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Adventures in Yoga Teaching: At Your Service (Making a Living is Kick in the Yoga Pants)

in Business of Yoga, YD News

Yoga is a dish best served without expectations.

So you’re a yoga teacher. You probably make a million bucks, right? You’re not even reading this right now, your personal assistant is, scanning the internets so they can report back once you’ve returned from your lavender-infused Himalyan pink salt ‘personal aquatic retreat,’ aka bath in normal people speak. What’s that? Totally not true? You’re actually having a hard time making ends meet and working multiple jobs just to pay the bills? You’re not alone.

We got down and dirty with some bittersweet reality in our post Teaching Yoga As Second Career: 3 Tips to Make It or Break It. This latest blog from GOOD highlights the plight of one aspiring NYC yoga teacher, echoing the problems many, probably thousands, of teachers face as they’re churned out of training and thrust into the competitive pool of potentials, clawing their way through the crowds to eagle pose on top of the heap. And that’s just to buy groceries every day, nevermind healthcare or having a family (we won’t even go there right now).

Writer/actor/hence disenchanted service industry employee and eventual disenchanted yoga teacher, Sue Smith spills the woes of her journey and realization that, to her dismay, teaching yoga is just another service job.

The first few months were the worst. At the studio where I studied, graduates of the teacher training program were encouraged to teach their “Rising Stars” discounted classes—even though the studio only hired teachers with three or more years of experience. I taught Rising Stars classes for a year, with no pay and no promise of a regular teaching gig.

It didn’t get much better once I started getting paid. Because competition is so fierce, most new teachers will teach anywhere they can, and pay can be low if it exists at all. Startups and new places generally pay their teachers on a “bringer” basis: the teacher may have a base rate of five to 10 dollars, and then earn two to five dollars per student.

I realized quickly that private lessons were where the money was. Teachers set their own rates, and, if they’re teaching them in-home, they can be pure profit. I charged my private clients anywhere from $60 to $125 an hour, depending on how well I knew them and what neighborhood they lived in. But even that didn’t add up to a life of luxury. For me, it meant sitting with a pile of 1099s fanned in front of me on the ground at the end of the year, owing $3,000 in taxes.

And hustling to two, three, four classes a day (if I was lucky) left me with no time for my own yoga practice or my comedy. I became jealous of my students who could fit classes into their schedules. Even though I was teaching often, I still had to wait tables to make rent. I had no days off. I had no time for auditions or writing. Worst of all, I was still doing what I’d done waiting tables: catering to (usually rich) people, like the guy who demanded we do certain postures, or the woman who argued with me about the proper way to teach headstands, or the types who had never done yoga before and came in 20 minutes late. I was getting paid to look serene and keep my mouth shut.

Of course soaring to your perfect garudasana is different from earning a decent living, unless you’re Elena Brower, Sadie Nardini, Bikram Choudhury or John Friend before the fall. Need we break it to you? Nope, you are not one of these people. And even they have had to spin it to something broader than just ‘yoga teacher’. Not to sound fresh, but the increasingly common misconception that teaching yoga is your ultimate dream job and you will live happily ever after without some struggle, hustle and/or supplementary income is just not realistic.

“[Yoga is] like any other profession—it takes a huge investment of time and money to go pro,” says Bridgid Ryan, who studied at Yoga to the People and now teaches independent yoga classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

Sure the industry is raking in $5.7 billion a year and stretchy pants providers can’t get their luon stocking shelves fast enough. But contrary to what opportunist constructs such as YAMA talent agency and sometimes the Wanderlust Festival might lead you to believe, we have to ponder the question, is teaching yoga not a service? Should we view it as anything but?

We’re going out on a limb here. Clearly we’re no pious cave dwelling gurutastic Gandhi reincarnates, and we don’t expect modern yoga teachers to be either, but good grief has the image of teaching yoga become a mogulriffic funhouse of ambition-driven fame whores.

We do sympathize with the sentiment that yoga studios may sometimes seem like greedy little hoarders hogging most of the profits (20 students x $20 a class= $30 pay?). It sucks, but unfortunately if you’re not ok with the pay split, there are plenty of other spritely, hungry, perkily naive applicants ready to step in.

The truth is, teaching yoga isn’t like any other profession or career path and perhaps we shouldn’t attempt it like it is. Then again, if you want a yoga TV show or your turn on the stage there are certainly agents ready to take your money make your dream come true. Nothing is impossible. Even still, bringing the teachings of yoga to one or many is providing a service whether you count your students, your dollar bills or your blessings. If that doesn’t serve you, maybe get out of the kitchen.

“We go into teaching for the outcome, not the income.” Paula Liberis, inspired NYC yoga teacher.

That’s our rant, the floor is yours…

ps. All is not lost. We’ll be including some yoga biz features and tips for teachers on YD in the coming weeks. Maybe you won’t make a million dollars, but at least you’ll have a decent website and a better handle on personal finances. Oooh…sexy.




37 comments… add one
  • Sing it sister.

    As a teacher, workshop/retreat instructor and former studio owner, I’ve been in this battle from many different front-lines. Yoga teaching IS a service….but yoga practice is free. If you want people to come to you for your Service, you have to offer them something other than what they can find rolling out their mat on the living room floor. You have to offer them something of value. You must TEACH them something. That means that you must not only know your own yoga practice, but be a TEACHER.

    It’s frustrating to see so many hopeful yogis sent out the door of their “teacher training” believing that they are now entitled to yoga-teacher-stardom on any level. Perhaps that attitude is more a statement on our current social structure and the general move away from blue-collar work ethics…but any way you slice it, there is a sincere misconception that because you can practice yoga, you can teach it.

    And on the studio-owner side of the coin: I tried really hard to develop a model that paid our teachers what they deserved…but the cold hard truth of the matter is that overhead is high. For all the NYC studios charging $20 per head, they are also paying the nation’s highest rents on their space. Outside of large, corporately supported spa-gym-studio megaliths, even that imbalanced split may be barely keeping the studio in the black.

    No one ever said teaching yoga was an easy gig…if they did they were independently wealthy before they took it on. We all have to work for a living, some of us have to work really hard for hardly a living, but we earn a lighter heart along the way. Some of us just need to choose other work.

    • Compassion, not sympathy

      Amen. And corporate owners like Equinox/Pure are actually part of a larger business, Related Management. Related’s core core business is (wait for it): real estate. Related is a fine company, but the real estate business is the trust fund/high earning spouse that supports the yoga business.

      When I ran a studio, when teachers complained that we didn’t pay them enough, we opened our books to show them what overhead actually cost the business. We had to bring in roughly $1000 a day to break even, and this was a small NYC studio, and this was paying the teachers, taxes, rent and utilities — owner salaries came after that. (You do the math.) We also had teachers fight with us because we “paid them less” by treating them as employees: this meant that we paid/withheld their taxes, and they didn’t have to pay self-employment taxes and could be covered by unemployment insurance. (On a side note, I seriously don’t get teacher support for the drive to legislate teacher status as independent contractors. Look at the fine print. It’s not good for your wallet. And under the law, you’re likely not an independent contractor.)

      Maybe TT programs should have a math prerequisite. It’s been clear for years that it’s not really possible for people to make a living just by teaching yoga, and that’s not just in NYC. Studio ownership is no bed of roses, either.

  • The article definitely rings true in some ways. I wasn’t completely keen on the tone or the fact that the author was looking at yoga teaching more as a career path—a way to get out of the service industry—than a calling. Also, she didn’t have to buy lululemon pants. There are plenty of less expensive, non-sweatshop alternatives out there!

    I started teaching yoga back in 1986. At the time I had a full-time job, and never expected my yoga classes to be anything but a way for me to share something I knew could make people’s lives more graceful. The fact that I got paid seemed like a nice perk.

    When I’d taught for about 11 years, I decided to see if I could make a go of teaching yoga without having another job. I actually did make a living (paid my bills and had a little to spare) teaching for another 10 years—before the “yoga boom.” Once the boom started and my city became flooded with studios and new teachers of trendier yoga styles, it became a whole lot harder for those of us who’d been around a while to earn a living. I had to return to supplementing with part-time work. This actually turned out to be a positive thing. I’ve enjoyed not being dependent on numbers of students in order to make ends meet. I’m much more relaxed about my classes now.

    The only reason I was able to make the living I did was that I didn’t teach at studios. Except for a few finite gigs at studios, I’ve always taught independently. I currently rent a space in a karate dojo. Most of the studios here in SLC pay teachers a base of $20 for the first five students and $1 per student thereafter. No one can make a living on this kind of pay. That said, how many professions that require only 200 to 500 hours of training would pay a living wage?

  • Also, I love this: “Clearly we’re no pious cave dwelling gurutastic Gandhi reincarnates, and we don’t expect modern yoga teachers to be either, but good grief has the image of teaching yoga become a mogulriffic funhouse of ambition-driven fame whores.”

  • $5.7 billion a year? Fo reals?
    Where, exactly, does a number like that come from?

  • Mr. Nervous Toes

    Nice rant. I can make an analogy, I’m into some other sports which I love — one might even call it an obsession. I’m a nationally certified coach and I teach courses for my (non-profit, volunteer-run) club, for which I’m given an honorarium of $20/hour. It’s mainly intended to compensate me for the costs of my certifications, my gas, and as a general ‘thank you’. I never considered it to be a wage, but apparently I’m making the same amount of money as yoga instructors in a professional setting. That’s a little sobering.

    I think part of the problem is the way the teacher training is marketed. The general rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000-hours to become an expert in something, so if I do 5-hours of asana a week, it’s going to take me 40-years of yoga practice to reach that threshold. 200-hours of teaching training, in comparison, is a bit of a pittance. It doesn’t even come to the level of an apprenticeship. From what I’ve read on the internet, a lot of people who are taking teacher training are using it just as an intensive course to deepen their own practice, so perhaps there should be more pressure to market it as such?

    When a 200-hour trainee graduates what they are doing at that point is basically a paid apprenticeship.

    • I completely agree with your assessment of 200 hours (or 500 hours) of training. It barely qualifies for apprenticeship in asana, let alone the integrated system of Yoga. Yoga is a huge, expansive, profound practice that takes years and a huge commitment to understand, let alone to teach. I wouldn’t take piano lessons from a teacher with 200 hours of experience, and I seriously doubt a pianist with only 200 hours of training would hang out a shingle.

  • Katie Cordova

    When I read the first article, I was very disappointed in the woman’s attitude about what a yoga instructor is. The fact that it was just within a long line of other jobs that she tried out showed how much effort she really put into it. I love my job and I love teaching, with all of the ups and downs that comes with it.

    One thing being a yoga instructor is NOT, as we all know, is a full time job. It’s crap really, no real pay, no health benefits and you have to drive all over town in one day, which makes me wonder sometimes if I’m just getting reimbursed for gas some days. But, like was mentioned, I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the love of the job.

    As far as the teacher training goes. I think it is unneeded, over involved and too expensive. But I know I will have to do it one day. I have managed to land about 15 classes a week at various studios based on sheer passion and a large of amount of hard work, self practice and self study. I have interview alongside girls that have their 200 hr and are far more inexperienced then I am because what do you get out of a 200 hr training? No real life experience of standing in front of a room of widely varying clientele.

    But all in all life can suck, and most every job, dream job, dream pay, or sitting on the unemployment line, can suck. Its what you make out of it, what you do with it, and the experiences along the way.

    • Emily

      What city do you live in where you can get that many jobs without a 200-hour training? Did you start teaching before the yoga boom? I live in the NY Metro area, and my studio makes it a condition that teachers be YA certified…

    • Yoga Mama

      Hang in there and try to avoid the 200 hour training. You have what colleges call “life experience” and it counts for something. Also, it sounds like you have a healthy resume to show when you interview and probably good word of mouth. Studio owners notice this.

    • Yoga Chick

      I shudder to think of someone teaching yoga who has no formal training. You place people at risk if you do not have serious anatomy training and really solid foundational training. I am surprised anyone would hire an untrained “teacher.” I certainly would not. We invest in our training because we want to keep people safe. You can’t learn enough from taking classes and watching DVD’s. Some of us take what we do very seriously. I have hundreds upon hundreds of hours of training and I dropped my Yoga Alliance affiliation. You don’t need to be deemed ready to teach by YA., but you do need to have enough training and experience to show you know what the hell you’re doing.

      • Sarah

        There are big name teachers (and lesser known) who have been teaching since the 70s, who train teachers and write books but haven´t done this 200 or 500 hour course.
        It´s the time and effort you put into the study of yoga and your teaching skills that are honed over time that matter.

  • Cool Article.

    Thank you.

  • irish yogi

    I’ve been reading your posts from Ireland, and having just done my tax return, I completely agree with the disppointment of having to face up to poor wages. Ok, my hourly rate is good, but I don’t work too many hours in a day. I love teaching yoga, it allows me the freedom to be at home with my kids. Don’t get me wrong, I’m having the time of my life working as a yoga teacher. But I’m exhausted and at present I’m wondering what the heck I’m doing!

  • I thought the article sounded bitter and angry, though I do get that she was frustrated. Oh well, luckily there was something else for her to move onto! Yoga teaching isn’t for everyone…

    I love teaching, but I know I can’t rely on it to make enough money to live in Sydney, which is up there with NY as a ridiculously expensive place to live. I’m still pursuing another career, as a lawyer (not there yet) but my teaching feels like a creative outlet and a chance to give back. My yoga practice has given me so much peace, I love the opportunity to share this with others.

    Sure, teachers will struggle to make enough to survive. Sure, some will make it big and earn more. Such is life. If you enter the world of teaching to make money, then forgive me if I sound naive and idealistic, but you’re in the wrong game for the wrong reason…

  • I think there are layers to this onion.

    First, a teacher can make a living, but it has gotten harder over the years due to the nature of the market.

    When I started teaching full time, I was walking into gyms and wellness centers and designing yoga programs and then implementing them for their businesses. By the time I passed those gigs off to other teachers, the pay was still the same (after a decade) and it was a given that every gym had a yoga program, and there were an abundance of teachers to fill those positions.

    Simultaneously, studios where I’d worked had started leading teacher trainings and saw the benefit of letting go of the experienced teacher earning $50-90 per 1.5 hr class for the newbie they’d just trained for $30-35. I can’t blame them, honestly. That’s dollars and cents. But, it did make it harder for the experienced teachers to get a toe in the door of a studio where we didn’t train.

    Second, I always had the understanding that this was hard work. I did nearly all of my training (about 5,000 hours all told to date) via work-study. Most of that work-study involved cleaning studios, bathrooms, props. I’m an expert and efficient studio-cleaner! (Helps with my business; I do a lot of cleaning — but I have students who also work-study and help out, which is awesome and I am 10,000% thankful for them).
    In addition, my first teacher ran her small studio as a side-line to her other work (teaching at a university). My other two primary teachers owned their own studios — one was a full time studio owner, but guess what? He was also a psychologist, so this also supported his yoga work. And, the other? A computer programmer before his studio got off the ground (and he paid us nicely, I felt compensated for my work and valued as an employee).

    I had no illusions that this was going to lead to some sort of “rock star” existence. I saw it for what it was: a lot of work, usually in addition to other work.

    In order for me to make a living as a teacher, I’ve had to work hard. At times, I’ve taught over 40 classes a week. There were two years where I worked every single day — including thanksgiving, christmas, and easter (I taught some fun yoga classes to nice jewish ladies and THEN went to christmas dinner — they paid me a nice premium).

    I was also lucky that my husband worked and we lived simply enough to live on his income, and use my income for savings, paying off debt, and investing in my business as we went along.

    Today, I run a collective and work an average of 49 hours a week. About 15 hours of that is teaching, and the rest is marketing, administrative, and cleaning work. It’s wonderful and I love it!

    It is a service job, but it’s a service that I love to provide. It’s something that I love to do. And running the collective, it’s taken me to whole new levels of self knowledge, personal development, deeper levels of service, and of course, new financial status as well!

    The thing is, it takes hard work. That’s it.

    And a lot of teachers these days — I’ve met many new ones — they complain about the basics. I’ve had a teacher complain that she shouldn’t have to greet her clients before class and do the intake, nor should she have to clean the room after — “it’s bitch work” she told me. I had another complain that I had “taken all of the best times in the schedule!” But she’d never taught a class before working for me, and I wanted/needed her to cut her teeth on a new class to see if she could grow it up. She couldn’t, and got upset that I wasn’t supporting her by handing over my biggest, most established class!

    You have to earn your success — in any job, yoga included.

    • Excellent comment. I’ve been teaching for seven years or so, all at the same studio. Wonderful owner, wonderful students and teachers. I love it. I make a little money that’s important to me, but I could never make a living doing it (40 classes a week???). So I’ve always had my full time day job to support my first love. I’m old and pretty soon will no longer have a full time job. My wife and I are going to have to get by on social security. Poverty, in other words. Can’t wait. More time to teach yoga.

      • David,

        It’s possible, honestly. 🙂 You just become very efficient. LOL But only if you wanna. 😀 It is not required.

  • “We go into teaching for the outcome, not the income.”

    Great quote. Blaze the path from a spiritual angle to find happiness in spite of the income. Sure, some business acumen is needed, but your systems must be tempered by your passion and inner values if you’re looking for a little harmony at the end of the day.

  • No better place to teach yoga than in NYC Yoga Studios

  • I’m a yoga teacher and kirtan singer—there’s not much money to be made in yoga OR kirtan but somehow I manage to make a living. I teach 10 classes/week and sing on the weekends, with a little bit of touring here and there. I also lead the occasional workshop.

    I didn’t start making a living at yoga OR kirtan immediately. I’ve been teaching for 10 years. I’m not going to go into the kirtan thing because that’s another subject. But with teaching, it takes a long time to develop a following! But the great thing is that TEACHING makes you a good teacher, and if you are experienced and passionate about your work (and skillful and dedicated to your continuing education), people will come and it gets easier to make a living.

    My best advice to new teachers is: A) keep pursuing your own education—even the best 200 hr TT’s will leave huge gaps in your knowledge. B) Teach, teach teach! Don’t teach from your mat, walk around the room and keep your eyes on your students, it’s SO important. And C) be patient and realize that as you become a more awesome, experienced, insightful and knowledgeable teacher, you will find it easier to make a living. Until then, keep a part-time job! Take the financial pressure off your teaching and do it for the love.

  • Jenifer, wow! I cannot believe what your teachers told you. I’m a new teacher having graduated last September. In my training, we had to help keep the studio neat and tidy. It was the same for the teachers. Every time I return to take a class, I often empty out the trash can in the bathroom (I took that as one of my “jobs.”) When I taught there after I graduated, I had the 11:15 time slot which was very slow. I would never have demanded the 9:30 slot. A few months later I was offered a 9:30 class but I knew the students and at the time, I didn’t feel ready to led such a challenging class as a new teacher.

    Do you really think that people become yoga teachers for the money?? I find that hard to believe. If you are that immersed into yoga, then chance are you have spoken to a few teachers and have at least some idea what to expect, especially as a new teacher.

    • Do I think they are in it for the money?

      No. I think they are ignorant of what the lifestyle of a yoga teacher really is. Obviously, the woman who wrote the article about which YD wrote their article did — and she isn’t the only one.

      I gave two of my more extreme examples/experiences. But most often, I meet new teachers and they discover that it’s not the lifestyle that they thought it was. So many take trainings before they are grounded in practice, and the trainings do not demand much of them in regards to basic responsibility beyond the basic assignments. And even then, it’s not pass/fail. It’s tick-box. Do the hours, get the cert. Anyway, that’s another thing for another time.

      And, it is appropriate for a person to make a career of yoga, to make a living from it. But it’s not as easy as some imagine. So, it is ok to also “be in it for the money.” Just as it’s ok to be a spanish teacher who teaches for a living wage, benefits, etc.

  • Amused

    I’ve been a student only, and have never begrudged paying studios and teachers as much as they asked. I have always been aware that overhead and wages must be serious. And I have always appreciated courtesy, cleanliness, professionalism. But then, I started practing when I was 36. I’d had my own struggles. I didn’t expect anything given to me on a platter, and did not expect my teachers or their bosses would either.
    EVERYBODY has to work and hustle, baby. This is America.
    The image of glamour put off by the Elena Browers et al is the narcissism and greed of the 1%.
    You are not in the one %, and neither are most yoga teachers. Neither, however, are almsot ALL teachers of ANYTHING, esp since so many of us are women.
    Welcome aboard.
    I don’t begrudge the tone of the rant — “bitter and angry” is what defines a rant, and it’s fine. I wish yogis like “Emilly-Happy Tree” who put one another’s emotions on trial would STFU. What an Orwellian surveillance of the “proper attitudes!”
    That said, I wonder how much of the writer’s shock is generational. There seems a true problem with millenials and Gen Y expecting that they will immediately enter into glamour and success and ease in their careers — ANY careers.
    Sweethearts, you’re wrong. But okay, you’ve learned something. Wordly wisdom is good. Welcome to adulthood.
    And yes, you can always wear regular gym shorts instead of fucking lululemon.

    • Amused

      PS — the yoga teacher glamour pusses/rock stars got where they are partly because of their looks. Seane Corn (whose work and activism I do admire), Elena Brower, Rodney Yee’s wife (name? I dunno) — all were/are models. Yoga is a messed-up image-obsessed subculture that is getting worse and worse now that it has been fully co-opted by the market for yoga “products. “

  • I teach Kundalini Yoga up here in the suburbs of NYC. In this area, vinyasa yoga is king… I would never presume to make enough money teaching kundalini to make a living. There just aren’t that many people into it… yet! In the meantime, I strive to “be the forklift,” in Yogi Bhajan’s words, to as many people as I can. : )

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