Corporate Yoga and Unionizing Teachers

corporations-unions.jpg
 

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.

10 Comments

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.

Does Yoga Teach Kindness?

Does Yoga Teach Kindness?

I lost it the other day. My elder daughter was being horribly mean to her younger sister. When I came downstairs to see what the commotion was, she was taunting and teasing her. The trauma of the interaction was written all over her four year-old sister’s face. I realize that this is relatively common among kids but I had been watching the news just prior, and was feeling overwhelmed by the inhumanity and intolerance …

Read More

Make Yoga Radical Again

Make Yoga Radical Again

Yoga is officially mainstream. No one thinks of going to yoga class as being a subversive act anymore. To the average person, attending a yoga class is comparable to taking pilates, crossfit, or zumba. The golden age of expansion for yoga has succeeded in removing the taboo but the vestige of its radical underpinnings has been whitewashed in the process. Fortunately, in the margins of the industry, a new renaissance is quietly brewing.

Read More

Yoga is Not Convenient

Yoga is Not Convenient

There is nothing convenient about yoga. In order to truly grasp it, you have to be willing to risk everything. You can’t buy it for $3000. It has to come from a deep inquiry inside yourself and no one else knows what that will look like except you. And if you manage to gain some wisdom, be prepared to face repercussions. Because once the chains of acquiescence are broken, it becomes impossible to to do anything but disrupt.

Read More

Dark Night, Soul's Direction

Dark Night, Soul's Direction

I am experiencing all the makings of a mid-life crisis but without the cliche response that I grew up with. I am not going to destroy my marriage and buy a red sports car. All that would do is increase my already overwhelming debt and doom me to the debilitating loneliness of my bachelorhood. Unlike my father’s generation, I have dedicated myself to the sorting my internal landscape. The world outside of me is what too often feels untenable.

Read More

Reimagining Yoga Teacher Training

Reimagining Yoga Teacher Training

After twenty years of providing yoga teacher training at premium-priced 200, 300, or 500-hour increments, the yoga profession is beginning to reckon with the unintended consequences of relying so heavily on this deeply flawed economic instrument. The initial boom that heralded the expansion of yoga teacher certification has subsided. If we can muster enough courage, we might escape the entrenchment that undermines our purpose.

Read More

Truth and Yoga in Spreadsheets

Truth and Yoga in Spreadsheets

Yoga has long since become also a business but yoga teachers are still catching up. Probably because those inclined to dedicate their lives to the subtle art of self-inquiry rarely ever get into it with money in mind. Only later, having fallen into a profession without a strategy, does knowing your numbers become imperative. If there is to be yoga in business then we will need to overcome the emotional blocks and shuck industry pressures.

Read More

My Pain is Circumstantial

My Pain is Circumstantial

Over the last twenty-five years, my yoga practice has served different purposes. But if I were to boil down the primary role it has come to play in my adult life then it most certainly is a means of lessening my pain. To many, that means that I have become a “restorative” or “gentle” practitioner. However, the notion that doing poses correctly is the key to unlocking yoga’s pain-relieving boon often becomes the obstacle to a more subtle process.

Read More

Real Yoga is Smart Business

Real Yoga is Smart Business

I suppose it’s a natural impulse to want to feel relevant, to feel that the efforts I make are worthwhile and that something I produce will outlive this fleeting body. This last year I poured a lot of myself into a weekly podcast not just because I find it a fulfilling process of learning but out of a genuine hope that others might also benefit from listening. I have attempted to ride a delicate line between self-inquiry and promotion.

Read More

The Yoga Police Are Coming

The Yoga Police Are Coming

The charismatic CEO of the Yoga Alliance, David Lipsius, hired to overhaul the failed industry standards for yoga teacher training just over a year ago, has departed his position right at the very moment his master plan is set to be implemented. Lipsius’ unexpected farewell aside, the proverbial writing has surreptitiously appeared on the wall: The organization is planning to assert new power, but whose interests are being served is not clear.

Read More

Fear and Purpose Amidst a Narrative Collapse

Fear and Purpose Amidst a Narrative Collapse

I’ve had a particularly hard time bringing myself to write. That’s unusual. Two other articles on various topics have already been penned but both feel so entirely inadequate to the moment that I can’t bring myself to publish either. Looking for insights into humanity through an examination of what is happening in the yoga industry has its limitations, and my usual sort of musings seem a trifling contribution given the larger shifts taking place.

Read More

Are We Entering a Yoga Desert?

Are We Entering a Yoga Desert?

Having grown up in the eighties, I have no memories of fresh produce at our dinner table, much less anything organic. Often, my whole family sat around watching tv with individual fold-out trays in front of us, eating Chun King frozen Chinese hors d’oeuvres that were heated in a microwave oven and served in the plastic container we bought them in. Back then, convenience and economy were valued over nutrition….

Read More