Truth and Yoga in Spreadsheets

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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 more imperative. If there is to truly be yoga in business then we will need to overcome the psychological and emotional blocks around finances that keep us in the dark, and be willing to shuck industry pressures that compromise our principles.

To be clear, this is not meant to be any sort of guide to responsible wealth creation. I have no idea how anyone, including myself, is making a living out of yoga. I’m interested in the role that yoga plays in our societies and if it’s possible to have a sustainable income as a yoga teacher. Especially when your orientation in practice is around empowering individuals to address the very same systemic low self-esteem that the industry is capitalizing on. The territory that we must navigate falls beyond the purview of established convention and each individual will need the courage of their convictions to embrace more equitable paths.

The numbers don’t lie, we do.

For well over a decade, my business plan amounted to the idea that as long as there is more money coming in than going out then I am good to go. I can just be a yogi and trust that the power of attraction will continue to provide. At the end of the year, I would spend 24-48 hours in a sea of statements and receipts and ultimately arrive at a gross and net for my “business.” And this worked just fine for a long time. Until it didn’t anymore. At some point, the going out became more than the coming in and the plan was quickly reduced to nothing more than wishful thinking and strokes of luck.

The biggest problem was that by not keeping track of my gross and net on a monthly basis, I had no real sense of why things had changed or what I might do about it. Without being able to observe trajectories over time, there is no way to come up with any kind of strategy. Or, in other words, actually have a business. What’s more, without any education in accurate accounting, it’s easy to inadvertently lie to ourselves about what our actual numbers are. Depending on how you create your spreadsheets, and the honesty with which you fill them out, the snapshot of your financial health ends up more or less abstracted.

Taking a hard look at numbers is fuckin’ scary.

The process of pulling my head out of the sand revealed a horrible tendency to romanticize my numbers. During the time that I owned a yoga center in Brooklyn, I had a total revenue of upwards of $175,000/year. That number made me feel successful. But that wasn’t the real number. My actual take-home net was between $25,000-$50,000/year for the first seven years, followed by a steady decline into the red for the last three. By the time I closed the doors and split town, I was taking on water and sinking fast.

Even after I managed to extricate myself from the downward spiral I was in, by getting my family into a lower overhead living situation and exploring other opportunities available to me now that I was no longer bound to a brick-and-mortar studio, I still have avoided doing the kind of accounting that a sustainable income demands. Some people can be unemotional about money. Not me. Looking at the actual numbers, not the ones I creatively arrange to protect myself from the truth but the actual net, usually fills me with a paralyzing fear. But without facing the actuality of my debts, and the profit/loss reality of my income, I will never be able to stand on firm ground,

Exchanging value is different than commodification.

Now that I have a spreadsheet with my actual numbers, and am looking at what I can do to pay off the debt that if unaddressed will eventually crush me, I have come up against the compromising effect of reducing what I do into a commodity. Even the idea that teachers are creating new and exciting “content” to sell on the market, as opposed to the notion that a teacher possesses wisdom that someone might wish to acquire, forces yoga into the arena of extractive economics. Selling people a handstand workshop or five poses that will give you a “yoga butt” creates short-term gains that are in stark contrast to the kind of monetary relationships that support the continuation of yoga education.

The good news is that it appears the yoga industry bubble is bursting in lots of places. While this creates a lot of hardship for many, it also means a more honest reassessment. Not unlike me getting real with myself on my spreadsheet, so the larger yoga world is having to reconcile the way we have been doing business and the inconsistencies that do yoga a disservice. It’s possible for us to fashion new models where students are willing to pay a fair rate for the services that yoga teachers provide, but this will mean letting go of established business practices that are based in manipulation. By employing more honesty and transparency in our personal finances, and creating more business relationships rooted in mutual aid and collaboration, we might just be able to sublimate the corrupting force of money in yoga.

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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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