yoga teachers’ labour rights: a call to action

yoga teachers’ labour rights: a call to action

Are yoga teachers being exploited by the yoga studios in which they teach? This anonymous guest post explores the possibility and questions the economics of the studio system. I practically never post anonymous writing on the blog, but when an IAYB reader got in touch with this subject and asked for anonymity to keep their teaching gigs, I agreed to the request. Read on.

Recently I read Adam Gopnik’s article “Two Bands,” published in The New Yorker. Reading about Duke Ellington, the 20th century jazz great, I was struck by the parallels between his exploitative (and masterful) bandleading and our contemporary yoga studio system.

The crux of the article: Ellington’s genius lay in the exploitation of his musicians’ talents. Ellington chose the right musicians and understood their gifts, and placed them accordingly to make an all-star band. The owners of yoga studios do this too: deciding who is best suited to teach which style, and how to assign them. Choosing the workhorses, the stars, the subs.

Ellington’s band was a “band that played together, soloed luminously, and never sounded competitive.” The studios I teach at could also be described in this way. We are a team who work individually, but form a cohesive whole for the student-client.

I was also fascinated by Gopnik’s descriptions of Ellington’s character and his approach to his band:

“Ellington was an elegant man but not a very nice one … exploiting the musicians he gathered and held so close. He used his musicians … often quite coldly, and his romantic seeming life was really one long cloud of shimmering misdirection … Ellington was rarely the solo composer of the music associated with his name … [but] band members [who collaborated] did not always receive credit—or royalties.”

Like musicians in a big band, individual yoga teachers function under the umbrella of a yoga studio’s name and the owners associated with that name. Whether the client is coming to practice with the owner-teacher, or with one of the owner’s handpicked teachers, the bulk of the earnings, the street credibility, and the visibility, go to the studio owner. While an owner often begins as that studio’s primary teacher, before long other teachers are the ones building the studio’s reputation. This is not reflected in teachers’ pay. Furthermore, if a teacher leaves a studio, their hard work and gains seem to evaporate.

Cultural Currency Doesn’t Pay the Rent

When Gopnik used the word “exploitation” in his article, I experienced a frisson of recognition. Yoga teachers are exploited in similar ways: our extremely low wages relative to the cut collected by the studio-owner; the exploitation of our time, in the form of extras we are expected to give before and after a class; the expectation that we will participate in unpaid, extra-curricular activities to bolster the studio’s image or public visibility; the erasure of the word “labour” or “work” within the teaching system itself. It is “teaching at the studio,” but it is never “going to work.” The erasure is significant.

Labor rights activists demonstrate outside Walmart's lobbying office in Washington

Labor rights activists demonstrate outside Walmart’s lobbying office in Washington – imagine if yoga teachers made similar demands?

This treatment is explained away with ethereal tangents and non-committal statements. Shoot me if I ever hear the phrase “giving back to the community,” again. Why do I owe anything to this community? I did not enter into this relationship at a deficit.

There are no contracts to sign, bonuses, protection, holiday pay, sick days, scheduled wage increases, and zero benefits. There is no reasonable expectation of a raise, at any time. You can be dropped from the schedule tomorrow, or have your classes cut by three quarters with no recourse. All the while, studio owners tout yoga’s ten ethical guidelines, among them: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truth) and Asteya (non-stealing).

Owners pay constant lip-service to the community of paying client-students, but where is the owners’ respect for the capital-generating teachers? We are glad to be a part of the studio, rich in cultural currency, but unfortunately we can’t use cultural currency to pay our rent.

I am not questioning the need for fair and visionary studio-owners. Would Ellington’ musicians have come nearly as far had they not had The Duke to guide them? Were I to “liberate” myself tomorrow, would I have the energy to start a studio, assemble a team of teachers with talent, people-skills, loyalty and an eagerness to learn? Could I sustain my business and turn a profit? Manage clients’ complaints? Survive scheduling conflicts, politics, in-fighting, mental/emotional problems and the omnipresent eating disorders? Could I, as Ellington did, “keep enough of a popular audience to justify the expense of the rest”?

Yoga Teachers: A Disposable Commodity

Gopnik argues that happy accidents (innovations) are produced by hard labour, increasing these labourers’ value. If a teacher is any good, they are constantly improving and building on their skills. Whether they teach the same base sequence or build a new one every time they teach, through error or guile, when they uncover an innovative sequence or variation – this increases their value. If the teacher is as deft and skilled at engaging the students before and after class as during the class, this is also added value and ought to be recompensed.

But it doesn’t work that way. With so many yoga teacher trainings, yoga teachers have become a disposable commodity, and yoga studios can demand more of their teachers for less. This does not make studio-owners unique: certainly these same practices are at work across our economy. However the yoga world claims to have situated itself differently, within a particular frame of ethical principles. The abuse of these principles is extremely problematic.

“It is the finish, the touch, that really matters,” Gopnik writes. And so it is in a yoga studio experience. The full package of the yoga teacher, not just their sequence, makes a studio rich. It is about time that owners recognized this: through reasonable contracts, guaranteed (and overtime) hours, wage increases, fair schedules, appropriate raises, and respect for teachers’ days’ off.

Can We Make Studios Equitable and Fair for the Teachers Doing the Labour?            

MayDay 3

I call on studio-owners to develop clear and explicit labour protocols regarding their teachers and  publishing these documents on their websites. Before teachers are hired, documents should lay out: starting wages, guaranteed workload, the scheduled system of performance review and raises, the owners’ position on negotiation, scheduling, vacation, sick days, insurance, volunteer opportunities, expected charity work, the milestones necessary to grow with the studio, and how to improve one’s standing as a worker.

As a student-client, ask questions of the studio where you practice: how are the teachers treated, paid and taken care of? Clients can safely put pressure on studio-owners, in ways that teachers can’t. If you have a favourite teacher, they are more likely to stay at your studio if they are treated fairly. Help us stabilize and redress the issues of teacher exploitation by asking the tough questions and insisting on equity. Otherwise the studio where you practice is blowing a lot of hot air.

Yoga offers peace of mind, healthy physical transformation and inspires a supportive sangha, making it a powerfully transformative framework within our society. Yet in many studios these principles are betrayed by greed. We can do better. Let’s get to work.

Anonymous has been practicing yoga for a decade and a half, and teaching since the mid-00s, at studios across Canada and the American northeast.

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Beat the winter blahs with a full day of full power yoga at Espace GD in Montreal, February 22, 2014.
  1. Most independent studios make next to no money, and that unfortunately carries over. It’s unfortunate that yoga teachers – with the pricey trainings/lack of benefits/security/etc. must face that cruel reality that, for most of us… This won’t be a lucrative or even feasible full time job- because it can’t be. The money is not there. Studio owners also need to pay their rent and put food on the table. Large studio chains or studios that rake in high memberships fees and renewals… Now that’s to be debated.

  2. I agree with the sentiment behind this article. The problem is that there is little incentive for studio owners or students to make the changes the author calls for. There are exponentially more yoga teachers than studios nowadays, which means they have a big pool to choose from and can pay whatever they want. They don’t need to offer better pay…people are clamoring for jobs, whatever they pay.

    Also, studio owners tend to hire teachers that are graduates of their own programs, and if you train at a reputable studio, as I did, those teaching slots fill up really fast, and there is little turn over. Asking studio owners and students to be more fair to teachers is a nice idea, but I think the better call to action is for yoga instructors to collaborate to create a new business model, that does not undercut the value we are adding to our students’ lives.

    I have been teaching yoga for 13 years, and have personally saved my students thousands of dollars each year, by helping them avoid surgeries, eliminate the need for medication, and break cycles of addiction (check out the testimonials on my website). And I give my services away more than I get paid for them, because I truly want to help people feel better. It’s so frustrating…Americans don’t bat an eye at a $50 doctor copay and $50 in antibiotics and OTC drugs when they get a sinus infection, but they balk at $85 for a yoga lesson that will teach them how to boost their immunity for the rest of their lives.

    Bottom line–I think that we, as yoga instructors, are asking the wrong questions. Perhaps yoga needs to get out of the fitness industry and into the medical industry? I’m thinking we should start by setting up yoga clinics, and finally marketing our business as the healing practice that it is.

  3. The author raises points deserving of consideration, but gives short shrift to the role of independent studio owners in one brief paragraph: “Were I to “liberate” myself tomorrow, would I have the energy to start a studio, assemble a team of teachers with talent, people-skills, loyalty and an eagerness to learn? Could I sustain my business and turn a profit? Manage clients’ complaints? Survive scheduling conflicts, politics, in-fighting, mental/emotional problems and the omnipresent eating disorders?”

    Answer those questions, either from truly empathetic interviews with indy studio owners, or take the plunge and report back to us on your experience. *That* would be a revealing article. Could you get financing to open a studio? Could you rally a schedule-full of teachers? Did you make a profit and get to pay yourself? How successfully did you shoulder the obligation of keeping the doors open & filling classes for the teachers you invited to teach at the studio?

    As a teacher, how _have_ you participated in the community you teach in? Do you know the other teachers in your studio? Do you attend class where you teach? Do you maintain your own website and social media to promote your classes? Do you have a relationship with your studio owner beyond showing up for your timeslot on the schedule & receiving your check? These are the kind of strategies employed by successful independent contractors across many industries — marketing, networking, reliability.

    Succeeding as a yoga teacher is tough business. Succeeding as a studio owner is tough business. I’d love to read, in the spirit of yoga, a well-rounded conversation, a union!, on this important topic of healthy & sustainable business relationships. Unfortunately, this post feels like a rather one-sided critique of owners, with one obligatory hat-tip of a paragraph attempting to provide “balance.”

    As a yoga teacher myself, I don’t feel this article does me many favors in the eyes of the studio owners I rely on to provide me with teaching opportunities.

  4. I have worked for a studio for 6 years. In that time the drop-in rate for my class has gone up by 50%. What I get paid per student and that has not changed.

    What has changed is that I no longer get paid for students who come for free as part of a promotion that the studio owners (without consultation from the teachers) decide to do. I also had the experience where a student had a free class because ANOTHER teacher did not show up to teach her class. I did not get paid for this student.

    What has also changed are my responsibilities. It used to be to just teach – the owners and workstudies did the rest, but I would happily pitch in where I could. Now, however, I have to sign-in my class, clean and do lots of other random stuff. This has affected my teaching and the amount of time and energy I dedicate to the studio in a negative way. I no longer even practice at the studio where I teach.

    Studio owners who think that they can’t pay teachers more would do well to study up on some management theory and basic principals of incentives. Henry Ford figured out a long time ago that if you pay people well, the benefits you get in lower turn over and higher effort far outweigh the cost of the additional wages.

    The best studios that I know (unfortunately they are not near where I live) pay their teachers well, have a manager to run the studio and have regular hours. They have very low turn over of teachers and a very regular student base. These studios are not chain studios – they are owned by 1 or 2 people. They are, however, run by smart people who know how to run a business and manage others.

    I firmly agree with the author’s recommendation for having formal documents which lay out pay and benefits and explicitly state criteria for promotions etc. After all, this is how most businesses work.

  5. Good article. Something to remember is that this is how most businesses are set up. The CEO and the few big guys under them get all the money and all the glory while the people at the bottom of the pyramid carry out the work. Basically, we made yoga main stream and now we are subject to the rules of the mainstream. This was bound to happen.

    As someone already hinted at, it is supply and demand. We have flooded the market with yoga teachers. Supply is greater then demand so the worth of yoga teachers is down. The only way I see this being solved is if yoga studios stop training so many teachers but that is not going to happen because yoga teacher training programs are how they pay their bills.

    Westerners created this mess. I honestly don’t know how it can be fixed. As someone mentioned,the cost to run a yoga studio is crazy. Yoga studio owners have high overhead and many cannot afford to pay experienced teachers more money so they just train new ones. Yoga students these days don’t care about experience. Yoga is a “work out” so as long as the instructor has completed a program, they don’t care. They are not going looking for “medical” or “spiritual” fixes. They want to look good with their shirt off. So they want to pay the studios the same amount they would pay a gym.

  6. Teachers need to form coops. Cut out the studio owners and their whining about how hard it is to run a studio. This is a small business like a quadrillion others. The only difference is this business has exploited the goodwill of the yoga community. Unfortunately, the student base is clueless so any kind of reform is impossible. Besides, yoga teachers are fear based, as evident by the anonymous nature of the post and would never find the courage to organize and protest like the low wage fast food workers. With online yoga classes, the yoga studio system is doomed anyway. Fact of the matter is, the market has priced yoga teaching next to worthless. It’s the studios that push the delusion that people can make a living teaching to sell their training courses. Sadly, the joke’s on you for falling for it.

    • Your comment clearly demonstrates you have zero experience trying to run a studio. At the end of the day, people like to practise their Yoga in a class environment with a good teacher, so I disagree with your assessment that online classes will kill Yoga studios – they will do so no more than online fitness programmes have killed gyms.

      The business has not exploited the goodwill of the Yoga community. The business, or studio, is indeed capitalising on the Yoga community, in exactly the same way the teacher does: by charging for access to facilities and services, offered to (hopefully) a high standard. That is how the world works: you sell Yoga classes for a living and if no one wanted to pay you to offer that, you would have to do something else. Similarly, if people feel they don’t need to go to a studio to experience said class, then they won’t, and the studio will go out of business (and a lot do).

      The market doesn’t price things: people do and as other commenters have noted, there is currently a massive supply surplus for Yoga teachers. Granted there is also a massive experience and quality divergence too, but the simple supply/demand situation is that there are more qualified teachers than there are studios to employ them, leaving the studios in the position to set rates (this is leaving aside self-arranged lessons by individual teachers). This is precisely what you would find whether you were selling Yoga classes, cheese or buses.

      If you really are simply enough to believe someone else telling you you can make a living teaching Yoga without bothering to do any investigation yourself, then you only have yourself to blame. If someone told you you could make a living blowing bubbles, so long as you went on their course, then again, you only have yourself to blame when the reality that you can’t dawns on you. Having said that, I do run a yoga studio and a number of our teachers do make their entire living from it, so what you are saying is not always true.

  7. Studio owner, small space- max 40ish. I pay 7.00 a head for every head in the room. Whether the student/barter/1st class free/fellow teacher has paid or not. I offer teachers who are not on my schedule or sub list a 10.00 rate, 7 to the teacher leading the class 3 to the studio. I am passionate that teachers are paid for the work that they do. We all benefit from well paid teachers. Teachers paid 30.00-40.00 for a class of 50? That is obsence, unethical, and certainly unyogic. I have no words for studios that exploit their teachers.

    • Mac, I am impressed by the amount that you are able to pay your teachers, and I feel that is a fair wage. Do you pay a monthly rent on your studio space? I am just curious, because I hope to be a studio owner one day as well. Do you pay yourself a salary? Presently I teach at a small studio, and am trying to support myself as a yoga instructor. It seems like an impossible task when classes are small and you are paid $10 to $20 a class depending on class size.

    • Mac,

      it is very unfair for you to say categorically that paying a teacher a set fee for teaching a class is necessarily “obscene, unethical and unyogic”. Levaing aside ‘unyogic’ being very subjective, how can you not get the basic tenets of risk/reward?

      You pay your teachers per head, which means if no one turns up for the class, they get nothing – and more importantly, you don’t pay them anything. Whereas, if the class is full, you both benefit. You are sharing the risk.

      In other studios, the teacher walks into the class knowing exactly how much they will be paid for the class, regardless of whether it is full or empty. This gives the teacher pay security which your model does not give them: their take home pay could fluctuate wildly if their pay is based solely on bums on mats.

      This is the basic nature of risk versus reward: you spread the risk with your teachers, so if you (as studio owner) fail to bring in sufficient students, your teachers take a hit in their pay, perhaps down to zero. Other studios take all the risk themselves (and believe me, subsidising near empty classes is no picnic, when you have rent, rates, insurance, electricity, reception staff, suppliers, maintenance and a host of other bills to pay), and consequently reap the rewards when a class is full, and take the hit when the class is empty.

      To say that approach is obscene and unethical shows a large degree of naievity and is very unfair. I would say it is obscene to ask a teacher to give up their time to teach in your studio, then pay them a pittance if only one student turns up. After all, it is your job to promote the studio and get students through the door, isn’t it?

  8. This is such a complicated issue. As a person who recently opened a studio I understand the expense and overwhelming responsibility of opening a space. I have had exactly one day off since July. My space is run like a coop where teachers pay an hourly fee for rent and collect the fees for their classes. I set it up this way so that teachers could make a decent wage if their classes were at least somewhat well attended. I pay for an ad in the best-targeted local publication, but beyond that, the onus is on the teachers to publicize their own classes. Some teachers are more skilled at this than others, and some brought a built-in base to the studio, while others started new classes from scratch. All my teachers and I signed contracts to make sure we were clear with each others’ intentions.

    The going rate in my city for studio pay, at least four or five years ago—the last time I taught regular classes at a studio—was abysmal. Teachers get $20 for the first five students and $1 per student thereafter. Again, I do understand the stress of running a space, but this rate is ridiculous. As the article points out, studio owners are at liberty to change schedules, cancel classes, etc., without input from teachers. Even if it’s legal to do this it’s not ethical.

    On the other hand, in what other profession can you go to a six-month training–or a weekend training–and expect to be paid a living wage for part-time work? Part of the solution is to treat yoga like any other profession, by requiring a whole lot more of trainings than 200 or 500 hours. The easy accessibility of “certification” is one of the major causes of the idea that yoga teachers are a dispensable commodity. I would love to see governing board, like in all other legitimate professions, that makes sure that trainings meet standards similar to those required for massage therapists, social workers or school teachers.