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A successful Boston-area yoga studio has set a new standard for how yoga studios compensate their teachers. Last month, Down Under School of Yoga announced its decision to forego the more typical “independent contractor” model and make every teacher on their staff an employee—even those who only teach a few classes per week. This means that all teachers are now eligible for sick days and retirement funds, and full-time teachers (who teach 12 classes or more per week) are offered health insurance.
“The reason most yoga teachers are independent contractors is because they’re being exploited,” says Justine Wiltshire Cohen, director of Down Under, which has three locations in the Boston area. “If you teach one class for me you are an employee, and the only benefit that is tied to the number of classes you teach is health care.”
Wiltshire Cohen argues that the current American paradigm of hiring most yoga teachers as independent contractors is antithetical to the principles of yoga.
“Yoga’s dirty little secret is the vast majority of yoga studios are still calling employees independent contractors, so they don’t have to give security and benefits,” she says. “It is almost impossible to make a living as a yoga teacher this way. The practice is meant to cultivate single focus, but 99 percent of teachers are traveling all over the city (from studio to studio). Very few have weekends, let alone two days off in a row.”
Wiltshire Cohen believes the onus is on studio owners to break this cycle and put teachers first. “You can’t teach if you’re exhausted,” she says. “It’s a marvelously complex thing to plan a yoga class. No human being on earth could do that 30 times a week. It becomes rote, and teachers can’t keep it up longer than a couple of years. Then they give up, go back to their ‘real’ (corporate) job.”
Down Under’s decision is in line with the Massachusetts Independent Contractor Law, which suggests that in most cases, when a yoga teacher regularly teaches yoga on site, it is indicative of that person being an employee, rather than an independent contractor. While some teachers may actually be independent contractors (depending on the facts of their arrangement with the company), it is likely that many are actually employees, according to the law. (Every state has different interpretations of independent contractor law and employee law, notes Andrew Tanner, chief ambassador for Yoga Alliance.)
The Cost of “Doing the Right Thing”
Wiltshire Cohen concedes that making every teacher an employee was an expensive and “daring” decision for Down Under, which is currently celebrating its 12th year in business.
“It has taken me 10 years to get to this point to undertake such an ambitious thing,” she says. "I’m getting calls from studios across the country wondering, ‘How are you doing this? This would bankrupt us.’"
After three and a half years of careful planning, and at a cost of more than $100,000, Down Under was able to make the shift, without raising the price of classes.
“We did not have $100,000-plus sitting around, and our team has overcome many hurdles, dips, and phases of fragility to pull this off,” Wiltshire Cohen says. “But my team has an unwavering commitment to the people who choose to make Down Under their home, to leading the way in the way in the American yoga dialogue, and to steadfast, intelligent planning for ambitious goals. These three qualities are the reasons we were able to afford this latest move. We also decided to open a third studio in Cambridge to help pay for this development and to ensure we can hold up roof. Stay tuned for a fourth location as we aim to get every teacher who wants health care to full-time.”
Why the Independent Contractor Model Will Persist
Nicki Doane, co-owner and director of Maya Yoga Studio in Maui, says she applauds Down Under’s decision to make every single yoga teacher on staff an employee, but personally doesn’t see it as something the industry can aspire to. “If I were required to employ each teacher [as an employee] and provide health benefits, sick days, etc., I could not operate my business,” she says. “I think it would be nice if the bigger, more successful studios did do the employee thing for their teachers if they could sustain it financially.”
Tanner also admires Down Under’s decision, but agrees that it might not be realistic or desirable for every studio or every teacher. “Certainly we think what Down Under is doing is amazing; they’re a leader and we want to applaud them. On the same token, every studio and teacher has to make those decisions on an independent basis. For teachers teaching a lot of classes, benefits like retirement and sick leave are amazing. For teachers teaching one class a week, they might just rather have all the money in their paycheck. If you’re an independent contractor, you can write off your expenses, e.g., your website, the classes you take.” Not to mention health insurance premiums.
Tanner credits Down Under’s hard-earned success with affording them the ability to make this pioneering decision, but says such a move would put other studios out of business.
“Certainly not every studio could do this. Paying all teachers as employees amounts to an 8–12 percent increase in payroll. When statistics tell us the average studio has a profit margin of 13 percent, that kind of increase is huge,” he says. “Some studios don’t have a classroom that can fit more than 12 people in it, so they’re limited as far as the amount of income they can make. It may have been impossible for Down Under to do this when they were renting a church.” (Down Under began in 2004 in a church hall.)
But since Down Under can afford to make such a shift, the fact that they are supporting teachers over profits is “incredibly admirable,” Tanner says. “This is an example of a very successful studio doing the right thing. I think they are showing the community something to aspire to. We’re excited about this model that they’re putting forward.”