The road to becoming a financially solvent, full-time yoga teacher can be confusing, bumpy, and plenty twisted. It has existential potholes larger than the real ones on I-75 in Detroit, such as, "Is it OK to commodify a spiritual practice and philosophical system?" or "What happens to me internally when I assess my worth as a teacher according to the size of my bank account"? or, worst, "Did I really just see that student of mine as another $4?"
As you navigate these questions and more, you will also encounter less philosophical conundrums, such as, "How do the finances of this nontraditional profession work, and will I be able to pay rent this month?" Only you can answer questions of your being, so let's start here on the material plane. What are the nitty-gritty, day-to-day financial issues you can expect if you take the plunge into teaching yoga? And how can you prepare yourself to afford doing what you love?
Cost-Related Mountains and Molehills
The single most challenging financial issue that new yoga teachers face is income fluctuation. Teaching yoga is—for better and worse—not a typical hourly or salaried vocation in which you can easily determine how much money you will make every month. Yoga teachers typically work at several different studios and receive both hourly and commission pay, which adds up to an income that varies substantially from month to month.
Let's do the math: Say you teach 10 classes per week (a fairly normal class load for a teacher expecting organic vegetables at mealtime), and they are based on commission. If January treats you well and you average 12 students per class at a rate of $4.50 per student (this is fairly generous for a newer teacher, but let's go for it), you will total $540 per week. Multiplied by four weeks and you've grossed $2,160 for your commission-based classes. Not too shabby.
Now, sadly, August comes along and you average eight students per class. Multiply that times your commission rate of $4.50 you will receive $36 per class. At seven commission classes a week for four weeks, you can expect $1,008 for the month. So you see, future teacher, your income can easily vary by some $1000 from month to month. This isn't necessarily bad news, since you can do things that partially stabilize such vacillations. However, it is important that you understand that these fluctuations will govern your financial reality, so that you may plan accordingly.
Along with this income fluctuation, you're also going to contend with another significant financial hurdle as a yoga teacher: You are responsible for your own benefits. Plain and simple. No subsidized health care, paid vacations, or paid sick time. Yes, it's a bummer not to get paid when you take much-needed time off, but the real hit comes when you write the check to your health care provider every month. There is a range of plans and services, and, of course, there are regional cost differences, but health care premiums for individual payers are expensive and increasing significantly every year. So, when you're looking at your expense budget, don't forget to include these costs.
Speaking of insurance, there is something else that you need to consider at the outset: liability insurance. Yes, yoga teachers get sued. Not at the rate of cigarette companies, but this is a real profession with real people and real legal responsibilities. In fact, recently I was asked to be an "expert" witness for the defense team of a local teacher. I declined the offer, but it just goes to show that lawsuits do occur. Fortunately, comprehensive coverage is not terribly expensive. It typically ranges from $150 to $250 per year.
Beyond the insurance horizon, there are other business costs that a yoga teacher needs to manage. Just like any other business, this one is competitive. You won't need to cut any throats, but you do have to participate in basic business practices that generate and retain clientele. Namely, you should have a well-designed website, business cards, brochures, and flyers. The cost of this marketing collateral varies depending on your location and your own design skills, but it is extremely important. You must invest in your business, particularly in your visual materials. By doing so, you make your professionalism visible, which improves how you are perceived—and how you perceive yourself.
The last direct cost of doing business is your accountant. Get one—someone who knows about independent business and independent contracting. It will be the best $125-$175 per hour you will ever pay.
Diversify, Diversify, Diversify
If you want to pay your rent as a yoga teacher, you need to work diligently, consistently, and intelligently. So before we decide that you are going to teach 10,000 classes a week to generate revenue, let's be smart and deal with an important concept: diversification. As a yoga teacher, you will need to diversify your income sources, not only to insulate yourself from inevitable income fluctuations but also to broaden your access to new students.
Your options will range considerably depending on your location, experience, skills, training, and so forth. So, to be simple, let's pretend that you live in a fair-sized market with multiple studios and gyms, and that you are a new but well-trained and affable teacher. You will be wise to maintain a profile in three diverse types of teaching gigs: studios that pay a commission on each student, studios that pay an hourly rate, and a business (or two) that pays an hourly rate for employee yoga classes. Each of these sources has pros and cons, but together they provide a sound work portfolio. If you can spread yourself among these three sources, the hourly rates will protect your income from extreme fluctuations, and the compensation-based classes will help you build your clientele (and income) over time. Of course, you don't want to spread yourself too thin, but one of the upsides of being an independent contractor is that you can work wisely to generate multiple paychecks.
Staying with the concept of diversification, your checkbook will be buoyed by generating one-on-one clientele. Most of your classes will be in the morning and late afternoon or evening, leaving you with an empty middle of the day. If you can fill some of the time by teaching private clients instead of sipping soy chai, you just may be able to afford those new Lululemon capris.
The last revenue source for a relatively new teacher to explore is teaching a few local workshops throughout the year. Your options may expand over the years, but when you're a novice, simply approach your studio (or others nearby) and pitch them a workshop idea. I used to make the mistake of waiting for an invitation. While those do come in much more frequently than they used to, a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit on your part will go a long way. Teaching workshops is wonderful for a million reasons, but one is that they tend to be financially rewarding. Ask to receive 50 to 70 percent of the net revenue for the workshop, advertise it well, and you may end up making $300 or more for an afternoon of work. I don't know any professional who wouldn't jump at that opportunity.
Value Your Day Job—Or Its Skills
Toward the end of my teacher training, Rodney Yee made one of his outlandish blanket remarks, which I've always appreciated for their candor. He said, "You need to realize that this two-year teacher training may have just trained you to stand in line at the soup kitchen." He was affirmative in other ways, but he was honest about the difficulty of "making it" as a full-time teacher. Teaching yoga is an extremely new profession, and we don't have much historical data that leads us to say, "Yes, I expect it to follow such-and-such a cycle." So your guess is as good as mine about the long-term possibility of living the lifestyle that you want to live as a yoga teacher.
For now, then, let's think outside the mat and consider what other yoga-affiliated income sources exist. If you have writing skills, you may be able to put them to work writing for any number of magazines. More and more publications are turning to journalists to write their yoga articles, but if you have good skills and experience, consider pitching a story or two to any magazine that features yoga. I've seen yoga articles not just in Yoga Journal but in publications from Cosmopolitan to Martha Stewart Living to Cooking Light. So be creative and see where your writing experience may lead you.
Yoga business administration, studio and teacher website development, and studio management are also possible second jobs in the yoga world that may help you make ends meet. If you have pre-existing skills or even just strong inclinations toward any of these areas, you will be wise to pair them with your teaching. Such jobs may add enough income and consistency to help you weather the ups and downs of your teaching revenue.
Lastly, if you really want to be a teacher, you may have to keep your day job—or get a new second job—for a little while. Like anything, making a living teaching yoga takes time, patience, and consistency. A second job may afford you the means to develop yourself as a teacher and a business owner.
So, if you feel called to be a full-time yoga teacher, then go for it—intelligently and passionately. Determine a budget that is reasonable for you and stick to it. Sure, you may have to buy conventional apples once in a while, but it's worth it. And, as anyone should do before they make a career change, save money before you make the leap. Your experience teaching yoga will be priceless, so please, approach it with enough financial savvy to fully enjoy it.