In general, I am in favor of labor unions. I support anything that can be done to curtail the deafening power of corporations and help give more agency to workers and regular people. So when the NY Times reports that yoga teachers are attempting to unionize, and Bernie Sanders and other prominent politicians tweet out their support, my gut response was to cheer. I, too, am inspired by the prospect that we could organize together and change the industry. Unfortunately, the recent efforts to unionize yoga teachers in NY ignore the root causes of the problem and inadvertently reinforce the systemic imbalances we are hoping to rectify.
Do I think that yoga teachers deserve more job security and better pay? Yes. Are there a lot of yoga center owners across the US who are participating in a business model that exploits teachers? Yes. Does the Yoga Alliance 200-hour teacher training standard bear a lot of responsibility for creating this model and fueling more people to follow it? Yes. Do I think that 100 yoga teachers in NY becoming part of the machinists and aerospace workers union, so they can attempt to negotiate the terms of their employment with Yogaworks, will do anything to change the model across the industry and give teachers more job security and better pay? No.
Unions can only succeed in achieving their goals if the employers they are negotiating with are capable of meeting their demands.
Recently, it was reported that GM workers are on strike. Some years back when the auto industry was collapsing, it was a combination of tax-payer bailout money and the labor union’s willingness to ask workers to make sacrifices that saved the industry from destruction and the loss of their jobs. Now that the industry has been seemingly revived, and GM has shown billions in profit once again, the workers are rightly asking for their fair share of the pie. Maybe back when the yoga industry was still booming it might have made more sense for yoga teachers to take this kind of stand, but making demands on a failing company is likely a bit late and ultimately counterproductive to fostering a more sustainable and fair yoga teacher profession.
Despite statistics that show massive growth for yoga across different sectors, the industry of yoga teaching is not doing so well. I remember when Yogaworks first came to NYC and in one fell swoop bought up four different independent centers all at once, opening Yogaworks North, South, East, and West. I remember getting contacted by one of the new managers because I was on a substitute-list at one of the centers that had been acquired. I remember going to the meeting and for the first time ever being asked to fill out a W9 form. That was more than a decade ago. But in the last few years, Yogaworks has closed three out of its six NYC locations (they had gobbled up two more since they first arrived.) Just as the NY Times article reporting the unionization effort hit stands and screens, Yogaworks’ flagship location in Soho was abruptly closed without any notice to even teachers who had been there since day one.
By design, the scaling of yoga teaching exemplified by Yogaworks, extracts value by manipulating, diluting and devaluing the work of yoga teachers.
Much debate has been had over the benefits and backlashes of the venture-capital backed, scaled model of yoga center acquisition that Yogaworks pioneered. Those of us who stumbled into the profession before big business caught on, remember when it was still viable to open a single-room, sole-proprietor center as an expression of our passion for yoga. But anyone who has tried of late knows that it has become almost impossible to compete with companies, like Yogaworks and Corepower, that command the resources to build out muti-room spa environments and capitalize on membership pricing structures which link profit to sales rather than attendance, and rely heavily upon upselling exorbitant teacher training programs.
What’s worse is that the sway of these corporate players has effectively shaped public perception, and small independent operators now feel compelled to play by the same rules. Bottom line economics have infected the entire landscape of yoga centers. That is why yoga teachers have come to be paid so little and treated so poorly by both the corporate and independent operators. But, to be fair, many of the independent players lack the business savvy of corporate entities and are either beholden to real estate or simply ignorant of their complicity. It was all fine and good when everything was on the uprise, but attendance numbers in classes and teacher training programs are down across the board.
Yoga teachers cannot trust corporations to do right by us, even with the leverage of a union. And independent centers will continue to decline so long as they attempt to mimic corporations.
One thing that needs mentioning is the deleterious effect of the Yoga Alliance 200-hour teacher training standard. This is the monetary device that enabled both the standardization and exploitation of yoga teaching which venture capitalists identified and pounced on. As a result, the industry now mainly supports only a few lead teacher trainers while the majority of grassroots teachers, grinding out the drop-in classes everyday, receive demeaning compensation and treatment. Unfortunately, recent efforts to reform the standards amount to essentially doubling down on the extractive and failing model at the root of teachers’ dismay.
Teachers working for Yogaworks have every right to be treated fairly but unionizing is not a calling card for the rest of the industry. Unions are only effective in curbing corporate power, which is not representative of the yoga world at large. Independent yoga center owners will do better if they can take on less overhead, be less dependent on teacher training, and be more responsive to the needs of teachers and students. To those who argue that there needs to be better training that produces more competent teachers, standardization and regulation built on the spoils of corporate exploitation are not the answer. Raising up the profession of yoga requires us to mitigate the influence of money in our industry, not to be swayed by it. By putting more stock in our own abilities to imagine and implement out-of-the-box ideas, we might be able to disrupt the status quo just enough to foster a more equitable and self-empowered profession.