Theresa Elliott might not have been a star in the yoga world, but she was a professional. She started teaching yoga in Seattle 23 years ago. Since then, she’s run her own studio, trained hundreds of teachers, posed on the cover of books by the anatomy guru Judith Lasater, and modeled for the catalogue of the yoga brand Hugger Mugger. “I’ve invested my life in this,” she says.
Late last year, however, she stopped teaching and took a job selling women’s clothing in a department store at the mall. Getting by as a yoga teacher has never been easy, but people in the industry say that, in recent years, it’s gotten harder than it’s been in decades. “It’s a grueling line of work, and you’re not allowed to show the effects of it because of the nature of your work,” renowned teacher Leslie Kaminoff, co-author of the seminal reference book Yoga Anatomy, says of the instructors in his orbit. “It’s a tough way to make a living.”
Indeed, as in so many other fields, yoga in America is increasingly a superstar economy, with a few lucrative positions at the very top, many struggling aspirants down below, and a hollowed-out middle where people like Elliott used to reside. “Me and my strata have worked really hard for a long time. We laid the groundwork,” she says. “And we’re being obliterated.”
On the surface, it might seem strange that teachers are under so much pressure, because the business of yoga keeps getting bigger. In 2012, the market-research organization Ibis World identified yoga and Pilates studios as the fourth-fastest growing industry in the country, behind generic pharmaceuticals, solar-panel manufacturing, and for-profit universities. A recent survey commissioned by the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit representing teachers and studios, found that 8 percent of adults currently do yoga. According to Yoga Journal, students spend $2.5 billion a year on yoga instruction.
Yet even as more and more people are doing yoga, the business model of the independent yoga studio has started breaking down, particularly in expensive cities like New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. While boutique fitness studios like SoulCycle cost upwards of $30 per session, prices for yoga classes have remained closer to $20. There’s too much competition to charge more. According to Yoga Alliance spokesperson Andrew Tanner, there were 818 registered yoga schools in the U.S. in 2008. By 2012, the number grew to 2,500, and today there are 3,900.
Many students don’t pay anywhere near full price, because they buy packages from online discounters like Groupon or ClassPass. Studios participate in the hopes of attracting new students. According to Alison West, director of the Yoga Union studio in the Flatiron, they end up earning “about 25 cents on the dollar. It barely covers the cost of paying a teacher. Some studios, unethically, don’t pay teachers for promotional students. On the whole, it’s just a really bad idea, and everybody is doing it. It’s turning students into yoga tourists; as long as you have your promotion, you go to wherever it’s cheap.”
Because there’s so little profit in group classes, studios have to rely on teacher-training courses to make money. These are usually 200-hour intensives for both aspiring teachers and students who want to take their practice to the next level, costing several thousand dollars. (Many studios hire from among their own graduates. Kaminoff describes it this way: “You’re going to pay us thousands of dollars, and if you’re really good, what you get to do is get an entry-level position in the shitty time slot that nobody else wants to teach in.”)
All these trainings have generated a huge oversupply of would-be instructors. “There’s been a massive growth in the number of yoga teachers since 2008,” says Tanner. “More and more teachers are being bred, of not necessarily good quality,” adds West. “They’re all going out there and saturating the market. It’s the devaluation of yoga on all fronts.” Pay rates for these teachers have, in turn, stayed stagnant since 2007, Tanner says. In New York, some studios pay $50 for a 90-minute class. Others pay $4 per student.
To make a living, teachers rush from studio to studio, leading as many as 20 classes a week, a system that might sound familiar to poverty-stricken adjunct professors. Recently, a teacher at my own studio, a tomboyish, heavily tattooed 26-year-old who goes by the name Be Shakti, came to class on crutches. She had a hip injury, which she got training for a Spartan Race, a Reebok-sponsored extreme obstacle course. Her doctor told her not to put any weight on it for six weeks. “I subbed out a couple classes, but I have to keep paying bills and rent, and then paying medical bills and for physical therapy and whatnot,” she says. Continue reading >>