This story is part of a series covering the future of yoga during and after the coronavirus pandemic. Here, we take a look at the challenging issues the yoga industry faces. Read more about the role unionization may play in addressing those challenges in our first story: As COVID-19 Reveals the Cracks in the Yoga Industry, Could a Universal Teachers’ Union Help Reshape Our Community?
One month prior to the announcement of the permanent closures of the YogaWorks New York studios that were announced in April, I spoke with the changemakers on the front lines of unionization efforts on a Zoom call; a handful of YogaWorks NY teachers who formed the collective, Unionize Yoga—a first-ever yoga teachers’ union to become certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Accompanied by an official from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), the trade union that represents them, the teachers discussed the important issues that were plaguing our industry long before the coronavirus pandemic had arrived, including a lack of diversity, job security, and benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave.
It was the early days of COVID-19. Social distancing measures and sanitization protocols were mounting as the word “quarantine” quickly became the new normal. Industry-wide shutdowns of yoga studios and cancelations of retreats and festivals soon rippled throughout the country and around the world, New York City prepared to shelter-in-place.
Here’s what I asked them—and what I learned about what the future of yoga could look like in a post-pandemic world.
These conversations have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Is Industry-Wide Diversity and Equity Even Possible?
One of the biggest problems perpetuated by the yoga and wellness industry is its homogeneity and reinforcement of existing financial and racial privilege. Deidra Demens, a Unionize Yoga member and YogaWorks teacher, says that she’s grown accustomed to walking into a yoga studio and being the only person of color as both a student and teacher—even in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world. It was easy in the beginning of her career, she says, to normalize this issue. But somewhere between her first teacher training in 2011 and her second in 2017 (neither were at YogaWorks; Demens had been a teacher at YogaWorks in Brooklyn and Manhattan since late-2017), it was actually her students who started to bring it up.
Demens, who is African American, said she struggled to find a time slot at a studio that was actually lucrative. “I’ve taught at so many studios in New York and at almost all of those studios I’ve gotten emails from managers and studio owners saying we need more men teachers—but I’ve never gotten an email saying we need more teachers of color,” she said. “They’ve [studio owners] said that people like male teachers, but I’ve said, how do you know that people don’t like black teachers—or any teacher of color?”
It’s already hard enough for white individuals to make a living as yoga teachers—there aren’t enough jobs; we’re all too familiar with the unsettling statistic that for every one yoga teacher there are two more in training. In a market that’s already oversaturated with teachers who can afford the costs of teacher training—ranging anywhere from a fast-track online program for $500 to an in-depth offering with a renowned yogalebrity for $10,000—imagine what it’s like for minority groups vying for teaching positions who are, by the sheer demographics of the industry, outnumbered by the white majority.
Demens says she’s hopeful for what a potential teachers’ union could mean for diversity in the industry at large. She’s looked to history for inspiration, and learned about the black sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, who had formed a union back in the 1960s. She says they too faced issues of unfair pay, and a lack of job security and safety. At the time, she says, black people were not allowed to organize—but following two deaths from a garbage truck malfunction and the city’s refusal to replace the defective equipment, the workers went on strike. “They went through so much, but they never gave up,” Demens said. “They fought hard and they eventually won—and not just for themselves; what they did impacted the civil rights movement and the fight for labor rights.”
Demens points out how the win in Memphis helped many black people shift into the middle class. “I think many people, myself included, often feel overlooked—and that I have no voice or say in what goes on in this industry or how I’m viewed in the community,” she said. While Demens doesn’t know whether a yoga union could be as powerful or effective as what had happened in Memphis, she acknowledges how unions can help people feel supported and of significance, and empower them to stand up for what they believe in.
“Diversity is an issue everywhere—and it’s not really seen as something that’s missing. In general, we check a box if we have one person of color on a teaching schedule. It’s not fair to not even be considered. It’s not fair that even when I’m given a chance, it’s Monday at 2:30 in the afternoon. Who’s gonna come to that class? My goal has been to do what I can to make yoga available to the people that I know—people that look like me—and understanding how to meet those people where they are. I think that a yoga union would help make yoga classes available to more people. I’ve seen efforts toward this—my teachers offer scholarships to women of color. It’s healing to see those shifts and that thought and effort. I once taught a restorative class in Crown Heights [a historically black neighborhood in Brooklyn] at 4 p.m., to these women who were total BFFs; these old black women who looked just like my grandmother. The way they looked at me it was like they were proud of me, and when I looked at them I saw my grandmother. So when I teach now, I act as if I were teaching my grandmother. I’m not going to shout at at her; I’m going to set her up in the pose. As an Iyengar teacher all I can do is give commands—so it made me think about how could get more women like my grandmother to come to my class; more women like this. Whats missing is we need more stories like that. I want to help get these conversations going. One of my students recently reached out to me and asked me to start teaching online classes. So I started to build a schedule that works for me. Before I had to take what I could get. Now I can run my classes the way I want and give my students what they need. An Asian women came to one of my classes to “rest her brain”—she said she was hurt by the toll the pandemic had taken on China, so I offered her restorative and pranayama. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before because I was always told I had to get people moving. Now I can help people and give them what they actually need. With so many people laid off and knowing that there’s some benefit they can get from class, I ask myself how do I make my clases more available and accessible to them.” –Deidra Demens, 500-hour Certified Yoga Teacher, Level 1 Iyengar Teacher
What Does Job Security Look Like in An Uncertain Future?
Some teachers may say they’re paid a fair wage, but there are countless others who would argue they’re not. There are other teachers who would probably say that they've never been paid for their classes at all. In my personal experience as a teacher, I’ve made anywhere from $5 to $150 for a single hour session, depending on whether I was paid per head ($5 = 1 student came) or a flat rate (corporate yoga or a yoga festival appearance).
In most cases, yoga teachers work as independent contractors rather than as part-time employees of a studio, which, as the union points out, can save the studio money on unemployment insurance and workers compensation. YogaWorks has been an anomaly in that regard, since its teachers are employed either part- or full-time, and are also eligible for certain benefits. But YogaWorks teachers have to work at least 10 hours per week to be eligible for certain benefits—and Unionize Yoga believes that those benefits should be available to all. Still, generally speaking, yoga teachers rarely have job security, nor can most of them make a reasonable living by teaching alone. There are many teachers who make it work by piecing together income from multiple studios, while others may rely solely on one because they’ve signed a non-compete clause. What happens when a small, independent studio is struggling and has to suddenly close, and then those teachers are out of work? Or what happens when the economy reopens and we’re on the other side of the pandemic—how many studios will even survive and, how many teachers will continue to be out of work? Much like the service industry and aspects of the gig economy, the lack of job security in the yoga world is being illuminated by the current economic crisis.
During quarantine and in survival mode, teachers have begun to realize the potential for generating revenue streams online without a brick-and-mortar studio. An unprecedented number of studios and teachers alike have migrated to live stream classes and joined the Zoom boom, which, depending on time of day, scale of online and social media presence, and whether or not they’re giving content away for free, may or not be working out. There are teachers who’ve had upwards of 100 students in a single class, while others may see just a handful in less desirable timeslot (what is the new “prime time” for quarantine practice, anyway?).
Other teachers, meanwhile, have expressed worry about those who’ve been giving their content away for free, explaining that it devalues their expertise. Veronica Perretti, a former YogaWorks teacher and former NY teacher manager for YogaWorks, started her own online platform outside of the company mid-March, just following the announcement of the initial temporary studio closures. Though she had voted against the NY teachers’ union last fall, she’s still an advocate for teacher-owned businesses and believes that teachers should always charge what they’re worth. “I replaced my monthly YogaWorks income in the matter of one week with my new online membership program,” Perretti said. “I think this is the next frontier of teaching yoga.” She says this is a moment for teachers to take ownership of their business outside of the studio and create a community that knows no bounds. “I don’t need YogaWorks to give me a platform to teach,” she says. “I’m creating it for myself.”
See also Teaching Yoga in the Age of COVID-19
Just prior to the arrival of the novel coronavirus in the United States, Unionize Yoga founding member Markella Los, gave up her group classes at YogaWorks and her position as a teacher trainer, and subsequently, her involvement with the YogaWorks NY union. Her shift to focus on one-on-one instruction and online community building was a timely one, and now, Los is committed to helping other teachers outside of YogaWorks mobilize and create solutions to help make the profession more sustainable. In May, Los launched The Connective, an online “teacher-powered” collective that aims to diversify the yoga industry and raise its standards. How The Connective holds up in a post-coronavirus world remains to be seen, since running your own business equates to even less protection when it comes to job security, but Los seems optimistic, despite that the new normal could potentially pose more risk for teachers.
“The current crisis is highlighting issues and insecurities of what it means to be a teacher that a lot of us already knew were there. Who gets to decide what the yoga industry looks like and who’s in it? What I could see happening is that inequities are further perpetuated, but in an online forum. I could see a direction in which business continues as usual, but in the ‘wild west.’ But what I can also see is an opportunity to course-correct; to organize and have conversations around online teacher-owned businesses. There’s multiple ways for people to organize—it’s only limited by your collective creativity. Teachers have been talking for so long about the idea or need for a yoga teachers’ union, and it never happened. It felt like it couldn’t be done. The fact that we’ve shown it can be done shifts the scope of what's possible. Teachers reach out to us to find out what we did and how to start something on their own. We have a voice, we’re starting conversations, we’re connecting and being honest with what we’re all dealing with. Our goal has always been to raise industry standards overall—and for the profession to become more sustainable for anyone who wants to be in it. For far longer than I have been teaching, people have talked about the idea or need for a yoga teachers’ union. They talked about it for so long and it never happened; it felt like it couldn’t be done. The fact that we showed that it could be done shifts the scope of what's possible. It’s been an amazing facilitator for conversation—teachers reach out to find out what we did and how to start something on their own. We’re starting important conversations; we’re connecting and being honest with what we are all dealing with. That’s been a hugely important profound shift. –Markella Los, 500-hour Certified Yoga Teacher; Yoga Tune Up YogaWorks, Trauma-Conscious Yoga Method, FRC Mobility Specialist
Are Yoga Teachers Entitled to Healthcare, Regardless of Hours Worked?
As London-based teacher Norman Blair wrote in his blog, “How do we stay well when working in the wellness industry?” Whenever a teacher gets sick, they may ‘power through’ and teach anyway (it’s only an hour, right?), putting the health of their students at risk as well as their own. The alternative, of course, is to find a sub. Either way, the teachers who are independent contractors don’t get paid when they don’t teach. Worse, when a teacher is injured and out of work, how can they continue to make ends meet? The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how easily anyone can become ill, regardless of their physical health. It’s a deadly reminder of the fact that millions of Americans still live without health insurance.
Unionize Yoga believes that, like any skilled worker, yoga teachers need and deserve benefits like healthcare. YogaWorks teachers, unlike most teachers at independent studios, are regular employees of the company, not independent contractors, which is why they’re eligible for perks like sick pay and which is also why they could legally form a union within the company. And though YogaWorks employees who work 10 classes per week (or equivalent) are considered full-time, according to Unionize Yoga, no teacher at YogaWorks NY had worked that many hours. The number of hours worked, of course, does not include the countless ‘invisible hours’ (class prep, travel, training, etc.), involved in teaching a class. Unionize Yoga says that healthcare benefits should be made available to all teachers, regardless of hours worked.
The common practice, at least in the U.S., is that health insurance usually applies only to those who work full-time, or part-time at a certain number of hours. But Unionize Yoga says that there’s no reason why a part-time teacher can’t be entitled to that same fundamental right. YogaWorks, however, states otherwise, citing the company’s already existing benefits package as a rare exception in the yoga world—and the only company in the industry to provide a sick leave policy. "YogaWorks is the front runner in the industry in providing benefits like health care coverage and 401k plans to full-time teachers, while also making sure that every one of our teachers is an employee with all applicable benefits, including wage and hour protection, unemployment insurance, sick leave pay, family leave, and workers compensation,” a spokesperson from YogaWorks told me in an email. “We believe our extraordinary retention among our teachers, many spending decades with the company, is a testament to our commitment to them and to the above market wages we provide in all of our markets.”
David DiMaria, a representative of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers’ (IAMAW) Eastern territory, works with new groups who’ve organized to form a union. He explains that independent contractors are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which allows unions to legally form within companies. However, much like Uber drivers did in New York, independent contractors can still organize—just not within the same legal framework of a formally recognized union that provides workers with additional rights. DiMaria understands the political and financial challenges that come with fighting for healthcare, but believes that if yoga teachers were to organize in greater numbers across different employers, that it’s doable in the long term. Much like actors’ unions, which rely on contributions made by multiple employers, he says that following a similar model could mean that no one employer would have to bear the high cost of insurance for their employees alone, and that teachers could qualify for benefits regardless of the number of hours worked.
“It’s a really tough issue because of the nature of work. Some teachers teach one class a week and some teach five. We are looking at ways to provide some level of benefits for everyone, but we are so early in the process that it’s too soon to tell. We are bargaining over different issues and it’s all contingent on agreeing to the whole contract, we won’t have an agreement until both sides ratify. But when we last met with the company there was movement on their end. Think of it like a junior high dance, it begins with people on opposite sides of the room, but eventually everyone starts dancing.” –David DiMaria, Eastern Territory Organizing Lead, IAMAW
Should Studios Prioritize Teachers’ Pay Over Student Numbers?
Yoga studios, no matter what size, exist because of yoga teachers. And many teachers have said that large companies such as YogaWorks and CorePower, which are owned by private equity firms, could compensate their teachers with better living wages (the teacher-led lawsuit against CorePower in 2019 cited underpaid wages). Unionize Yoga says that a fair wage is one that increases over time with experience, and considers other factors such as the rising costs of living. (A quick disclosure: As a former YogaWorks NY teacher, my flat rate, when averaged over time, was still superior when compared with the smaller studios that had paid me per head.) The problem with YogaWorks’ pay scale, however, as some YogaWorks NY teachers have said, had been the lack of transparency about its pay system.
Christine Festa, a yoga teacher and coach in Southeast Florida who completed her 200- and 300-hour teacher trainings at YogaWorks NY and NJ, agrees, and says it’s the large companies who should be leading the industry by example. “There shouldn’t be all these different teachers at different pay rates,” she told me, flagging nepotism as one potential issue. “There should be a set structure that is shared among teachers so that all teachers understand where they stand in the mix of things; so that they know where they’ll go as they progress in their career.” Festa is notoriously outspoken on social media about problems within the industry at large, and coaches yoga teachers on how to become more self-sufficient by generating new revenue streams outside of studios.
Tamar Samir, another founding member of Unionize Yoga and a YogaWorks NY teacher since 2010, says she’s an advocate for teachers. She’s argued for transparency around pay, and for different ‘pay bands,’ or layers of pay, that increase based on experience (Samir has completed over 1,500 hours of training). She suggests that there has to be a way for both the studio and teacher to financially flourish together. Yet as an accomplished creative director and professor of design at Parsons School of Design and Pratt in New York, Samir doesn’t necessarily rely on teaching yoga to pay her bills. But when YogaWorks announced that it would close its Westside studio in late-2018 with only three weeks' notice, she realized just how fragile the industry can be for the average teacher. Though the company took measures to reassign teachers elsewhere, the relationships between those teachers and the students who’d been coming to their classes were broken—an entire community dissolved almost in an instant.
“One of the things I thought about after being in this industry for 10 plus years was that I have a lot less to lose than other people. It became very clear there were inequities, and I have seen the same patterns repeat over and over again. There’s a dichotomy between how yoga is presented in public and what teaching yoga is actually like behind-the-scenes. We see Instagram posts where teachers look beautiful, healthy, and peaceful, but all of us know that that's not actually the case at all. Many teachers are living in small apartments and earning under the poverty line. So maybe they’re accomplished on Instagram, but they’re also doing a waitressing or bartending job that they're not telling the world about. There's a kind of hypocrisy that’s built into the profession; you have to present yourself as an image of health and prosperity. It makes it harder for people to advocate for themselves. That’s why we’re the truth tellers—we’re telling people what a yoga teacher’s life is really like. Yoga is about solidarity and connectedness—which should be a no-brainer for yogis." –Tamar Samir, Creative Director and Yoga Teacher
Should Seniority and Experience Be Rewarded?
In most other professions, a worker receives a raise in their salary based on their performance, whether by appointment to a higher-level position based on seniority or through adequate compensation based on experience. The yoga industry, at large, has no such pay structure. In most cases, a teacher just out of teacher training may be paid the same base rate that increases per student as a teacher with 10 years or more of experience. This means that many teachers are rewarded for their personality and following, versus experience, while others may simply get lucky and secure lucrative time slots for their classes.
When compared with the restaurant industry, for example, a server with more seniority often gets the better section, and walks away with three times as much cash in their pocket on any given night as a less experienced server in another section. But many restaurants now have mandatory tip pooling systems in an attempt to be more fair to their employees across the board. While pooled class earnings for yoga teachers may not be the most practical solution, Unionize Yoga is lobbying for a transparent pay structure that rewards teachers based on their skills and experience, rather than leaving it up to the luck of the draw or a strong personality with a large social media presence to get ahead.
German-born Nora Heillman, a performance artist turned yoga teacher, moved to New York from Amsterdam in 2013 where she met her wife, Samir. She recalls the early days as an immigrant in New York when she took whatever work she could get, teaching very early or late at night for very little money. But after five years, exhausted and depleted, she found herself wondering how she’d be able to continue—or what would happen if she got sick or ever wanted to retire at some point.
As a yoga and meditation teacher with 13 years of experience and more than 1,600 hours of training, Heillman says she’s cycled through 12 studios in 5 years, many of which have closed, including 3 YogaWorks locations at the time of this interview (Heillman had been a teacher at YogaWorks since 2014). She recalls the frustration of getting to a place where she finally felt financially secure enough to pay her bills, just in time for another studio to close its doors. Heillman recalls the sense of urgency that followed the closure of the YogaWorks Westside location in 2018; the realization of the lack of sustainability in the profession— just as sustainability was becoming a buzzword, she says. That’s when she, Samir, and Los began their initial discussions that led to the early formation of the Teachers’ Initiative.
“There are teachers at YogaWorks who have been teaching for 25 years. We don’t have regular raises or evaluation meetings every year like other jobs, since that’s not a standard in the yoga world. Teachers have to fight for a raise or salary that they would like to see themselves at. And sometimes, after many years of teaching, maybe they’ll have a decent salary, but then a studio starts to limit classes and bring in new teachers at a lower rate who’ve just come out of training, because it’s less expensive for the studio. There’s no financial security for teachers with more experience. That’s why we’re advocating for teachers with the most experience, especially the ones who’ve been at the same studio for many years. They’re the ones who should have first access to classes opening up. There needs to be some career path for growth; knowing that your salary will go up if you stick with the company. Some teachers’ salaries haven’t gone up in 15 years at YogaWorks and at other studios, when now we pay $1,000 more dollars in rent per month than we did years ago. It’s a pity when a studio loses a highly qualified teacher because they’re burnt out and dropping out of the profession. I just take what is offered to me, but I know it’s the louder personalities who get $30 more per class. If you're not a fighter, you might be teaching for low pay your whole life. How would any of us have navigated the current crisis without having had the community we’ve created through the union? We really do support each other through all of this.” –Nora Heillmann, Yoga Teacher
The Next Step for Yoga
We have found ourselves in a moment where everything is changing and no one really knows what the post-COVID yoga world will be like—with or without a union. Digital platforms could morph into an amplified version of a popularity contest, rewarding only those who are highly skilled at self-promotion and social media marketing. Many studios will close and businesses will inevitably fail.
For those that survive and remain open, the future of yoga—at least the foreseeable one—is a different place then when we left it. A future that limits in-studio class offerings, ushers students into a building one-by-one to take their temperatures, and then caps the room at 6 to 8 students. A world where students are inhaling and exhaling into their face masks with their mats strategically placed six feet apart. A strange new reality where fears of germs are but a constant, where extreme disinfectant and sanitization measures put anyone who’s willing to walk into a studio on edge. In some ways, it would seem like going back to the way things were is like trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Maybe there is no going back. Maybe this this is our moment, as an industry, to change, collaborate, create, and innovate—to transcend beyond studio walls.
As we look toward the future, as uncertain as it may seem at present, perhaps we would all benefit from identifying what we don’t want the industry to look like by acknowledging what it isn’t. It’s certainly not the past nor is it our attachments to it. The solutions are not going to be found by forcing things to be as they once were. As my teacher and studio owner, Jill Sockman, said in a virtual town hall meeting on Zoom in May as she announced the permanent closure of her brick-and-mortar space in Raleigh, Blue Lotus, (where I had taught and practiced prior to the pandemic), “We’re not going to find ‘the yoga’ by fighting what is; we can’t avoid doing the hard thing because it’s uncomfortable.”