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On the Merits of Not-For-Profit Yoga and Sustainability

in YD News, YogOpinions
by J. Brown

Referring to a yoga center with the caveat: “it’s not-for-profit” often carries with it an assumption of merit. Given the humanitarian and universal nature of yoga, taking the profit motive out of the business model seems ideal. However, a further examination of the trade-offs involved in opening both for-profit and not-for-profit yoga centers challenges this assumption.

Full disclosure: I own and operate a for-profit yoga center. I made my living as a independently contracted yoga teacher for more than ten years before I managed to secure an SBA Community Express Loan and opened a place of my own five years ago. I estimate that, over the years, approximately 35% of the yoga teaching I have done has been for no money. Building a viable income through teaching yoga requires investment and offering pro bono services is integral to that process. But if that investment had never led to paid work then I would not have been able to continue teaching as I did or be in the position I am now to offer opportunities to others.

The problem with not-for-profit business models for yoga centers is that yoga teachers don’t get paid.

There are those who say that taking money for teaching yoga is inappropriate. They feel that the rising costs of attending yoga classes are making yoga less accessible and attribute this to yoga teachers and centers making a profit. What most folks don’t realize is that, actually, there is not much profit in for-profit yoga classes. As explained in Yoga, Business and Government, the profits that fuel the multi-billion dollar yoga industry are going to corporations that capitalize on “yoga-related” products more than actual yoga classes.

The rising cost of yoga classes can almost entirely be attributed to the rising costs of commercial real estate. This is evidenced by the growing number of not-for-profit and by-donation yoga centers that, as time goes on, end up having to institute a “suggested donation” in order to continue to exist. The hard reality is that if you live in a popular place where the rents tend to be higher, and you want to have a proper yoga center in your neighborhood, then it’s going to cost more than taking that class on the sticky floor at the YMCA.

And where yoga teachers are not being compensated for the work they do at not-for-profit yoga centers, there is still the possibility that someone is taking home a paycheck. 501c3 organizations do sometimes provide salaries for founders and administrators and, depending on the size and filing of the organization, this information is not always readily available.

Not to diminish the good work being done by thoughtful people who create and administrate not-for-profit yoga centers or the humble teachers who donate their time, but if the goal is to provide a service of yoga instruction to the public then we need models that will be able to support the growth and work of the people who provide the service, not just the venues that they inhabit.

Those who believe that yoga is being corrupted by capitalism also tend to complain about too many unqualified yoga teachers. There is no greater obstacle to becoming a highly skilled yoga teacher than having to work at an unrelated job to pay rent and eat. Surely, there are many fine part-time and volunteer yoga teachers to be found. But, by any objective metric, those who have become the most knowledgeable and esteemed in the profession of yoga have been able to support themselves financially through their teaching.

If we want the benefit of talented yoga teachers then there needs to be a way for them to sustain themselves as yoga teachers.

Having recently finished negotiations on a lease renewal for my yoga center, I was shocked at how much the rent increased. I have an excellent relationship with the landlord. The rent has been paid on time every month. Since the standard practice for commercial real estate, despite the waning economy, has been to raise the rent 3% annually, I did not expect the rent to go up more than 5-10% this year. When I did the research I learned that, even with a steep increase of 15%, my landlord is still giving me a good deal that is below the going rate per square footage for the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, relationships and good deeds are worth only so much when it comes to the bottom-line business of commercial real estate. For the first time since we opened, I have to slightly increase prices in order to keep pace and maintain the status quo of the centers operations. The extra proceeds will go entirely to the increased rent. Pay for teachers remains the same. Although I am the center’s owner and senior teacher, my income will not change in the least.

Securing enough funding and volunteer teachers to create not-for-profit yoga centers that offer yoga classes for little or no money is a positive thing, to be encouraged and supported. However, there is nothing intrinsically more honorable about a not-for-profit structure when the reality is that as regards the maturation of yoga instruction, it is unsustainable.

On a more timely note, this post was written before the hurricane hit and I debated whether or not to set it aside and say something about the events of the last week but decided against it. Honestly, I just don’t feel like I have anything helpful to offer right now. While we had it easy here in Williamsburg, so many of us have friends and family that have been affected, and so many people in the area are still in the midst of navigating the aftermath that there is little to say but to carry on. If anyone is looking for avenues to be of service, here is a list of ways you can help the relief effort.

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com

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19 comments… add one

  • Totally agreed. Donation-based yoga doesn’t work in a culture that lacks a strong give-to-the-guru tradition, and not-for-profit organizations take just as much business experience/outreach as regular companies (if they want to survive).

    I keep looking at this article on nonprofit models and wondering if there’s something there for the yoga world: http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/ten_nonprofit_funding_models

  • “There is no greater obstacle to becoming a highly skilled yoga teacher than having to work at an unrelated job to pay rent and eat.”

    This is so very true. I would love to make the transition to teaching more and working less. However my mortgage and health insurance weigh on my faith to make it happen. I know at some point I will be able to make this transition, I just need Hanuman’s help to make that leap…

    In the meantime, I endeavor to find the yoga in my full-time work and allow that to enrich my teaching.

  • Garuda

    “The hard reality is that if you live in a popular place where the rents tend to be higher, and you want to have a proper yoga center in your neighborhood, then it’s going to cost more than taking that class on the sticky floor at the YMCA.”
    OK the arrogance in this sentence is glaring. I teach at the Y. I have been at the Y for 6 years now, so I guess chronologically speaking, I am the senior teacher at this branch. I make a modicum rate for my efforts, nothing to write home about, but nothing to piss on either, considering that the Y offers a lot of scholarship members the opportunities to practice yoga, work out, or just get a shower like any human being might want.
    Whatever your idea of a “Proper” yoga studio is, it is quite presumptuous to believe that what the many fine Yoga teachers bring to the floor at the Y is any less “Yoga” than what your boutique cheerleaders bring. If your boutique cant cut it, get off your ass and get a real job. One where you trade a bit of yourself for a check, some stability and the ability to check out after hours. Whatever ‘model’ it is you seek, that model is compromised when it depends on the student directly to maintain itself. At least at the Y, my advice to students is not clouded by my own need to make the rent…But maybe hold a few teacher trainings where you can dupe the unsuspecting into forking over 4K quarterly…ya know like the Anusara set did…..Did. Past tense

  • LaLaLa

    Wow, Garuda!

    I have had memberships at various YMCA locations throughout my life. I don’t think J. Brown’s comment was meant to sleight the YMCA and the teachers who teach yoga classes there. As much as I respect the role that the YMCA serves in communities, it is not the place that I would choose to study yoga. In my experience, classes at the YMCA and other community organizations are best suited for people who are very new to yoga or want a stretching class– mostly because the classes are all levels and generally filled with people who have little yoga experience. It is not a reflection of the teacher. I can imagine what a challenge it would be to teach these kinds of classes.

  • Hey Garuda-

    When I referenced the sticky floor at the YMCA, I was speaking from experience. One of my first teaching gigs was at the Greenpoint Y and I taught that class for the better part of three years. By “proper yoga center,” I was referring to a space that is solely dedicated to yoga practice. The YMCA is a fantastic place and does expose people to yoga and this is a good thing. But using those big blue gymnastic mats in the kids rec room is not the same as a hard wood floor, a yoga mat and maybe a few bolsters and blocks. This piece was meant to be about the sustainability of yoga teaching as a profession and the myth that not-for-profit is more honorable. No offense intended.

  • wondering

    too many studios too many teachers

  • It’s true. The primary pressure on the studio — financially — is the real estate. But, I think that most students realize that prices will go up, and it doesn’t bother them too much.

    Also, non-profits can pay teachers, so long as their paperwork is filled out properly in the process. After all, the YMCA is a non-profit, and I always got paid when I worked there too. :)

    But, the real trick to a successful studio is a diversified economy. Besides public classes and workshops, I have at least 5 other income streams for the business — none of which are retail. It definitely helps.

  • Garuda

    Yoga studios are no different than hair salons. New teachers/ stylists come in and bring more clients who bring in more revenue. Its a business, period.
    Your notion of referring to yourself as “Senior Teacher” will certainly head off any challengers wont it?
    I taught for two years pro bono for my teacher while he cried poor mouth all the way to the bank. I challenged him when he bought a $30,000 motorcycle and a new house. Lowe and behold, my time slots got marginalized and it had become clear that as “Owner and Senior Teacher”, he damn sure was going to see that those titles be sustained. So, after two years of fruitless efforts, he dismissed me and moved his studio across town, tripling his floor space and calling in less experienced and more naive teachers who would work for nothing and not say Boo about it. Great business model eh?
    Yoga is free. I teach in the park on holidays to those with ears to hear. If they donate, neat. If they dont ,fine.
    Superiority is illusion and to think because your space is posh or cleaner or more holy than the local park , well that just reinforces the illusion. The western Yoga model conflates business with teachings and the former will almost always compromise the latter.

  • Stacey

    I have to add my two cents to this conversation. In my little town full of yoga classes and yoga teachers, a non profit studio opened. Two years later, the dynamic of yoga has changed in my town. There are now two of the most popular for profit studios offering donation based classes. Thousands of people have practiced yoga at the not for profit studio that would not have been able to afford it (Me for example..when I did not have a job at least I had yoga classes) and those that can afford it pay $5-15 per class. Now, about the teachers not getting paid. Some of the very best teachers in town teach here for free for service to the community…its Seva! Service to the people! Yoga for the people! Even if you cannot afford it! This is community yoga and we are building community!
    And I love all of it.

  • Colleen

    Where did this idea that yoga should be free and teachers should willingly give up their time and resources to teach for free come from?? This is America, people. Land of capitalism in all its glory. Even in the old days of “traditional” yoga in India, the student was probably expected to make some sort of compensation to the teacher, food, service, something. I’ve never been to any of the ashrams in India, but I bet they require payment of some sort. I’ll bet even Mr. Iyengar himself would require payment.

    Teachers have rent/mortgage to pay, insurance, food, gas, everything that everyone else in the country must pay. Most of us work full time and teach on the side. I don’t think it diminishes us in the least that we cannot afford to teach full time. I have put a lot of years, effort and money into learning my craft, and I think it is fair that I expect some compensation for all that time and effort.

    My full-time job almost, almost but not quite, pays my living expenses. I really do need the extra income I get from teaching night classes at the community center to actually make ends meet. Those who take the holier-than-thou judgemental attitude of being better than because they teach for free–and good for you! if i had the time and energy after working two jobs to teach free classes I certainly would!–should perhaps review the yamas and niyamas and see how they are applying them to their inner lives as well as their outer lives.

  • Emily

    Yoga District in DC is a non-profit yoga center, and its full-time teachers get health insurance. I wish there were more studios just like it! http://www.yogadistrict.com/

  • Really glad you’re hosting this, YD.

    The in-between option is cooperative ownership of the community studio. 30 shareholder/practitioners investing 10K endows the down payment and startup costs of a 1M facility, obviating the harshest drain on resources: rent.

    I outline the co-op argument in detail in my article in 21st Century Yoga.

    Profit vs non-profit doesn’t quite cover the point, I think. It’s individual entrepreneur vs. working together to build shared equity, so that years of group practice actually make a architectural impression upon public space. Like a church used to do.

  • T Bumbesti

    Thank you Matthew for posting this.

  • laurie m

    In theory, the idea of a non-profit yoga center is excellent. It would provide yoga to those who could not afford to pay, and teaching opportunities for brand new instructors to gain experience. I would love to win millions of dollars in the lottery and open one. As a practical matter, for a yoga studio to exist, there are fixed expenses. If private donors or organizations wish to pay these costs it is a very generous thing and would greatly benefit the people served and the surrounding community. I am not in favor of raising taxes to pay for publically funded yoga centers. And I question if it is reasonable to expect experienced yoga instructors to volunteer their services, when these people have spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to take teacher training and continuing ed yoga workshops.

    To address, “There are those who say that taking money for teaching yoga is inappropriate,” I would question why this is true in a society that customarily pays others for services such as dance lessons, massage, manicure, hairdressing, snow removal, tutoring. Yoga instruction is a service; why would one expect it to be free?

  • Stacey

    No one should expect.
    But there is free yoga and it does work.
    And the people practice together, and the teachers teach for service, not for a paycheck, and they pay their bills through other channels of income or paid workshops. Anything can happen if you try….why decry non for profit yoga until you have seen how well it works.

  • LaLaLa

    I think the idea of teachers teaching one or two free classes a week is wonderful and it works. I don’t know how teachers can teach all classes free of charge without having benefactors. The idea that you can truly have a not for profit yoga center where everything is free and nobody is picking up the tab is wishful thinking.

    Not for profit does not mean that there are no costs or even that something is free. The fact is that it costs money to hold yoga classes, whether at a studio or a not for profit center.

    I used to study at a not for profit zen center. The cost to study was $75 a month (and members also made donations). The fees went towards the upkeep of the building, utilities, and our two teachers. This is a pretty typical arrangement for zen centers and ashrams.

    My point is that it costs somebody something to run any kind of not for profit organization.

  • Stacey

    LaLaLa,

    Its not wishful thinking, its happening.
    My studio is not for profit 301.c
    They have fundraisers and everyone pitches in. People volunteer, offer their services, and we practice yoga together whether you pay $5, $15, or $50 per class. Or $0 if you truly cannot afford it. When I was out of work, community yoga saved my life. Now that I have a job, I contribute cash but when I was out of work I contributed my artwork they could sell. We have volunteers galore. Everyone loves this community center so can you understand why I reply when people say that not for profit yoga is impossible or does not exist. It is thriving in my city and we are getting so many people on the mat that normally would not try yoga. And again, the teachers teach for service, seva to the community. No one forces them to teach, they do it out of the love for yoga.

  • Hey Stacey (and LaLaLa)- No one is saying that not-for-profit yoga is impossible or does not exist. This post was about the sustainability of the yoga profession and the myth that not-for-profit yoga centers are inherently more honorable. Sounds like you have a wonderful community around you and I hope that those who administrate the center will be able to continue to offer services without running into rent issues. I do continue to maintain that if we want the benefit of skilled teachers then their needs to be a way for them to support themselves as teachers. There are non-profits that pay teachers; however, the work of fundraising can often end up overshadowing the mission of providing yoga. Trade-offs abound, for sure.

  • Mimi

    Kripalu- NFP that is open and running for years and years…
    There are many more, and maybe the model doesn’t work when the NFP is poorly managed. It’s not easy to start and run one. If we are going to treat yoga as spiritual homes than why not act more like a spiritual center?

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