The brutal economics of being a yoga teacher

Yoga Teacher Aims to Curb Violence in Chicago
Yoga Teacher Aims to Curb Violence in Chicago

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.

Ordinarily, Shakti teaches seven days a week. Her schedule includes 14 regular weekly group classes, for which she earns $50 each. She often substitutes for other teachers, so some weeks she teaches as many as 20 classes. Four times a week, she instructs private clients as well. She has Obamacare, but no disability or liability insurance. She loves what she does for a living, but it's precarious and draining. "I think burnout is something where, if you are teaching full-time, it's going to happen. It's part of it," she says.

Shakti says the burnout always ebbs, and she regains her enthusiasm. Then again, she's young. For older teachers, the relentless pace of a studio-based career is harder to sustain. Sadie Nardini, 43, started teaching 20 years ago. Until five years ago, she was teaching 15 classes a week in New York. "Every week I was exhausted and every week I wanted to quit," she says. "I was getting sick. I wasn't nourishing myself properly because I had rent to pay and it was scary to know that if anything happened to me I had no savings. I didn't take a vacation for a decade. My relationships suffered. I would get home and be just dead. I had a long-term relationship break up because there was no energy left for him, and it wasn't just me. I saw most of my yoga teacher friends doing the exact same thing."

Nardini's story, however, takes a very different turn than Elliott's. For her, the difficult years grinding out a living in studios are just a prelude, the before part of the before-and-after story she tells about the career salvation she found on the internet. "If teachers aren't online, they miss out on the income potential of the vast majority of people wanting to learn from them and buy things from them," Nardini says. "It's win-win for everybody. They learn yoga. You make money." Last year, she says, she earned $275,000. She offers an online course, called a "LIVE YOUR DREAM MASTER SESSION," for yoga teachers who hope to follow in her footsteps. Instructors may not be able to check alignment or give adjustments online, but Nardini emphasizes how many more people they can reach: "Someone in Afghanistan just wrote me, saying, 'We have no yoga studios or teachers here, thank you so much for being my teacher.'"

As with everything, success is all about branding. Teachers who want to thrive in the current landscape, says Nardini, need to be "clear on their personal brand of yoga. I call that the core message." She bills herself as a sort of punk-rock wellness coach. "My thing — I'm a musician also — is rock who you are," she says. "It's very empowering, core-strength Vinyasa yoga. It's all about empowerment and courage and being fierce and rock-and-roll mudra. I'm not all flowers and unicorns. I'm wine and steak, that's my tribe." Recent photos show her in a bleach-blonde faux-hawk, and her website describes her as a "full-spectrum transformation advocate: a renowned empowerment speaker, yoga and anatomy expert and Healthy Hedonism lifestyle leader."

Nardini's income comes primarily from online yoga classes, sold through the website, as well as longer, multipart courses and at-home teacher trainings that she sells through ("Udemy is baller," she says.) She has over 110,000 likes on her Facebook page (though only around 8,300 Instagram followers). Two or three times a month, she travels to teach at festivals or do in-person trainings. "I spend the rest of the week, Monday through Friday, in a café or a bar, working on my visions and my online community," she says.

This, increasingly, is what a successful American yoga teacher looks like. "Yoga became an industry by merging with the fitness industry," says Kaminoff. "Now it's merging with celebrity culture."

As in any superstar economy, the rewards are concentrated at the top. Five years ago Ava Taylor, a veteran of Lululemon, founded YAMA Talent, a talent agency for yoga teachers. (She represents both Kaminoff and Nardini.) "What some of our teachers do, and how they live, is phenomenal," she says. "They're rock stars. They travel around the world if they choose to. It's entirely possible to be in a different city almost every weekend teaching yoga. Being on big stages. Have wonderful endorsements and opportunities. Have the car service pick you up at the airport and take you to the hotel. There's this incredible possibility now, where teachers can make multiple six-figure incomes teaching yoga."

Some can, but not many. The new yoga ecosystem values social-media savvy over the types of skills longtime teachers have honed — hence all the gorgeous yogis and yoginis contorting themselves into astonishing poses on Instagram. "We've definitely seen the phenomenon of Insta-celebrity, and they're getting real deals," says Taylor. "Once teachers can get their following up to a certain size, their business reality really, really changes."

This may not have anything to do with their teaching skills. "A pretty picture doesn't necessarily mean a great teacher, but it doesn't have to," says Taylor. That's because a big part of the business of yoga these days is entertainment, not instruction. "Yoga now is where the Food Network was 15 or 20 years ago," she says. "There's both, 'Let me teach you how to cook,' and, 'Watch me cook.'"

Elliott doesn't really want people to watch her cook. "It kind of crushes me that you can make a name on Instagram without actually teaching," she says. She is trying to look upon the radical shifts in the yoga market with equanimity. But that doesn't mean she wants to be part of them. "No, I don't think I want to reach the Instagram market," she says. Instead, she is following the advice of innumerable yogis before her: Just let go.

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Originally published