It’s festival season, and towns and cities across North America are hosting hedonistic weekends of yoga, music, dance, food, and other things. The yoga festival scene has grown in the six years since Wanderlust, the largest multi-day music and yoga festival in North America, was founded. We now see everything from intimate local events to wacky weekends in the woods. These festivals are powered by the promises of love, community and connection, and are pulled together by dedicated, yoga-loving people – but how ethical are these events? Are the teachers at your neighbourhood yoga festival (and large-scale debauched ski hill yoga party) paid and treated well?
Recently, Australia-based teacher of yoga philosophy Eric Shaw reached out to me. He had taught at the inaugural Santa Fe Yoga Festival in 2014, and more than ten months later (July 2015), he has not been paid. He had signed a contract before the event, and then renegotiated it afterwards when the festival said it overspent and asked to pay him less. There had been some lengthy communications with and unfulfilled promises from the festival’s co-founder and primary spokesperson, Kurt Young.
By all accounts, Young, a Santa Fe based entrepreneur, had good intentions of throwing a fun yoga festival weekend in a southwest desert mecca for yoga and healing arts. The city has a vibrant yoga community (with world-class caliber teachers like Tias and Surya Little) that would support a yoga-focused event. Young, founder of the highly-regarded Santa Fe Film Festival and lover of yoga, seemed like the right person to do it.
But in reality, through mismanagement and faulty communication, the festival racked up $40,000 in losses, a roster of unpaid and increasingly frustrated yoga teachers, and outstanding bills.
“It was something that could have been avoided,” said a former collaborator who asked to remain anonymous (as did most of my sources for this story).
On its website, the Santa Fe Yoga Festival bills itself as a 501(c)(3), although it’s not independently registered. Apparently, for a non-profit’s first two years, it has to be registered under another established organization. Young said that the Santa Fe Yoga Festival operates under an umbrella organization, Diogenes (for which I couldn’t find a website or Guidestar report, which also claims that it’s not registered with the IRS, although it has an EIN).
One collaborator, a long-time practitioner and teacher with a background in large-scale yoga events, said that Young wanted to recreate a Wanderlust festival type thing, complete with big names in the yoga scene, live music, large classes, a party vibe, and resort location. She was told by Young that he was personally financing the festival and he talked about his real estate background. But everything she was told about the financial and organizational structure of the festival turned out to be not true.
Other teachers also heard stories about Young’s personal wealth. “When the festival ended last year, Kurt drove me to Albuquerque,” said Shaw. “As we went south down highway 25, he pointed to huge tracts of land where he said he owned the water rights that had made him a multi-millionaire.”
Besides reports of Young’s apparent wealth, there were other common threads in the conversations I had with teachers: when they began to feel concerned about not getting paid, they had to initiate conversation with Young, and they were strung along with constant excuses, à la the old “the cheque is in the mail” trick.
One teacher was shocked to receive a phone call from Young at the end of March 2015, promising to pay the outstanding debt and inviting her to teach at this year’s festival. (She still hasn’t been paid.)
And yes, there is in fact a second edition of the festival set for August 2015. The line up and schedule have been posted just hours before this article was posted (four weeks before the event). Michael Franti happened to be the first confirmed performer at this year’s festival.
Another common thread I found in conversations with teachers: a sense of frustration and injustice.
“It is disappointing to see that this issue has not been resolved after 10+ months and now it has to become public,” said one source. “I feel that the festival should honor their previous financial obligations to everyone that supported Kurt’s vision, went to teach and share their expertise to make last year’s festival possible. I was told several times that payment was being sent the next day, next week etc. I wish he had been honest from the beginning and everyone could have made a choice to participate, donate their time or make payment arrangements accordingly. This would have reduced all the negativity that surrounds this issue. Personally, what bothers me the most is being lied to so many times. That is more upsetting to me then not being paid as he promised repeatedly.”
Another source said that what Young did to her and the other teachers had “no integrity, and was immoral and illegal.” This teacher lamented that it was already difficult enough to have her dharma be both her practice and her way of making a living, but in this situation, she was also being taken advantage of.
I communicated (via email and phone) with three teachers involved with last year’s festival who requested anonymity. They wanted to protect their careers and reputations, but there also seemed to be an underlying concern about criticizing a project with basically good intentions that does basically good things for its community – even if it is mismanaged.
“I was hesitant to talk to you after receiving your email inquiring about this issue,” one teacher said by email. “I don’t like conflict. However, I feel that if I stayed quiet, I would be doing a disservice to all my fellow yoga teachers that are currently in this predicament and to all of the future teachers that may find themselves in a similar situation.”
Others, however, took the whole thing in yogic stride. Presenter Gary Kissiah said, “When my fees did not arrive and it seemed that they were probably going to lose money on the festival, accordingly, I decided to contribute my fees to the festival. They invested a huge amount of money and love to bring yoga to Santa Fe and I felt that it was the least that I could do. I had a great experience at the festival, that was compensation enough for me.”
Interestingly, Kissiah is a high-powered lawyer and business consultant for the likes of Microsoft who “always drives the latest BMW,” according to one source. He moonlights as a teacher of workshops on yoga and ethics. Kissiah didn’t seem to have a problem with Young not paying presenters for teaching at the festival. “Frankly, I wish more yoga teachers would focus on bringing more yoga to the world rather than brand building and maximizing their income. But that is the perpetual conflict between money and spirit.”
Another unpaid teacher found this kind of treatment to be the unspoken standard on the yoga and music festival circuit. She thought not being paid was “understandable” (though not excusable), given the circumstances and culture: “Welcome to the world of music and yoga festivals, where MOST musical acts and teachers present on a pay-to-play basis. Unfortunately there are always musicians and teachers who are willing NOT to get paid just for the exposure. Something those of us old timers in the field find untenable and inappropriate. Everyone should be paid for their work. Seems simple to me.”
After interviewing most of my sources, I was eager to talk to Kurt Young and hear his side of the story. How would he explain the outstanding bills, the mixed stories? Was he a crazy con-artist or just a deluded do-gooder?
In keeping with his alleged persona, Young evaded our scheduled phone calls for a few days with convenient excuses (food poisoning, July 4th, etc), and then finally agreed to talk to me. His basic explanation: “Last year we tried a model, it didn’t work. We’ve revised our model.”
Young calls the new model a “collective cooperative” – a schedule of 30-something teachers will be donating their time, without expectation of payment. Apparently, more than 300 people applied to willingly teach at the 2015 festival for free. A new venue, the historic Scottish Rite Temple, has donated its space, and a crew of volunteers will help power the festival. “We’re not going to try to be Wanderlust or a Yoga Journal conference. We’re just sharing the love, doing the best we can.”
Young did seem to think he did the best he could with last year’s festival. He claims to have kept in good communication with all the teachers. I talked to him on a Sunday morning, and he promised to pay the remaining debts to teachers by Monday (no confirmation this has happened).
According to Young, as a non-profit, the festival did have a board of directors, who jumped ship just before the event when they found out about the financial state. They refused to contribute to paying off the debt, leaving Young in the lurch.
“We suffered $40,000 in losses. It’s taken us a year to pay off our debts, including teacher’s fees. I’ve had to contribute money from my personal account.” In our conversation, Young sounded a little fatigued by the whole experience, yet somewhat energized by the approaching festival.
Speaking of the 2015 festival and the “collective cooperative” model, I have to ask: What about Michael Franti? Is he playing for free? “We’re presenting his concert with another producer, who will be covering expenses and fees.”
FYI, despite free presenters and venue, attendees can pay up to $300 for a full-weekend pass for the festival.
Anyway, it’s difficult to say if the “cooperative collective” model will be more sustainable in this case – especially if some basic business practices (clear communication, bookkeeping, accountability) aren’t followed. Still, Kurt Young and the SFYF presenters have learned the hard way that the big yoga+music party at a resort model may not be the most beneficial model, for both teachers and communities.
However, Young isn’t daunted. “It’s true we made some first year blunders but they are surmountable,” he said in his final email to me. “It’s also true that this festival is tremendously popular amongst yogis who want an authentic experience. And even when financially we were in a tough spot and everybody wanted to jump ship I stayed on and saw this project through. That is true leadership. Now this festival will grow by leaps and bounds and it will be an amazing experience every year on and I believe our collective cooperative will be superstrong and influential in the yoga world.”
We’ll see. Finding a sustainable model for any kind of event (non-profit or otherwise), is no easy feat. And while it may be the most dramatic example, the Santa Fe Yoga Festival isn’t the only event to experience financial trouble. “Pranafest defaulted on paying its teachers last year and dissolved itself,” said Shaw. “I know, because I was not paid by them either.”
Apparently Pranafest, a yoga and kirtan festival in Ashland, Oregon founded in 2012, communicated their finances with attendees and teachers – although there is no mention on their Facebook page about the dissolution, only an enthusiastic statement that they are “on hiatus for this year, while we re-tool and re-imagine a bigger, better, more streamlined and awesome event.”
Nevertheless, other models for the local yoga festival have proven to be sustainable. Take the Telluride Yoga Festival in Colorado. In its eighth year, the for-profit entity runs at a breakeven, with funding from partners, ticket sales, grants, and sponsors. It has never not paid presenters and collaborators.
At Telluride, presenters are paid $1,000 to $3,000 plus a $500 travel stipend. The festival director is salaried, receives bonuses and has equity interest, overseeing four nominally paid managers (retail, vendors, registration and volunteer) and 20 volunteers.
The secret to breaking even as a yoga festival, according to the Telluride organizers? Keep costs low and grow organically. Focus on education not commercialism.
Yoga Festival Montreal follows a similar “small is beautiful” philosophy. Founded in 2011, YFM is a business partnership between a group of people who also act as a formal collective of organizers (disclosure: I am a co-founder of YFM and it’s parent organization, Yocomo; I am no longer involved, since moving to the west coast).
“We keep our costs low with a few main things,” said co-directors Nadia Stevens and Anne-Lisa de Forest (who responded to my questions with a group email, after consulting with one another). “We source locally everything for the festival. We don’t fly in teachers. We do lots of co-promotion and sponsorship for things that could cost us money. We have a huge pool of volunteers, including ourselves, who do the majority of the work. We only pay out for venue, printing, faculty, and a small amount of advertising.”
Teachers are paid an honorarium, and everybody receives the same rate, no matter what kind of following they have or how long they’ve been teaching. They’re given the option of donating their payment back to the festival, with no pressure or expectation.
The YFM organizers can’t even imagine how they would get to the point where they couldn’t pay their teachers. “We verify and verify and track and track all of our expenses, so we would know well before even starting the festival if we would have enough to cover our expenses. If we saw that we wouldn’t, we would cancel the festival and communicate why to our community publicly.”
This is sage advice for organizers of any locally-sourced, community focused festival (yoga or otherwise). Let’s hope that Kurt Young and his collaborators in Santa Fe are listening.
As for the rest of us, we have a role to play in how the festival model develops within our communities. This festival season, we can make commitments to ourselves and others. Teachers: don’t teach at events for free (unless you willingly want to offer your class as a service, not for the exposure) and insist on a legitimate contract with organizers. Attendees: ensure that the teachers are being remunerated for their services and don’t be afraid to ask organizers about their business model/practices. Everyone: when you hear of shady, unethical, or unfair treatment of teachers, vendors, or volunteers, speak up. Talk to your friends, talk to other teachers/attendees, talk to organizers.
Featured image from 2014 Santa Fe Yoga Festival by Crisanto Santa Ana (mentalphysix.com)