Why do we expect yoga to be free?
Equal Pay Day just passed, and it got me thinking. If yoga is a $16 billion industry in the United States, why are yoga teachers paid so little? Is it because 74% of yoga teachers are women? We are the caretakers, the nurturers in our communities, and companies are used to paying women less. To make matters worse, yoga teachers feel compelled to teach for free or at a discount, and students have come to expect it.
Why should yoga be free?
Like many yoga teachers, I was laid off when the pandemic hit. Studios closed and my private clients canceled indefinitely. Suddenly yoga teachers scrambled to offer classes online to replace lost income, and I was struck at how many teachers offered free classes or a “pay what you can” option. This was amazingly generous, but one year later, most online yoga classes and workshops taught by individual teachers still have that option. The competition is fierce online and this has now become the standard. Are other professions offering a “pay what you can” rate? Why do we expect yoga at a discount?
Part of the reason is that yoga is a spiritual tradition and this complicates the feelings yoga teachers have about earning a living from teaching. There is also the concept of seva, which means “service” in Sanskrit. When I’ve been asked to teach for free or do extra jobs in a studio like sweep the floor, sell merchandise or take out the trash, I’ve been told it’s part of seva. This blending of the spiritual tradition with capitalism allows companies to exploit teachers. Meanwhile students have grown accustomed to free yoga classes and seeing their teachers as providing a community service, rather than as trained professionals.
I started teaching yoga in my mid-forties and was an executive at a non-profit at the time. Teaching yoga was a hobby, something I enjoyed doing on the side, so I didn’t pay much attention to the pay or the requests to teach or assist other teachers for free. I was just happy to be teaching and gaining experience. As I taught more though, I wondered if it was possible to teach full-time and earn a decent living.
Most yoga teachers earn $35 to $50 per class at a studio with bonuses for full classes. Some studios pay a per student rate of $2 to $3. If only three students attend, it could mean teaching for 90 minutes and earning $6. Teaching privately is more lucrative, but it takes time to build a client base. After teaching for five years, I had eight classes per week at yoga studios where I earned $45 per class, and two regular privates. In total, I was earning $640 per week gross with no access to health care, retirement or benefits. Needless to say, I had to keep my day job.
This is never mentioned in yoga teacher training. To earn a 500-hour Yoga Alliance teaching certificate, the gold standard in the industry, it costs approximately $10,000. I remember our teacher saying, “you can make really good money teaching yoga.” This seemed to involve a lot of hustle to market yourself on social media, teach as much as possible, and build up a student following so you can charge for retreats and privates. It all sounded exhausting.
It’s ironic that teaching yoga doesn’t align with a yogic lifestyle. Most students have an image of their yoga teachers practicing, meditating and eating healthy meals. The reality is that yoga teachers travel miles to different studios or private homes, in traffic, trying to beat the clock, with little time to eat. When I did have time to practice, I just wanted to lie over a bolster in savasana. The pressure to fill your classes and your schedule to make ends meet is soul destroying. Perhaps that’s why a 2016 study funded by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance found that 67% of yoga teachers work less than 10 hours per week, and 33% said it was just a hobby, something they did to make them feel good.
In a $16 billion industry, someone is earning a lot of money from yoga, it’s just not yoga teachers. As we emerge from online yoga classes to once again teaching in person, I hope we can find a new paradigm that is equitable and fair to yoga teachers. In the meantime, if you are offered a “pay what you can” option for a yoga class, please pay the full rate. Show your yoga teacher that you value them and their knowledge.
Sandra is a yoga instructor and Ayurvedic Practitioner in Pasadena, CA. She has advanced training in therapeutic and restorative yoga, and is working on completing her Master’s Degree in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University.
To connect: @smsanchezyoga