The Business of Yoga
How to Remain Authentic While Playing the Numbers Game
For thousands of years, yoga has been handed down from teacher to student. Throughout time, yogis have been supported by a variety of sources, including donations from kings, rich men, and householders. In some cases, yogis lived and practiced in self-sustaining ashrams. There was no need to earn money in exchange for teaching, no pressure to recruit students, nor any responsibility to keep students happy.
Today things are radically different. If you are a yoga teacher or studio owner, then you understand what I mean when I say that we all have to “play the numbers game.” It is a fact of modern yoga that if you wish to teach or provide a space for yoga classes, then the number of people in your class matters. If there are not enough students coming through the doors, no one gets paid. Studios rely on the revenue generated from dedicated students to pay the rent, and teachers must have students in their classes in order to be paid. Whether we like it or not, we all feel the pressure.
The challenge is similar whether you are a studio owner or teacher. Below are suggestions for both.
How do you maintain integrity while navigating the challenges of pursuing yoga as a business?
Be true to yourself.
Ultimately, you cannot go wrong by being true to yourself. Use your own language, personality, and life experience when teaching instead of just repeating what you've heard other teachers say. Allow your own voice to come through, as students can sense when a teacher is phony or inauthentic. Share your passion and love of yoga with your students in your own unique way. Don't try to adopt a style of yoga or way of teaching just because it’s popular. If you love restorative yoga, then teach restorative classes; you don’t have to teach hot vinyasa classes just because they’re trendy! If what you are teaching is not what you are passionate about, you probably won’t enjoy teaching very much. And your students will probably sense that.
Teach only what you know.
The pressure to fill your classes may tempt you to teach beyond your areas of interest or expertise. You may want to impress your students or offer them something different. One example of this is teaching a pose with which you are not truly comfortable. In my early years of teaching, I struggled with shoulderstand and did not fully understand the posture in my own body. I recognized that it was an important but risky posture, so I did not teach it. I remember wondering if my students realized that I never taught shoulderstand, and I worried that I was shortchanging them. Nonetheless, I did not teach it. I taught other poses instead. I regularly replaced shoulderstand with bridge pose or legs up the wall pose. Resist the temptation to teach anything you don't fully understand. Yoga is a lifelong journey, and there will be time to share more as you move along your own practice path.
Find the right schedule.
It doesn’t matter if 4 p.m. is not the “most popular time slot.” If it is the best time for you, then it can work. Teaching is all about the passion and dedication you bring to it. Teaching at times when your mental and physical energy is at its best is essential to building classes. I was asked many years ago to teach a level 3/4 class in the 11 a.m. time slot at my local studio. At that time, there had never been a well-attended 11 a.m. class. There were no other level 3/4 classes on the schedule. It fit my schedule perfectly, and I was thrilled to teach an advanced level class. My commitment paid off and after a couple of years, I had 25 to 35 dedicated students attending twice weekly. My consistency and dedicated enthusiasm, coupled with good word-of-mouth advertising, built steady attendance.
If you build it, they will come (and the two year rule).
If you consistently show up to a class that is optimal for you and give that class your full attention and energy, it will build. Sometimes classes build very quickly, but most likely you will need to put in two solid years of effort before you see high class numbers on a regular basis. Show up prepared and present regardless of how many students you have. Keep substitute teachers to a minimum so that people count on you being there.
There's something about that amount of time (two years) and consistency that produces results. I have witnessed this phenomenon many times over the years. In fact, I have often encouraged fellow teachers to hang in there despite low numbers in order to build successful classes. The two-year period allows time for word-of-mouth to spread, students to adjust their schedules, and teachers to develop a large enough student following to sustain a full class. Once you hit the two-year mark, it is likely that your class will begin to blossom. Remind yourself of this if you start to feel discouraged!
Numbers go up and down. Give each class your best no matter how many people show up.
It doesn’t matter how long you have been teaching or whether you teach at a small local studio or at large conferences and festivals, some classes are just better attended than others. The key to staying focused is not to judge your worth by the number of students in your class. Know that you have something valuable to share, and always give 100 percent to the students in front of you, whether there are five or one hundred. Students will connect to your presence and authenticity, and they will come back for more. If you allow smaller class sizes to discourage you and you do not give your best, students may be driven away by your lack of interest.
For Studio Owners
If you are a studio owner, some of the same concepts above apply.
Know what kind of studio you are.
If, for example, the main focus of your studio is Ashtanga, then do it well. Offer Mysore-style classes in the early morning, which is traditional, but also offer led primary series later in the day. To support beginner students, offer Intro to Ashtanga classes. Hire dedicated, practicing Ashtanga teachers to lead your classes. Or if you are an eclectic studio, then embrace all styles and offer variety. Seek out teachers from diverse disciplines and styles. Create a balanced schedule, with different levels and styles placed together and similar classes placed apart. Be clear about what you want to offer and the vision you have for your business.
Support your teachers.
Students come for the teachers. If the students feel that your teachers are not well supported or if the teachers do not speak highly of your studio, you will have major problems. It is in your best interest to place teachers in the time slots and class levels that best suit them—you will have more enthusiastic, confident teachers, and you will not have to constantly worry about finding substitute instructors. Engage in open and constant communication with your teachers. If someone wants to change their schedule, work closely with them to meet both the needs of the studio and the instructor. Recognize your teachers’ individual strengths and help them to grow. If you see a teacher is particularly skilled with beginner students, ask them to lead an Intro to Yoga series. Remember you want to reflect a positive attitude in every aspect of your business, especially when it comes to your most important asset, your teachers!
Make your studio a sacred space where everyone is welcome and received like a dear friend. Create an atmosphere that is warm, inviting, and inclusive to all. Cultivate community and help friendships grow by encouraging staff to address students by name. Treat staff well and minimize employee turnover. Ensure that new and returning visitors to your studio have a good experience whenever they walk through the door. If someone is new to your studio, staff should show them where restrooms, changing rooms, props, water, and anything else that they might need are located. Additionally, they should guide new students by suggesting yoga styles, teachers, and appropriate class levels.
Remember that numbers go up and down.
Just as teachers must accept that class numbers fluctuate, the owners of yoga studios also need to understand this. Numbers typically drop during the summer, and they tend to rise in January. Be creative and try different marketing strategies to invite more people into your studio (e.g., Bring a Friend for Free Day or Family Yoga Morning). Review your attendance numbers over the course of the calendar year instead of focusing on month-to-month changes. If you know that July is your slowest month of the year, maximize your peaks and offer more incentives during January and September, when people are getting back to their routines. For instance, if all of your regular classes rise in attendance during peak times, offer special workshops and series that support people building a consistent practice while also generating additional revenue. Offer an Intro to Yoga series when people are inspired to get started at the first of the year, or a Back to Yoga series for moms when school starts again.
It may not be fun to play the numbers game, but it is possible to do so while thriving and staying aligned with what matters most—sharing the gift of yoga.