March 13, 2012

How Much Does Your Guru Earn, Exactly? ~ Brad Lynch

Photo: Kevin Dooley

If you practice yoga in Yogatown (my city, which will just be called Yogatown), chances are he/she pulls a little less than the kid who sauced your nanny’s egg McMuffin this morning.

(by the way, you should consider paying her enough to get a decent breakfast, too)

The Exception

Last fall a small (not too little, mind you) yoga studio opened in town and drew many of the best instructors away from their steady gigs. The proprietor, a veteran instructor and studio manager herself, made a point in much of the positive press she received to point out how much she values her instructors, and that she was committed to paying them a fair wage.

What exactly does that mean?

The Small Yoga Studio pays its people $40 per one hour class to start. That may not sound like much, but it is near the top of the industry for new teachers. What that translates to is this: if an instructor could manage five classes a day, five days a week, they could pull down a grand a week, or about 50K pre-tax a year.

Not too bad, but that never happens.

Teaching 25 classes of yoga a week is a near super-human feat. One teacher I spoke with wore one of those fancy heart rate monitor watches while teaching and taking classes and plugged all of the recorded data into her home computer using the software that came with the gadget. What she found that she actually burned more calories—20% more—teaching. Think about it.

Think about giving a one-hour presentation at work. On top of the nerves, there is no microphone, so you will need to speak up. In fact you will have to shout. Also, you will have no notes or visual aids, but if you miss-cue, or blow the sequence, anyone in your audience could be seriously injured. Now turn the thermostat up to ninety degrees, give or take. Now demonstrate some yoga poses. Smile.

Additionally, few studios can schedule enough classes to keep a variety of instructors on full time, and students enjoy a variety of teachers, so you will have to run around town, hopping between studios between each class. Not too hard in this town –as I mentioned in a previous article, we have more yoga studios than churches or bars (but not more than medicinal pot depots).

There are also exceptions to the exception. There is a place where a teacher can take on that many classes.


The Big Box Studio(s)

Immaculate showers, ample classes day or night to fit into any schedule, free one-week trial memberships, state of the art temperature and humidity controls in the studios, sick sound systems (though there is no accounting for what is played through it), and Q-tips, shampoo, conditioner, mouthwash, moisturizing lotion, hair ties, feminine hygiene products and hand sanitizer on the house. Mats and branded bottled water, two bucks. Towels a buck. Drop-in classes are nineteen dollars.

At these studios a teacher can get near the twenty-five classes a week mark, theoretically. I say theoretically, because only a handful of the most experienced instructors ever have, and even then, by darting between the three (same as Starbucks within the same geographical footprint, if you don’t count the one in Target) locations in Yogatown.

Unlike the small studio, teachers are expected to arrive one half hour before and typically remain around fifteen minutes after each class to answer questions and generally attend to the needs of their students (I hear those hip openers release a lot of emotion). So the time commitment is one hour, forty-five minutes per one-hour class. Teaching five classes would require eight hours and forty-five minutes. As independent contractors, Yoga instructors receive no health benefits (other than free yoga, of course), the pay for their own liability insurance, no overtime, no holiday pay, sick leave, vacation time, or regular bonuses.

Starting pay at the Big Box is twenty dollars per class, with nothing added for the early show-up or after class time. That would cap a five class a day instructor at just under 25K a year if they took just two weeks off, or about 500 bucks a week. The demands are the same as “The Exception,” but the pay is half. That is where we get into McMuffin territory.

One last thing: The Big Box only hires teachers who have completed their 200-hour teacher-training seminar (no guarantee of being offered a position, an aspirant teacher will have to audition for that). The cost is around $2,200, but includes a branded yogitoes.

Oh, I almost forgot, one last, last thing. Before the teacher can collect his/her twenty bones a class, there is the small matter of the “internship.” A new hire at the Big Box must teach the first thirty classes without pay.

The Good News

The longer a Yoga instructor teaches, the more money they can expect to earn. There are rumors that I was unable to confirm (Instructors are apparently serious about their confidentiality agreements) that senior instructors at the Big Box can make in the neighborhood of fifty dollars a class, perhaps more. In bigger “markets,” Los Angeles for example, it is customary at many studios to pay the instructor based on how many people attend. They typically receive about five bucks per student, which can really add up.

In spite of the pay scale, the quality of instruction is extraordinary at almost any studio in Yogatown. The quality of the overall experience is, well, amazing. Consider these results: In 10 weeks of practicing five to six days a week at the Big Box, I lost thirty-five pounds, vanquished a tenacious year long depression, took about ten years off of my appearance (as told by friends and enemies alike), learned to stand on my hands and met more hot cougars than you could on the fresh water side of a 13,000 acre forest fire.

I’ve been to a bunch of different yoga studios all over the country now, and I really don’t think I could have done it anywhere else. All things considered, they offer the best, most rounded experience. Those immaculate showers and free Q-tips make it easy to squeeze a class in anytime, and the support in the community was truly amazing. I am still a practitioner at the Big Box. I consider us friends. Sometimes the best friends need to call one another out.

The Big News

This morning my Facebook page was abuzz with comments on The Big News. One of the most popular, hard working and best looking instructors in town used the platform to build anticipation for a day or two about his announcement to teach exclusively at iYoga, a super-studio located in the newish outdoor Galleria-like mod pedestrian mall that also hosts The Apple Store, Anthropology and Sur La Table. He was one of the few that once managed the ball-buster twenty-plus classes a week at the Big Box. One can only speculate, but for a teacher to teach anywhere exclusively, there was likely some unusual incentive, like perhaps a living wage.

There was considerable lament at the studios where he will no longer be, as there will be a vacuum in those communities, so distinct is his teaching style. Too, he has expressed that he will miss us all, for the community at the Big Box is extraordinary. Unfortunately, you cannot eat the community, it doesn’t work too well in a gas tank, and it will not pay your mortgage (although if this particular teacher was really in a bind, we’d pass the hat for him).

There are increasing rumblings around Yogatown concerning the pay of yoga instructors. I wrote this piece because I do not think the average patron is aware of the income disconnect inherent to the system, and in an era where income equality is becoming a topic of increasing concern, it is important to point out that it is everywhere. It is great that there are studio entrepreneurs making a killing by spreading the practice of yoga, but no one working full time as an instructor should be forced to live below the level of poverty.

In the yoga world, it is somewhat taboo to talk about money, and the prevailing trend is to encourage young teachers to pay their dues in hopes of making more someday, when they become Jedi or some crap like that. But that is not what is happening. The Big Boxes are churning out armies of wide eyed yoga teachers, enthusiasts all, who are willing to work for peanuts, and the most qualified instructors are being pushed to the margins.

However brilliant a studio model may be (I am simultaneously appalled and in awe of the big box business model) it is a failure if it does not hold true to the core principles of yoga, one of them being asteya, or “non-stealing” (I learned that from a sign in the locker room). Asteya can be complicated. For example, by accepting less than a fair amount in earnings, a person is stealing from themselves. Likewise, one who would offer less than a fair price for goods or services, knowing that the provider will be forced by the duress of economics to accept the lowball, is in violation of this key principle, despite an agreement being reached.

I would also like to submit that in the strictest sense, those of us attending classes taught outside the bounds of fair labor practice are also in violation of asteya. There is great joy and value in teaching yoga, but it is not fair to consider that side benefit as compensation. It is certainly true that studios would make a great deal less money by paying every instructor well. But they would not fail.

The only way for instructors to make any real money is to be paid per person, that is, about five dollars a head, in addition to the fee (20-40 dollars) they receive per class. That way, the best receive more money, and the novices with less draw get less, but still enough to eat. Ask at your studio if they do this. Ask them to do this. Many already do, and they are prospering.

There is the real possibility that there may at some point be a sort of yoga teacher strike in Yogatown (Occupy Yogatown?). It seems unlikely that such a well educated, motivated and thoughtful population as our local gurus would allow this situation to go on forever. Should it come to that, I encourage all of you yogis to think carefully about where the value is in your studio.

Is it in the Q-tips?

Brad Lynch was born in New Orleans, raised in a dozen points of suburbia around the United States, and now resides in Boulder, Co. He has been practicing yoga, the art of breathing in and out, for forty-one years, because that is how old he is. He is a student of history at Metropolitan State College of Denver, father of one very precocious eight-year old boy, Owen Merced, and writes for Elephant when Waylon asks him to, though it usually takes him a while to get around to it. He also really wants you all to like him.

Editor: Greg Eckard

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