To Pay or Not to Pay for Yoga During the Coronavirus Shutdown

With classes offered on free platforms, including Zoom and Instagram Live, people are grappling with if and how to compensate teachers.
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You roll out your yoga mat in your living room, open your laptop, and Zoom into a yoga class with 20 unfamiliar faces sitting in Easy Pose. At the start of the session, the teacher asks the students in the Zoom room to share their intentions and hopes for the future, which are uncertain for many. At the end of class, the teacher humbly asks for donations via Venmo. You shrink inside, knowing your level of gratitude for the day’s practice won’t quite match your monetary offering.

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With studios shuttered and classes transitioning to digital, yoga teachers are simultaneously trying to keep students engaged while earning an income. They’ve taken their offerings to live streaming platforms, from Instagram to Zoom, but now find themselves struggling to figure out if and how much they should charge. This is our new normal, even if only temporary.

“This is an intense and unique time for so many of us,” says Anita Akhavan, the executive director at Off the Mat, Into the World, a nonprofit that offers digital and in-person training sessions and workshops through a yoga and social justice lens. “The opportunity to move onto an online platform for many instructors is a saving grace, however it’s also a brand-new endeavor and becoming quite overwhelming. There is nothing that can compete with an in-person experience, but right now we have to try,” she added. In this new world comes uncharted ethics, business, and equity considerations, including when to charge and when to pay for yoga, and how to navigate contract negotiations when you now teach online.

See also 7 Ways Yogis Can Practice Loving-Kindness in Response to COVID-19

The Additional Costs of Teaching Yoga Online During COVID-19

Should you be paying for those free yoga sessions, even if it’s offered on free social platforms like Instagram Live? The short answer is yes. “The studio, the physical space is not the offering. It’s what’s inside of the teacher, their expertise, their care—that is the offering,” said Detroit-based trauma-informed yoga and wellness practitioner Adria Moses, who is offering virtual yoga and meditation classes via Instagram Live and asking for donations via Cashapp, Venmo, and PayPal. “I think it’s important for yoga teachers to be compensated for their virtual sessions because of the time and energy they invest into their teachings."

Akhavan emphasized the unseen costs and additional labor yoga teachers now have to take on without the support of a traditional studio. “Where all business matters were conducted by studio owners, instructors are now in a place where they need to be their own business managers, tech support, and customer support, alongside being the instructor. Many are having to teach less, in order to navigate all the new roles they’re now playing.”

While heart-centered wellness practitioners want to be of service to their community during these challenging times with free and low-cost offerings, many yoga teachers have essentially become unemployed overnight. Corepower Yoga one of the country’s largest and most popular chains of yoga studios, has laid off yoga teachers from about 200 studios across the country since closing their doors on March 16th. In a letter to employees obtained by Business Den, Corepower stated uncertainty over when they would be able to rehire those laid off.

See also Teaching Yoga in the Age of COVID-19

The majority of yoga teachers are independent contractors, paid hourly, own their own studios, or work out of small businesses. This substantial group now finds themselves competing with both new and already established digital yoga teachers and businesses.

Yoga business coach Christine Festa stated in a video posted to Instagram “As teachers of studios you want to support these studios and if there’s an opportunity there to teach online at the same rate, you should definitely do it, but some studios want to record your content. And then have it available for selling or use afterwards. If you're going to give your content to a studio, you need to be compensated for it. … You should set up something where you get residual pay, and if this isn’t possible, I don’t think you should do it. It is unfair for studios to record content that you should rightfully own and profit off it at a later date.

Teachers also have to scramble to find ways to reconnect with the students they no longer have access to. “When the studios close, teachers lose direct access to vital information,” says Constanza Eliana Chinea, a yoga teacher and equity trainer. They no longer have access to emails, phone numbers, and other information about their students that they helped bring into the studio in the first place.

See also Save Your Local Yoga Studio

Students: Anything Helps

In the Hindu, Buddhist, Jainist and Sikh philosophies, dāna is the practice of generous giving. By supporting others through times of need, you are literally practicing yoga in action. If you have the means, consider taking your yoga off the mat and paying for your practice in the same way you would if you were to go to a physical class.

If you are financially struggling, consider finding other ways to offer support, such as signal boosting teacher offerings by sharing their posts, sharing your skills in a work-trade or pledging to pay it forward in the future when you do have more financial means to do so. “It’s crucial to support one another, and it’s important to promote and bolster each other’s activations,” said Moses. “I do that by sharing my fellow practitioners’ classes and happenings. There are millions of people practicing yoga, there is enough room for all of us.”

Teachers: How can you continue to make virtual sessions accessible while supporting your own financial needs?

Despite yoga being declared non-essential by the government, there are many who continue to rely on the practice as a means of self-care. Unfortunately for instructors, the economic toll of the pandemic has forced many people to cut down on costs, where there is not a lack of will to compensate instructors, but a lack of means to do so.

As a chronic illness survivor, yoga teacher and somatic therapist Rachel Otis is limited in always being physically present in class. As a result, accessibility and affordability have always been a priority in her business, even before the pandemic. “I think classes can be offered free when you’re seasoned and secure enough to do so, or when you’re a new teacher creating a brand new offering and want to provide an example experience,” she added.

Making classes financially accessible doesn’t have to be between choosing whether or not your classes are free. Akhavan suggests creating price tiers to make classes more accessible, while being able to ensure you are compensated for your time and labor. “At Off The Mat, we have a sliding tier system of pricing for all our online courses, which we call “Justice Pricing.” There’s a “Community Rate” (discounted), “Sustainer Rate” (standard), and “Supporter Rate” (pay for someone else). We allow participants to choose which tier they’d like to pay, and encourage those who can to leverage their privilege and pay a little more, so that we can offer more scholarships. This way, both instructors and students can feel supported.” Akhavan also suggests making scholarship opportunities available so no one is turned away due to an inability to pay.

See also Dharma Talk with Cyndi Lee: How to Go With the Flow