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.
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?
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.