the meaning of union

the meaning of union

After years of co-creating a yoga community building project, when I moved to Victoria I found myself less connected to my local yoga community and more interested in the union at my workplace.

One of the things that happened since my move west from Montreal three years ago is that I became a normal person with a job-job. This was indeed one of my goals, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. I also didn’t expect to snag so much of a job-job (without going into too much detail, it’s a marketing/communications position in the public sector), the kind of job that I could easily work at until I retire. Or die. Whichever comes first.

the unlikely introduction to labour

While it may seem incongruent, my introduction to unions and the labour movement actually came through my work in the yoga world. I found myself writing stories on labour issues in the yoga community. Most infamously was the breaking story about Yoga Journal’s blatant disregard of the international boycott of Hyatt Hotels during their 2013 San Francisco conference. I also exposed the Santa Fe Yoga Festival, a small but mighty event that drew big name teachers and then didn’t pay them. I’ve also profiled independent teachers’ attempts to organize for health coverage.

But the truth is, there isn’t a lot of conversation about labour issues – or even work for that matter – in the yoga world. A career in yoga is still portrayed as lifestyle dream job, despite low wages, widespread exploitation, and expectations to teach without payment (in the name of community, or for free clothes). There are huge disparities, as well: while the yoga industry is worth $16.8 billion USD annually, the average salary for an instructor is $37,900 USD, and the people who make the clothes we practice in are paid approximately $70 USD per month (based on rates in Bangladesh – which is actually a living wage there).

transforming privilege into collective good

Yoga community building and the labour movement may seem different but my motivation for involvement in each was similar: desire for justice, connection to community, and search for meaning. So far, my involved with my union has politicized my fairly normcore job and added a layer of purpose and depth to my daily work. It helps me remember that I am part of something bigger than myself.  

Ultimately, my budding involvement is motivated by gratitude. I am well aware that neoliberalism makes jobs with security, good benefits, and opportunities for advancement some kind of unicorn. I am aware that I am in a privileged position (though let’s face it, a secure livelihood should be a right, not a privilege), and with that comes a responsibility to be active and appreciative ofwhat I’ve been given.

On a simplistic, surface level, we all know that one of the basic definitions of yoga is union. Of course, it’s much more complex than that, and within the vast history of yoga there are a multitude of ways to look at the origins and meanings of the word (which comes from the sanskrit yug), but the commonly accepted view is that one of the primary definitions originates in the first few stanzas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

The history page on the CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) website states “…we’re connected by a common purpose” – which sounds pretty yogic when you take it out of context. What comes next, however, is what I find really exciting: “Together we’ve fought for the things that matter most. Fairness. Equality. Dignity. There’s still much to be done before we have a truly just society. Empowering young workers, women’s rights, racial equality, dignity for the disabled, as well as justice for First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples.”

Being part of a collective movement feels more purposeful and potentially transformative than individual empowerment, personal evolution, or a mission-driven-heart-centred-soulful brand.

uniting parallel lines

The common elements are more than the underlying mission or vision. Believe it or not, there are actually several parallels between yoga practice and union work.

Scripture: Most serious yoga practitioners have a text that they study and refer, which may change depending on the tradition they adhere to. It could be the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the Yoga Spandakarika or even Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. Within the union, there is one document – the collective agreement, which I have heard many senior activists refer to as their bible. What’s not to love about an agreement for the collective, a contract for all? And what could possibly be more yogic? What could possibly speak more to our collective humanity than an agreement to ensure that we are all treated equitably and just?

Ritual and process: Building any kind of community involves long meetings and a detailed decision-making process. Yoga meetings often started with chanting to clean the air and centre attendees; at union meetings, we start by reciting the equality statement. In yoga meetings, we sat in circle or passed around some kind of talking stick/rock; union meetings follow Robert’s Rules of Order.

Transformative growth: I once had a yoga mentor who described her experience of community as rocks rubbing against each other and smoothing over the rough edges. That’s exactly how it feels, whether I’m planning a large-scale yoga event or working on a union communications project. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and even painful at times, but I feel my capacity expanding and something changing within.

dual images, similar outcomes

It may be difficult to reconcile the dominant image of yoga (spiritual vacuousness, athletic bodies, entrepreneurial self-determination) with the popular image of trade unionists (waving fists in the air, angry at their bosses, stuck on tradition), but I’ve learned that they have more in common than I initially suspected.

I’m not giving up on the practice or a socially engaged worldview, although I’m not as driven to “build community” – I’m also satisfied with the loose organization of thinkers and writers that I’m connected with online. At the moment, my union is fulfilling my needs for community engagement and the fight against neoliberalism in a way that yoga isn’t. Solidarity, y’all.

Featured image by Lance Asper via Unsplash

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  1. What jumped out at me was the statement that yoga teachers have an average pay of $37,900 a year. It was based off of data 73 people submitted to Glass Door where the average pay was listed as of between $16 and $47 an hour. I’ve never heard of anyone making $47 for an hour yoga class, unless they have a huge following, have written books, etc. At around $20 an hour, which is what I typically see, it means yoga teachers would have to teach 5+ hours a day 7 days a week, or a lot of private lessons and workshops, to get to almost $40k. No way is that the average for yoga teachers.
    Related to this compensation topic another issue comes to mind, and that’s the tipping culture in the US. Yoga teachers don’t receive tips (typically), but nobody thinks twice about tipping their massage therapists, hair stylists, bartenders, car valets, servers, and many others. Why? I appreciate that as yogi’s we’re all about karma and giving back (I’m always asked if I can teach free yoga to my friends because they can’t afford studio classes or yoga therapy sessions…while not thinking twice about spending $20 for a couple drinks at a bar) but we, yoga teachers, also need to pay the bills and if we’re going to devote ourselves to the practice (vs working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet) in a level that builds the kind of expertise we need in the profession, we need to figure out a way to compensate teachers fairly. Trainings cost a lot of money, much more than it costs for some of those other professions mentioned, except probably massage therapy. A 500HR trained Yoga Teacher has probably spent $6000 or more for their trainings, no small chunk of money. Just my thoughts.

    • Yes, I agree that the $37K figure is not fully representative nor does the data come from a huge sample group. But it was more realistic than other online sources I could find (some of which cited the average salary as closer to $100K!). I just wanted to link to something, rather than pulling a figure out of the air. If anybody has a better source, feel free to post the link here.

      I also didn’t go into the complexities of what “salary” means, which you’ve pointed out, since that’s not the point of this post. Though perhaps this is something that I could dig into in the future.

      Regardless, I hope that we can agree that while $37K feels like more than the average yoga teacher earns, it’s still a shit wage. Right?!?