What if yoga studios used part of their income to fund classes for underserved populations? What would the “face of yoga” look like then?
Founded by Anne Mundy in Oxford, England, in 2014, Yoga Quota is one of a small but growing number of studios paving the way for a new kind of seva (selfless service). Their innovative, heart-based model works like this: For every 50 paid students, Yoga Quota teaches one free class for a charitable organization (one “quota”). Their mission is based on the belief that the people who can benefit the most from yoga often have the least access to it. For yoga to be accessible, it must be inclusive of everyone, regardless of health, wealth, gender, sexuality, religion, race, age, or citizenship.
I recently connected with Harriet McAtee, the CEO and lead trainer for Yoga Quota’s teacher training programs, to learn more about YQ. Here's what we discussed.
How did Yoga Quota get started and how has it grown?
Anne Mundy, who is now chair of our board of trustees, was compelled to set up a yoga studio that would make a difference. She was working in management consultancy and was stressed and traveling all the time. She picked up yoga as something she could do in her hotel room to become fitter. She talks about initially only wanting to do handstands, but as she became calmer and more centered, the wider benefits of yoga started to shine through. After teaching her colleagues for a year, she knew she loved teaching and wanted to spread the benefits of yoga further—not only to those who could access yoga easily, but to the vulnerable in our society who arguably need it the most.
She gave up her job and started Yoga Quota, with the instinct to spread the benefits of yoga rather than to profit from it.
In the past four years we’ve grown our busy studio in Central Oxford, and are working with a wide range of 50 UK-based charity partners and 150 teachers across the UK to spread the benefits of yoga to their service users. We work with five main categories: Health and Age, Mental Health, LGBTQ+ and Women, Refugees, and Homelessness and Low Income.
Can you tell me about one of your charity partners and their beneficiaries?
KEEN Oxford is an award-winning, inclusive community organization centered around a program of social, recreational, and sporting activities, including programming with other local organizations (like Yoga Quota). In particular, KEEN welcomes children and adults who have a wide range of disabilities and/or special needs.
Over the next few years we're hoping to dramatically increase the classes we offer to people experiencing homelessness and to refugees, and also to partner with more services that benefit LGBTQ+ communities and women.
Can you explain how your business model works?
Our studio and teacher training programs are our primary fund raisers. Regular students attending our studio classes and trainees in our teacher training programs fund our charitable work by spending their money with us, rather than a commercial yoga studio or teacher training organization. For every 50 paying clients at our studio, we make one “quota,” which means we teach one charity class to a vulnerable or disadvantaged group. As a charity, we operate on a nonprofit basis. So in lots of ways we operate like a regular studio, except instead of making a profit, we spend money paying teachers to work with vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.
Is it a sustainable model?
Our experience so far definitely suggests that it is. The sustainability of Yoga Quota is directly linked to the demand for yoga, meditation, and mindfulness in society at large, so as these practices become more mainstream and in-demand, our studio and teacher training communities continue to grow. This means that so far, we've not had to rely on grants or donations and are basically fully funded from the studio and teacher training.
Who is eligible to teach the charity classes and how does one apply for the job?
Any certified and insured yoga teacher is eligible to become a “Badgeholder”—a teacher in a nonprofit we are partnered with. They apply online by filling out our application form, then we get in touch to discuss what they're interested in and what sort of classes might suit them best. We work with a wide range of charities, servicing a spectrum of needs and vulnerabilities, so there's an opportunity that's suitable for every teacher's skills and level of experience. Our charity partners are also really wonderful at providing support.
Are your teachers required to take trauma-informed trainings or any other additional training specific to the communities they intend to serve?
We work with a wide range of groups that have a spectrum of different needs, meaning we're generally able to match communities with teachers that are experienced and comfortable serving them. We've just launched our Teaching Inclusive Yoga training, which we've designed to help bridge the gap between standard 200-hour trainings and the skills required to work with more specialized communities.
How are Badgeholders paid?
When a teacher signs up as a Yoga Quota Badgeholder, we ask that the first four charity classes they teach for us are done on a volunteer basis. After that, we pay them to continue teaching those classes. In 2017 and 2018, we spent over £10,000 (roughly 13,000 USD) paying teachers to teach charity classes in the UK.
Do your teachers work with one community over a period of time? How does that work? How long is a typical engagement?
Absolutely. My preference is to provide continuity for our students. Some of our charity classes have been running in the same communities for over four years, though not always with the same teacher for that length of time. Most of our teachers end up working with a group of students anywhere from four weeks to two years—life and other commitments sometimes mean that we need to find a new teacher.
Often, we'll work with a charity to offer an initial four- to eight-week program and the students love it so much that we continue teaching them on a weekly basis indefinitely, which is my dream situation!
What kind of feedback are you getting from your beneficiaries?
We get amazing feedback; it's so encouraging. Our beneficiaries have told us that the classes have benefitted them not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. They also get the experience of coming together in a group of people who share similar experiences, which is important and empowering.
One of our charity partners recently gave us this feedback: “Yoga Quota has continuously offered kindly support and relief to the people we support—adults with learning disabilities. Thank you, Yoga Quota, for being so generous and supplying great teachers who are always friendly and helpful.”
What does the term seva mean to you, to YQ?
Serving my local community, as well as the broader yoga community, is something that deeply motivates me—finding ways to give back, to lift others up, to provide support and cultivate spaces that are empowering and enriching. Creating sustainable communities is one of YQ's guiding principles: we're extremely passionate about our students, teachers, and partners. For us, community and service go hand in hand. When you feel connected and supported by your community, you're motivated to give back to it.
We're just about to release our three-year strategy, which outlines our vision and goals for Yoga Quota, so stay tuned! We've got some big ideas, and we’re excited to make yoga more accessible to even more people.