Financial Realities and Occupational Hazards

published in December 2007 issue of Yoga Therapy in Practice.


Last summer I married the woman of my dreams. At age 34, I finally found someone to love who appreciates me, and the life I lead as a self-employed Yoga instructor. As the honeymoon ended and the fall season began, I decided to focus my efforts on maximizing my income, with the dream of purchasing a home and starting a family.

I am a senior teacher at several Yoga centers, and after mentioning I was looking for more work, they were kind enough to offer me another class or two, leading to a schedule of 12 group classes at a total of six different centers. Also, I was mentioned in TimeOutNY Magazine (a student from one of my classes happens to be an editor there), and as winter approached, I had several new private students as well. Soon I was teaching at full capacity: seven days and an average of 20 lessons a week.

Increasing my workload did bring in more money. However, after a few months of maintaining this schedule, a number of physical conditions emerged, including plantar fasciitis, chronic inflammation in one wrist, and what I believe to be the onset of arthritis in my hip. Under normal circumstances, these conditions would be perfectly manageable, but, given the rigorous schedule I had taken on, the required amount of rest was simply not available.

Not wanting to sacrifice any income, I instead explored changing my physical patterns, demonstrating less and actually sitting for brief periods of time while teaching. These changes did help improve the situation, but, after symptoms persisted for several more months, I felt compelled to scale back my schedule so I could address them.

As my wife and I get ready to celebrate our first year anniversary, I am left with two sobering realizations: (1) There are only so many classes I can teach in a week and only so much I can charge per class, and (2) There is most certainly a point of diminishing marginal utility to asana practice.

I find myself in an increasingly smaller group of people who are actually able to support themselves solely teaching Yoga. The majority of people who start teaching professionally end up moving on to other things or have supplemental income. Owners of Yoga centers, many of whom have never been teachers, rarely depend on proceeds from the business to survive. In fact, profits often stem more from retail sales of related products then the classes offered.

According to "Yoga in America," a study of the Yoga market conducted by Yoga Journal in 2005, Americans spend $2.95 billion a year on Yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations and media (DVD's, videos, books and magazines.) Statistics indicate that growth in the number of Americans practicing Yoga is up 43 percent in the past few years.

Looking back at my Schedule C tax forms, my income does not reflect this growth. In fact, standard pay for grass-roots Yoga teachers, like myself, has not changed much, if at all, in the last decade.

The story of Yoga Journal, a leading publication for Yoga professionals, offers an example of economic trends in the Yoga industry. In 1975, a group of dedicated Yoga teachers who formed the California Yoga Teachers Association, now the Yoga Alliance, started putting out a small newsletter under the umbrella of a not-for-profit organization. Come the early nineties, after fifteen years of no profit, it was decided to invite John Abbot, newly retired from a twenty-year career as a senior investment banker at Citicorp, to join the board. In 1995, the magazine pioneered the concept of a Yoga conference, which now amounts to 30 percent of Yoga Journal's estimated $11 million in annual revenue. In 1998, John Abbot bought the magazine and became CEO. By 2005, the paid circulation of the magazine had more than tripled, and Yoga Journal was sold to AIM, a major media conglomerate.

Unfortunately for me, business savvy has never been my strong point. I started practicing Yoga because I was disenchanted and wanted to feel better. Becoming a Yoga teacher was quite unintentional. Prior to getting married, I was content to teach 12-15 classes a week and earn a modest but adequate living. The requirements of a bachelor lifestyle are much less than the demands that a family proposes. Now that I have a life partnership and we are considering our future, I find myself compelled to honestly examine the limitations of my profession.

Currently, I have no shortage of teaching opportunities in my local community. My classes are generally well-attended and received. I have developed a specific and recognizable practice that has proven useful to a diverse range of people. Opening a center myself is an appealing idea, but requires capital beyond my present means, as well as considerable unmitigated risk. T he other logical step would be to somehow make inroads into the Yoga Journal conferences or the national circuit of renowned holistic learning centers (e.g., Esalen, Naropa, or Omega.)

The Yoga Journal conferences seem almost impenetrable, dominated by a select group of Yoga "stars", often bolstered by celebrity clientele or DVD and merchandising deals. I have been invited to spend time teaching at the Omega Institute in NY at the "core faculty" level. The pay is about 25% of what I usually make, so I can only stay for a week, but it has always been my hope this would ingratiate me to the powers that be and lead to a more lucrative and high profile "catalog" gig. However, my seventh year returning, there is no indication that this is the case. Truth is, these opportunities are largely related to publishing and connections that I simply do not have.

I've never done anything to promote myself outside of creating a website. It feels inappropriate to view my teaching as a career or attempt to market myself. At the same time, if someone called tomorrow and wanted me to teach at one of the conferences, make a DVD, or write a book, I would be absolutely thrilled. The question is, if such a call never comes, have I failed? Is my income any indication of my success as a teacher? More importantly, if the standard income for a full time Yoga instructor is not enough to support even the most humble of aspirations, a home and family, where does this leave me?

My consolation is the sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes from being of help to others; from a cancer patient, now in remission, who informs me that she would never have made it through were it not for the ocean breathing I taught her; from the warm gaze of an elderly student, overjoyed that he is now able to get down on the floor to play with his grandchild; from sentiments of friendship, expressed with a sincere "thank you." These are the moments I choose to define my worth: when I am reminded that life's inherent difficulty is not an indication that something is lacking, only par for the course of human experience.

Still, houses and kids cost a lot. My work provides deep spiritual satisfaction, just not ample funds. Teaching Yoga is a wholly different skill then generating wealth. The notion that there is big money to be made from Yoga is perhaps true in the context of corporate business more then heartfelt practice.

Ultimately though, Yoga affords benefits that no amount of money ever could; bearing the pecuniary burden of my trade is simply the opposite side of the coin, and, as corny as it may sound, I believe in limitless possibility. Just as my wife appeared in a gradual and unexpected way, so I am confident necessary financing will arise. I can only make my best effort, and trust in the natural progression of things.