To give or not to give: for most yoga teachers it's not even a question. We tend to be givers by nature, offering our time, our energy, and our expertise selflessly. But most of us have financial responsibilities that make karma margi—the path of purely selfless service pursued by the likes of Gandhi and Mother Teresa—impossible.
Finding a balance between work that puts others first and work that puts food on the table can be a real challenge. As Mary Kay Chryssicas, a children's yoga expert and author in Wellesley, Massachusetts, puts it, "People ask me to teach for free all the time. They assume I am just dabbling in yoga and have a big heart."
But, Chryssicas notes, yoga studio rents in the Boston area are "astronomical," and while she donates a large amount of her time, teaching free classes at inner city schools and giving to various charitable causes, her profession is not just a hobby but a business.
For many instructors, what is at stake is the very essence of what it means to give. "People who are drawn to teaching yoga are nurturers," says San Francisco-based teacher Rusty Wells. "We're vulnerable to offering away our skills, talents, and resources [for free]."
Too often, all that giving leaves teachers depleted—spiritually, physically, and financially.
Running From the Numbers
Generosity is a key tenet of yogic philosophy. Apariagraha, one of the five yamas, or ethical disciplines, requires yogis to give up anything they do not really need. Part of possessing only what one needs is charity: giving away the surplus to people who might need it more.
Giving may be at the core of a yogi's life, but, as B.K.S. Iyengar writes in Light on Yoga, "neither should one take anything without working for it or as a favor from another." In other words, compensation should be seen not as an entitlement but as something to be earned. Another way of looking at it is to assign value to your work: if you put in the honest time, you deserve to make a dime.
This kind of yogic economic analysis makes many of us cringe. Mixing business with the pleasure of giving just doesn't sit well with a lot of yoga teachers. Despite the celebrity retreats, flash mats, and bling adornments that are part of the modern yoga industry, teachers know that spiritual wisdom is not guaranteed by a six-figure salary. As Laura Noss, a Jivamukti teacher in San Francisco and owner of Social Planets, a public relations company that works exclusively with socially progressive companies and causes, observes, "Abundance can get a really bad rap."
Balancing the Spiritual Checkbook
How can teachers find the right balance between giving and paying the bills? According to Wells, it's not an either-or question, because the mere act of teaching is a service. "It doesn't matter if you're getting paid or not. You serve either way. But it's essential that your heart and mind are in the same place," he says.
Wells should know. He has been offering donation-based classes, where people pay what they can afford, for years. He says that offering a suggested donation, rather than simply offering classes for free, helps students see the value in yoga and, ironically, keeps them more committed than a free class might. A suggested donation also helps guide people who might feel they had to be overly generous or, conversely, not pay when they could actually afford to. Wells also uses "Shiva cards" that let people write a note or intention when they are not able to pay at all. These cards offer an alternative way to give by letting students offer their thanks with their words, not just their wallets.
In addition to donation-based yoga, Wells is a paid teacher at Yoga Tree in San Francisco and offers master classes and trainings on a sliding scale at a separate studio. Wells also teaches a group of elderly students for free. This kind of balance between paid and unpaid work, he says, lets teachers "do wonders for people who are isolated or have other issues that would prevent them from finding the mind-body benefits of yoga."
Mary Kaye Chryssicas also creates balance between for-a-fee classes at her studio, Buddhaful Kids Yoga, and free instruction in underserved communities in the Boston area. She says that the free classes are often the most rewarding. For example, one of her public school students once asked her to donate a day of yoga as a birthday present to the child's mother. By the end of the day, the mother, who was originally from outside the U.S. and was skeptical about yoga when the day began, said she felt she had been "brought home" by her introduction to asana.
In general, Chryssicas says, yogis enjoy teaching for free because the teaching is its own reward. But "when my bank account's low, it's a wake-up call—this doesn't make sense. If I [teach for free] all the time, I take away from my own family."
For Noss, the balance of money and meaning is built in to the blended career track she has chosen. She says that studying yoga "paved the way" for her to leave a high-intensity corporate career and found Social Planets as well as taking on teaching three Jivamukti classes a week.
Although the firm she heads is for-profit, it is exclusively focused on causes such as environmental protection and urban education reform. In order to work with Social Planets, clients not only must champion socially responsible causes but also have to sign a "karma clause."
"Basically, it's the yamas and niyamas," Noss says of the clause. "If clients don't abide by it, we cancel the contract."
Making It Work
There is no set formula for finding the right balance between business and karma, but teachers who have tackled the challenge offer a few tips for managing what Noss calls the "double bottom line" of paid work and good works.
Accept the Material World: Like it or not, our culture runs on money. In order to survive, many beginning teachers feel they have to teach full-time and burn out too quickly. Look at it the opposite way, says Noss, by starting slowly as a teacher while also maintaining another, possibly more lucrative job. "Then, you can make peace with money."
Let Karma Yoga Be a Chance to Learn: Giving your time to unpaid classes can enrich your teaching all around, says Wells. "Service lets you be more authentic in what you teach," he says, whether you are a novice or a seasoned teacher. On the flip side, Wells says, veteran teachers who may find themselves stuck in a bit of a rut can benefit from donating their time. He advises, "Offering free or donation-based classes to new people can awaken something that may have gone dormant—to make a connection with people who really just appreciate you being there."
Know Your Limits—and Don't Feel Guilty for Having Them: Chryssicas learned the hard way that never saying "no" to karmic teaching opportunities left her feeling frazzled. Now she sets limits, such as only donating five yoga birthday parties per year.
Maintain Your Own Practice: Giving yourself what you need is as important as giving to others. Meditation, journaling, and continuing education through teacher training are all important parts of self-nurturing. "Feed yourself so you can feed others properly," says Wells.
Stay Committed: Wells points out that he sees too many teachers who take on donation-based classes but then abandon them for other opportunities. Make sure you can commit to the people who are depending on you to be there, whether they are paying or not, he says.
Finally, Wells recommends keeping it local. When it comes to giving, he says, "many of us wait for a tsunami to come before we reach out to do some good in the world. My feeling is, there's need in our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to notice the people next door who need help. That is the pure form of yoga—trying to connect and give service to the community around us."