Something for Nothing?


By Dan Charnas  |  

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, when Yogi Bhajan began teaching Kundalini Yoga in America, many of his first students were free spirits: hippies, drifters, and dropouts. These flower children didn’t have many possessions or money for luxuries such as yoga instruction. But Yogi Bhajan always charged for his classes.

“Empty-handed you come, empty-handed you go,” he used to say.

Yogi Bhajan believed in this maxim so strongly that, before classes, he would scatter change in the parking lot for his students to collect, rather than let them in for free.

This clearly reflects the Kundalini way of thinking about money and yoga: Money isn’t a bad thing. It’s just another form of energy. And energy must be exchanged. Students and teachers aren’t required to renounce the material world and become monks in order to learn or teach. You can be a householder or a business owner and achieve yoga. In fact, as Yogi Bhajan once said, prosperity is our birthright.

Contrast Kundalini with Ananda Marga, a more ascetic school of yogic thought: Yoga is for the good of all, so it should be free for all. Teaching yoga is seva, or blessed service, so teachers shouldn’t charge for their services. An exchange of money would sully the priceless teachings by introducing a profit motive.

In short, there are some people who believe that yoga should be completely free, and others who think that charging for teaching is essential.

Most teachers sit in the middle of this debate. We are the product of the Westernization and commodification of yoga. Some say that in creating careers and businesses out of our teaching, we can’t teach with purity. Others counter that it’s the very ability to charge for our teaching that assists the spread of yoga across the globe.

So who is right? It turns out that we all may be.

The Price of Yoga

Golden Bridge NYC is a new yoga center in Manhattan, the sister studio to Golden Bridge, a successful yoga school in Los Angeles owned by Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa. As one of the teachers at the new center, I got a fresh perspective on the relationship between yoga and money.

At first, Shivanter, the creative director of the studio, distributed free passes to teachers and students. For weeks, attendance remained spotty.

Then, at a teachers’ meeting, Shivanter and Hari Kaur Khalsa, the director of education, announced a new direction. Instead of giving classes away for free, Golden Bridge NYC would sell $40 passes to new students, allowing them unlimited attendance for a month.

In the coming days, the number of students at the center exploded. The energy of Golden Bridge NYC totally shifted. My own classes jumped from two or three people to 15 to 20. When I gave out free passes to friends, none came. When I offered the $40 deal, friends came regularly.

What happened? I asked Hari Kaur—a 20-year teaching veteran and coauthor of A Woman’s Book of Yoga—what she thought of the phenomenon.

“I think it’s about the happiness of the exchange,” she says. “It’s the joy of the exchange, the fun of it, the dignity of it. And it is a very good deal, for everybody. But if you meet a teaching or a teacher that has value for you and you leave without some kind of offering, you sometimes feel indebted.”

The prospect of charging for classes can leave some teachers with pangs of guilt. Lalita Dunbar, an independent hatha teacher in New York, was never paid when she taught yoga at Manhattan’s Sivananda center. Like many instructors from that tradition, Dunbar viewed teaching as seva, a selfless service.

“I was depleting my saving account to teach,” Dunbar says. “Then one morning I woke up and said, ‘Hang on a minute. I’m taking this money away from my two children and giving it away to other people who can afford to pay for a class.’”

Dunbar set her price by asking other teachers what they charged, and by taking into account her own financial needs. She finally settled on $75 for a private lesson. Dunbar says it took a year for her to get comfortable with it, and more time to raise her price more than $100.

Paying for yoga in order to feel honorable and complete about the transaction is one way to think about the spiritual value of such an exchange. Another is the principle of cognitive dissonance: When I get something for free, I may subconsciously feel it lacks value. When I pay for something, I am more likely to be invested and engaged, both physically and spiritually.

In other words, presents equal presence.

The Gift of Yoga

Dada Rainjitananda, a 46-year-old Brazilian native, is a monk who teaches Ananda Marga yoga in Corona, a working-class neighborhood in the heart of Queens, New York.

Rainjitananda describes Ananda Marga as a means toward self-realization and service to humanity. One of its central tenets is to teach yoga for free.

“Our goal is to teach yoga,” Rainjitananda says, “not to make it a commercial enterprise.

“The idea is that yoga should be available to everybody. We feel that yoga is a basic right for a human being. And being a basic right, one should not be deprived of yoga just because one doesn’t have money to pay for it.”

In the six years since his arrival in the United States, Rainjitananda himself has encountered Americans’ incredulity about the prospect of getting something for nothing.

“I had one experience,” he recalls, “when a person called about yoga and asked, ‘How much do you charge for your classes?’ I said, ‘They are free.’ Then the person just said, ‘Thank you,’ and hung up. I was thinking that maybe if people feel that something is free, there may be other strings attached.”

Ananda Marga, even with its philosophy of selfless service, has since come to terms with the complex realities of money. Before Rainjitananda came to America, he never charged for a yoga class. Now the Ananda Marga center in Queens posts suggested donations for classes and accepts money from those with the means to pay.

“The fee is secondary,” Rainjitananda says. “The idea is to teach to a maximum number of people.”

The Balance of Yoga

It’s the idea of reaching a maximum number of people with maximum integrity that unites both the Kundalini and Ananda Marga approaches.

“Money by itself isn’t anything,” Golden Bridge NYC’s Hari Kaur reflects. “The issue is that the relationship between the student and teacher has integrity and dignity.”

Here are some guiding thoughts about balancing both the price and the gift of yoga for yourself and your students:

Seva and Work Exchange: If students are unable to pay for classes, try to find an arrangement that makes them feel honorable and complete. For yoga centers, work exchange is a common way to do this. But Hari Kaur makes a clear distinction between work exchange and seva: “Seva comes spontaneously from the heart,” she says. “It’s not about expecting something back.”

Community Classes: To survive, a yoga center must be run as a serious business. But most yoga centers take their obligations to students of lesser means just as seriously. Offering free or discounted community classes is a great way to bring balance to the karmic questions of service versus commerce.

Value Yourself, Value the Teachings: “Price setting,” Hari Kaur says, “is one of the hardest things for yoga teachers to do.” Yoga has Infinite value. So how do you set a value on something that’s priceless? You can’t. Remember that as yoga teachers, we’re not “selling” yoga. Rather, we’re answering a Divine call. Some of us, like Rainjitananda, are called to be monks. Others, like myself, work within the marketplace.

“If I lived in a cave in the Himalayas, I wouldn’t have to charge for yoga,” says Dunbar. “But I live in New York City.”

True yoga, I think, can be found in both callings, and in both places.

Dan Charnas has been teaching Kundalini Yoga for more than a decade. He has studied under Gurmukh and the late Yogi Bhajan. He teaches at Golden Bridge NYC in New York.