Strike (A Pose): The Union of Yoga

March 30, 2015    BY David E. Moreno

The first email I opened after a weeklong meditation retreat was an effective-immediately rent increase notice of 1.7%.

Not too bad a request considering the great neighborhood that I live in, but still disconcerting given that my profession never offers raises or attempts to keep up with the cost of living. In fact, as a yoga instructor who's been teaching since the mid-'90s, I've noticed several such discrepancies adding up as the scale weighing gross income versus the rising cost of living continues to tip further and further off balance. Yes, this is a problem facing many Americans (thanks to shortsighted government controlled by big business), but commercial yoga became an industry about 15 years ago and as such needs to step up to the full responsibility of what that implies. In other words, as an industry, it must move beyond the acquisition approach of opening more studios and controlling more turf, and instead shift its focus to building and sustaining relationships with employees and subcontractors.

Commercial yoga became an industry about 15 years ago and as such needs to step up to the full responsibility of what that implies.

My growing concern comes at a time when the city of San Francisco just increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour and the city’s restaurants are adding a healthcare surcharge to cover their workers. Neither of these benefits affect yoga instructors, who often seem to fall between the cracks where mandated wage increases and employment benefits are concerned. That surcharge restaurants are starting to collect helps to cover the cost of employee health insurance, which employers say would be prohibitive otherwise. Perhaps yoga studios should consider something similar. A surcharge on class passes, with benefits going to a pension plan or health benefits for yogis who have taught consistently for several years, those who have made teaching yoga their profession—say, ten years' tenure?

In comparison to waiters and other workers in service-oriented professions, yoga instructors are expected to cover their own health insurance and, increasingly, liability insurance as well. We are required to pay annual dues to Yoga Alliance—which provides a sort of professional standard and little more in return. And, in some cases, instructors are required to maintain continuing education. Certainly, I’m not arguing against the importance of continuing education. I'm just including it as an additional out-of-pocket expense that both costs money (when paying for training fees) and results in loss of income (when teachers take time off to attend). Yoga instructors receive no sick leave, paid vacations, paid maternity leave, or severance pay, and most teach on the holidays (since commercial studios are open 365 days a year). It’s also not uncommon for them to be asked to attend studio meetings without “meeting rate” compensation, as other businesses often cover. Doesn’t this suddenly give waiting tables a certain holistic panache? Maybe yoga instructors should follow in the footsteps of their comrade waiters and put out tip jars.

It wasn’t always like this. Things were different before the corporatization and commercialization of yoga—a time when yoga instructors didn’t sign contracts that gave the studio “the right to end and remove the instructor from the teaching schedule at anytime for any reason” and job security wasn’t solely based on class numbers. That was a time before social media, when full-time instructors spent their days studying, practicing, and teaching, instead of devoting big chunks of the day and night to endless self-promotion via Facebook, Twitter, emails, newsletters, and group text blasts. But few of the millenials starting to work for studios as instructors know otherwise. For them, "free yoga classes” or a 25% discount on workshops and massage can sound heavenly. (Hmm, come to think of it, massage therapists make tips too.) But a free cup of Numi tea or 20% off retail items looks a lot different when you’re not stressing about how you’re going to support your family of four, wondering about pension plans, or looking ahead to retirement.

The main obstacle keeping yoga instructors from being eligible for benefits is that they are primarily part-time employees or subcontractors—usually for several studios, which collectively often add up more closely to full time. (Interestingly, this is an issue currently before the courts in New York as the state debates whether it should tax yoga studios like it does fitness studios, and yoga instructors should be employees rather than subcontractors.) But at the moment, for a teacher to qualify as a full-time employee he has to teach about 26 hour-and-a-half-long classes per week for 52 weeks a year. Ouch! Which is to say, it would be impossible, even if part of that time included leading teacher trainings and workshops. Part-time teaching is all many instructors desire, but for those of us who have made it a full-time career—based much on the demand of the market when we started (i.e., the demand was greater because the market wasn’t oversaturated then)—we're faced with the reality of the rising cost of living versus a largely standardized, nonadjustable wage and inadequate long-term benefits.

Instructors would benefit from an organization that did more than dole out credentials, and since we already pay dues to Yoga Alliance, this wouldn’t be that huge of a backbend.

Is it time for yoga instructors to have an organization or union of their own that supports their best interests and well-being while still allowing studios to thrive? Clearly, instructors would benefit from an organization that did more than dole out credentials, and since we already pay dues to Yoga Alliance, this wouldn’t be that huge of a backbend. Maybe instead of a Yoga Alliance, we need a Yoga Union that takes on more than keeping track of certifications and continuing education credits. I can't help but wonder, when ancient yogis named yoga "yoga," often understood to mean “union,” if they realized what other implications this word would have over time.

David E. Moreno
David Moreno teaches in the Bay Area and has taught yoga at international conferences, universities, and retreats worldwide. For more information, visit moryoga.com.

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