That yoga teaching is not a huge income provider is in little doubt. It is a job people do because they love it and care about sharing that love. Nonetheless, all the love and caring in the world does not magically obliterate the need to pay bills. Neither should it negate an employer’s responsibility to treat and pay their staff fairly. However, as has recently come vividly to light, that is exactly what can happen in the business of spirituality.
1,500 yoga teachers joined a class action lawsuit against the studio chain and put a spotlight on the prevalence of unethical practice in the yoga business.
I’m referring to the recent CorePower Yoga case. 1,500 yoga teachers joined a class action lawsuit against the studio chain and put a spotlight on the prevalence of unethical practice in the yoga business. The plaintiffs claimed for unpaid earnings arising from the amount of work they were expected to do for the company over and above teaching the classes they were paid for (averaging an additional six hours per week) and citing a violation of fair labour. Teachers also claimed they were encouraged to “groom” their students into the company’s $3,000 teacher training using specific, scripted, pressure-selling techniques and that those teachers seen by the company as “growing the community” (aka selling trainings) saw their wages increased, while those refusing to read a sales pitch to yogis still in the glow of Savasana (a recommended technique) did not.
The case was settled outside of court, not only giving credence to an argument for more ethical business conduct in the yoga industry, but inspiring a raft of stories from yoga teachers and students who felt they had been similarly taken advantage of.
Initial commentary leaned towards calling out the obvious targets – the greedy corporate machinery of the “MacYoga” chains taking over the sweet and satya-infused space of yoga. With its love-n-light and vows of ahimsa (non-harming), “This would never happen in an indie studio!” came the cry.
Pretty soon, however; other voices joined the conversation. Teachers working at small independent studios spoke up and described similar scenarios. Those I personally spoke to corroborated a big-picture story of teachers spending hours beyond their paid teaching time answering calls, hanging retail on rails, organising stock, attending staff meetings, creating class sequences and playlists, helping design teacher training curriculums, and spending time on social media pushing the studios’ events to their networks at the request of the studio owners.
Many people are incredulous that anyone could be taken advantage of in this way. Yogis are grown-ups, they claim. They, like anyone, have autonomy over their choices. They have a mouth to complain with and two highly-exercised legs to walk away on. So why would they allow this abuse?
The CorePower yogis answer this question by alluding to a fear that they would no longer be employed if they voiced their complaints. When I asked my own contacts why they had not said no, a more complex picture emerged. Yoga teachers work in a spiritual context and are often heart-centred, open, and passionate givers who sometimes have deep-seated vulnerabilities to coercion. The people-pleasing personality is well-represented among yogis, and the language of yoga often encourages this behavior.
When teachers are employed in spaces modeled on concepts of open-hearted service and spiritual missions, the usual business management lines can blur.
Yoga, meditation, and all energy-based modalities come under the umbrella of “spiritual practice” to various degrees. Their modus-operandus revolves around ideas of healing, personal growth, and individual transformation. When these are sold as commodities to be bought, things can get a little murky. When teachers are employed in spaces modeled on concepts of open-hearted service and spiritual missions, the usual business management lines can blur.
“Yoga communities are filled with what I call The People Who Can’t Say No,” said one yoga teacher with whom I spoke. “In yoga, I meet people who have zero boundaries and self-protection mixed with a need for validation and to please. One of the reasons we come to yoga is to heal. We may be healing low self-esteem, we may be looking for somewhere outside ourselves where we can belong, and a yoga studio community can replace a family we are missing or never had. Our cravings and our wounds give us a passion for yoga, but they also make us open to exploitation because saying no feels so threatening.”
Yoga is Business; Important Business
Owning a yoga studio is among one of the riskiest pieces of entrepreneurship that can be undertaken, and it is a brave and valuable person who enters into it. Thank goodness there are people willing to take that risk.
At the end of the day, yoga is a business. A business which sells products in the form of classes, workshops, trainings, and perhaps a rail of crop tops and leggings. For it to stay afloat, its accounting books must balance. Yoga is a hard business to survive in, as evidenced by the high percentage of studios that close. Studios can’t survive without money to pay rent and overhead costs; bolsters and blankets don’t grow on trees.
Studios can’t survive without money to pay rent and overhead costs; bolsters and blankets don’t grow on trees.
It is not unethical to sell things to people. Profit is not a crime – a yoga studio or training needs to profit from business in order to continue and those pouring time and energy into their offerings, frequently with great personal sacrifice, deserve to be rewarded.
I have a friend who is a businessman. When he hears about yoga teachers being asked to run classes and trainings for a studio for no wage because, you know, it’s an honour, there is incredulous eye-rolling mixed with the it-makes-pure-business-sense truth-bomb that if you ask someone to do something for barely any expenditure on your part and from which you can financially profit one hundred percent, and for some reason they say yes, then well done you. Many a sweatshop has run on the wheels of such an exchange. Profit above people is something you hope you won’t see in yoga relationships, but it does happen.
However, this is clearly unethical, and yoga loves to talk about ethics. There is an expected level of honesty in yoga that there might not be in, say, used car sales. It’s not that yoga shouldn’t engage in the business world; rather, the business model of yoga simply needs investigating.
In addition, those who work at the management level in the field, including those who provide private mentoring, need to be particularly sensitive to the space they are operating in. When you work in a modality selling relationships, personal growth, healing, and community, you are working in a highly emotional territory. Vulnerability to hurting or being hurt abounds. The blindfolds need to come off; narcissism, financial and emotional abuse, and passionate business owners acting with integrity, yet blind to the less savory effects of their pursuits, can and do exist in every corner of our world and yoga is no exception.
One question studio owners need to ask themselves is: “Would you be willing to work this hard for free for someone else’s business?”
The Business of Karma
“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”
“Motivation is the act of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”
— Steve Jobs
The unique language of yoga often blurs the lines of business. “Energy exchanges” between studio owners and teachers, mentors and clients, and students and the studio are widespread. A teacher might do some admin or marketing in return for free attendance at workshops; a student may clean a studio in return for an unlimited class pass.
The classic yoga energy-exchange is this: one service is given in return for another.
When it is fair, and both sides of the exchange are honoured, it is a beautiful model.
A yogi shared with me that she recently concluded a three-year service of doing time-consuming website administration for a relatively expensive yoga training. She worked for free, based on an agreed energy-exchange wherein the owner of the training would offer her private mentoring sessions. “He is in debt to me for so many sessions,” she opines. “When I texted him to ask about them, we could never arrange anything that worked. Now he does not get back to my calls at all. I gave up time and energy I could have invested in my own family and work. Now I don’t think I even want the mentoring I’m owed. I’ve lost respect for his teaching, if this is how he behaves”.
Then we have Karma Yoga–the discipline of self-action without attachment to the fruits of that action. In that model, you are essentially sweeping the floor and doing the admin for free.
Both models can work well when everyone is acting with integrity, meaning there is no emotional coercing, there is no payback for saying no (such as being exiled from “inner circle” treatment), and the person practicing their karma yoga is very clear about the “non-attachment to any of the fruits” part of the sacred contract.
In the field of psychology, “emotional coercion” is known as a form of pressure meant to change a person’s “no” or “maybe” into a “yes.”
“There is a sense of victim-blaming when you blame the person who was manipulated into working for free – for not being more aware, more astute and saying “no, I’m not going to do that,” says a yoga teacher I spoke to, “But at the same time, the blame goes right back on you if you do say no. You are blamed for being selfish and unappreciative of the honour of working at the studio at all.”
The spiritual context of yoga was used to veil power imbalances between studio owners and their teachers, hiding labour-exploitation under the spiritual-shininess of performing karma yoga.
In researching the issue, I found countless conversations on the topic across social media and yoga-industry media outlets. These commentators pointed out how the spiritual context of yoga was used to veil power imbalances between studio owners and their teachers, hiding labour-exploitation under the spiritual-shininess of performing karma-yoga and using emotionally coercive techniques to produce loyalty from which the owner would profit greatly more than the teacher. For example, citing a teacher’s willingness to give extra service as a sign of their devotion and commitment to yoga and the community.
“They hide behind the fact that you have all this love and appreciation for yoga and your peers,” yoga instructor Melissa Brennan told CBS’s This Morning regarding the CorePower case. “In lots of ways, it weaponizes relationships.”
One person I spoke to cites the use of yoga dogma to add pressure. “It’s like – do the service, follow the commandments, and you’ll get to heaven. It is binding of the employee because if they say they can’t help, it’s all about “oh, that’s because you aren’t fully committed. You didn’t wake up at 5:00 am and do your yoga practice’”.
Spiritual businesses differ from others because the very things they are selling –personal growth, compassion and serving humanity – hint at a self-improvement model that can easily be used as a tactic to gain loyalty and labour from employees beyond what is reasonable.
Beloved and valued teachers attract support and help. I never leave a class or workshop without people voluntarily helping tidy up my chaotic mess of papers and props. I also have teachers who mean the world to me and for whom I would do a great deal to support them in their work.
Selfless service is beautiful.
It becomes murky and even painful when one side of the energy bargain is not met or when there is manipulation involved.
“It occurred to me that in many workplaces if you are doing a lot of extra work, you ask your boss for a pay-rise,” says yoga teacher Manda, “The excuse that there’s no money in yoga so we can’t pay you very much, so we’ll do this energy exchange… and you do your bit, but they never have the time to do theirs. It’s not a priority for them. Their priority was you doing the bit you did for them.”
When under pressure of emotional manipulation, alternative choices, such as saying no, might feel limited or even non-existent.
In the end, a grown person has to decide whether or not to do something. However, when under pressure of emotional manipulation, alternative choices, such as saying no, might feel limited or even non-existent. In researching this piece, I heard many stories of yoga business owners using techniques prized by narcissists, such as deliberately evoking compassion from a known “giver,” using praise and validation to solicit someone’s service, using someone’s sense of self-worth to build them up to make them feel they owe you something, and hinting at a covert threat that should one say no, that person will then risk being cut off or distanced from the “heart” of the community–as if that highly-prized sense of belonging must come at a price.
A friend and I have a favourite word – “murky.” The stories painted by those prompted by the CorePower Yoga case reveal a plethora of yoga businesses who, whether intentionally or not, are exercising a murky way of running a business and a murky way of conducting relationships.
These behaviours don’t always come from a deliberate agenda to profit or wound. Some are perhaps so invested in their offering and so passionate about spreading it to as many people as possible, they lose sight of those people who are the offering: the teachers, the students, and the community.
“If you want to increase the number of people following you, be kind and considerate to the ones who are,” as one of those I interviewed put it.
Some would argue that if people are willing to do something for nothing, then the consequences are on their watch. But that is where we, in the business of yoga, perhaps need to recognise that a substantial proportion of people coming into yoga are there because they are feeling vulnerable and looking for the promise of healing and transformation. They are catnip to those who cannot sustain their business without unpaid labour or who choose profit over people. We need to be sensitive to the ways people can undermine their own value and be careful not to take advantage, whether intentionally or not.
Jake Panaserich (@yogawithjake) commented on the CorePower Yoga case saying:
I think this is at the heart of why mental health issues run rampant in the yoga community. Treat people like they are worthless, and they will feel worthless. Make teachers work without pay in the name of “karma,” and they will get bitter and resentful quickly. I know I did!
No one – yogi or not – wants to be taken advantage of.
“I was one of the broken people and a person who is all heart,” says one person I spoke to. “The little girl in me also wanted to be helpful and liked. The studio owner knew this – I had shared with her that I found it hard to say no, and yet she kept on asking me to help out at the studio, including at weekends. When I eventually raised the courage in me to ask for payment, she praised me and said, ‘I was wondering when you would see your own value.’ She didn’t seem to see the irony that she had not herself seen it.”
“The fact is there are lots of people like me who become yoga teachers – people who are chronic-givers but have poor self-care. We don’t operate on strong boundaries. While we have to own this and work on it within ourselves, we would hope that yoga would be exactly the place to support that work. You would think that teachers in this space would become aware that they may be dealing with people who have low self-esteem and to capitalise on that is simply unethical.”
As people generously shared their experiences to me for this piece, and when I consider some of my own, the feeling that arises is hurt. These things hurt more because within yoga is an unwritten contract that has a sacred nature. We believe in coming from our highest place, in being sensitive and empathic, in being grateful. Those who come to yoga, teachers and students alike, want to believe the space they are entering is safe and upholds honesty as its highest principle.
The CorePower Yoga story opens up an important conversation and many questions about how we can do better. From those running teacher trainings to those owning studios, to the teachers and students whose treasured “awareness practices” fall short of recognising when they are actually being taken for a ride.
People frequently come to yoga to grow the skills they have been missing, and these often include the skills of boundaries, awareness, and self-validation. We must not take advantage of people while they are learning these skills.
“If someone takes advantage of you and they didn’t mean to, well, that’s not very nice,” comments a friend. “If someone takes advantage of you and they did mean to, especially in the spiritual world, God help them. God forgive them.”
Tips For Yoga Teachers
- Identify your own vulnerabilities around issues like worth, self-doubt, needing praise and validation, and being sensitive to groupthink or having a tendency to doubt. These might be operating in you in a way that makes you say yes when what you want to say is no.
- Remember, you are being employed as a casual yoga teacher without access to benefits. Your only real responsibility is to teach the class you are paid to teach. Anything else you do is your choice, and that choice should be honoured.
- If you decline a request to do something, note the way your response is met. Look out for language of criticism (“that’s not very yogic”) or a withdrawal of “inner circle” privileges, such as discounts on workshops or invitations to informal teacher gatherings.
- Talk to others about any behaviors or requests you are uncertain about and ask if they think it is reasonable.
- Are you experiencing one behavior or a range of behaviors, all of which could be seen as “using” you? They follow your followers on social media, they ask you to promote something they are selling… These things can look benign if they happen once or twice, but are they a regular occurrence? What else is this person asking of you?
- Are you investing more time in this business than in your own projects, family, friends, and interests?
- If you have agreed an energy-exchange, is it balanced? Are they supporting you in kind? Would they do the same for you?
- Is it really your karma they are interested in, or is it free labour?
- Know your own value and when to walk away. Maybe walking away is your yoga.
Illustration by Ksenia Sapunkova
Edited by Sarah Dittmore