Living in our post-reveal life (but not quite our next life) means I can finally share some of the details of our story that would have been a dead giveaway for anyone from our work circles stumbling upon this blog.
For more than 10 years, in addition to working my primary consulting career, I also taught yoga. (I taught spinning for part of that time, too, but that’s less controversial.) I did my teacher training back when I lived in DC, and taught for almost a year there before moving to LA, followed by nearly eight years of classes in LA, and then teaching for our first two years in Tahoe before work travel got too busy to keep making it work.
But that’s not the only reason I quit. I also quit because the downsides of doing it just became too great to keep going, and no amount of upside could overcome them. (Not that there was much financial upside to speak of.)
This is a story of what’s behind one popular side hustle, but also a call to take a closer look at non-traditional jobs in the gig economy, and whether they’re really worth your while.
Here’s the first thing you need to know: I loved teaching yoga. I still love it. I was good at it — both the teaching, and the yoga.
If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t have stuck with it for more than 10 years, despite crappy pay and sometimes unacceptable working conditions. (Because I only work for free when I love something.)
But the love that so many instructors have for both the practice and the teaching of it is exactly what makes them so exploitable. And I for sure got exploited by lots of people, sometimes in direct ways like being paid unfairly, and other times with the social pressure to maintain your yogic persona and not to complain about things.
Let’s take a look at some of the problems.
Yoga Teacher Training Programs Are Expensive
When I did my training in 2004, many yoga teacher training programs cost around $2000. I got mine for slightly less than that, but also supplemented it with fitness certification so I could teach at gyms, so was all-in just north of $2200. Today, I see teacher training programs going closer to $4000 for weekend trainings and much, much more to attend a retreat at some exotic resort, accompanied of course by a hard sell about how much more you’ll get out of it by removing yourself from your normal surroundings. There are more costs involved than just tuition, like the books and gear you need, as well as the right clothes you might think you need, costs of getting to and from the training and perhaps lodging, and the opportunity cost of not being able to work during all those days in the studio. All told, most aspiring teachers now are in for close to $5000 at least.
As far as a grad degree goes, five grand is a bargain. But a basic yoga certification, known as an “RYT 200” (registered yoga teacher, 200 hours training), doesn’t get you a six figure job. It gets you a job that the data show pays, on average, under $25 an hour. Which sounds great until you consider that it would be a lot to teach it for 10 hours a week. (Which I know, because I taught 10 classes a week for years, and it was nuts.) It’s not a job you could actually do anywhere close to full-time, and you virtually always have to travel for each and every class, so subtract travel expenses from that hourly rate. I figure when I taught that I spent about 90 minutes in transit for every hour I taught, shrinking my effective hourly rate by 60 percent.
Assuming it’s similar for others, that now means that $25 average hourly rate is really more like $10 an hour when you factor in transportation. Before taxes and expenses (liability insurance, gear, registration with the Yoga Alliance to get to claim your RYT status, etc.) even kick in, you’re looking at having to work 500 hours just to earn back the investment in your training, something that would take a year in the absolute best case, but which most people who take a yoga teacher training actually never earn back. Oh, and that’s not even counting the continuing education you have to take (and pay for) regularly.
Teacher Training Programs Knowingly Train More Teachers Than the Market Can Bear
So we already have a program that’s expensive for students but a cash cow for yoga studios. And those studios themselves are constantly turning away people who’d like to teach there, including students who trained at that very studio and now feel misled, because they thought training there would get them preferential hiring treatment.
What do these studios, who see this teacher saturation each and every day, do? They keep offering more teacher training. Yoga teacher training is so profitable for studios that they continue offering it, knowing that most of the people they train will never be able to work enough to earn back what they spent.
And the would-be teachers themselves spend all this money with every intention of earning it back and making more, with the sheen of spiritual enlightenment and six-pack abs attached.
Sound like MLM yet?
Yoga Teachers Themselves Support Teacher Training Programs
Teach for any length of time at a studio of any size, and you’re bound to get asked about joining the teacher training program in some capacity, even if it’s just as an assistant. This is a nice ego boost to a teacher, and a stamp of approval that you’ve been deemed good enough to train other teachers, so no one turns it down. But of course by becoming a part of the training machine, you now ignore your own gut that tells you maybe the system isn’t so ethical, and start spreading the word about the program yourself. Instead of retaining any skepticism you might have had, you’re now providing the studio with free marketing for its program.
Yoga Teacher Pay At Studios Is Exploitative
A big part of why yoga teachers will say yes to anything is that pay for teachers is lousy at best, exploitative at its worst. I’ve taught at a range of different studios and gyms and have seen just about every system, but studio pay tends to go one of two ways:
- Either the teacher gets paid by the head, usually a higher rate for the first several students, and a lower rate for higher numbers, or
- The teacher gets a flat fee per class.
In the first pay structure, it seems like there’s greater earnings potential, and some superstar teachers truly do make big money teaching. But most classes in the world aren’t packed with sweaty hipsters, and that $25 average is about right. (Except that yoga classes tend to be 75 or 90 minutes, not 60, so that rate may very well be lower in reality.) And there is always the possibility of earning even less for a class, if fewer people show up. I’ve taught classes to one person before, earning effectively less than minimum wage. But because I was a 1099 contractor, I wasn’t guaranteed a minimum, and had to stay and teach even though I would have happily paid the studio the $5 they were paying me for the 90-minute class so I could go home and take a nap.
In the second structure, the teacher has the guarantee of a flat fee, which is great if you’ve taught for less than minimum wage before, but yoga studios make more money when more students attend because most have a per-class pricing model, and this structure gives the teacher no reward for building up a loyal following. So the studio lines its pockets, and the teacher makes only a little bit.
There are a few studios in the world that pay teachers as they should — guaranteed minimum flat rate with added pay based on number of attendees — but not nearly enough.
Studio Helpers Get Free Classes — Often At Teachers’ Expense
This is my biggest complaint about how yoga teachers are compensated, and while it’s not universally true, it’s a widespread practice: the folks who volunteer at yoga studios in exchange for free classes — signing students in at the front desk, sweeping the studios, emptying trash — there is a good chance that the “free classes” they are receiving are free on the backs of the teachers. Every studio where I taught treated service students as comps, and I received nothing for them. Most of the time it was no big deal, because it was just one person out of many. But I did have several classes over the years where — I am not exaggerating — I had to teach a room of six to eight people and get paid zero. How is this even legal?, you might wonder. Because I was a contractor, not an employee. And sure, I could have said no and refused to teach for free, but then I would have gotten a reputation as being difficult, which is not very yogic (and, like, it’s also not very yogic to care about money), and in a world where studio managers decide who gets the best classes and time slots, you have every incentive to appear cooperative and like a team player, not like someone who cares about money more than people. (The studio where this was by far the worst and most blatant was also owned by a woman who is famous around the world for being a beacon of enlightenment — she’s also incredibly wealthy from her studios.)
Teachers Have Every Incentive to Create Their Own Pyramids
Given the cost of attaining and maintaining a certification, the lack of workers’ compensation when you get hurt and can’t teach, the low hourly rate and the exploitative pay structures, teachers are often on the lookout for any way to supplement their income. And this often means delving into the world of workshops and retreats.
When I taught a class, I got a tiny slice of what each student paid to attend, but if I taught a workshop, I generally got more than half of their fee. And workshops cost more than classes. So in a few hours on a Saturday, I could easily earn a few hundred dollars in a workshop. Multiply that several times if I’d ever started doing weeklong yoga retreats to Pura Vida and Tulum and all the places teachers like to take folks now (in addition to a free trip to somewhere beautiful). I’m now looking to my most dedicated students to come to my add-on services, and inviting them to be part of my special club — for a price.
The problem is that you don’t need workshops or retreats to have a strong and consistent yoga practice, but these workshops are all sold as ways to deepen your practice, implying that attendees must purchase their spiritual enlightenment (or those six-pack abs) for an ever-escalating price. And don’t think for a second those workshops and retreats aren’t intended as a slippery slope to yoga teacher training. Teachers quickly develop a conflict of interest between wanting to help their students live their best lives (which should not include spending tons of money needlessly) and needing to make a living themselves.
What To Do If You Simply Must Teach
My advice to those who wish to forge ahead despite all of this? Teach at the gym.
Don’t waste your money on an RYT 200 program based on questionable science. (I don’t know of a single program that uses The Science of Yoga as a text, despite it being hugely revealing about the lack of science in most yoga instruction — did you know, for example, that your blood doesn’t actually get any more oxygenated during meditation and deep breathing? How many teachers have you heard say that?)
Instead, get an overall fitness certification like ACE Group Exercise Instructor, and then take a fitness-based yoga supplement that you can jazz up with your own personal knowledge form your “real” yoga practice. Study kinesiology and physiology at your local community college. At the gym, you’re an employee, you know what you’re getting paid, you’re covered by workers’ comp, and you’re never expected to work for free. I taught at the gym for years, in addition to my studio classes, and I loved both knowing exactly what I was earning and being able to serve those who couldn’t or didn’t want to shell out 15 bucks a class. It was a win for everyone. Sure, there might have been clanking weights right outside the glass, but learning to relax and focus with background noise is a whole lot more useful in real life than learning to relax in lavender-scented silence.
Several of y’all have expressed interest in this post, so tell me: what other questions do you have? Anyone else taught yoga and want to share if your experience was like or unlike mine? Any other side hustlers who’ve been similarly exploited who want to share your parallels? Just want to send condolences to my poor back for years of doing those ill-advised poses? Let’s go!
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Categories: we've learned