Whether she's chopping broccoli or baking brownies at Amrit Yoga Institute, Sharon Lee does it with a smile.
"I love volunteering in the kitchen here," says Lee, 70. "My yoga friends have become my extended family. We chant, sing, dance, and laugh, and through it all, we make wonderful food."
When Lee moved to Ocklawaha, Florida, five years ago to take care of her aging parents, Amrit, a residential yoga center in nearby Salt Springs, provided her with just what she needed: a welcoming community, retreat time in a forest by a lake, plus free daily yoga and meditation classes, which helped her transform her once-spotty practice into a steady, two-hour-a-day commitment.
"Volunteering at a yoga center can be of great help to yogis and yoginis," says Jaya Buckland, Amrit's director of operations. "But it helps yoga centers just as much. In fact, our volunteers lend a hand with pretty much everything we do."
From sweeping floors in the practice rooms to signing in students at the front desk, there's no end of tasks that yoga volunteers can perform. And since the recession has put the squeeze on yoga centers—and taken yoga classes financially out of reach for many students—the work study/yoga exchange system, in which yoga centers get free labor and volunteers get free classes, has become increasingly popular.
"Recruiting volunteers or work-study students is a growing trend," says Mahadev Chaitanya, a manager at Sivananda Ashram Yoga Ranch in Woodbourne, New York.
Want to glean the benefits of having volunteers at your studio? Here are 10 tips from yoga center managers who run successful yoga volunteer programs:
Spread the news that you're seeking volunteers through Facebook, Twitter, signs posted at your studio, email blasts, and volunteer-opportunity websites such as Idealist.org. Put a page about volunteering—and an application for it—on your studio's website. "Tell everyone you know, and tell them to tell everyone they know," says Rachel Zargo, a manager at Chicago's Moksha Yoga Center. "Word of mouth can have a huge impact."
Have applicants submit a resume and complete a checklist of skills. "Ask 'When are you available, and what are your talents?'" says Buckland. "Assess not just what a volunteer can do, but what he or she wants to do. A marketing whiz could help you create new ads. But maybe he or she yearns to do garden work after sitting in an office for too long."
Interviewing applicants face-to-face, watch for—and heed—potential red flags. Even for short-term, low-skilled positions, you may want to screen out applicants who have a spotty or unstable work history. For longer-term, higher-skilled positions, ask for a personal essay and a list references.
"We have a service agreement that spells out our expectations and explains exactly what our volunteers are signing on for," says Micah Mortali, the volunteer program manager at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. "This document serves a purpose similar to that of the legal waivers that yoga students sign. Volunteers commit to using our computers only for appropriate purposes. They agree that any intellectual property they create while helping here will remain the property of our center."
What tasks do you want volunteers to perform? Do you want them to commit to helping for six weeks, or six months? Is it better for them to work set shifts, or drift in as needed? Peg your precise needs—and spell them out in a contract that volunteers sign.
Conduct hands-on orientation and walk new recruits through every step of their work—then provide them with mentors, a volunteer manual and ongoing support. The investment will pay off—and you may wind up training your next staff member. Consider Wayne Nato, who volunteered at Kripalu after taking just a single yoga class—and who is now a full-time, front-desk employee who practices yoga for an hour a day and just completed teacher training.
In exchange for volunteer service, studios sometimes offer unlimited classes or class passes. Discounts on books, clothes, props and workshops are common—as are certificates of thanks, free T-shirts, and volunteer appreciation days.
Throw potlucks or parties for volunteers, and encourage them to forge friendships at your studio. Team spirit can help your studio feel more welcoming—and also help your community at large. Consider the good that Minneapolis's CorePower Yoga Stadium Village has done by inviting people to volunteer not only at its studio, but also at local homeless shelters and HIV/AIDS service organizations.
Broach Problems Lovingly
Does a volunteer gripe about stuffing envelopes? Try another assignment—and some emotional coaxing, too. "Remind volunteers to think of their service as an offering," says Swami Priyaananda, a coordinator at the Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville in Buckingham, Virginia. "Suggest that they practice mindfulness and focus on their breath as they work." If problems persist, do your best to remedy them. "If you realize in the end that you need to let volunteers go, make sure to do it gently," says Buckland. "Assure them that they're part of the community, and ask them to check in with you again in six months."
Check in Frequently
Make a point to ask volunteers how you can improve their experience—and your studio as a whole. "Twice a year, we have a meeting and ask them for feedback," says Moksha's Zargo. "We brainstorm together in communion, and that strengthens our yoga community."