The Future of Yoga is Small

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The algorithms and operating systems that are governing our experiences, intended to expand our reach and connect us to the broader world, have borne unforeseen and adverse repercussions. This is particularly true for yoga teachers and center owners looking to cohere the intimacy and connection they feel through yoga with the realities of making it a profession. Only if we can abandon the flawed models that are suffocating the better parts of our humanity, might such a balance be struck.

Often, we look for models to emulate in our life pursuits. By observing what others have done, it makes us feel more confident to give something a try. Sometimes, an effective formula has already been figured out and there is no reason for reinvention, So, it makes sense that we would look to adopt the strategies of those who have found success. Thus, the yoga industry has followed the same growth model that pervades capitalist societies.

But when we sell yoga classes the same way we sell yoga clothes, we make practice into a commodity and squelch valuable relationships.

I have always thought of my yoga as a form of education. After I graduated college, yoga practice became my outlet for continued studies into myself and life. Purchasing yoga classes was akin to paying for school. Registering for my first yoga classes consisted of making my own change via a cigar-box full of cash at the front door. Eventually, centers evolved to using paper sign-in sheets and punch cards. Now, essentially, Mind-Body Online has a monopoly on the registration and management processes behind most yoga businesses (if you are looking for an alternative, check out Karmasoft.) In the digital age, the experience of paying for yoga classes is less like registering for school and more like buying socks on Amazon.

There is no doubt that these new systems have increased efficiency by leaps and bounds, but what has been sacrificed is human interaction and a direct connection to the exchange of value. No better example of this is the Groupon model that hit the yoga world with force, only to fizzle into a trickle when the email lists got tired. Unfortunately, the remnants of those impressions still remain and centers mistakenly feel compelled to continue employing techniques that serve to fuel an immediate gain, but do so at the expense of fostering healthy relationships and longer-term stability. Enticing as many people as possible to buy yoga classes with drastically reduced prices has conditioned us to relate within the frame of getting more for less.

30 days for $30 is wrong on so many levels.

Ten years ago, when I was opening a center, the conversation was about whether or not offering a first-class-free promotion for new students was a smart idea to bring new people in. The overwhelming consensus was not to, because too many people came just for the free class and never returned. Giving away something for nothing doesn’t establish any sort of exchange or encourage mutual buy-in, instead it ends up devaluing the offering and, inadvertently, leads to exploitation and counter-productive dynamics. You don’t see centers offering a first class free much anymore but the 30 days for the $30 that got burned into us through Groupon is still rampant, and equally destructive. 

What is worse is when centers pass the cost of these promotions on to the teachers. When Groupon was in its full swing, it became common practice to not pay teachers for students who came in on the “loss-leader” deals. The justification is to paint this as an investment that pays off through student retention and attendance down the road. But a hard look at the numbers does not usually bear this out. If the normal cost of a month-unlimited card is $135 or more, and you give new students the opportunity to get the same thing for $30, the chances of any of those people feeling good about paying the difference after their trial expires is close to nil, regardless of how well the teachers do their job. And it’s only so long before teachers begin to resent all the work they do for free that never leads to the promised returns and seems to benefit the center at their expense.

A smaller number of quality connections and exchanges leads to a stronger sense of community and creates an environment of mutual benefit and growth.

Groupon-type promotions are the product of a data-driven way of gaming people on the internet, rooted in a grow-or-die fundamental flaw in our economic system. More is better. And the means justify the ends. At least, until they don’t anymore and it all falls apart. Perhaps there is a way to keep the efficiency that modern systems have provided without adopting the cognitive dissonance required to separate ourselves from our money and treat each other with less compassion than we deserve.

As we look to the future, yoga centers with the courage to buck trends and embrace smaller numbers that foster deeper, more mutual relationships between teachers, students, and owners will not only be setting a better foundation to operate from, but possibly become an example of a more human-driven economics. I can think of no better industry than yoga to experiment in these regards. For the principles that form the basis of yogic understanding are ripe to provide windows into the kind of transparency and trust that just might save us from ourselves.

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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.