The Secret Business of Yoga Teachers

“The last thing we need are our very own caregivers making us feel fearful, because fear suppresses the immune system. It doesn’t matter what courses of treatment—whether they’re alternative or conventional—the real issue is how you feel about those treatments. Those treatments and the people administering them need to make you feel strong and empowered and hopeful.” – Anita Moorjani

Although not widely recognized by insurance benefits, yoga is indeed a treatment—and not merely yoga “therapy”; all asana traditions can be therapeutic to some body. Asana, in Sanskrit, means “comfortable, steady position.” Often called poses, postures or movement, asana can be static (still) or dynamic (moving).

There are as many specializations within asana tradition as there are postural variations; probably infinite. As a result, yoga teachers are often expected to be Jack’s or Jill’s of all the physical yoga trades, like it’s possible or reasonable to be all things to all people at once.

Obviously, we want our yoga teachers to know basic, classical yoga poses. I wouldn’t argue that learning therapeutic techniques builds a strong foundation either. You’ll never hear a therapeutic yoga teacher accusing someone of being afraid to push it in backbends. That’s the kind of nonsense teachers learn from Bikram Choudhury. Training aside, it’s paramount (in my opinion) that yoga teachers have our own home practices. That is how we learn the subtleties of movements and cues in the biz; the secret kindling for those of us who create our own sequences. With multiple approaches to postures and movements, however, I’m not done.

Let’s start with reality and capitalism. The average yoga teacher in 2018 earns approximately $40-$50 per class—the exact same amount we were earning ten years ago. I’m inclined to call it a stipend. If yoga teacher wages caught up with inflation, experienced yoga teachers would be earning $80-$100 per class—minimum.

To break it down, the average full-time yoga teacher in Vancouver, BC, teaches approximately 24 classes per week. For the sake of simplification, one yoga class equals the energy equivalent of four hours of quantifiable work. We’re talking intellectual, emotional, and physical output here. So those yoga teachers in Vancouver teaching 24 classes per week? They’re working the energy equivalent of 96 hours per week. That doesn’t include creating sequences or playlists, tending to their own practices, or anything other than teaching and running around to teach.

In Japan, men dropping dead because they’re working 80+ hour weeks is called Karōshi. I’m not entirely sure how yoga teachers are expected to keep up with capitalism like everyone else on stagnant wages, but can we agree that 40 hours constitutes a reasonable work week?

Within a reasonable model, then, the average yoga teacher earning $40-$50 per class and teaching 10 classes per week, is earning approximately $19,600-$24,500 per year (assuming up to 3 weeks in classes are cancelled each year for holidays and extraneous circumstances). That yoga teacher does not receive a pension; no dental, prescription or paramedical coverage; and no vacation, bereavement or sick days.

That yoga teacher is then expected to pay: nearly $3,600 in taxes; triple premiums for car, home and teaching insurance; car maintenance and gas (teaching at multiple locations throughout a city full-time is not reasonable or even in many cases doable without a car); phone bill, internet bill, electricity bill; and then roughly $1,072 per month and rising if we live alone in a market value rental. Without a sugar daddy, we’re already in the negative, and we haven’t even eaten yet—let alone appropriately attired ourselves.

Is leaving your day job really worth becoming a yoga teacher, you ask? Talk about rolling with the punches.

It’s not a wonder my dad wanted me to first secure a golf scholarship to some prestigious university in the States, and when that plan failed, he promoted nursing school. If I were a nurse, no one would ever tell me that what I did for a living wasn’t real work, and a man would notice the intrinsic dowry and ask me to be his wife. The problem was I had no interest in cleaning up vomit or wiping bums, or tending to people in that way. I’m not a crisis angel.

I care more about investing in the frontend of health, rather than the backend. Even on my deathbed, I got my ass down on that mat. That said, nurses do and always will provide essential services.

Instead of nursing school, I studied English lit and writing. When I worked my first and only corporate job in the two years following convocation, I remember watching the life being sucked out of my coworkers who weren’t nourished by their jobs. They were connected to the dysfunctional community within the working environment to varying degrees, but the number of people whose health was failing them—including my own—alarmed me. I knew in my twenties that I couldn’t continue working jobs, whether I liked the work or not (as in the case of writing for newspapers), that killed me.

Within a year of leaving university, I decided to embark upon my first yoga teacher training. Nearly a decade later, I’ve learned that yoga teachers rarely receive raises and teach for less than we’re worth because we love our work. Some of us legitimately have bills to pay, too. Nonetheless… If qualified, quality, passionate, experienced yoga teachers were paid what we’re worth, 5 classes per week would be akin to earning $40,000 per year, while 10 classes per week would equate to $80,000 annually. Liveable wages. No social assistance necessary. We could swap salaries with the military. Or the bureaucracy! And pump out courtesies galore.

Hey, the military (i.e. government) pays for professional development. Prioritizing frontend healthcare and decolonializing Canada could save taxpayers millions—if not billions—of dollars in down time expenses.

Pipe dreams aside, cultivating a home yoga practice, along with creating sequences for classes, takes time. Professional development costs money. Please review what you pay for your yoga classes, and note what your yoga teacher isn’t being compensated monetarily for.

Courtesies often mistaken for responsibilities include: playing music/creating playlists, massage, ambience/lighting (which is the responsibility of the studio), delivering props and rolling out mats, etc. Your yoga teacher isn’t being paid to show up early or hang around after class. Your yoga teacher isn’t being paid to provide your class with extra props. Your yoga teacher isn’t being paid to be a custodian or a receptionist. Your yoga teacher isn’t being paid for invoicing, administration or scheduling. Your yoga teacher isn’t being paid to sit on the phone with anyone discussing business. Your yoga teacher isn’t being paid for anything other than being qualified, and then showing up and holding a safe space for people to explore their own yoga practices. Yet, exercise is as nonoptional as brushing your teeth—nonnegotiable if you want to live an optimally healthy life. Physical anything requires maintenance, right?

A lot of what we’re seeing in contemporary, popular, transient culture is yoga merging with fitness. Bikram’s Hot Yoga is the most classical and infamous example. Ironically, too, we’re running him out of the cage and still acting like him, and nobody even knows it.

Truth be told, I worked out in gyms for eight years, bouncing in and out of yoga classes for the final two before quitting the gym cold turkey. Bikram was my aerobic bridge. Fitness clearly isn’t wrong (you are, after all, responsible for following the inclinations of your own inner urgings), but I moved away from fitness mentality and methods because I didn’t find the discipline effective or mindful. It didn’t make me a more conscientious person in my ordinary life. Fitness also didn’t do anything flattering or therapeutic for my body.

Thinking about all those years of physiotherapists, dumbbells and fitness machines not teaching me a thing about conditioning my core makes me want to yell, could somebody please give me a dick! I needed a sandbag.

I gave Marie Windsor Pilates a try, too, before finally abandoning the gym. For those unaware, Joseph Pilates was a German physical trainer known for inventing the Pilates method of physical fitness. Operative word, “fitness.” Windsor and Stott are to Pilates what Moksha is to Bikram: Spinoffs.

I did actually also complete an 8-week mentorship with a Pilates instructor during my advanced therapeutic yoga training, along with a 20-hour certification in tensegrity core yoga—which incorporates movements inspired by Pilates. But, I don’t specialize in Pilates per se for a reason. Pilates leaves out the breath, subtle energy and feet. You can’t address core stabilization without addressing the feet. That said, I can’t service everybody. Sharing the stage with yoga and fitness instructors alike doesn’t feel like competition where I work anyways; it feels like sharing.

If we’re injuring ourselves in yoga, one of three things is likely happening: 1) improper alignment/form; 2) insufficient core cultivation; 3) inappropriate poses/sequencing/pacing—all with an overlying awareness of vibration and mood, as in, your foul moods (along with a lack of mindfulness and presence within movement and postures) can lead you to hurting yourself.

A quiet, insidious fact those unaware might not consider, however, is that yoga studios typically treat yoga teachers like we’re completely and totally dispensable. Hello, capitalism? I’ve largely avoided studios since a high-impact motor vehicle accident (MVA) in 2012 as a result. I couldn’t keep up with the mat race.

As an aside, time will tell if the therapeutic yoga community will stand up for the industry as a whole or remain out for themselves. I opted out of grandfathering myself into a “Yoga Therapist” designation, because I couldn’t prioritize paying for reoccurring membership fees—including a reoccurring licensing fee—every one to three years. Who was this licensing body that required me to fill out 150 hours of charting, completely negating years of direct yet unrecorded experience working with clients, including myself? I guess no one told the affluential people that even physiotherapists are ignored with respect to insurance claims. Lawyers and insurance adjusters only listen to doctors. If the doctor’s not on board, then the yoga therapist is hooped. All those charts filled out for literally nothing. If you do end up in court, the opposing lawyer will pit you against your client anyways. Do these important regulators really think that yoga “therapists” will jump ahead of physio and massage in the major league? I’d hate to see anyone fall off their high horse, but doubtful.

I’d claim Thai yoga massage if it were an option, but let’s stop enabling the disordered personalities behind academia and its demon spawn colonialism. Yoga doesn’t stand for that. No yogi, except for the cunning imposters who profit from membership dues, wants to deal with a ‘College of Yoga Therapists.’

Yoga teaches us to regulate ourselves. If we’re not regulating ourselves, then we’re not being yogis. As yogis and yoga teachers, it’s our responsibility to continue sharing this wisdom with the world. This means we stop catering to and placating psychopathy, which humanity often finds regulating us in positions of so-called authority. The Yoga Alliance (for example), often misrepresented as an international governing body, is a registry operating within the United States. Any accredited yoga teacher in the world can register with the US Yoga Alliance for an annual fee, but membership benefits (including cheaper liability insurance) are exclusive to members residing within the United States only. When we’re talking about “accreditation,” we’re talking in most cases about yoga teacher trainings (i.e. schools) meeting minimum standards set by the US Yoga Alliance. Neither the Yoga Alliance nor yoga studios understandably want to lose income generated from membership dues. Yoga schools rely on aspiring yoga teachers to sign up for their trainings. Regardless of experience and qualifications, running teacher trainings and workshops is how yoga teachers and studios (in theory) make money. Capitalism ultimately necessitates the catch-22 of hoop-jumping, yet psychopaths expertly fit themselves into criteria. Not even the law can regulate deceit and denial. Who argues with the domino effect of psychopathy when it’s paying the bills?

As yoga teachers, we don’t need insurance adjusters, lawyers, registrars and colleges regulating us; that would be asking impoverished wages to feed bureaucracy.

The student-teacher relationship is far more critical than a yoga teacher’s professional affiliations and titles. Let it be known that not one yoga “therapist” helped me (other than myself) following a 180-kilometer, high impact MVA, not that we can take our good looks on paper to our graves. Trauma-sensitivity requires experience and education. Certifications alone do not make a yoga teacher trauma sensitive. Instead of treating yoga like a paramedical benefit, the government subsidizing all accredited yoga teachers and studios—allowing clients to choose the teachers they rehab and study with—would be a smarter move.

Thankfully I was smart enough to train with an accredited yoga school, but I speak on matters of rehabilitation from experience. Within a year of that MVA, for example, I was forced to deconstruct what I had learned about safe and therapeutic yoga practices. Not only did much of what I’d been taught not apply to my particular injuries, but certain therapeutic applications actually aggravated my injuries. Because I prioritize balancing discipline and pleasure with sustainability, I’ve come to rely on a combination of deep core stabilization, fascia-releasing techniques, as well as classical yoga asana and Vinyasa traditions to rehab and strengthen my body. Part of what I’m dealing with is learning how to manage and live with multiple disabilities. Fortunately, I’m well-trained in honouring my body.

Within most yoga teacher trainings currently on the market, though, yoga teachers aren’t learning the individual nature of safe sequencing, the difference between verbal and physical adjustments, or that battery and assault charges could be the end result of touching students without consent. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF stretching) is generally taught in college and university kinesiology classes, not yoga teacher trainings.

Instead of regulating teachers, perhaps it would be more effective to regulate yoga schools churning out teachers like we’re disposable cups of Starbucks coffee.

Interestingly it was Moksha “yogis” who informed me back somewhere between 2010 and 2011 that offering physical adjustments is what makes people good yoga teachers. When I first started teaching yoga, I received compliments on the one hand for offering originally styled yoga classes that left people feeling complete, while I received complaints on the other hand about the pacing of my classes—as in, they were too slow and unchallenging—predominantly from Moksha and other large-chain studios, which wasn’t entirely accurate or fair. Not one Bikram lineage studio ever bitched to me about my classes. For whatever reason, it didn’t occur to Moksha et al. studios that temporarily slowing down a class might be the most responsible strategy to get to know the bodies in it. If I’m expected to teach multilevel classes, then accommodating everyone who attends those classes is my responsibility.

Somehow, though, the insurance industry is brainwashing studio owners into thinking that teachers are a liability if we don’t carry our own insurance (which, of course, costs us money while saving studios money), yet those same studio owners aren’t encouraging their teachers (or giving us the time) to get to know the bodies in our classes—acrobatic classes notwithstanding. Yoga teachers are cut from studio schedules after four to eight months if we’re not delivering full classes, yet the people struggling to keep pace in those classes aren’t encouraged to engage in private yoga lessons—and they’re certainly not being accommodated in larger, multilevel classes.

I bounced in and out of yoga classes for two years from 2005 to 2007 because the yoga teachers teaching those seemingly unstructured, “multilevel” classes didn’t acknowledge me. I couldn’t keep up. I didn’t understand how sitting out and simply watching half or more of a yoga class was good for me—why I couldn’t give up dumbbells and fitness machines.

Private yoga lessons are underrated because few people want to pay extra for a yoga teacher’s time, and are shocked that a yoga teacher would consider charging money for it.  Either that, or studio owners are stifling the competition, I mean, their teachers. Or, governments are sucking up tax dollars to pay for militaries and bureaucracies of mass destruction. Imagine, if 4 to 10 private yoga lessons were mandatory for struggling bodies to continue attending group yoga classes—funded, of course, by citizens’ tax dollars. Less people would struggle in group classes, and more people would regularly attend.

Which brings me to pay structures. Did you know that many yoga teachers are roped into pay agreements where they’re paid by the head instead of a flat rate per class? This pay structure can be favourable for yogalebrities and well-known, experienced teachers who’ve spent 25+ years building their followings. Packing 50 or more bodies in a room is lucrative for those teachers. But the majority of yoga teachers pressed into accepting those pay terms to simply do what they love for a living (i.e. leading exercise and relaxation classes) are walking away with sometimes as little $8, or $3.75—or even zero dollars per class if no one shows. Talk about cheapening a trade. It’s like writers accepting bylines for less than 10 cents per word.

Not me. If you hire me, you pay me for my time, not the number of bodies who show up to my yoga classes. I am not a salesman and reject the expectation. If a class is cancelled after my alarm rings or I show up and no one shows, I still bill for that class. I am a yoga teacher serving the people yoga. I’m also a professional expected to participate in capitalism. Interestingly avoiding yoga studios has helped me to feel more valued in my line of work. For nearly six years, I’ve taught predominantly in private office spaces—same groups week in and week out, same smiling faces.

Now of course I love the quintessential nature of studios, and I have always exercised creative control in my classes regardless of criticism. I figure, however, if the public is informed about how yoga teachers are paid (and subsequently treated), then perhaps studios and teachers will start receiving subsidization and tax breaks, and people might put a lid on unreasonable expectations. Check unreasonable expectations at the door, and allow your yoga teachers the time and space to express ourselves intuitively and individually, while also honouring your own preferences. Understand that yoga teachers are as entitled to individual expression as anyone.

Few if any people who attend my classes these days complain. I’m constantly watching bodies and faces for feedback, as well as sensing energy in the room. I encourage requests, regularly abandon plans, and often work individually with people on their form and technique after classes. I’m generous with my time, energy and attention. I care about creating community (sangha) and safe, welcoming spaces—which to cultivate, in my experience, requires years rather than months.

That’s not to say teaching yoga doesn’t challenge me. Quite the contrary; teaching live, multilevel classes is the biggest challenge a yoga instructor faces, along with what I specialize in: packing ninety minutes of yoga into 40 and 45-minutes classes.

Regardless of class length, I encourage people who attend my classes to stretch at home in conjunction with other activities, and to cultivate their own home practices. I delight in stories of class attendees incorporating what they learn from me at home. I’m not concerned about becoming obsolete, though, because people are drawn to community and camaraderie. Not all who attend live, group yoga classes are interested in establishing a home routine. It’s not a requirement. Life is meant to be sustainable. Besides, you have more access to instruction and attention from a yoga teacher during live classes, which is why I’m not concerned about online boutique studios popping up either. Yoga classes aren’t going extinct.

That said, I’ve discovered that I’m not a yoga teacher who can lead advanced, acrobatic classes; I haven’t reached that level (krama) in my own practice. I can, however, assist those whose practices lean in that direction, and I can help those wanting to advance their practices to build strong foundations. I consider myself a bridge between beginner and intermediate asana, my own asana practice falling in the categories of advanced beginner to early intermediate. I see it as my job to know what’s out there and to understand what other teachers are teaching.

Nevertheless, it took me eight years of teaching to realize that I’m not interested in being a Jill of all styles or techniques. I practice and teach an anti-inflammatory yet athletic style of core-focused, classical yoga. On the one end of my background, you’ll find my teaching rooted in a therapeutic approach; at the other end of the polarity you’ll find Bikram influencing me; while walking the middle path you’ll find me merging with the cosmic pulse of Vinyasa.

When we’re successfully able to adjust to a low (or even flat) taxation system, we could leave the going rate for yoga classes where they’ve been for over a decade ($50/class). Then yoga teachers wouldn’t require raises necessarily, but if studios did well and weren’t being raped in taxes and overhead, teachers could plausibly rely on Christmas bonuses at the end of each year, which would be amazing, and would vary depending on each studio’s success.

Otherwise teachers, own your styles! Don’t be afraid to refer clients out, and don’t let the competition fool you into conforming. If you don’t have your own style, don’t pretend you do. Perhaps your personality alone is your winning contribution, yet you follow in the footsteps of others. For other yoga teachers, it will be their mechanical knowledge of the body where they shine their boots. They know nothing of roots, evolution or subtle energy, but they understand body mechanics and perhaps even physiology—the personal trainers of yoga teachers, typically a transferable role; not the only course, but a viable pathway for those not interested in understanding eternity and the universe.