Coming of age in the yoga profession means facing changing realities and shifting priorities. The majority of yoga teachers start out in the profession at an early time in their lives. But as the viability of old models wanes and independent players have less impact in the face of up-scaled operations, long-term prospects for careers in yoga are less apparent. For those whose passion cannot be deterred by the odds, their faith and trust in practice will likely be tested.
This year marks the twentieth that I have made my living solely from teaching yoga. It’s hard to believe that the desperate stumble I took into yoga in my early twenties has morphed a life, replete with a family, a yoga center, and a multi-media platform. There was truly no plan. I’ve just been diligent in practice, showed up consistently, taught the best class I knew how, and it has panned out well enough so far.
Simply maintaining a steady and consistent pattern of teaching 12-15 classes per week brought with it many a boon.
For the first decade, I taught under the auspices of others. I got in just before the craze of the nineties and rode the wave of independent centers that paved the path for yoga in the west. Initially, it was either the YMCA or the hip studios that started popping up everywhere. There were no classes at the gym yet. You earned your cred on the mat. People saw you there every day. They saw your practice. Eventually, you got asked to teach. And you took every opportunity you were offered for whatever money they would give you. At least I did. I was hungry and fueled by an unexplainable drive to practice and learn.
Eventually, I developed a bit of skill and a following. It became a logical next choice to open my own place; to expand upon what I had established in practice. It led to my finding the resources and freedom to do things my own way. The forces that be put me in just the right place at just the right time to actually make that happen. I opened a yoga center over eight years ago and it has been a thriving venture, enabling me not only to codify my teaching in ways I never could have otherwise, but also to provide a modicum of stability that has enabled me to develop as a writer and, more recently, a podcaster.
But the scene that I came up in no longer exists. When I look around outside of the bubble I created for myself, I face a crucial impasse.
I have eighteen months left on my current lease for the yoga center. Since the lease started, my neighborhood has seen a quick shift from a network of local bodegas and art-inspired businesses to La Quinta, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Levi’s, G-Starr, and an Apple store. I plan to negotiate with my landlord in six months and I know that he likes us and will probably do his best to give us a good deal. But when commercial real estate in the neighborhood is being valued according to the budgets of corporate chains, even a good deal might be too much for the humble offerings of the sole-proprietor yoga center.
Inquiring into where the next enclave of artists may have migrated to, I can find no discernible pattern. It’s as if there has been a mass exodus and everyone just took off in all directions. Detroit, Germany, Maplewood NJ, Philadelphia, who the f*** knows? Not me. And my apartment around the corner from the center, which I secured on a rent-stabilized handshake back when, was transferred to a management company two years ago and now goes up every year so I definitely have to move my family, even if I keep the center.
Where corporate models successfully take hold of increased market share, it’s not clear whether the old-school model can compete and survive.
I followed those who came before me. I observed how they opened their own spaces, developed their teaching, and built niche platforms for themselves. Some ended up being embraced by the “mainstream” and others did not. Regardless, it was possible to make a way for yourself. But this model was contingent on having a place to settle where people desired an eclectic place smelling of Nag Champa more than the quaffed amenities of a highly designed spa. Yoga centers were places of counter culture where people came more to learn than to purchase a service.
Sometimes I wonder if such places exist anymore. I’m betting they do. Perhaps not in the cities, but in micro-communities who are happy to maintain a low profile? Or has yoga become so mainstream now that the yoga center with old-school charm that I hold so reminiscently dear, just looks like a dump without shower rooms to the new-school yoga connoisseur? And it is undeniable that the internet has changed the way people come to yoga. The income I receive from online offerings, and traveling to meet people who only know me from those offerings, has become almost equivalent to the profits I see from the center, which was always my bread and butter up until only a few years ago.
Things have changed. Now that the environment which inspired and fueled my little niche has transformed and no longer resembles the same place I originally settled, I face the prospect of either attempting to hold out and stay my ground against a stemming tide, or venture out and see if i can find the remnants of what I once knew. I can only trust that the place of knowing in myself, that which my practice has fostered, will not fail me when I need it most.