Now more than ever, we are witnessing a slow and steady shift in how yoga is taught and perceived. It is exhilarating to watch the rise of new spaces that offer access to yoga in underserved and previously unserved communities. Accessible methods of teaching yoga, such as those developed by schools and organizations like Accessible Yoga, Yoga for All, Curvy Yoga, the Prison Yoga Project, and Adaptable Yoga, are supplying yoga teachers with powerful new tools that continue to transform the delivery of this practice.
Naturally, these changes to the traditional yoga model have initiated a migration of the practice from public studios to more unconventional settings. If we intend to continue broadening the definition of yoga in Western culture, this movement beyond traditional studio walls is both necessary and inevitable. However, this natural and helpful migration is currently being intercepted—the result of pushback from the corporate yoga industry. I have watched as yoga studio ownership becomes big business, with small studios losing ground and market share to McYoga. I am watching my own yoga community become the corporate model of yoga. The new movement of yoga is the corporatization of yoga studios, whereby eager entrepreneurs are invited to “buy into” a pre-packaged yoga franchise that perpetuates a tried-but-true cookie-cutter yoga practice, resolutely holding on to the old elitist paradigm.
As I experience this shift within my local yoga community, I can’t help but wonder if the private, homegrown yoga studio as we once knew it is on its way to extinction. The struggle to keep a local yoga studio not only open and running but profitable is becoming too overwhelming for many longtime studio owners. As a studio owner for more than ten years, I can tell you that yoga studio ownership is extremely hard work. Like any small business, it requires complete dedication, long hours, and copious amounts of blood, sweat, and tears.
The struggle to keep a local yoga studio not only open and running but profitable is becoming too overwhelming for many longtime studio owners.
Many students take the behind-the-scenes studio work for granted: maintenance of the practice room, bathrooms, and changing rooms, and the pressure for deliverability of modern gym-like facilities. More often than not, studio owners are taxed with complaints about class times, teachers, the heat, the cold, prices, parking, accommodations, and more. We live in a culture that encourages expectation and entitlement, and everyone feels entitled to let you know when they aren’t happy with what is being offered. Sadly, students often forget that the experience of yoga is ultimately what they make it.
As I observe my local yoga scene, the only community-based studios that seem to be thriving are those that have diversified their offerings to include fitness classes. Studios that offer more than just yoga typically maintain a larger clientele and a more extensive schedule, which ultimately provides the additional revenue required to meet the growing list of student demands. As for yoga-only spaces, corporate studios are quickly becoming the only viable option.
The most popular yoga-only studio in my city is a hot yoga franchise founded in Toronto. This studio offers a heated yoga practice with an extra large price tag—and everybody’s loving it. At first I was surprised by its success, as I live in a city where yoga is shockingly inexpensive in comparison to the rest of North America. Unlimited monthly memberships at community-based studios typically run between $50 to $75 per month, while membership at this new studio comes in at over $100 per month.
However, the real issue here is not one of popularity or personal preference, but the fact that corporate studios’ pricing continues to exclude lower income families from the practice (although you may be able to grab a karma class for $5, provided you can grab a spot in the room). But equally concerning is the fact that McYoga franchises focus almost exclusively on the physicality of the practice. These practices promote weight loss as health and pursuit of the body beautiful, with a negligible focus on self-help, spiritual development, and personal growth. This approach is the easy route to popularizing the yoga practice, as it piggybacks on our weight-obsessed, body-centric culture.
Our local studios are giving way to the corporate studio revolution—devoid of the struggle often necessary in developing originality. The turnkey operations of McYoga take away all the guesswork and struggle of running a successful yoga studio, as everything is already created for the studio owner—from the studio layout to prices, promotional packages, and branding. This cookie-cutter approach to yoga tells us that as long as we have the money to invest in a franchise and are willing to follow the plan, wealth and success will be ours. Small, independent studios are rapidly becoming a dying breed, and this is detrimental to creating accessible spaces that are dedicated to serving local communities and diverse populations.
It is hard to keep something afloat based solely on how much you love it and how well it attempts to serve your community, while financially you are suffering.
Lately I am seeing more studios close than open, and I think it's the result of yoga’s evolution in the West. Yoga studios always felt to me like exclusive clubs for the wealthy, white, fit, and thin. That’s why I tried to create a space that countered this experience. And I succeeded…for a while. In the end, it was just too hard to keep up with corporate yoga brands, gyms, and other studios vying for market share in an already oversaturated market. It is hard to keep something afloat based solely on how much you love it and how well it attempts to serve your community, while financially you are suffering.
As leaders and teachers of the sacred practice of yoga, it is our dharma to make yoga available to everyone. My mission is to elevate this awareness by teaching in unconventional yoga spaces. If we take yoga out of the studio and into accessible public forums, everyone will feel invited. Public spaces are open and free from the challenges associated with a dedicated yoga studio. In a public, unconventional space, we can eliminate the branding, the exclusive philosophies, the statues (which may be perceived as religious idols), and the clothing, mats, and other merchandise that most practitioners can’t afford. Public spaces are open to everyone and are uncluttered by expectation. And doesn’t yoga at the park just feel far less intimidating than yoga within a studio?
I now teach yoga in industrial spaces. I am currently running a yoga teacher training class in a tool and die plant, and I love it. It helps me lower the cost of my trainings, it embraces the idea of yoga for all, and it shows us that yoga can happen anywhere. I love teaching in community centers, parks, art galleries, school gyms, and even restaurants. A yoga space can be anywhere that people gather with a unified intention. Freeing myself from studio ownership has certainly allowed me to connect with more people, which expedites my mission of increasing the diversity of yoga. Yoga is an embodiment of your divine Self through the study of meditation, philosophy, and asana. And the good news is you don’t need a studio to make that happen. All you need is the ability to connect with a great teacher and a like-minded community that shares your same path to enlightenment and self-love. And that can happen anywhere.