Why Yoga is a Broke-A** Business

The Yogi Muse

The Yogi Muse

This month the famed New York yoga studio, Virayoga, goes out of business because its owner, Yoga Superstar Elena Brower, could not make it work financially.

A moment of silence please.

There is also a blog circulating talking about five things you do not know about your yoga teacher, including the realization that despite thousands of dollars of education they are probably underpaid and don’t have medical insurance.

More silence please, and possibly bow your head.

How did we get to be such a broke-ass business? It was not an overnight journey, that’s for sure.

There is an interesting conundrum at the heart of yoga and that is it was a practice that was never designed to make money. It was invented to create enlightenment, and you know what they say, money can’t buy you love.

However, and let me be VERY CLEAR: Enlightenment cannot put food on the table or a roof over your head. If you are hit by a car or get sick, it will not pay for your medical bills. It just doesn’t. You might be happier about starving, but starve you will if enlightenment is your only source of income.

Years ago, before yoga was transported to the west, this conundrum was threatening to blow up the industry. In the 1960’s yoga was a dying art in India. Only the wealthy could afford to practice. Everyone else was busy trying to feed their families. It was a Brahmin pastime, sort of like flying your Gulfstream today. Not many people could afford it.

Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the great founders of the modern yoga movement, said at the time, “The west saved yoga.” Eastern yoga was injected with new cash and enthusiasm by the throngs of young people who flocked to India, and in turn, their money saved yoga.

If you look at some of the earliest adopters, such as Ram Dass, Beryl Bender Birch or even Baron Baptiste, most of them had additional jobs besides teaching yoga. Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, was a tenured professor at Harvard. Birch was a full-time, paid trainer for various sports organizations including the U.S. Ski team. Baron was a personal trainer and private yoga instructor for the people who ride in their Gulfstream jets.

Not one was trying to survive by teaching for $5 a head.

I was saddened recently by Ms. Birch describing a health crisis in her book, Boomer Yoga, where she mentioned that she either didn’t have medical insurance, or it wasn’t sufficient to cover her injury.

If Beryl Bender Birch couldn’t afford insurance then WTF am I doing? Right?

It was in the midst of this soul searching that I had a conversation with a famous yoga teacher who sold her studio many years ago to travel internationally.

“You know yoga wasn’t always considered a path to get rich,” she said to me. “It used to be something that bored housewives did to stay out of the mall.”

Today, yoga is believed to be a lucrative career path. However, whereas a barista at Starbucks or a stylist at Floyd’s comes with benefits, yoga comes with none. You have to work hard for the money, save for your retirement without a company co-pay, and pay for your insurance.

The famous yogis travel almost every single weekend per month for workshops and festivals. These pay much more than teaching weekly classes. But it also takes a toll on your personal life, not to mention your health. It is not an option for those of us with children in school.

The not-so-famous local yogis teach up to 18 classes per week. I am not exaggerating. That is a lot of love to spread around. In my case, I simply do not have the energy to work a 60-hour week anymore.

I am going to say this in a way that is as non-judgmental as possible, but listen up: You may love yoga, but it may not be your dharma.  If you are the sole provider for a child, for example, and cannot provide healthcare, then you are not doing your dharma or your child any favors. That’s not judgment; that’s reality. That’s the reality I am facing as I have to find a way to pay for college.

While the blog about the underpaid yoga teachers has been making the rounds, I want to state that it’s not the only problem in our industry. It’s just a symptom of something gone awry.

Yoga is huge, HUGE. It’s a billion dollar worldwide phenomenon. And wherever there is the scent of money, thousands of people will follow. In my city there are more yoga studios than Starbucks, with hundreds of classes per day, and many are taught to less than 10 people (because lots of non-yogis have a job). I have joked that everyone is a yoga teacher, but here that’s pretty much true.

For example, I offered a retreat this year to Costa Rica, and there were four other retreats offered, at the exact same time, to the same place, leaving from Denver! That’s saturation.

While it sucks to be an underpaid and over-educated yoga teacher, I cannot even imagine how hard it must be to own a yoga studio. Elena Brower is one of those world-famous yogis with a book, videos and who has headlined lots of yoga festivals. I made the trek to Soho in New York to find her (the cost for transportation was more than the class).  But not many would do this. Most of us practice where it is close and convenient to our homes.

In addition, who pays full price for yoga anymore? We have become mired in a practice of giving it away for next to nothing on Groupon, Living Social and through summertime deals. We have conditioned our students to look for the discount. I have seen yoga sold for as little as $2.98 per class. How can you possibly pay a teacher $5 per head when you are only earning $3?????? People, this doesn’t make any sense.

So what the studios have done to survive, is offer more trainings. A Yoga Teacher Training will net the studio $2,000 - $4,000 per student. In the short-term, this will pay the bills. In the long term, it created a glut in the market. I know a very senior teacher who was ousted by her studio because a younger, newer teacher was willing to work for less. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be. I am thinking of offering sexual favors to keep my job teaching a small select group of older yogis (really, just kidding).

And now, the yoga industry is taking the weekend warrior away from the local studios. The weekend practitioner is the local studio’s bread and butter. But now there is a yoga festival almost every single weekend. In fact, according to yogafestival.com, there are often up to five festivals in a single summer weekend.

If you don’t want to travel to a festival, then by all means, practice for free (or for next to nothing) in your nearby park or Lululemon store. In my city a recently free “Yoga Rocks the Park” event had 1,200 people attend. That’s $24,000 that went missing in fees to local studios. And even though those events often donate 10% to charity, that’s a pittance compared to what they make. They have almost no overhead. They usually don’t pay the teachers who do it for exposure. Blah blah blah. I am almost tired of my own rant.


I want to end with this: We teach mindfulness to our students but the truth is that we have to be more mindful as an industry.

I don’t have a solution. But I am very conscious of how I spend my yoga dollars. Every. Single. One.

I practice at my local studios and I buy their stuff whenever I can. I attend one or two festivals a year where I take my yoga dollars outside of a studio (I’m not being judgmental; it’s just not my thing. I’m more of an introvert and practice yoga inward, not outward.).

I make exceptions in my pay for small studios that offer more personalized yoga, which could very soon be a thing of the past. I drive a long way to teach a small class of yogis who are looking for something unique, and that makes me happy if not rich.

At some point, the broke-ass teachers need to help the broke-ass yoga studios, and the festivals need to give back to the broke-ass communities. And the stores which offer free yoga to sell their clothes just need to stop. We are all in this together, and if we suck the life out of yoga, dollar by dollar, then there will not be an industry left to revive.

Michelle Marchildon is the Yogi Muse. She is an award-winning journalist and the author of Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Wiser and Stronger through Yoga, and Theme Weaver: Connect the Power of Inspiration to Teaching Yoga. She is a Featured Columnist for Elephant Journal and a Contributing Editor for Mantra Magazine. She is an E-RYT 500 and teaches Hatha Yoga in Denver, Co. You can take her classes on www.yogadownload.com, or www.yogasteya.com.