Marketing Yoga the Yogic Way


By Dan Charnas  |  

I had just acquired my first regular teaching assignment. It was at 7 a.m., a brand-new time slot for the studio. My plan was to create something out of nothing through savvy marketing. After all, I had been a promotion executive for many years in the entertainment business, so I thought it would be easy.

My big idea? Flyers. “Yoga Before Work,” I called the class. “Start Your Day the Right Way,” was my headline, the text extolling the virtues of early-morning yoga. I posted the flyers around the center and in neighborhood shops.

The first week was slow. Two people showed up. Over the next few weeks, attendance wasn’t much better. In fact, my class rarely attracted more than two people at a time.

I couldn’t blame the early time slot, because dozens of people were showing up for the 4 a.m. sadhana at the studio. I sent out email blasts. I gave away free passes. I urged people who came to class to bring their friends. No matter what I did, nothing changed.

As I struggled, I watched the star teacher of the studio, who had nearly 100 students attend her class and did no advertising at all. Then I tried my next marketing ploy: doing nothing. And that’s exactly what happened. Nothing. I felt guilty for marketing, and then I felt foolish for not making an effort. Eventually, I quit the class in resignation.

A decade later, my promotion tools aren’t much different, but I struggle a lot less. The only difference I can ascertain between then and now is this: Back then, I just wasn’t ready.

But the experience caused me to start thinking about marketing and yoga—not so much about the best ideas for promoting yourself or your yoga center, but about how to align your yoga marketing with the principles of yoga itself. Is it possible to find an organic approach to marketing? How did yoga teachers market themselves back in the day? Aren’t there inherent evils in self-promotion? Or do we have a responsibility to market yoga, and ourselves, to a world sorely in need?

The Old Way

Beryl Bender Birch, an Ashtanga teacher and the author of the book Power Yoga, says that her own teacher, Norman Allen, never marketed himself. “He has no phone,” she says. “He doesn’t write. He doesn’t email.” Instead, Allen, who was Pattabhi Jois’s first American student, moved to the mountains of Hawaii and lived without electricity or running water.

In that way, Allen represents the classic, Eastern ideal of the yoga master: the teacher whom students must locate and then petition for knowledge. It’s a model that runs counter to the way that yoga has unfolded in the West, with teachers seeking, and sometimes competing for, students. In the classic tradition, the kind of marketing that we do nowadays—full-page advertisements, mass mailings, and franchising—would be unthinkable.

Which is not to say that the Western way is illegitimate. Birch launched her own teaching career with fliers and mailings. Over decades, her classes grew from two or three people to crowds of 60 or more. But Birch stresses that her teaching practice wasn’t built primarily through clever marketing but from putting in years of solid teaching.

“There’s no substitute for experience,” says Birch. “[It's about] being in the same place at same time for a long period of time. It’s about practice. You have to do it for a long time without a break, with earnestness. If you’re a good teacher, people will come.”

The Perils of Marketing

But patience is a virtue that many teachers and studios lack. Maty Ezraty launched Yoga Works, perhaps the prototype for the modern yoga franchise. But Ezraty is disturbed by some of the trends she sees in many yoga centers and chains today.

“You go into these corporations, and unfortunately I have to put Yoga Works in there as well, and what they’re looking at is a career path for teachers,” says Ezraty. “With that comes a danger that what you’re attracting is very young people [who] haven’t been given the time to ripen. The business people are starting to take over the yoga world because they’re looking at a buck.”

One troubling development Ezraty calls a “marketing ploy” is studios pushing multiple-year contracts, similar to the practice of the gym and fitness world, to which students are bound. “They don’t even care if you’re doing the yoga,” she says, “They just want the money. So all of the things we came to yoga hoping to get away from are here now in the yoga world.”

Greed is only one of the sins of marketing. Hype is another. A while back, Birch came across a website for a yoga studio in Massachusetts. ”

The owners of the studio all have on their bios that they’ve studied with me,” Birch says. “And I don’t know who these people are! They’ve probably taken one class at a yoga conference with about 200 other people. And I’m thinking, ‘What a load of bullshit.’ You need to tell the truth.”

Perhaps the most common peril of marketing is simply this: grasping—the kind of anxiety that causes us to sell ourselves short and debase our teachings in seeking the validation of our students or the appearance of success. It’s one reason why many yoga teachers are turned off marketing altogether.

The Perils of Not Marketing

While it’s true that we can’t manufacture a successful class through marketing, we may not be able to have a class at all without it. It’s this balance that the modern yoga teacher needs to seek. Simply swearing off marketing isn’t an answer.

“Some [teachers] have huge egos about the fact that they don’t promote themselves,” says Birch. “‘I’m so spiritual because I don’t use any flyers.’ That’s just as much about ego as the people who make up some bogus resumé.”

Just as there are spiritual consequences of marketing, there are spiritual consequences of not marketing. The West has added something beautiful to the world of yoga: the concept that the teachings must be moved out into the world. If our intention is to hide from the world and from our own responsibilities, then not marketing our class is as deadly to our spirit as marketing with greedy intent.

Finding a Balance

Determining the right way to market your class or your yoga center is really about finding your own voice. Birch raves about a small Orlando yoga center, College Park Yoga, where she sometimes leads teacher trainings: “The owners are just brilliant at marketing. They’re funny. They’re original. They come up with the most fabulous copy. They get tons of people in there, and they’ve got a fabulous community.”

Theresa Curameng, who runs the center with her husband Calvin, recounts how they originally built that community.

“We opened up near a college,” Curameng says. “And we were like, ‘How do you get a college kid to go to yoga if their whole life revolves around pizza, beer, and studying?’”

The answer, says Curameng, was a postcard that basically told students that the best cure for a hangover is a yoga class. “Yoga is not designed to get us to stop doing all the bad stuff,” Curameng says. “It’s designed to help us balance it out.”

College Park Yoga’s unorthodox approach—conversational, brash, and sometimes silly—rattles some who think that yoga, and the way it’s sold, should be quiet and decorous. Curameng talks about one response she received after a recent email blast:

“This woman wrote that my grammar sucks and that I have the worst vocabulary, and how could I possibly advertise yoga with such an overly casual tone.”

Ultimately, we each have to locate for ourselves the line between dignity and pandering. For some, the ubiquity of young, pretty women on the covers of magazines and products is just using sex to sell yoga. For others, there’s no conflict between modern morays and yogic spirituality. The real test of our marketing is intention and truth. For teachers and entrepreneurs like Curameng, to not be themselves would be the paramount sin.

Marketing as a Spiritual Practice

If we think of marketing as a spiritual practice in tune with our yoga, then we can distill a few key principles:

Use the yamas and niyamas. The guiding principles of yoga found in Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, says Birch—virtues such as compassion, truthfulness, nonstealing—should be the yardstick for your marketing.

Don’t miss practice. Teach for a long time, practice yoga every day, and don’t expect dividends anytime soon. When asked how she accumulated her massive following of students, Birch replied, “I haven’t missed a day of practice since 1971. That’s my methodology.”

Have a beginner’s mind. “Another thing for newer teacher to do is to start by teaching beginners,” says Ezraty. “Start slowly, from the ground up; align yourself with a decent facility; show up every day—and you’ll make it.”

Know your audience, know yourself. Self-study is one of the yamas. Know your own intention for teaching. “Be today what you want to be tomorrow,” says Ezraty. Careful observation and disciplined use of energy are two more. “Are you being wasteful?” asks Curameng. “[Marketing is] not just handing flyers to someone who is never going to walk into a yoga class.” Consider your audience’s needs when promoting, and then target those needs with economy. “Effective marketing is really expressing yourself in few words and with clarity,” Curameng says. In the end, keeping your highest self in mind will balance you on the narrow path between exploitive marketing on the one hand and diminished potential on the other.