Ep. 6 Transcription – Should Yoga Teachers Unionize?

Music:  00:00

[Intro Music].


Sarah Dittmore:00:05

Hi Friends. My name is Sarah and you’re listening to The Beginner’s Mind, a podcast about all things yoga-ish. I am so excited for today’s episode. It’s the first “current event” that I’ve covered. Those of you following yoga news might have heard about the yoga teachers who are trying to unionize in New York City. Yoga teachers and teacher trainers who work for YogaWorks in New York City and Westchester are coming together to form a union and I had the pleasure of connecting with a few of those teachers who I interviewed about why they’re unionizing and what unionizing would mean for both YogaWorks and the yoga industry as a whole. In a minute you’re going to hear from Markella Los, Jodie Rufty, and Laurel Beversdorf about the YogaWorks unionization effort as well as the wider conversation of whether or not yoga teachers should unionize and what that would mean for the yoga industry. This is just part one in a longer union series I’m doing. So there will be more episodes about unionization and what that would mean for the yoga community, but I will talk more about that at the end of this episode. For now, I just want to dive in… So let’s get curious.


Music:  01:29

[Transition Music].


Sarah Dittmore:01:37

All right, so I’m here today with Markella Los, Laurel Beaversdorf, and Jody Rufty and we’re talking a little bit more about this whole unionization conversation and whether or not it makes sense for yoga teachers and why. So before we dive into that, do you guys mind just introducing yourselves and kind of sharing why you’re here with me?


Laurel B. 01:56

I’ll start. Yeah, my name’s Laurel Beversdorf. I’ve taught at YogaWorks since 2009. I’ve been a trainer for them since 2010. Is that right? That can’t be right. I got promoted relatively quickly, and I had been teaching a few years before that as well. But, yeah, and I’ve been with the company almost exclusively for that amount of time. And so I’ve seen the ebbs and flows and the evolution of the company and my colleagues professional paths. And I’m here to talk about bringing teachers together at YogaWorks so that we have a collective voice and a collective say in our future and our present wellbeing.


Jodie Rufty: 02:44

Hi, I’m Jodie Rufty and I’ve been teaching yoga since 1997 and I’ve been with YogaWorks specifically since 2004. I lead the teacher training for them and also kind of oversee trainer development within the teacher training. And you know, I feel like I’m in a very kind of privileged situation and I think that one of the reasons why I’m here and interested in having this conversation is really just in a more of support for people that don’t have the types of opportunities that I’ve had.


Markella Los: 03:28

I’m Markella Los. I’ve been teaching the least from the three of us. I started teaching full time in 2015. I left my previous work at a nonprofit environmental organization where I was a manager for many years and made a career transition into yoga. And even though I felt like on paper I was successful pretty quickly, and my first 500 hours were at YogaWorks and I feel like I received excellent training and had excellent mentors, the field that I found myself in felt, how to put it lightly, unsustainable. And a little bit like a pyramid scheme. So I have been teaching at YogaWorks only for about two and a half years, but I feel like I’ve invested a lot in that company, as a student and as a new teacher. And I also became a teacher trainer there quite quickly. So really, I’m here to have this conversation because I want to be able to raise industry standards and help it be a little bit more sustainable for a lot of teachers. And that will also help us get more diverse voices and communities and evolves and maybe not have it be so white.


Sarah Dittmore: 04:49

And you know, by the time this episode is being listened to, it will be public knowledge that YogaWorks employees are working to create a union for employees of YogaWorks in New York City. And I assume based on the fact that you are here talking to me that you guys are all in support of that effort in one way or another. And I’m curious in exploring sort of why it came to be. If the yoga industry and the standards were all perfect, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. So I’m wondering sort of what you’ve been seeing or what conversations you’ve been having that have led to people realizing that a union might be a beneficial way for them to join together.


Laurel B.: 05:38

I’m happy to kick us off. I think that there’s a couple of things that we could talk about. Like number one is just this idea of there being a set of procedures that everyone is aware of with regards to how teachers get classes or have classes taken away, but also how pay raises work. And simply understanding if there is a path, what is the path, what are the criteria by which we’re being evaluated and how will we know where we stand with the company, how will we know what our next progression will be? And what are the standards by which we’re being kind of measured and this is simply because, you know, this is a business, right? And it makes sense that there would be a standardized way in which we would be able to kind of project ahead and see how we can advance. So that’s one of the things that’s been talked about because with the rapid growth of the company, it’s been unclear actually how we do as individual teachers take those steps to progress. And so I think that’s one of the things that I know that we’ve been talking about a lot. And then there are many more. And I know that Markella could probably speak more to the other things.


Markella Los: 07:11

Yeah. What Laurel just said definitely speaks to some of the issues we’ve been experiencing on the ground at YogaWorks, which sort of prompted us to have these discussions with each other. That led us to meetings that we were having with regional management. And then ultimately towards realizing that we needed to form a union. The other thing that Laurel, what Laurel is saying, you know, makes me think of is that from the beginning, yes, we’ve been working on this effort at YogaWorks, but really it speaks to a larger issue in the industry as a whole and a larger need in the industry as a whole. So we’re at will employees, which means that a class could be taken away for no reason or any reason and we could, our studio could close and we would have no severance. We have no job security. So at YogaWorks, you know, we want more transparency in terms of what our path for growth is. We want more systems in place, but then industry wide, you know, YogaWorks isn’t the only one that’s operating this way. So we do want to elevate the profession and create some higher standards for more job security, benefits, and help this be more sustainable as a profession.


Laurel B.: 08:32

You know, it’s a little bit of a wild, wild west. Even within such a big, relatively highly structured corporation like YogaWorks, it feels a little bit ragtag and that affects the way that, internally, we feel as teachers. As we’re imparting the ideals, the practices, the sacred studies of yoga, right. How can we teach from a place of wellness when nothing is guaranteed?


Sarah Dittmore: 08:59

Yeah. And so I’m curious about that a little bit. You know, I’ve definitely worked my own fair share of jobs both in the yoga industry and not in the yoga industry where I’ve experienced that at will employment and that sort of lack of awareness of sort of how to grow in the company or about what the standards for evaluation are as well as, you know, a lack of benefits and maybe a less than ideal pay. I’ve had situations where it really affected me because it affected my job a lot and my lifestyle. And I’ve had other situations where like, yeah, on paper I didn’t have job security and I didn’t have evaluation standards, but you know, things ran pretty smoothly and I was pretty happy and things were pretty content. So I’m wondering if we can dive in a little and look at like how does this actually affect you as a yoga teacher? Like how does it affect the way you teach your classes? With the limited job security and at will employment. And how do you, you know, how does it affect the way you work in the company, not knowing what your standards of evaluation are? Like how does this really impact your teaching?


Markella Los: 10:07

I would say that it not only impacts teachers, but it actually impacts students, communities, and longterm profits at a studio. So I personally thinks that at will employment has a negative effect on the industry in general. And part of that is because if nothing’s guaranteed and you could lose your class at any moment, what’s being lost there is not just like you as a teacher, but students lose you as a teacher. You lose the community that you’ve built up over however many years. The studio loses the experience of that teacher and sometimes that’s in favor of someone that maybe has been teaching a little bit less or like I did at one point, you know, was following this assumption that you had to pay your dues and this is what you had to do. This is what I had to do to make it as a yoga teacher. And so I taught classes at some point for like 12 bucks a class. And then 20. So there’s this inequality and lack of systems and transparency and that does end up hurting the communities and the studio. Right now the way the system is set up, what I see is people prioritizing short term profits by trying to pay the least amount they can for classes when in fact if they were to value longevity and experience and years of training and years of like getting your own fucking work to become a skilled teacher, then we all might thrive a little better and maybe studios would be doing a little better. But that’s my take as a newer teacher.


Jodie Rufty: 11:42

Yeah. And I mean I think I can speak to that too. Having taught for over 20 years. You know, I think one of the big pictures in the industry, kind of going off of what Laurel and Markella said that’s really an issue, is that what tends to happen is, you know, you get a bit of burnout that teachers experience and then when they’re not able to take care of themselves, that affects productivity all around. Like in terms of student experience, in terms of the company’s experience, etc. etc. You know, cause this isn’t a job that we can work nine to five all the time, you know, it’s very demanding physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s a very unique type of profession.


Sarah Dittmore: 12:22

Yeah. I’m interested in that element of it. You know, I myself have had in the past thought like, “Oh yeah, yoga teaching must be so easy. You come in for an hour, you teach a class, and then you’re done!” And so like, why is it more than that? Like, why is it different than that? But also not something where it’s like, oh well in that case, why don’t you just teach, you know, all day at one studio, nine to five.? Why does the job have to be different than either of those models?


Markella Los: 12:50

I mean, you can’t make enough money to sustain yourself just by teaching at one studio and even somewhere that you teach a lot, you would still be a part time employee. So for me, as a newer teacher, I taught at probably, I mean I’ve probably taught at like 10 different studios . Right now, the only studio that I teach at is YogaWorks, but I still teach privates, which does a lot to support my income, frankly. I still lead workshops. I rent out space and hold my own courses. I also run a retreat. You have to cobble together your income and there’s a lot of different ways that you might figure out to do that, but it still has this feeling of being a little bit cobbled together cause no one place is gonna provide enough opportunity to sustain you in that way that you could just go and teach all your classes one day there. And that doesn’t work out from a scheduling standpoint for the studio. They don’t want the same person teaching all of their classes every day. Students want variety and a different teacher will attract a different kind of person, or students might need someone who speaks in a way that they understand a little better, right? Like, they might click better.


Laurel B.: 14:06

I know that from my perspective, my parents were public school teachers so they worked a little bit more of a nine to five job and I benefited from having parents who were protected by a union. Since then, you know, I’ve gone on, I was a teaching assistant in college so I worked like one class on a Friday and got paid minimum wage and my brother always kind of encouraged me, I was like 19 or 20 and he would always be like, “You got to unionize the teaching assistants at Ithaca College,” and since then I’ve heard of teaching assistants at colleges and major universities unionizing. Additionally, you know, right now drivers, Uber drivers, are fighting for unionization. It isn’t that we need to fit the job into a paradigm that has been unionized in the past in order to deserve a union and in order to be able to form a union. It’s that we have to change the paradigm for how we think of work because you know, it’s a gig type job teaching yoga as a gig type profession. But just because it’s a gig type of profession doesn’t mean that that we cannot organize and that we cannot create a situation where we come together with collective bargaining rights to have a say at the table with regards to what we want that partnership to look like with a particular studio. It can work and it has worked.


Markella Los: 15:34

And what does it mean for our society too that it prioritizes, that like, it doesn’t support the kind of work that we do. You know, what does it mean about where our values are and where our priorities are in society when people like yoga teachers who are, you know, I’m often like the first to know when someone is pregnant or going through a divorce or a death or get a promotion or whatever is going on. We’re members of the community and what does it mean when we’re not able to be supported in this role that we, that we have in people’s lives that’s important to them? We provide something that’s really, that’s unique and important. And, and really all we’re asking for is to be respected as such. Right? We’re not asking for the moon.


Sarah Dittmore: 16:23

Yeah. And I think right there, you just sort of touched on my earlier question too of like, why it is more than just teaching an hour class. You really are a member of the community and you really do work to build these relationships beyond just leading for an hour.


Laurel B.: 16:40

You know, I think the fact that people are willing to, you know, millions and millions of people are willing to pay however many hundreds of dollars a year for memberships to studios right there tells you that we’re providing an incredibly monetarily valuable service. I mean, let me ask you this, what would yoga studios have to sell if it weren’t for their teachers?


Jodie Rufty: 17:06

Yeah, and I think Markella brought up a really good point. It’s like we’re talking about such a larger, deeper personal issue of community and that’s really what it comes down to. And it’s like, it’s so important in the world today to like have those relationships and have those connections and create a deeper community. And that’s what teachers do in this profession. So it’s not just physical fitness, you know, we’re touching people’s lives in such a much more profound way. And particularly when you look at the numbers of people that are attending teacher training programs now you know, a lot of people are interested in getting involved in teacher training, not because they want to teach even, they just want a deeper connection to the community, to themselves, to the world. You know?


Music:  17:57

[Transition Music].


Sarah Dittmore: 18:05

Hi friends. Welcome to the studio shop. As usual, I want to tell you guys a little bit about Shut Up & Yoga. Shut Up & Yoga is an independent digital magazine and a collective of yoga teachers, writers, and illustrators. We are a practical, visual, and funny magazine and we try to take a pretty humorous approach to dissecting popular ideas on health, yoga, and self-development. Shut Up & Yoga has been a big part of my yoga journey. I have learned so much from the articles on that website and I actually wrote an article about this whole unionization effort. So if you go to shutupandyoga.com you can check out this article by the same title, “Should Yoga Teachers Unionize.” You can also find the link to that in the show notes below and it really is just a platform in which yoga teachers and students can really explore the industry much in the way that we do on this podcast. You can listen to episodes of this podcast on their website as well as access their library of books. We have a few more coming out soon that I’m really excited about, but I don’t want to give too much away. I’ll share more about that later, but you can view the two books they have so far at shutupandyoga.com/books and you can join in on the conversation by joining the new Facebook group. Just visit Facebook and type in “Shut Up & Yoga Forum for Modern Yogis” or head to the show notes below and click the link. In addition, if you or someone you know is interested in advertising with The Beginner’s Mind podcast, you can reach out to me directly at sarahditmore@gmail.com and we can talk about how we can do that and what that would look like. That’s all for today, so we’re going to dive back into the episode and keep the conversation going!


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Sarah Dittmore: 20:02

I think we’ve talked a lot about kind of why the role of the yoga teacher is significant and what’s, you know, the issues with the way we employee yoga teachers right now. And I’m, I’m curious as to how you see a union changing this and how a union would help and why unionizing? You know, why not just having this conversation without a union? Like what is the role of the union here?


Markella Los: 20:25

Well, we did that. I mean we had conversations with management and my understanding is that those conversations have been had way before. At YogaWorks too. You know, this has been going on for a while.


Jodie Rufty: 20:38

We’ve been having these conversations as long as I can remember being a yoga teacher, like over 15 years. You know, this isn’t a recent topic.


Markella Los: 20:48

And it’s not a recent topic in the wider yoga industry either or is it right?


Jodie Rufty: 20:53

No. Right.


Markella Los: 20:54

And yet nothing has changed and in fact in some ways it’s become more unsustainable. Is that correct?


Jodie Rufty: 21:02

Yeah, because it’s become more competitive as well and now we’re dealing with like, you know, people can take class online and you know, there’s just, so there’s just a lot of things that have changed.


Markella Los: 21:13

Because yoga is so popular and as Laura said, you know, so many people are going and they’re signing up and paying lots of money to take classes, I feel like it sort of seems from the outside as like a really smart business opportunity. But the thing is, if I’m a business who doesn’t really grasp the level of what it is that we’re offering. It might start to lose that. So I feel like unionizing is important because it’s up to us to fight for that, you know, like we’re the ones that are creating that space, offering that “product.” And it’s up to us to fight for the quality of that because someone else might not be aware of it fully. And I also don’t think that it has to be a contradiction to have a business that’s profitable and also takes care of their teachers and their students and has a more well rounded sort of triple bottom line ethic to it.


Sarah Dittmore: 22:10

And so, explain to me how unionizing makes that possible for you to fight for both the rights of the teachers and like the yoga industry as a whole. Like, what does unionizing give you that allows you to make that happen?


Jodie Rufty: 22:27

Well, I think it ultimately gives us a larger voice with a higher management paradigm where we can actually, the teachers have a greater voice and say in the integrity, you know? And I think that that’s, I think that’s a big part of it is that I think, you know, it’s like maintaining the integrity of the industry and really being able to have a bigger voice in the maintaining of that integrity. Because the forces of capitalism are often at odds with the ideals of yoga practices, philosophies, and objectives, right? And so the teachers are really the standard bearers of yoga.


Laurel B.: 23:10

And if we’re going to, like Jodie says, ensure the integrity because what we are teaching is, you know, a representation of yoga, then we probably have something to say about what that might look like. And in a more fundamental way, you know, as transmitters of wellness practices, right, we need to have our own wellness supported, which means things like a livable wage and health insurance and time off when we need to heal. So, yeah, it is very much about raising the bar on the quality of the way yoga is taught in this country.


Markella Los: 23:59

Right now, without a union, a company or a studio holds 100% of the power. Even if you’re able to have a conversation and maybe they listen and take your advice, they still have 100% of the power. And so what a union does is equalize that a little bit. So by law, a company is required to bargain with the union in good faith over anything that has to do with working conditions, pay, benefits, everything like that. So we have legal rights as a union that we don’t have right now. And our power is limited as individuals, even as individuals that have sort of come together under what’s called concerted activity.


Sarah Dittmore: 25:40

Yeah. I’m interested in looking at that more, you know, something that we’ve, you know, we’ve talked now about how unionizing would benefit teachers in a very practical way, but I’m also interested in a big part of what you guys are bringing up. And a big part of what I hear in other conversations I’ve been having is that it’s beyond just those needs of the teacher of, you know, their employment standards. It’s bigger than that. It’s about the industry as a whole. And so I’m interested in, yeah, how you see unionizing impacting the industry as a whole. And in what ways do you hope it can give teachers a voice to kind of shape the future of yoga?


Markella Los: 26:17

Well, if we have a voice, and to Jodie’s point when she was just saying, you know, we’re the ones that are on the ground and having the conversations with the students, we’re the one using the studio space the most. We have a lot of great information to share. It could be really helpful to a business. So if we’re able to have that voice, you know, we only want to make things better for everybody. And we want to be able to hear students’ needs and concerns and be able to respond to them and actually have something to give back, you know, to say that, oh, you know, I’m going to pass that along. And let’s see if we can try and make that better for you.


Laurel B.: 26:58

Additionally as a consumer of other things, right, I definitely pay attention to which companies have what types of track records with regards to how they take care of their employees and to be a leader in being the first studio with a Yoga Teacher’s Union like that might actually bring a lot of people to the studio who are in support of unions, unionized labor, and who believe in, you know, employee rights and the right to collectively bargain. I mean, it certainly is not without audience.


Sarah Dittmore: 27:33

Yeah. And to that point of sort of knowing the community’s needs and knowing, you know, the needs of the space, what are some of the needs you see at in the yoga industry? I mean, you are all based in New York, so I should qualify that we’re, you know, talking in New York more, but I think a lot of these things can be applied larger scale. What are some of the conversations that need to be had around kind of the shape of yoga? I’m thinking of when we first started this call and you talked about, I think Merkella you were the one who mentioned raising the standards of the industry and making yoga less white. What are some of these issues that face yoga as a whole that that can be addressed through the platform of a union?


Jodie Rufty: 28:17

Yeah, I think that diversity is a big issue. Like Markella brought up at the very beginning. It’s like, you know, we’re serving a fairly privileged population and the people that can afford these services, you know, so like how to come together to find a way to diversify that a little bit more.


Markella Los: 28:33

It’s not just the people that are able to come and take class with us. It’s also the people that can afford to take a teacher training and then afford, like I did for the first couple of years, to make like basically under the poverty line amount of income. You know? And I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I didn’t have other savings at that time. It took me at least a couple of years to get to a place where I was able to like maintain a modest but more sustainable income for myself.


Jodie Rufty: 29:07

Yeah, and I think also on that note is like there’s not a lot of affordable continuing education that exists for teachers in this industry either, which is a whole other topic is like how can we, how can we sustain teachers continuing education so that they’re also able to provide the highest standard of teaching to the community, to the students.


Markella Los: 29:31

Time is part of that too, what you’re saying, Jodie, is that like in order to take a training, I often have to sub out a class. And so from the studio’s perspective, maybe they see that as like, oh, Markella took a day off. But like really I’m at a training to become a better teacher and I’m missing my day off. You know? So it’s almost like we need a little bit of an idea of like a sabbatical or something that’s like normalized time off to continue your education and have it be more, maybe even more included or, I mean dare I say subsidized, by the studios.


Laurel B.: 30:08

Yeah, I mean it seems like some of the, some of the topics we’ve already kinda touched on in this conversation center around, uh, you know, teacher education, the structure that supports teacher continuing education, a structure that supports teacher health, a structure that supports a teacher maybe time in terms of being able to, uh, anticipate their schedule, set their schedule, um, or you know, at least have a say in what their schedule is. All of these considerations, you know, are considerations that could be under, you know, undertaken and sort of bargained for with a union.


Sarah Dittmore: 30:43

Yeah. And I think, you know, it’s, it’s interesting cause a lot of what you guys bring up is normalized in other industries. Like you’re talking about it being okay to take time off for training. And I’m thinking of my other job where it’s like, not only do I get time off but they pay for my, like for me to go to conferences and pay for the travel expenses and give me a daily stipend to be there and I’m not even a full time employee. It’s like, you know, and so it’s, it’s sort of the expectation of the industry as well as like, you know, I think in, in an off air interview, I don’t remember Markella if this was you or someone else telling me that, um, that when they entered the industry it was all of a sudden all these sorts of norms that they weren’t expecting that it’s like, oh, this, this works differently here, like things and it was just the norm. And so, and you just like learn to accept it as a yoga teacher if like, okay, if I’m going to be in a yoga teacher, this is the way things run. And so it’s sort of rewriting those norms.


Markella Los: 31:42

I did have that experience. I’m not sure if it was me or not, but I did have that experience. That sounds really relatable. And I felt like I spent the first couple of years of my teaching trying to figure out what the system was so that I could adapt myself to it. And in some ways I feel like I adapted myself to it well except that it’s unsustainable. So like I felt like I played by the rules and then realized that I didn’t like what the rules were.


Sarah Dittmore: 32:10

And I wonder too, part of this, um, being about sort of, I wonder too if, if you guys can speak a little bit to the isolation of yoga teachers and why it might take a while and to kind of have these conversations and why a union might change that a little bit.


Laurel B.: 32:26

Oh yeah. We’re kind of all like ships in the night, right? Like we’re, we’re often working, um, at multiple studios because we need to have multiple revenue streams and at various days of the week and schedules, um, because yoga classes can go anywhere from like five in the morning to nine o’clock at night. So it’s a, it’s a wide range, you know, seven days a week, uh, of time in which we’re all kind of bouncing around and we see each other in passing. And a lot of times when we do see each other in person, it’s, it’s, it’s a nice thing that can happen. You know, once you kinda get your weekly schedule down, you start to see the same faces, but you see them for like five minutes at a time, maybe 10 minutes at a time. So it’s not, it’s not the type of career job where everybody goes to the same room in the same office building, um, and works together from, from nine to five. So, um, this makes it definitely challenging too to be organized. I think this is maybe one of the reasons why we haven’t until now even seen progress to this extent for a yoga teacher union or a fitness professional union for that matter.


Jodie Rufty: 33:38

Yeah. And then kind of going back to what Markella was saying too, like, you know, as a new teacher just coming out of a teacher training, I think another issue to look at, um, in terms of, uh, what I foresee a union could help with is that, you know, we’re cranking out these teacher training programs and yet we don’t have any followup with these teachers that are coming out of these programs. And we don’t have any, we don’t, there’s no help for them. We can’t guarantee them work. There’s no support system for these students coming out of these training programs. And there’s kind of this like idealistic belief, um, that because this is like a multibillion dollar business industry that is just going to be really easy. And, um, and it’s just not, it’s just not. And it is a, it is a very, um, can be a very lonely, uh, profession. And so I think by doing this, you know, that word yoga means union, right? So it’s like, I just like kind of see this as an opportunity to just unite on so many different levels and so many different fronts that we’re just kind of, we’re just kind of losing, we’re missing the mark.


Markella Los: 34:56

You know, I have made so many friends through this process. It’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of organizing. Um, whereas before it was, as you guys are saying, like really pretty isolating, um, to now have like a deep sense of solidarity and community, to really feel like there’s trust. Um, that’s been developing over the last several months between teachers. And I think that part of why this hasn’t happened before is because there’s, you need to be able to trust the people you’re working with to take something like this on. And without seeing people and getting to know them, as Laurel was saying, you know, seeing people in passing, it’s really hard to build trust. And then there’s also this like scarcity mentality in the industry that if you fall prey to that, and it’s not to say it’s your fault if you do because it’s like out there everywhere.


Laurel B.: 35:54

Well that, that, that mentality, that mentality really benefits, uh, you know, the profit margin of businesses where their employees will feel, uh, disconnected and, and powerless actually.


Markella Los: 36:08

Yeah. It doesn’t benefit us at all. But if you see your fellow teachers as competition and like, you’re like looking at how big their class was and like, you know, whatever else that makes it, that’s a barrier that only it doesn’t serve us right. That that sort of serves to divide us against our common interests and getting to know each other.


Jodie Rufty: 36:29

Yeah. That kind of goes back to the whole at will contracts idea that, you know, in terms of competition, you know, it’s like your teachers are really just surviving and they’re not able to, they’re not able to thrive, you know, because they’re caught up against this competitive industry, you know, and it’s like, if they’re not performing in a particular way, then you know, their job is at risk and, you know, look, the bottom line is, is nobody can really, um, determine how many people are going to show up in a given day to a class. You know? And so it doesn’t seem fair when, you know, that can fluctuate like normally.


Sarah Dittmore: 37:09

Yeah, I think, you know, it’s, it’s interesting talking to you guys and also talking to the other teachers I’ve spoken to in this process. It seems that like everyone I speak to has a different thing that they’re like most concerned about or that they think is important. But it all, it all ties into the fact that teachers just aren’t a part of the conversation right now, but the decisions are made behind closed doors and then told to teachers instead of teachers having a voice in the dialogue and actually getting to choose right, how the job works.


Laurel B.: 37:47

And that’s, that’s really how for profit businesses work until employees form a union. It’s not unique to yoga and this, and this is why unionization, um, is like probably makes up sort of the, the foundation of this country. This is, this is what this country is really very much dependent on, has benefited from and can and will continue to benefit from, uh, from our right to unionize and to have a voice.


Markella Los: 38:17

Yeah. I mean, I would say that throughout this process, like it’s been a huge crash course in like labor law and organizing. Um, and I also, it also made me realize how little I actually knew about that beforehand and knew what my rights were. Um, and in this process, I’ve also realized how little management and studios often know about the labor law, um, which means that it’s even more important for us as teachers to, to know, um, what we’re capable of and what we’re entitled to. So unionizing in and of itself is legally protected right here in the U.S. um, it’s not something that it has to be done in a way that’s against anyone. It can very much be for someone. Um, at YogaWorks we’re employees and that’s not the case at all studios, but you’re still, um, you’re protected in what’s called concerted activity, which is two or more employees getting together to discuss their working conditions, um, that’s protected by law. And then of course, you know, unionizing. Um, and you also have the right to unionize without interference and you know, questions and, and things like that from a company. Um, companies don’t often know that that’s actually illegal and that’s not something they’re supposed to do. So that’s, you know, as educators, this is where we come in and you kindly remind them or inform them that, um, that, you know, this is something that we’re legally allowed to do and to do on our own. Right. We are the ones that are responsible for, for having an election, having a vote. And how that plays out to me as a teacher is it’s become really important for myself to be like literate in this way. Um, and, and that’s where, that’s where I really started being able to like, um, just kind of like weed through what’s fact and what’s not and, and kind of dispel some myths that everyone’s just seems like they’re going along with. But even like the 1099 situation at studios where most yoga teachers are independent contractors, like that’s super suspect.


Sarah Dittmore: 40:35

Yeah, definitely. I think there’s a lot of industry norms that we just accept because they’re norms without really questioning whether or not they’re even legal.


Laurel B.: 40:43

Yeah. And one of the, you know, emotions that is I think so prevalent in this uh, type of, you know, situation where a lot of people are working in at will employment. They don’t really know their coworkers very well. They’re running around just trying to pay rent. They don’t have health insurance that it’s really easy for fear to creep in and for decisions to be made to, you know, participate or not participate based on fear. But when you know your rights, when you know you’re protected, when you know that this has been, you know, a process of unionizing is almost as old as this country that you can re you can relax, you can take a breath, you can connect with knowing that, that this is, in my opinion, a good thing. This is a good thing. This is something that will benefit. Like, uh, I think Markella said it will benefit us. It will make us all healthier. It will make us all better capable of practicing and teaching yoga.


Jodie Rufty: 41:51

Yeah. And I think like, you know, also, it just gives us a greater feeling of empowerment, you know, and, and that no one should ever feel that that’s taken from them. You know, uh, there no one should ever feel that their voice is taken from them, uh, that their own unique self and empowerment is taken from them. And, and I think that, you know, um, by doing what we’re doing, it’s, it’s really literally to help empower every single person involved. It’s, it’s not just power to one particular person or group of people, but it’s as a whole power to everybody. It’s, you know, it’s, it’s equalizing the system so that everybody has a voice. Everybody feels empowered and therefore is going to thrive.


Markella Los: 42:40

It’s interesting, last Friday, YogaWorks announced that the SoHo studio will be closing at the end of the month. And I’ve been kind of monitoring my own, sort of like reactions and feelings to that. And while I’m, I’m really sad for that. I’m really sad for all the teachers and the staff and the students and the, the loss of community. I don’t feel like complaining. Right. I find that I don’t feel like I need to vent. Partially. I think in big part because we’re doing this, so I feel like because I feel empowered and able to take action, there’s like this whole other response that’s like no longer necessary for me. So that’s like, I just wanted to share that on like a personal level. One thing I’ve noticed with myself in this process.


Sarah Dittmore: 43:32

Yeah, I think you know, when, when a studio like that, when something like that happens where it’s just so, so I don’t think it has an explicitly explained on air what happened. So my understanding, and you guys can correct me, is that the studio closed and most teachers were given three weeks notice that they weren’t going to have classes anymore and that, and were not given other opportunities to work with, you know, pick up those classes elsewhere.


Markella Los: 43:59

Well, so they, yeah, they gave us notice that the studio would be closing by the end of the month. So it hasn’t, you know, as of this conversation actually closed, um, right now it’s really unclear who will get classes either at other studios or at a potential additional smaller space. Definitely not all teachers are going to be able to have their classes back. Um, and even if they were to have the exact same class and time, it’s not going to be the same people.


Sarah Dittmore: 44:28

Yeah. I feel like, you know, I feel like this, this highlights, I think two things. I think it highlights on the one hand, the, the issue is that a lot of teachers are facing with like job security and with like that competition of people like who’s going to get the classes and that, you know, lack of communication between the studios and the teachers. And, and so I think it highlights all the need for a union. But I think Markella your personal story as well highlights like how a union not only would help maybe solve some of those issues, but would also give people a place to take action and not feel so disempowered by these, um, these actions that are out of their control.


Jodie Rufty: 45:11

Yeah. And it also like it, it creates so much separation in the community, which is unfortunate, you know, because then it, you know, it looks like there’s favoritism, there’s a hierarchy, there’s all of these things that are just really unfortunate and I think can be just handled in a much better way. And where, where teachers again can feel heard, they can feel taken care of and even if there’s an unforeseen circumstance of a business closing, you know, um, I think the important piece is like, rather than to install fear and, um, diversity in separation is like, how can we use this as an opportunity to like, um, create real proactive solutions so that this doesn’t happen. This doesn’t happen again.


Sarah Dittmore: 45:58

Yeah. I think, you know, I think it really does sort of highlight the importance of, of the union and, and I’m curious on that note of like we’re, we’ve been talking big picture about how unions help, but the truth is right now there is a unionizing effort happening that’s specific to the YogaWorks teachers. And so, okay, what do you, you know, how can people get involved in that? But how can, you know, a lot of my listeners are not YogaWorks teachers not based in New York and just yoga teachers all over the United States and some outside of the United States, but specifically in the United States. Like how can other people get involved in this movement beyond just the YogaWorks union?


Markella Los: 46:40

For sure. I mean I think that part of why we we’re working; sort of the scope right now is the four YogaWorks studios in New York City. Um, and part of that is that, I mean it, part of it happened organically, but also it’s like it’s a big enough bite to take to make a difference, but also a small enough bite that we might actually be able to do it. And that’s pretty important. Right? So like if we are able to do this, honestly I feel like it’s already successful because it’s pushing the conversation forward. So even if worst case scenario, you know, this didn’t go through for some reason, I think it would still be a huge benefit to unity overall. But in doing this, we’re sort of starting to normalize something else or normalizing speaking up for what you need, knowing your rights, working together with other people. Like we’re, we’re reframing a lot of the things that have been standard, um, in this industry. Um, and throughout this process, you know, we haven’t been doing this alone. We’ve been working with a machinists union here, and we’ve had the, the full resource of their, their legal department. Um, we’ve had strategic meetings every week and so the, the machinists union would be available for other people to reach out to as well. And now that they’ve kind of gone through this once, they’re quite savvy about what the yoga industry looks like, so they’d be able to help out potentially even quicker than how this has gone for us.


Sarah Dittmore: 48:12

Yeah. And so, so lastly, how can people sort of connect like, is there a way to connect with other teachers who are working to unionize and kind of join that community and have those conversations?


Markella Los: 48:24

Right now we’re, we’re live on social media. Um, and we have a link set up for our newsletter. So if people want to sign up for that, first of all, like follow us and support us on there.


Sarah Dittmore: 48:35

And I’ll have all those things in the show notes. All the links will be in the show notes as well.


Markella Los: 48:39

And then we’re gonna start sending out, um, emails that will hopefully include some more resources as well as contact information for the machinist union, which if that sounds weird to people, it’s a super diverse union and it’s national, so they actually have a lot of other people under their umbrella, including people like drivers and healthcare professionals and so on and so forth. But if we’re, if we’re able to do this, I think that we’ll have something that ,every situation is different, so it’s not like it’ll be replicated, but it will have been done. Definitely.


Sarah Dittmore: 49:10

Well, great. I mean, I think this is really covered it for me and I think we’ll give people a really good understanding of sort of why, why people are unionizing, you know, and, and so I’m really grateful for that. And I’m really grateful for you guys bringing in your different perspectives and sharing kind of this movement with me.


Markella Los: 49:27

Thanks, Sarah. I thought of one more thing. I don’t know if that’s okay.


Sarah Dittmore: 49:32

Yeah, for sure. Always.


Markella Los: 49:33

Okay. Well, going back to what, when you prompted me, Laurel to talk about, um, some of like the legal stuff. Um, one of the things that we came up against a lot in this is everyone’s perceived ideas of what unions do and perceived ideas of what the law is. And part of that is because union busting has been super successful in the US since about the seventies. Um, and I think that coupled with, uh, you know, unions are what you make of them, right? So you could have a, a great union or you could not. Um, and so a lot of times what you hear from people without even realizing they’re union busting are sort of like part truths. There’s this idea that you’re going to bargain all your rights away. And that’s a part truth in the sense that if you were to sign a contract that said you were giving all your rights, yeah, you could lose all your rights but no one’s going to do that, right. So like there’s all these things, ideas out there that are, they, they have some foot in reality initially, but they’re not things that would actually happen. Um, being forced to go on a strike, um, that’s not true. And over like 97% of negotiations are, are, are, um, are done without any kind of strike and you need two thirds majority vote to go on a strike. You know, like these things are, are, are hard to do. So I just want to say that if someone hears something about like, Oh, if you go union, this is going to happen, they should like look into it a little bit more.


Laurel B.: 51:11

Yeah. You have to, you have to remember. Unions, unions are democracies. So whatever ends up in the contract is something that received a majority yes vote that we actually all agreed to it. If there’s something that we don’t agree to in the contract, we negotiate to take it out or we come to an agreement on that. So yeah, the, the, the idea that as soon as you get involved with the union, all these things are guaranteed to happen is in and of itself a baseline misunderstanding of what a union is and how a union works, which is that it’s a democracy, right?


Markella Los: 51:50

And it’s us and it’s not a third party, it’s us doing this, right. But with more legal power.


Jodie Rufty: 51:56

It’s a we, not a me.


Music:  52:00

[Transition Music]


Sarah Dittmore: 52:06

This whole conversation about whether or not yoga teachers should unionize is something I’m really fascinated in. And I hadn’t honestly really thought of it until these ladies reached out to me about the YogaWorks movement. And it sent me down this whole rabbit hole of research and got me really curious as to like what a union does and why people should unionize. So I ended up doing a bunch more interviews and next week I’m going to share a bonus interview. Uh, that’s a short interview I did with a woman, Zoe West, who works as a university adjunct professor and a union organizer. And she really helped me understand like the laws around the unions and what a union is and how they work and why they work. And, and I think it’s a really important thing to know. I mean Markella mentioned it in this interview, but just understanding our rights and understanding how unionizing affects us is really important. So I’m going to be sharing that. And then next Wednesday, god, what is that September? Is it October already? No, god no, it can’t be. No, September 25th. On September 25th I’ll be sharing an interview with Norman Blake in the UK and Liz Walker in New York City about their own experiences as teachers. And neither of these two individuals are directly related with the YogaWorks union movement, but they’re both supporting unionization. And so I wanted to get some more voices in the conversation about why teachers want this and what is wrong with the way we treat teachers right now. After that, we’ll take a short break from unionization to talk about some other stuff that I’ve been thinking about. And then in mid October we’re going to dive back into the union conversation with a couple more interviews. I talked to Marcela and Amy who are both yoga studio owners in New York City about how to run an ethical studio that does, you know, recognize and support your teachers. I also spoke to Luvena Rangel, an Indian yoga teacher who works in both India and America, to get sort of a, a bigger perspective on the whole union conversation and get, you know, some voices into this conversation that are more representative of where the practice comes from. So I’m really excited to explore all of that in the weeks to come. And I’m really interested in what all of you think about this movement to unionize. So please share your thoughts by reaching out to me on Instagram @TBMpodcast, on Facebook @The Beginner’s Mind Podcast, or via email at sarahditmore@gmail.com. And all those links as well as the links to connect with the union ladies are in the show notes below. Thanks for listening. See you guys next week. And until then, stay curious.


Music:  55:06

[Closing Music].