Shell Games Keep the Myth Alive

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Nothing exemplifies the false narratives perpetuated by the yoga industrial complex more than a recent Yoga Journal headline that read: “How to Make $5 Classes Sustainable.” These stories, often well-intentioned, are the product of outdated modes of thinking that turn earnest people into unwitting hypocrites. Challenging the status quo by returning to an earlier stage in the evolution of yoga transmission, but with new eyes, might be the best way to break free of our current extractive paradigm.

It’s been a long time since I was triggered by a Yoga Journal article. Not since one of the first blog posts I ever wrote, almost a decade ago, have I felt so compelled to call out the shortcomings of the world’s largest yoga media outlet. Interestingly enough, in both instances, the story lines being propagated through glossy pages and expertly targeted email campaigns run so diametrically opposed to what I know to be true on the ground that I simply cannot hold my tongue. For too long, we have been living under a set of illusions when it comes to how we conduct business in the name of yoga.

Sustainable does not a misperception make.

First, I’m sure the people being profiled in the article are well intentioned and genuinely wish to serve their communities. And, in some ways, I’m sure they are. However, let’s be clear: creating a 501c3 non-profit organization, and doing the schmooze required to secure funding enough to maybe pay yourself, perhaps a few other people, and meet your overhead, so you can offer donation-based classes taught by teachers who don’t get paid, is not sustainable. Focusing on the powerful human connections that happen in the classes, and the good that people derive from the efforts being made is inspirational. But without sharing any hard numbers, you can’t tout the non-profit organization as an effective business model. 

A lot of these organizations are being sustained by festivals. Many of these festivals are organized locally and have become effective ways to bring people together and generate funds. And organizations that do good work need to get funding by whatever means possible. However, again, banking your future, and the futures of those who work with you, and the resources needed to operate, on the whims of being able to pull off an event once a year that involves hustling to get sponsors and promoting to drive attendance to classes that, once again, are taught by teachers who don’t get paid, is not a solid plan for sustainability. 

No one ever shares the numbers.

When you hear people talk about the business of yoga, be it for profit or not, rarely are any actual numbers cited. No one really knows how much anyone is making. And technological advancements have provided us the tools to effectively create images and marketing that shape perceptions with inaccurate representations of what you might see were you privy to the profit/loss spreadsheets never posted on social media. Once you start to honestly assess the work that is actually being done, and how and where the money flows, the murky distinctions between yoga, service, and business begin to unravel
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Trusting that, with practice, all is coming might be a fine principle for spiritual development but does not apply when it comes to managing money. People who know how to generate wealth always know where the pipes are leading. And yoga teachers are notoriously oblivious to numbers and business strategy. But if we are going to be, as the YJ article concludes, “living the prayer Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may my actions contribute to the happiness and freedom of all” then a more informed and honest consideration of our finances is imperative.

Support teachers and stop selling classes.

Whether someone is running a yoga center or a nonprofit, the work of teaching yoga happens between a teacher and a student. Back in the days when yoga was first coming west, there were no memberships or new student offers, just a modest fee that you put into a cigar box on an unobtrusive desk near the front door. Somewhere along the way, we went from paying teachers to teach us to purchasing class packages. The turn away from this trend towards service organizations is understandable but, unfortunately, still often retains a disconnect between the teacher/student relationship and a mutual exchange of value.

Yoga teachers who can afford to donate their time and teach underserved populations is an honorable thing; however, yoga philanthropic organizations that provide income to some, but not equally to the teachers, strains credibility. And if we want to have access to quality yoga teachers then we need to stop devaluing their efforts and start paying them. This likely means removing the structural barriers we have created with conventional models for yoga centers and nonprofits that rely on the charisma of benevolent dictators and capitalize on the sweat of teachers. Defining spaces where the exchange of money and value is clear and reciprocal, where teachers and students can come together to share in yoga in a context of transparency and fairness, is a far better formula for a sustainable future.

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J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.

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