not only cover the rent from their space, but walk away with a paycheck that allows them to live in relative security.  That's no easy task.  Have you seen how high our rent is in these parts?  That also means that yoga teachers who spend hours practicing  and researching poses and adjustments, crafting sequences, arriving early to set up for class, and leaving late to answer student questions, want to be compensated for the effort they put in, not for the hour and change they spent at the front of the room, and definitely not for the number of people who saw fit to pop in that day.

Let me elucidate for those of you not in this profession: payscales vary, but it's very rare to get more than $50 for a group class.  Actually, it's pretty rare to get $50 for a group class.  $30 is sort of the going rate, and more often than that, you actually get paid a base of maybe $10, pus $5 per student who shows up after the first two, or some variation on that system, such as $20 base plus $1 per student.

So, I spend a couple hours doing research, testing out poses and variations in my body, testing adjustments on my husband, writing out a sequence, crafting a playlist, updating my blog and social networks in an effort to attract new clients, and keep old clients coming to my classes.  We'll call all that two hours, although that's quite a low estimate.

Then I show up a minimum of fifteen minutes early for my class.  I light some candles, adjust lights, turn on music, basically set the stage.  Students start to arrive, and I greet them, introduce myself, ask questions, try to build rapport.  Maybe only one or two come because it's the middle of the afternoon and most people are at work, or it's raining cats and dogs, or any number of reasons.  I teach a class, carefully altering my sequence as needed to fit the bodies that are in the space, offering feedback in real time, providing physical and emotional support, and expertise, plus a mini massage and guided meditation at the end.  Class is over.  The students thank me; I feel great.  Maybe they have questions or comments, which I answer graciously.  Then I blow out candles, put away props, turn off lights and music, do any minor paperwork that might need done to keep track of how many students were in my class, and go home.  We'll say I was there for two hours, arriving early and staying late for my hour and a half class, although it can easily be two and a half hours.

So now, I've worked a minimum of four hours on this class.  If I got paid $50 for teaching this class, that's not so bad, but how many classes can I reasonably teach in a week?  Not enough to earn a living wage.  What if, as is more likely, I earned $30 for four hours of work?  What if, as is even more likely, I earned $10 for four hours of work, $5 per student?

Hmmm...better start doing that abun-dance, huh?

It's important to keep in mind that this is not a matter of studios being grabby with their money.  Most studios in NYC are barely making ends meet, and are genuinely paying their teachers what they can afford to pay them.  Theoretically, the studios could charge their students more so they could pay their teachers more, but many people, myself included, have already worried that we're pricing yoga out of the reach of too many people.  It's supposed to be a birthright, remember?  What kind of a birthright is $15 a pop?  A price, by the way, that is almost obsolete.  $20 is more the average these days.

In an effort to do more than break even on a given month, many studios who wouldn't have taken on the task and the responsibility in more profitable times, are starting up Teacher Trainer programs.  These run a few thousand per person, and can be quite sizable: from ten to fifty people depending on the size of the studio, the nature of the program, etc.  Of course, all that money isn't profit.  Getting certified as a Yoga Alliance training program isn't free, or simple, and there might be increases in liability insurance, outside people might have to be hired to teach some of the skills, etc.  Still, it definitely helps make ends meet, so just about every studio is doing these, regularly, back to back.

Cranking thousands more teachers out into a super-saturated market.  A freshly minted teacher can expect to find him or herself competing to teach $5-10 classes in an effort to gain experience and get a foot in the door, and also maintaining a job elsewhere to pay their bills.  And attempting to keep up with their personal practice.  Meanwhile they're expected to continue their education with workshops, maybe eventually the 500 hour level training, and they're required to if they're registered with the Yoga Alliance.  With what money, pray tell, let alone what time?

I shorthand this whole messy situation as 'the yoga bubble.'  And yes, just like any bubble, I'm watching it get bigger and bigger and bigger, and I know it's going to pop.  Frankly, I can't wait.  As it's grown my opportunities and income as a teacher have only shrank, in spite of my increasing experience and skills.  And as much as I'd love to continue my education with a kids yoga teacher training and an aerial yoga teacher training, the money's not there.  Things may get worse in the aftermath, but from there, they're only going to get better.

People are finally beginning to get it, that teaching yoga is not the more fun alternative to waiting tables while you go to auditions, or work on your novel.  And New York has handed down some reforms that studios are finding hard to swallow: sales tax on all classes (sorry yogis, your prices just went up...), a hefty fitness facility registration fee, and my personal favourite, a requirement that teachers be hired as employees, not contracted as free-lancers.

That last one is big.  It lowers our tax burden, and gives us more security, as well as, I think, more power to demand we're compensated fairly for our time.  The thing is, I'm more than willing to spend more hours at the studio.  Should I be working on adjustments with other teachers at the studio, and paid an hourly rate for that?  No problem; I'm there!  Would you like me to file some paperwork after I teach my class for that hourly rate?  Come early and sweep out the space?  I don't mind at all!  Would you like to offer advanced teaching workshops and take the price of attendance out of my paycheck?  That could work...

But, yes, all three of these things mean the prices for yoga classes (already closer to $20 than $15) are going up.  I think that we have to keep in mind that, yes, this beautiful, life-changing practice is a birthright.  But it's a birthright because all you need to do it is some floor space.  The part of yoga where you try to put your leg behind your head is only 1/8 of the practice, remember?  Anybody can meditate.  Sit down, and don't do anything else for a hot minute.  And you can work on that 1/8 via free youtube videos, podcasts, internet articles, etc.  You can practice all by yourself, and obtain all of those powerful benefits, for FREE.  Yes, even in the land of no free lunch! 

If you want me, or another trained expert, to offer specific guidance, help, adjustments, and a mini-massage, you're going to have to pay an amount that allows the studio owner and the teacher to live.  And that means those perks might not be available to everyone.  Although, just about every studio I know offers some form of donation, or community class (generally taught my all those teacher trainer graduates, but also increasingly by people like me, with years of experience under their belt, trying to get work at more studios) that would give those struggling financially the chance to get into a studio setting.

I have no problem acknowledging all of this.  But a lot of people do.  A lot of people don't want to talk about any of this at all.  A lot of people are completely put off by my desire to be able to make a living doing this.  "It's a SPIRITUAL path!"  They say.  "Gurus give their teachings to their pupils for FREE!"  "You should be doing this because it's your CALLING, because it's FULFILLING!  Not because you like to EAT!"

You're damn right this job is fulfilling, but being spiritually fulfilled and homeless is just not all that cool.  We have some very cold winters up here.  I offer a service, and I feel I have every right to be compensated fairly for that service, and I won't apologize to anybody for making a living by working hard to share this spiritual practice with others.

I hope I've made it clear that this is a really complex, multi-faceted problem.  I'm hopeful that time, and the recent reforms, will straighten it out, and that in the meantime I can continue to get by, growing my personal practice as well as my teaching practice all the while (ABUNDANCE!!!).

I sometimes wonder if tipping yoga teachers could help offset things a bit...but that's just another way of raising prices, ultimately.  I don't really have the answers, except that I think the prices for classes are just going to have to keep going up.  Maybe our current studio model is just not sustainable.  What do you think?  Tip jars by the incense holder?  Studio classes as luxury item?  A whole new vision for the yoga future?  Do tell!

Live Omily,


  1. There's been a few post about this today, and I'm glad to see this is being talked about (I might even chime in on my blog). Reading that I'm not alone in having a difficult time is helpful. I've paid for my teacher training, insurance, yoga alliance membership, business cards, tons of materials (books, clothes, mat, block, etc) in total well over $5,000... I've subbed and taught a little for anywhere from -$10 (paying to rent the space and not breaking even) to $40 per class, the most consistent job I've been able to get is teaching after school yoga in Brownsville--which means I travel for about 2/12 hours, I am there for 1 1/2 hours, and spend several hours a month on lesson plans, etc all for $35/class. I think staff positions (maybe even a union?)might help. I'm not really sure what the answer is..

  2. Hmm exclusive Yoga studios seem a little bit in excess to me, and $15 a class was a lot but $20? At those rates I wouldn't be able to do Yoga to actually stay fit and healthy because I'd burn through cash before I was able to burn any calories. Not to mention the fact that the whole peaceful meditation thing just became another stressful thing to worry about. But I hear you. If you really want Yoga to be this thing that is accessible to all then I think considering holding classes in multi-purpose rooms should be considered to a greater extent. I mean back in the day they had tupperware parties right, why not yoga parties? Facebook could make that process relatively possible. Or of course finding places that would charge little to no rent. Maybe some quid pro quo? I'm no expert of course, just a thought.

  3. kateasana: I'm in the same boat. We dedicate so much time, passion, and money to teaching yoga, we deserve to be paid more than we ever are under the current studio system. I know things need to change, perhaps radically, to make a more sustainable system, but I'm not sure what those changes need to be, or what that new system would look like. Actually, I think Satair suggested some really solid ideas.

    Satair: I think your thoughts are great! If our current yoga studio systems is proving to be financially unsustainable, then moving into multi-purpose spaces is a logical step. Yoga parties could be a lot of fun, and our social networking options make that idea a lot more doable than it would have been ten years ago. It's so important that your voice is heard clearly in this debate. It's easy for studio owners and teachers to just shrug our shoulders and go, "Well, that's just what it costs to offer classes..." but if no one can afford to take them, what's the point? Everyone loses! Maybe you should host the first in a wave of yoga parties. I'd be willing to teach! ;-)


  4. Its right that you have to spend a little about all those stuff and training for this you at beginning.
    Yoga for kids teacher training

  5. Agreed! Every career is an investment, and especially in yoga, where you're working with people's bodies, it's crucial that you have the necessary training to keep your students safe.

    That, in fact, is exactly the point. This is NOT a minimum wage, entry level job. Yoga teachers are highly skilled, highly trained professionals who make it their business to continue their education and constantly improved. They should be able to make a decent living off of this job, not less than someone working full-time at a fast food restaurant goes home with.