Ah, yoga teaching. The path of poverty and virtue, right? Not necessarily.
Yoga Teacher Training is now big business. For a yoga teacher making $40 per hour after expenses have been deducted, the opportunity to earn upwards of $60 per hour teaching teachers is attractive. For some, it is the culmination of years spent honing their craft and an opportunity to help mold more effective, more skillful teachers to lift the standard of the industry. For others, motivation is more pragmatic – to increase personal and studio income, and to create a body of teachers to hire in their studio, teachers who have been training in the method and to the standard that the studio owners desire.
Teacher training’s dark underbelly
There’s an underbelly to this. With no less than 14 registered teacher trainer schools in New South Wales, 12 in Victoria and 10 in Queensland – a total of 50 Australia-wide, and countless more without Yoga Australia certification – there’s a surplus of new yoga teachers. New yoga teachers desperate for experience, willing to work for low or no pay, who are drawing away students from existing studios, sometimes the very studios which trained them. In effect, yoga teacher training courses are cannibalising their own business.
In my role in online marketing specialising in yoga and wellbeing businesses, I hear from many experienced teachers who are seeing a serious decrease in their business due to increased competition. This is especially the case in Sydney where, anecdotally, there are more yoga teachers per neighbourhood than anywhere in the world (even Byron!). While this problem, of the young and ambitious usurping the old and experienced, is not new, it is made even more complicated and emotionally draining by the nature of yogic philosophy and ethical precepts.
Yamas and niyamas be damned
The ethical precepts of non-coveting or grasping (aparigraha) and not stealing (asteya) is hard to reconcile with yoga teachers who seek to lure other teacher’s students away, who open in close proximity and undercut prices, and who mimic designs and rip off marketing strategies.
For teachers with sales targets, squeezed profits, and the high expense of inner city studio rents, it can also be challenging cultivating contentment (santosha) and surrender of personal outcomes (ishvarapranidhana).
This is where the practice of yoga and the business of teaching yoga enters murky territory. To be clear, the majority of yoga teachers make a Herculean effort, every day, to live their yoga, including the ethical precepts that yoga is founded upon. Yet business can be tough. Learning to navigate the territory while staying true to yoga can stretch your philosophical and ethical beliefs.
The good news in business
The good news is that ethics and values aren’t just used to ‘green wash’ corporations to make them more appealing to shareholders anymore. Social media and greater access to information, fuelled by the internet, means business is not able to be unethical any longer. Through sites such as Causes, Wikipedia, Wikileaks, and Facebook, they simply cannot get away with it.
The rise of values-driven business
Increasingly, values are at the centre of business. Not only does this make sense for large companies looking to motivate, inspire and compel their employees towards productivity, purpose and satisfaction, but it also gives customers and clients a reason to do business with a company. Sharing the values and story at the centre of their business elevates client interaction from a financial transaction to tribal admiration fuelling word-of-mouth referrals.
For solopreneurs and small businesses such as yoga studios, clarifying your business values and elevating their importance makes good business sense. Going into business for yourself, either as a freelancing yoga teacher or as a studio owner, means doing things on your own terms. Creating your mission statement, manifesto or staff manual with values front-and-centre, reminds you and your employees what your business is all about while differentiating your business from the rest.
Further, the rise of content marketing and social media, means conscientious business people can engage in effective authentic marketing practices, while building up a following. This brings its own set of risks and ethical complications, especially when a teacher’s popularity inflates their ego, when teachers don’t continue to study and to prepare adequately, and when dubious and illegal behavior is tolerated by students’ unquestioning devotion. Donna Farhi’s brilliant book Teaching Yoga addresses these concerns in some depth.
The P Word
Profit is part of business. While yoga may be a calling and a passion, yoga teachers still need money to cover mortgages, car repayments, school fees, insurance and holidays, not to mention the day-to-day. Getting paid, and making profit from business, is what differentiates a yoga enthusiast from a yoga teacher. As Donna Farhi puts it in Teaching Yoga, “In our western culture, recognition of the value of spiritual teaching by the larger society is often missing, so teachers have few means to secure a livelihood unless they ask for financial compensation for their work. Even the practice of giving a donation (dana) can leave many Westerners confused, with some leaving less money for a two-hour discourse than they would pay for a cup of coffee and a muffin.”
Yet yogis frequently come with an extra serving of emotional baggage around money. Western yoga teachers are often in a knot of confusion over money, perhaps stemming from the yamas and niyamas, and certainly influenced by the cultural traditions of India, where Sadhus and Sages are supported by the long practice of dana. On the one hand, they seek to be authentic and to give and share yoga; on the other hand, they may want to have a social life that extends beyond home-cooked meals and being content with no holidays.
I’ve seen and heard it all: from severe aversion to discuss pay, to expenses introduced after work is complete; from unacceptably long periods waiting to be paid, to an inability to write an invoice. I’ve been privy to yoga teachers being pressured to sign contracts that severely limit their opportunities to teach outside a studio (while said studio doesn’t provide enough classes to make a livable wage), and studios that are frequently asked by teachers for more classes and higher remuneration when they are not commanding enough students to their classes to make the exercise viable for the studio. Whether a jobbing teacher or a studio owner, being clear on value and firm on your terms and conditions means you are far less likely to be in a bind.
We frequently measure value in monetary terms. In a free-market economy, price is set by what the market will pay. In this way, a yoga teacher can charge what a student is willing (and able) to pay. Yet most yoga teachers ask too little for their services which, in effect, keeps yoga as an alternative, marginal practice and yoga teachers in a struggling mindset. Students who accuse teachers of not being ‘yogic’ when their terms and conditions are upheld, and studios who undervalue teachers by attempting to reduce payment after the fact indicate that the teacher’s boundaries are not clear enough.
Professionals with clear boundaries between teacher and student, employee and employer, what is acceptable and unacceptable, tend to be clear on financial terms. They ask for remuneration without emotion and their students and employers don’t often take them for granted because they demonstrate that they believe in the value of what they do.
Teachers whose boundaries are weak and who have a complicated or unhealthy relationship with money frequently find themselves questioned and taken advantage of by students and employers. This is not to say that some flexibility can, and should, be accommodated in extraneous circumstances. However, when you are clear that you are a professional who has invested in their development and, hopefully, continues to invest in study and qualifications, you expect fair remuneration or exchange of value. Someone accusing another of being ‘unyogic’ in relation to pay merely indicates that they have their own issues and baggage around money.
How to earn a decent income
Studios can strengthen their earnings and improve their cash flow by structuring classes around courses, which require up-front payment by students. The casual, drop-in class does not benefit the student. It encourages students not to commit, to keep their practice sporadic, and to value convenience over quality. The up-front course structure encourages regular practice and commitment to improve, while valuing the modality and the teacher. Terms and conditions also need to be thoroughly worked over, written down and promoted to students. When terms and conditions are clear, students are far less likely to negotiate for payment terms that are unfair to the studio.
Freelancing yoga teachers can improve their earnings by continuing to invest time and money in their training, by cultivating leads and retaining interest from students through social media, email marketing and blogging, and by promoting the studios that they work in through these means.
Studios and jobbing teachers also need to create other products that they can sell for higher fees. This includes retreats, workshops, DVDs, e-courses, books and, yes, even teacher training. Creating products such as books, DVDs and e-courses means that time is no longer linked to pay. The teacher may take time off from work while continuing to earn a living. Products enable teachings to reach a far wider audience while giving existing students an opportunity to delve deeper into yoga.
Oftentimes, we lose students because our offerings are limited. The client has been with you a while, they figure they’ve learnt all they can they get distracted by the latest bright and shiny new toy, and they up and leave. Having premium products, such as a yearly retreat at an international resort, or an in-depth workshop with accompanying materials, delivered over several weekends, allows students to dive deeper and have their inspiration and motivation reignited while the teacher supplements their regular income with additional profits.
Staying sane when marketing
In the social media and online marketing training I run, teachers ask whether yoga and effective social media marketing is compatible. They can bring up seemingly contradictory behaviours. The online arena can amplify social anxieties – Facebook is a show reel of highlights from other people’s lives. The yoga teacher gets on Facebook, quotes a sage or shares his or her own wisdom to an audience which is transient and insatiable for entertainment, rather than depth. Teachers frequently misunderstand the purpose of social media networks, sharing information that is better suited to be consumed at leisure on a website or downloaded. It can also be a schizophrenic existence constantly being on the lookout online for information that is relevant to share with your network or use as a basis for your own blogs or articles.
Social media and blogging also work because it is personal. Yet many professionals fail to negotiate the fine line between enough and too much personal information – not enough makes blogs dry and one-dimensional, too much breaks down the teacher’s authority and credibility. Discretion between too much and not enough is required, but it’s not something easily learnt. Luckily, the archetype of the likeable teacher is hugely effective on social media and blogging – the teacher has knowledge and expertise which is highly respected, but is also friendly and approachable. Teachers who excel in the first but fail at friendliness and approachability (which means they answer and respond to comments!) rarely succeed through blogging or social media marketing.
The act of reaching out for new leads and new students through marketing can feel like grasping. Authentic, modern marketing revolves around creating valuable content and giving it away in order for leads to be attracted to you. However, outreach is necessary – you still need to approach strangers, ask for favours, and talk about your strengths. Yet this is good practice for developing genuine confidence, seeing the humanity in strangers and the divinity in yourself. Teachers do well in business when they are confident in the value they offer, sure of their talents and able to articulate these – not by preaching but through the modern art of the ‘humble brag’.
There’s a world of difference between being confident and knowing your strengths and believing your own hype while cultivating slavish devotion in your students. The yoga teacher does well in business by focusing on karma yoga which teaches us to invest all our effort into work while remaining unattached to the outcome. As Khalil Gibran in The Prophet writes: “You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth”. While our business outcomes gives valuable insight into what is working and what needs improvement, the key is removing the emotional investment. We expend our efforts and our emotions into guiding our students along the path of yoga, while surrendering the outcome to God.
About this yogi…
Brook enables health and wellbeing professionals to lift their game, define their
deeper purpose and take on the world with authentic marketing and compelling communications. She believes that the more wellbeing practitioners can thrive in business, the more lives will be reached and the more people will benefit.
As a yoga teacher, she’s over seeing yoga and other modalities languish in the sidelines because practitioners treat business like a hobby, burn out too quickly, feel guilty and shamed by money, or miss the connection between passion and profit. Yoga Reach runs face-to-face and digital courses for health and wellbeing trainees and professionals, as well as audacious rabble-rousers. Download Brook’s free E-Book on Authentic Marketing for Yoga Teachers.