Ep. 7 Transcription – Sustainable Employment for Yoga Teachers

Music: 00:00:05
[Intro Music].

Sarah Dittmore: 00:00:05
Hi friends. My name is Sarah and you’re listening to the beginner’s mind, a podcast about all things yoga ish. Last week I began exploring this idea of yoga teachers unionizing and honestly as I dove more into it, I got more and more curious, so I decided to interview a handful of different teachers about their experiences in the yoga industry and what efforts we could take, whether it be unionization or something else, to make the career more sustainable and more accessible. This week I’m talking to two different teachers: Liz Buehler Walker from New York City and Norman Blair from London. I chose to speak to both Liz and Norman because they’ve both been in the industry for a while and teaching for a long time and they had a good perspective as to what yoga teaching used to look like and what it looks like now, and they’ve both had opportunities to teach either at their own studio or at their home studio, and so they give an interesting perspective as to the other side and actually creating a sustainable industry for everyone involved. Later in October, we’ll be exploring more about unionization from the studio perspective as well as hearing voices from different backgrounds about unionization and what that would mean for yoga. But I thought Liz and Norman both had really interesting perspectives and I’m really excited to share with you guys. I also want to thank everyone for engaging so much in this conversation. I think it’s a really interesting question of whether or not yoga teachers should unionize. And I’ve had a ton of responses and feedback, both, you know, in support of this effort and you know, challenging what this effort would mean for the industry. And so I’m really grateful for the dialogue that’s coming out of this and please continue to, you know, open up conversation with myself or other yogis about issues that they see in the industry and, and whether or not unionization could be an effective means towards addressing some of those issues, which is of course something we’ll explore in this episode. So, uh, let’s dive in and let’s get curious.

Music: 00:02:40
[Transition Music].

Liz B. Walker: 00:02:40
My name is Liz Buehler Walker and I am a yoga teacher, yoga student, yoga practitioner, former studio owner. Um, I’m a mom of an eight and a half year old son. So I’ve been practicing and really teaching yoga since the late nineties, early oughts here in New York City. So really, uh, all of my yoga experience in terms of having yoga homes and studying and teaching has been here in New York. Um, and a lot has changed over that time period and a lot has stayed the same, you know, over that time period too. Yeah, I think there have been some really good changes that have happened in terms of, um, respecting people’s space and ownership over their own bodies that wasn’t happening. And then there have been some things like, you know, pay staying pretty much the same for yoga teachers that have really needed to change in my opinion. And they haven’t really moved forward with the times. So in some, you know, there’ve been some great changes that have happened and also some stagnancy I think that has set in.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:03:55
Yeah. I mean, I think that’s interesting how if you look at yoga specifically in the United States and the way it’s changed over the years, at the beginning it was a very underground practice and there weren’t a ton of people doing it. And then as it became more popular, it became, you know, more of an industry standard was set. And it seems like that standard hasn’t changed or been, you know, re-evaluated since it was set, you know, a couple of decades ago.

Liz B. Walker: 00:04:21
Yeah. You know, back when, um, when I was first practicing, I was, I started off at Bhava yoga, which was in the East village, was in the sixth street community center; and it’s since moved. That was around, you know, there were, you could count, I would say on two hands, the yoga studios that were around and crunch as far as I remember crunch gym was offering yoga classes, but gyms in general were not, you know, yoga wasn’t happening in gyms at that time.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:04:49
I think it’s become, I, I was just reading a study the other day that said 20 million Americans or something around there practice yoga. And it’s grown to be hugely popular. I mean it’s a billion dollar industry now. And I wonder what sort of, um, standards you’ve seen that haven’t changed that are problematic and what, you know, sort of in relation to treatment of teachers and expectations in a studio and at a gym of what’s expected from the yoga teacher. How has that developed as this industry has kind of skyrocketed?

Liz B. Walker: 00:05:25
You know, what I’m going to be able to offer to this conversation is based on the experience that I’ve lived by practicing and teaching yoga here in New York over the last 20 years or so. And so I think one of the, if not the most important things that I can add to this conversation, to this larger discussion is, um, locating myself and really owning that I’m speaking from my personal experience. So I just want to take a second to do that because I want to own that my identity, me being a white, thin, cis-gendered hetero woman who’s able bodied, who has a home that I’m not in danger of, of getting kicked out of or not being able to pay the rent. You know, I own my home. All of these things put me in a position that is valued in the yoga world in America, you know, in the U S so when I’m talking about yoga, I’m going to be talking about the U S and even New York in particular. So it’s easiest for me in that context to do well. And even in terms of being a studio owner, I have family money that I was able to use as seed money to open a business. And I think that it’s important for us to kind of put that context into this conversation because really the why of having this conversation for me is that if you have to come from this set of circumstances, you know, and this set of privileges to even try to make a go of it as a yoga teacher in America, then we have a huge problem.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:07:13
A big part of this conversation as I’ve been talking to teachers about the interest in potentially unionizing or just creating new standards of employment is the fact that right now yoga teaching in general in the United States is a job for the privileged, the expense involved in getting your yoga teacher certification and getting to the point where you are marketable as a teacher and then the low income that comes from being a teacher, it’s a very hard career to follow and make a living out of if you don’t come from a place of privilege already.

Liz B. Walker: 00:07:48
Right. And, and so we’re missing out on so much because of that. Right? We’re missing out on so many voices because of that. So many perspectives, so many people, you know, it’s known as being such a huge industry. But there are, there are a lot of people, every time I’m teaching a class, I, you know, when we’re beginning the class, I just say like, you know, arrive here in the room on your mat, into your practice, acknowledge the people that you’re going to be doing the practice with that are in the room and acknowledge there are so many people that are not in this room right now and we need to hold for that as we do the practice. That there are people who are not doing this for lots of different reasons. One of which is because they’re not reflected in the, in the privileged people that are able to do this as a career.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:08:40
Yeah. And I think, you know, creating a yoga industry that then perpetuates these same systems of like racism and oppression, I think is really problematic.

Liz B. Walker: 00:08:50
Exactly. And so we’re missing out on all of those voices and all of those people and exactly what you just said, we’re perpetuating something that is really ugly. So one of the things that I have seen change over the years is, uh, particularly when I was a studio owner. So I co owned a studio on the lower East side in Manhattan from 2008 to 2013 and then I left as co-owner in 2013 but continued to teach at that studio. My partner, um, my business partner, Mel Russo, continued the studio for another couple of years and then, and I was teaching there and then eventually she decided to close the studio. And one of the things that we noticed during that time, that period from 2008 to 2013 or 2015 was that on the earlier end of that, we had teachers who were yoga teachers. That’s what they did. That was their career. They spent their days practicing yoga, teaching yoga, you know, it was a, it was a hustle and they were having to travel around. And over time, even in that short period that stopped and the people that were teaching yoga; they had other jobs, so they worked another job. And then teaching yoga was a thing that they did on the side because it became unsustainable. I think that once so many studios started to open up, so many gyms started to offer yoga, even though that’s more classes happening. Also, there was this huge influx of teachers, right? People doing teacher trainings and becoming teachers. And so people just couldn’t work enough because the, because of what we were getting paid was so little people couldn’t work enough to sustain being able to live in New York or in Brooklyn. And so they were taking on other jobs. And I’m not saying that that’s a bad model. Maybe that’s a fine model. I do think that it can be problematic when it’s a side hustle, you know, and it doesn’t mean that you’re less committed to the practice, but it just means you’re not steeped in it all the time. You’re kind of like having to pop in and out and kind of split yourself.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:11:09
Yeah. And it also creates that culture where the only people who can work that career are people who have the time and like can afford to have a side hustle. You know, that if you, if you need to work a full time job and have kids and you know, have family to take care of, then you can’t also teach yoga. Like it needs to be. If we, if we are going to take yoga as serious as we do, take it, then we need to have teachers who can really commit the time that practice and be full time teachers without worrying about, you know, not being able to hit their bills.

Liz B. Walker: 00:11:45
Exactly. And I think that that’s something that we never really contended with here in the U S. So, you know, I am not Indian. You know, the yoga practice doesn’t come from my lineage. It’s not from my people, from my culture, I consider it as a gift. And I’m also not an economist. So, um, you know, those are, those are people that I think should, you know, their voices should be in this conversation. But I do think that we took a practice that came from a different time and a different culture and we brought it, you know, we brought it into an end stage capitalist society and we never had the conversation of what changes need to be made here in order for this, um, these practices, this philosophy, this, these teachings to translate, to come here and be able to be integrated into the way that people are living. Because that’s, that’s in the end, what we’re going for, right, is like a transformational experience and a way of living where we have done the internal work and continue to do the internal work to liberate, liberate our consciousness and the external work so that our way of being in the world reflects the inner work. And we never had the conversations that were like, okay, well we’re not at ashrams. Right? We’re not, we’re not being like fed and clothed and how we have, you know, we have apartments and we have families and we have food to buy and there are some, you know, basic needs that have to be taken care of. So how do we do that with this practice and honoring the history and the traditions of the practice and also acknowledging like this is where we are right now. Right here.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:13:36
You know, it’s that idea that yoga did not come from a capitalist society and we’re trying to put it into a capitalist society. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. And maybe it is and that’s a bigger discussion. But the reality is that’s what we’ve got. We’ve got, you know, a late stage capitalism in America and we have a spiritual practice of yoga that’s turning into an industry. So how do we, you know, allow teachers to, to live in that industry and still protect, you know, the practices of yoga so that they don’t get morphed into just total consumerism.

Liz B. Walker: 00:14:11
Right? So they’re not trying to, you know, get sponsorships and, or maybe we need to have a conversation of like, is that it then? Is that what that looks like to have yoga in a, in a, you know, late stage or end stage capitalist society? But I think there’s the only way that it is possible for this to happen. And I think we’ve been like experimenting and trying out doing yoga here in America for long enough now that we can stop and be like, okay, what is working? What is not working? Is this sustainable longterm? How is it, you know, what are the shifts in the adjustments that we need to make? There’s no way for us to figure that out without sitting down and having the conversation. Right? And so again, I can, you know, I can speak from my lived experience and I have some ideas and some things that I’ve seen and we need a lot more voices to be there, right? I can tell you what would work for me. I can’t tell you what’s going to work for someone else, right? I can tell you what’s going to work for me. Again, having a home that I’m not in danger of getting kicked out of, but I can’t be like, you know, and for so and so over there, this is what’s going to work. We need to bring all kinds of different people into the conversation. And that’s where I think unionizing can be interesting. I think that, you know, if we get a collective voice, which means a voice of many different perspectives and we need, we get bargaining power with that collective voice, then we can start to really figure out a way forward.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:15:51
Yeah, and that’s something the ladies who I spoke to who are kind of spearheading a unionization movement, they spoke to me and they said, you know I asked, I asked, what are your like demands? What are you going to ask for? And they said, we don’t have demands. Our demand is to create this union. And then it’s through the process of unionization that we can invite in all the teachers who work at the studio and all the teachers involved in this movement to have a conversation of, okay, now that we have a union, now that we have this sort of support and protection, what do we need as a community? And then their point was that the things they thought they needed have already changed as they started to talk to more teachers and, and so yeah, I think you’re spot on that it does need to be a conversation of many voices because it affects so many people.

Liz B. Walker: 00:16:43
I think in any industry where you’re, you know, you’re doing freelance and you’re sort of cobbling together different jobs in order to make a career it. But, but, but especially, you know, I have experienced this in yoga and in teaching yoga it can be really isolating and you kind of don’t even know what to ask for or what your needs are because you have no idea what’s going on with other people. Right. I think even, you know, even people coming together and saying, this is how long I’ve been teaching yoga, these are my areas of expertise, this is what I’m charging for private clients. And just comparing and contrasting so that other people can be like, Oh, okay, so if you’re there, I’m located here and I feel like it’s fair for me to charge this amount.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:17:39
Yeah. I mean, when I, when I got into the writing industry, there are, there are resources for that. There’s a whole, I can’t remember it now, but there’s a whole website where they’ve done that. They’ve compiled people’s different stats and they say, you know, this many years of experience, this many years of schooling, this amount, and you have a whole chart and you can kind of find where you lie on that so that, you know, what is industry standard.

Liz B. Walker: 00:18:01
Right. And I think that, um, whether it’s on purpose or whether it just happened this way, there isn’t much of an industry standard in the yoga industry, especially around, you know, education and continuing education. And when I talk to people who are in other industries, they say, yeah, if you go and get an additional certification, first of all, often the company pays for it and then you get a pay bump because you’re, you’re, you know, you have a new certification or you have more continuing ed. That is a value to the, you know, to like the job that you’re doing.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:18:41
Yeah, well, like my brother’s getting his, um, teaching certification right now for high school English. And at the same time he’s also getting a master’s in English and he was explaining to us that it’s like you get this much starting salary if you have a teaching certification and then you get this much additional starting salary if you also have a master’s. It’s very clear like they are respecting and valuing that level of commitment and education that the person has taken upon themselves.

Liz B. Walker: 00:19:09
Yeah. And it makes sense. It’s good for everyone.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:19:12
Yeah. And so that brings me to the question of sort of, you know, with this context of, of understanding that this is from your perspective and in your location, what has been your experience as both a teacher and a studio owner? What are some of the major issues you’ve noticed in, in the current way the industry is run?

Liz B. Walker: 00:19:32
Well, one thing is just that, um, the pay as I mentioned has stayed pretty much the same. And I think that that’s also part of the picture when I mentioned that there were teachers who were full time teachers and then it became that they had to have other jobs because right, like cost of living went up, but what you were making as a yoga teacher did not go up.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:20:01
Just just for context, because I know that not every single person listening is a teacher themselves. What, what are some of the average like pays? What does that look like?

Liz B. Walker: 00:20:11
Sure. So I’m often, and this used to be even more of the trend, but often in yoga studios a teacher would get paid a very small base pay just for showing up and that was usually somewhere between, it’s painful to even say it, $15 to $40 base pay for showing up and then you got paid per head usually after a certain number of students. So let’s say you’d get paid somewhere between $15 and $40 for showing up and then after eight students you would get between $3 and $5 per head.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:20:56
Which is an interesting model to me because it values popularity over like the value, the quality of the teaching, right? It’s saying we want someone who can fill their class more than we want someone who has a level of experience. You know, some of my least favorite classes going, like I think back to college and I think like there were professors where it was like at the beginning you were like, Oh this teacher, I don’t like this teacher. I don’t want to go to the class, this class. And by the end you’re like, wow, I learned more from this teacher than any other class I ever took. And so it’s saying that like your value as a teacher is only how popular you are. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a good model.

Liz B. Walker: 00:21:38
100% and also then it sets up a strange dynamic too, which is that the teacher is basically trying to hustle for money. You know, the teacher is like, let me like put on a bunch of bells and whistles to attract people into my classes. And also this, I’m like, I need you. I need, you know, I need that popularity. Let me, you know, I need to do to hang on to as many people as possible instead of potentially like pushing some buttons and really encouraging people to go deep and go into uncomfortable places. Um, and then, and then it’s also sets up some inequity too in terms of, um, time slots, right? You’re jockeying for these times, like the prime time, time slot. The other thing is that it makes an assumption about the teachers, which is you also are a marketing professional,

Sarah Dittmore: 00:22:43
Right? Like you don’t need to just have trained in yoga, which is a lifetime study, but then you also need to know how to sell yourself and how to, you know, make yourself attractive. And then it also shirks the responsibility from the studio. You know, I used to work for a retreat company and we really only brought on teachers that had a pretty big following because we didn’t want to do the marketing work. We wanted them to do the marketing work. Right?

Liz B. Walker: 00:23:13
Yeah. You know, I was negotiating a contract a couple of years ago once I kind of knew, knew better. And, um, it was a place that wanted me to come in and teach a class and it wasn’t a purely a yoga place and they wanted me to come in and teach a class and it was in a neighborhood where I don’t live and I don’t have a following. So, you know, we were negotiating, I was saying, you know, what, my, what my base rate would need to be in order for me to make the commute and teach the class and whatnot. And um, so then they were asking me about my following. I said, yeah, I have a significant following, but it’s in Brooklyn and I can just tell you straight out that those, you know, those people are not going to, um, to, to my classes at your place. And, um, they said, okay, well we would need to have a, you know, a minimum number of people then in order for us to pay your rate. And I said, yeah, that makes sense. And they were like, okay, so how are you going to get that minimum people in there? And I said, that takes a lot of, you know, grass roots, getting to know the neighborhood, you know, going around and meeting people. And I will do that if you want to pay me a marketing fee or if you want a consultation fee for ideas on how you can do that. But, um, but I know like that’s not part of what I’m going to be doing here. That’s it. That’s another piece to this puzzle is that the yoga teachers are the ones with their feet on the ground and they’re the ones having personal interactions with the students and the practitioners and, um, and that is valuable in and of itself. And so when, when they are asked, you know, either it’s good when they are asked, you know, what is going to make this a good situation for everyone, but that’s consulting work that they’re doing. And often teachers are not asked, right? And it’s people making decisions who actually don’t know the ins and outs of what it means to have clean blankets. Um, and the right number of props and a, a floor that gets swept because people’s faces are going to be close to the floor and you know, quiet space that doesn’t have phones inside of the space. You know, all of those things that you wouldn’t know if you’re not in the room with the people doing the practice.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:25:51
Yeah, exactly. And, and I think there’s some irony there too. The way studios, they, they rely on their teachers, right? Like they, they rely on their teachers to bring in the students. And you know, I know so many students who will only go to like one teacher’s class at a studio or something. And I know so many studios that base their schedules around the popularity of their teachers. So they really depend on their teachers to bring in students and yet they are not valuing their teachers. You know, it’s like their whole business model is dependent on their teachers and yet their whole business model is dependent on taking advantage of their teachers.

Liz B. Walker: 00:26:34
Yeah. And I don’t think it’s malicious, right. I don’t think it’s a malicious, like let’s exploit these people and like get whatever we can. And so that’s one of my perspectives as a studio owner is I, I do understand how hard it is to just pay rent every month, right? So rent and payroll are the two expenses. Everything else is really negligible. I mean, even, you know, lights and air conditioning and all of that stuff is really, those are negligible expenses. And really what a yoga room is, what a yoga studio is, what a yoga space is, is a blank room. That’s what you, that’s what you need in order to do yoga. You don’t need, you don’t even need mats and props necessarily. I mean, you know, you can do yoga just in just having, uh, uh, enough space to reach your arms out to the sides and to lie down flat on your back and reach your arms up above your head. So, so what the yoga is, is the practice and the teachings and then the people who are, I love, um, how Susanna Barkataki puts it, um, the people who are the stewards of the practices and the teaching, right? But the people who are bringing that into the space and then the people who are coming into the space to do it. So like that’s where the value is, is the people who are the stewards of the practice and then the people who are coming to do the practice. And um, it’s hard to even just pay for the space. And eventually what happened with, you know, the studio that I co-owned is we, we did value the teachers and the students. And it got to a place where we were like, you know, if we, we were teaching teacher trainings and we were not paying ourselves for the teacher trainings. You know, we always as the owners took the pay cuts first, always. And, and that’s something, you know, as yoga gets more corporate that gets forgotten is that, you know, the cuts come from the top down, not the opposite, not the opposite way. Um, but then eventually we were like, you know, if we can’t show these, these teachers how much we really do value them cause we’re doing our best to really pay them well and then this is not sustainable then this model isn’t it. You know, if we have to exploit the teachers in order to stay open, then we’re going to have to make the choice to not be open.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:29:04
And so how does a studio do that? Like, you know, how can it not be an either-or like how can both the studio thrive and teachers get a proper equitable income?

Liz B. Walker: 00:29:17
You know, I think of, um, some of the studios that have been able to survive long term and there aren’t very many of them, but, um, ownership of the space is like a very basic and obvious. Um, and so I think that that’s something, and I don’t know if people can get creative about, you know, getting together and buying this space, but you know, in terms of space, you know, rental is just so the floor can literally fall out from under you at any moment with very little notice.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:29:48
And so, so we’ve talked a lot about the finances here. I’m, I’m curious, you know, while definitely, definitely income and, and job security is a part of the conversation. That’s not the only issue. I don’t think in the way teachers are treated in yoga studios. So I’m wondering if, if you can talk a little bit about your experience and what other issues you’ve kind of noticed beyond just the low pay.

Liz B. Walker: 00:30:15
Just things like, you know, not having paid sick leave, not having paid vacation. There is flexibility in terms of uh, you know, being able to leave, you know, leave your classes for a month and go and do extra study or you know, there is a particular lifestyle which some people choose to do. Um, not everyone. And, uh, and so I think that there’s some freedom there that is, that is good. And there is also a lot of sacrifice of, you know, not knowing if you’re going to get your classes back or your primetime slots back or whatever, if you take that leave. Um, you know, no maternity leave or family leave included in, in any of this, uh, paying for your own health care.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:31:04
Yeah, I was just talking to a teacher off the air. I was talking to a teacher who was telling me that they had to teach in crutches for awhile because they broke their leg but they couldn’t, yoga teaching was their only income and they couldn’t stop teaching because if they took any time to heal, they would have no income. And so they were teaching on crutches and it’s a really big problem I think.

Liz B. Walker: 00:31:32
Yeah. You know, I have a friend who was in an accident and she really was, you know, laid up at home. Like we were bringing her food and stuff and, um, it was a long recovery and she couldn’t, there was no way. Like she couldn’t barely walk the dog much less get out and go teach a yoga class. And so there’s not really a safety net in terms of that or any kind of community care or expectations that that is going to happen, like a backup plan. And, um, you know, I think that there’s a real thing that happens, which is, uh, that newness, freshness, youth, um, you know, being the new kid on the block is really valued and opportunities are given there. Whereas, um, instead of wanting to stay in it long enough to be a senior teacher. And, and I think that that sets up a really messed up dynamic, which is older teachers can or more senior teachers can start to resent younger teachers. And, you know, it’s like a thing that you hear a lot in conversation, which is, you know, this person just came out of yoga teacher training and now they’re getting all of these classes and I’ve been teaching for 15, 10 or 15 years and they should have offered me the classes first. And then the studios are at, or the gyms or whoever are saying, but whose class are they going to want to come to? They’re going to want to come to this new person and they want to check it out. And they want the variety and the newness and the, you know, and then there’s, you know, there’s, you know, well they’re seeing in all the magazines that, um, you know, that yoga looks like white, young, thin, able bodied people. And so that’s who we’re gonna put on the roster. You know, it’s just a cycle that gets perpetuated that is not serving anyone. It’s not serving the newer, younger teachers. It’s not offering any kind of growth for staying in the practice and in the teachings and staying at a particular place for a long period of time where you know, the younger teachers can come in and still get paid fairly, right. And we’d be covered and not be exploited, but also see like, Oh and then this step happens if I stay here and then that step happens and then I’m mentoring people and now I was mentored by this person and now look, it’s 10 years later and they’re choosing to retire. And I get to step into those shoes and carry on that like the thread is continuous and carried on. And I think that there’s like a lot of weird things happening when it comes to that.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:34:27
It’s like we’re valuing, we’re not valuing experience. And it is a practice that develops. The more and more you study it and the more and more you practice it. And so the less we value experience, the less I think we’re valuing the practice.

Liz B. Walker: 00:34:44
It’s vast. The practice is so vast. And so when you live your life and your life changes, right and it takes time and experience and like you get injured or you get sick or you know, you, you’re like devastated. And so all you can do is a meditation practice and that’s what brings you comfort. And so you get into that, you know, all of those things and then they just, then you have that to share with people.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:35:12
Yeah. And I think just recognizing the, absolutely there is a value to, you know, a new teacher, the enthusiasm, you know, I think you see this in any industry, you see this in yoga, you see this in you know, medicine, you see this in education, any industry, you have the benefit of the new teacher, the new person who has all this enthusiasm and is fresh out of training and has all this new way of thinking about things that brings in like a new life to it. But at the same time, there is an incredibly huge value to the person who’s been doing this for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, and has a depth of knowledge and understanding of the practice that you can’t get no matter how smart or dedicated you are in just two, three, four years, you know?

Liz B. Walker: 00:36:01
Yes, absolutely. We need all the people represented by all of the different teachers. And also then it’s helpful too because then a yoga teacher doesn’t have to be everything. Right. And that cuts back on some of that like, Ooh, let me be like the exciting and have fun music and be like super deep and meditative and be able to offer you philosophy and that, you know, like, so that I can get the most people here so that everyone in the room is going to get a little taste of what they need, but no one’s going to get a full meal of, of what it is that they’re here for. So, so yeah, I think that, um, it’s always good, right? It’s always good in any organization to have people going deep in whatever it is that they’re offering.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:36:50
Uh, you know, I think in general, this whole conversation to me is about elevating yoga in general and not just, you know, valuing the teachers more, but actually valuing the whole practice more. And I think that specialization is a part of that. And then we have people who dedicate their lives to different elements of the practice and are really, you know, the mantra expert or the, you know, the, the biomechanics expert and they have different aspects of the practice that they know everything about. It shows a value for the entire practice of like every, there is so much, like you said, it’s so vast. And to say that all you need to have in a yoga studio is someone with 200 hours. I mean, like you said, there’s a place for that, but to say that’s all you need is a bunch of teachers who have 200 hours and do you know, the asana and the meditation and the music and it’s like, that’s it. That’s the practice. It makes the practice so much smaller than it is.

Liz B. Walker: 00:37:49
Yeah. This is a good, you know, even just sitting and talking to you is making me just, you’re right that it’s valuing the practice. It is valuing the teachers and that includes all the teachers, you know? And I think that, like I, I’m just sitting here being like, Oh yeah, I haven’t been valuing those younger teachers enough and where they are and what they have to offer and what they bring.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:38:12
Yeah. And I think it’s, it, it ties into that competitiveness, you know, when we have this, not that we may individually feel it, but just when we have a culture where a new teacher feels like a threat to your job, like it is, it makes it very hard to, to create a community where we can really take the time to learn from one another and value one another and grow from one another. Because we’re so focused on like, no, we need to be the best because I need to be the one who everybody wants to study from. I think when it comes down to it, that’s really what it’s about, right? Is, is recognizing that, you know, in what ways does this valuing of the teacher allow us to elevate the whole practice of yoga. And so it’s not just about giving the teachers better pay, it affects the studios, it makes the studios a better environment, which makes the students get a better experience, which makes the students better future yogis. And so it’s really for the benefit of everyone, not just for the benefit of the teacher’s paycheck, you know?

Liz B. Walker: 00:39:19
Absolutely. And I think that when you value the teacher too, you value the, the person that they are and that, that there needs to be room for that, you know, because I do think that, um, we should keep asking ourselves like, who’s deciding, who’s deciding who, like who can be a teacher and who can, you know, get who gets valued in this and where, what role they fill and what role they play. Right. And so the more we can open that up, and you said something about it being a narrow vision and so the more we can like open up the vision to match how open the practice of yoga is, I think that it’s better. And then, um, not only do we see the vastness of the yoga practice, but then we also, when we really start to value the teachers who value the practitioners is then we start to see all the different kinds of humanity that are in the room and doing the practice.

Music: 00:40:34
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Sarah Dittmore: 00:40:34
You just heard from Liz Buehler Walker, who is a yoga teacher based in New York City. Liz has studied with teachers such as Peter Rizzo of Bhava Yoga, Alan Finger of ISHTA Yoga, Mia Borgatta of Lila Yoga and Wellness, Lara Kohn-Thompson and Beth Donnelly-Caban of Integral Yoga, Dr. Naina Marballi of Ayurveda Shirodhara Training, and Sarah Tomlinson of Yantra and Ayurveda. And I deeply apologize to anyone if I mispronounced your name. There were a lot of different pronunciations in there and I did my best. Anyway, Liz is involved in studies with social change and spiritual leaders such as Michelle Cassandra Johnson, author of Skill In Action, Kerri Kelly, founder of CTZNWELL, Susanna Barkataki, creator of the Honor {Don’t Appropriate} Yoga Summit and Workbook, and Kelley Palmer, creator of Peacefilled Mama and co-founder of The Sanctuary in the City. She’s also developing a prenatal yoga teacher training and postnatal programs and continues to mentor teachers informally as well as apprentices. You can connect with Liz at brooklynyogalife.com the link to which is in my show notes below.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:41:53
In addition to talking to Liz, I spoke to Norman Blair, who you’re going to hear from next. Norman has been practicing yoga since the early 1990s and teaching since 2001. He studied with teachers such as Sarah Powers, Richard Freeman, and Alaric Newcombe. He loves the way yoga has helped him become more embodied, more conscious, and more focused. His approach is about enabling accessibility, encouraging acceptance, and deepening awareness. Norman believes that yoga teachers need to speak out and stand up. That all of us can greatly benefit from cooperation and collaboration rather than wall building and competition. Norman lives and teaches in London, in the UK, and has written a book brightening our inner sky’s yin and yoga. You can connect with Norman at yogawithnorman.co.uk. He also has a monthly newsletter which you can subscribe to by emailing yogawithnorman@gmail.com both links you’ll find in the show notes below.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:42:50
Before we talk to Norman, I wanted to tell you guys a little bit about shut up and yoga. This podcast is an offshoot of shut up and yoga, which is an independent digital magazine and collective of yoga teachers, writers and illustrators. It’s a huge part of how I engage with the yoga community. You know, they, they work really hard to make, to produce articles that are practical, visual, funny, and take a really humorous and authentic approach to dissecting popular ideas on health, yoga, and self development. I’ve always appreciated the fact that they prioritize quality over quantity and honesty over being liked and they definitely bring up some topics that not everyone likes and I think it’s really interesting to engage with those conversations and learn from them and I’ve definitely learned a lot engaging with the shut up and yoga community. I personally enjoy their Facebook page. It’s shut up and yoga forum for modern yogis, which again, I’ll link to in the show notes and I just love all the different conversations that are happening on there. You know, shut up and yoga’s mission is to use words and art to question, inform, educate, challenge ideas, and debunk myths. They’re really about having those uncomfortable conversations, which is as you know, what the beginner’s mind is about and I’m just grateful to be a part of their community and hope that you guys will join us over at the Facebook forum. You can also check out their library of books at shutupandyoga.com/books. There’s some really great reads on there and there’s always new ones in the works, some of which I have been involved in in different ways. And I’m really excited to see come to life. Uh, so please follow us along on there and or just, you know, visit shutupandyoga.com to read their huge, huge archives of free articles and, and some of which I’ve written, including one about this whole unionization movement. And it’s always a great place to learn more and keep the conversation going. So that’s all for today. I am excited to share with you guys Norman’s perspective. It’s really interesting and it’s nice to hear from someone outside of the United States. Like I said, he’s in the UK and you know, later on we’ll hear from people based in other locations, but I think it’s really good to get a view of, of yoga. You know, I think this unionization movement is particularly addressing yoga in the Western world. So it’s interesting to hear the similarities between the UK and the U S which we’ll explore further with Norman now. So, um, without further ado, let’s dive back in and get curious.

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Norman Blair: 00:45:35
I’m a, I live in London, in the UK and I started teaching in 2001, so I’ve been teaching full time for the last 18 years. It sounds a bit frightening when I say that and I’ve began practicing yoga in the early 1990s when, um, things were different. And um, when I was first practicing yoga, I was practicing kind of Ashtanga and that’s what I started teaching in 2001. And then in something like a 2002, 2003, I got introduced to yin yoga and I started teaching that as well.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:46:13
So I came across you, uh, from an article you wrote called let’s talk about, and I wanted to kind of dive into that conversation a bit. So, so a big part of this unionization conversation has been different benefits of unionizing. And one of those is has to do with the way yoga teachers are currently treated by employers. And by studios. And you know, your article talked a lot about pay in the yoga community and some of the other issues that yoga teachers face. And I was wondering to start us off, if we could just kind of talk about what some of the main issues you see as a yoga teacher occurring in these studios.

Norman Blair: 00:46:54
I’m very fortunate Sarah, that when I started teaching there were a lot more classes than teachers. It was quite relatively easy at that time for me personally to pick up classes and um, my partner and I, uh, from 2013, we’ve had a studio at home. I would say maybe three quarters of my income comes from teaching at home. It means that I’m, to some extent, I’m free of the, um, studio model and I have the privilege of being able to speak up and, uh, make a stand because so many teachers I’ve talked, I talked to a lot of teachers and so many of them describe being burnt out that it’s really difficult out there for a lot of people. The new teachers and also the teachers who have been 10, 20 years teaching. It’s difficult and there’s, what happened over time is that it’s almost like the art of running a business, that you have these different positions. You have the position of the studio owner, you have the position of the student, and you have the position of the teacher. And it seems from my perspective, that is the, the teacher that’s been squeezed in this time that I’ve been teaching. And we have this situation in London where the, the largest yoga studio in London, and they have something like 750 classes a week. When they opened in 2000 the hourly rate was 20 pounds. Now, 19 years later, the hourly rate is still 20 pounds an hour. I know that, you know, there’ve been some increases say for the per head figure. I know that some teachers have used that as a platform to go and get workshops to go and teach retreats and run courses. But many, many teachers, their primary source of income is through classes. And the ratw of pay for these classes has stayed the same.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:49:03
And I was, you know, I worked at a studio where I was paid 8.50 an hour and that included teaching.

Norman Blair: 00:49:09
So I suppose what I feel with the kind of this talk about unionizing that I just feel that as teachers, if we can come together more and in a way by coming together more that we can be, it can be an educating and a supporting of each other and a kind of a protecting of interests. I know that um, many studios struggle to survive and I know people who own small studios can find it really difficult to make ends meet. I’m just saying that we need to have a conversation about these points that you know, in your article that you talked about, the average pay for yoga teachers in the US is $17 an hour and the pay for pilates teachers is $38 an hour. I’m like, wow, congratulations to the pilates teachers. We as yoga teachers need to look at how we can sustain ourselves. And I think one of the key points and for people to really kind of think about this is as people in the wellness industry, how do we stay well when we’re working the wellness industry, when we talk about self care and sustainability, we also need to look in the mirror. When you said this point where you’d been working, I’m like 8 pound 50 in the UK is the legal minimum wage now. So if you were, so you left there a couple of years ago, didn’t you?

Sarah Dittmore: 00:50:37
Yeah, 2017 I think.

Norman Blair: 00:50:39
Maybe the minimum wage then was about 7 pound 50, so you are getting 70 pence more than the minimum. This is appauling and can we name where where you were working?

Sarah Dittmore: 00:50:51
Yeah, I’m, I’m happy to. I worked at tribe, it’s a yoga studio in Edinburgh. At the time I think it was just one, but I think they have like two or three now.

Norman Blair: 00:50:58
Yeah, so tribe yoga, they have over 200 classes a week. I heard this story that the owner of tribe yoga was choosing what to do in terms of running a business. And his choice was whether he was going to open a chain of launderettes or a chain of yoga studios, and he went for the yoga studio line. He thought he could do better running yoga studios. And we have a similar one in London called more yoga where the rate of pay is really poor, but the rate of pay at places like tribe yoga in Edinburgh and more yoga in London, in my opinion, has been allowed by the larger yoga studios, not increasing rates of pay. So we have this situation where someone might be going along to a yoga class and the teacher is being paid, say 20, 30 pounds for the class and the student has spent 150 pounds on lululemon leggings. And then we also have what I call this dive to the bottom with things like Groupon, all these kind of discount deals. You know, the studio saying, you know, you can have a month’s yoga for 30 pounds. And I just see this as de-valuing what we do as teachers and as teachers, we’ve invested so much time, so much effort, so much money into our training. And then when we, when we’re struggling to survive. So this is a point that I think is important when we’re struggling to survive. I know there was a weekend workshop in London a few months ago where a teacher came from the US and the gross of that workshop was around about 50,000 pounds. So this is a very famous, very well known teacher. And I know there are huge costs involved in running these things, but the growth is about 50,000 pounds. I know there was a teacher, again an American teacher ran a three day training in London and the gross was 25,000 pounds. So in a way there is a reflection of the industry in this where you have a very small number of people making a lot of money, the kind of the celebrity team, the rock star teachers making a lot of money, you have maybe half are kind of getting by and half are really struggling. So one of my suggestions, and I put myself in that 1%, I’m doing really well. I’m very grateful, I’m doing really well in a part of the reason I’m doing really well is I have a home studio but I’m doing really well and one of my proposals is the teachers who are doing really well who are running courses in the centers is that they give, say the figure I’m suggesting is 3% of their profit back to the studio and this I’ve actually done, so I run courses for yoga campus and I am giving 3% of the net profit back to the studio as a way of supporting other teachers who are not doing so well. So I think there’s a whole series of different things that need to happen that is about studios starting to value teachers appropriately. It’s about teachers who are doing really well, giving back to the studios and giving back to the other teachers. And it’s about teachers as a whole, you know, can be so much competition within the yoga field is actually let’s look towards collaborating. We could call that creating unions.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:54:30
Yeah, I think you know what you’re making me think is with the yoga union, it’s really about saying like we are a community supporting one another. Instead of like, Oh, I just have to hustle so that I do better than the other yoga teachers around me so that I can make enough money to survive. And instead it’s reframing it to be like, how can we as a community like lift each other up and grow together?

Norman Blair: 00:54:57
So I think we need to have a lot of discussion about elevating standards. So again, there’s a yoga studio in the UK. They had a poster and they’re running a yoga teacher training. The line was become a certified yoga teacher in 23 days. I’m like, wow, good luck that this is a lifetime. And this whole kind of, I say it as the teacher training as a commodity. It’s almost like it’s become this little package to what is a 200 hour training and not only the 200 hour training, but rarely is a continuing mentor feedback. We all need this, Sarah, you know, we need to keep evaluating what we’re doing. We need to keep looking at what we’re doing.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:55:44
I mean, especially because a lot of the time, like when you go into a 200 hour training, you’ve probably practiced yoga. But other than that, there’s no requirement that you have any level of prior study. And so it’s saying that in 200 hours you can go from knowing nothing about like the philosophy or ideology or anatomy of yoga to being fully prepared to go teach students the practice of yoga.

Norman Blair: 00:56:09
We need to really look at what we’re doing. And there’s a teacher I know and she’s been teaching for more than 30 years and she’s a wonderful teacher. And I remember her talking about when she was first started that it was really, you know, very marginalized. It was very, you know, so it was the hippies who were doing it; now it’s the hedge fund managers who are doing it and these hedge fund managers who might be earning vast sums of money and potentially they’re paying their cleaner more than they’re paying the yoga teacher. Just coming back to more yoga as an example in my understanding of their figures is that it’s pretty similar to something like Uber. So again, my understanding, and of course I could be incorrect about this and the people do know having better information than please point this out to me, but my understanding for Uber drivers, Uber get actually receive in their pocket something like 20% or less of the fair. And personally I don’t, I don’t have rides in an Uber car. I boycott Uber and I think, you know, one of the things I would suggest, and this is a point that you pull out in your article about the students who are coming along to the studios. It’s like how much you paying the teacher? This teacher I was just talking about, the one who has been teaching for 30 plus years. She used to describe the situation of working in studios. So she’s worked in studios for a long, long time. And her words she said to me is working in a studio is like working in a feudal economy. In one of the large London, new London yoga studios in the late two thousands I think it was probably about 2007, 2008, the receptionists were asking for more money and the owner said, no way, you’re getting more money. No way. You’re not getting more money. And then maybe two or three years later they got more money. So the point is things can change, but they change if we make the effort.

Sarah Dittmore: 00:58:15
Yeah. And I think that’s a really good point that like the teachers can make the effort through this unionization and through demanding, you know, better pay and then the students, it’s like how often do we think about where we buy things from? Like so many of us, especially in the yoga community, make such an effort to buy from like ethical good companies. And so why wouldn’t we do that with our yoga studios? Why wouldn’t we look into how our yoga studios treat our teachers before deciding where to practice?

Norman Blair: 00:58:46
So I personally do not go to one of the large London yoga studios and I pulled out of the training. I was going to go to a training there and I pulled out of that because I just felt it didn’t sit well with me. And I have come across examples that I’ve experienced myself personally and also other people have told me about. In terms of how you might describe it as a bullying approach, the teachers, I have had plenty of messages from teachers saying, I agree with what is being said in terms of talking about pay in a the kind of breaking the taboo, but I’m too scared to say something, you know, we’re supposed to be practicing like satya, you know, truthfulness and yet people, you know, someone’s working, doing teaching four classes in a studio. So if those classes that are withdrawn from that person, suddenly you’re like, potentially you might have lost a third of your income. This is a serious situation. So there is a studio, I know and I think this was a wonderful initiative they did, that they set up channels of communication where teachers could anonymously send in their feedback to the studio. So that’s a start. So it’s note speaking up at a meeting and thereby, potentially, not always of course, but potentially being labeled like a troublemaker or when allocating workshops, they think, Oh, I’m not going to give a workshop to that person. It’s like, actually let’s have a system where people can speak their truth. If we don’t take action, if we don’t stand together, if we don’t speak up, then it’s just going to continue. You know, people who are in charge of the studios aren’t going to take on board teachers’ concerns unless people actually do something about this. You know, there was, I was teaching recently and uh, someone said to me, you got me a pay increase. I was like, Oh, thank you. And he said those two articles that you mentioned at the beginning, which actually are available up on my website if anyone’s interested in them. He said, when you wrote those articles, I sent them, so he’s working at a gym in London. He said, I sent them to the gym management and I was being paid 25 pounds for a class and they increased it to 30 pounds a class. I’m like, great, that is brilliant. It’s like we won’t get unless we ask. And then in the question, how are we asking? And as an example of pushing in doors, there is another studio in London where they’re talking about setting up a teacher’s council, which I think is a great idea. So then we have this kind of channel where teachers as a group can say, well this is what we’d like, or this is how the studio could look after the teachers better.

Sarah Dittmore: 01:01:49
Yeah. And it’s nice to see these initiatives that are, you know, I think the yogaworks employees who are unionizing right now in New York. It’s amazing effort, but it’s a huge effort. And so to see that there are like other ways to start coming together and start making change that aren’t necessarily a union is also really inspiring.

Norman Blair: 01:02:10
Yeah, I think it’s about talking, it’s about communication and it’s about working together rather than seeing other teachers as the competition. It’s that, how can, how can we work together as much as when we’re teaching a class and we’re encouraging the people in the class to practice self care is time for us to also practice self care. Just coming back to how things are valued in the UK if you’re going to go to a premiership football match, you know the ticket is at least 20 pounds and you could have like an hour and a half of complete rubbish. So you know, I’m aspiring the yoga class is hopefully more insightful than going to a football game where potentially it’s like rubbish. Personally I am a bit of a football fan and some premiership football games are 50 pounds for an hour and a half, you know, going to the cinema in central London is like 15 or 20 pounds. So it’s time for us to actually talk about value, that if you’re going to pay so much for your leggings, how about ensuring that the yoga teacher received something equivalent? So I, it does come back to this idea of joining together in whatever, whatever form that might take.

Sarah Dittmore: 01:03:43
Yeah, I think it’s a, I think it’s a really important movement that’s happening and I think it’s inspiring to start seeing, you know, I’m having all these different discussions with all these different teachers and just to see more and more, like you said, like more than ever before, these voices kind of speaking up and coming together in a way that I think is really promising for, for actual change.

Norman Blair: 01:04:08
So you know, that requires courage to speak up and then all people that speak up, the easier it becomes, you know, change can happen. But change only happens if sometimes we have to put our shoulders to the wheels, we have to push and we have to raise our voice.

Sarah Dittmore: 01:04:29
That was beautiful. Thank you. Thank you again for sharing your perspective. And you know, I think there’s a lot of interesting conversations to be had in this yoga world. So I’m wondering how can people kind of stay in touch with you or connect with you or hear more about what you’re up to?

Norman Blair: 01:04:48
Um, I have a website and I’m also involved in efforts in the UK for yoga teachers to be more connected. Whether that’s through just communication, whether that’s through setting up more formal structures, we’ll see how it evolves. We’re actually doing a questionnaire, we’re going to launch a questionnaire in a few weeks time, which we’re going to send out to as many teachers who want to provide this information about talking in. What are the rights of in, how are you finding it? Would you like to say as an example, be involved in a union and if people are interested in what else I’ve done. Um, I have a book out called brightening inner skies, yin and yoga. And I also have a, a monthly newsletter where if you wish you could read my thoughts about life yoga and the modern world.

Sarah Dittmore: 01:05:41
Amazing, amazing. And I will again make sure all those links are in the episode show notes. So if you’re listening and you want to get involved or reach out to Norman, just look in the show notes and you can do so there. And is there anything else you wanted to share?

Norman Blair: 01:05:59
Um, change is definitely possible. Change is inevitable. The question is how are we going to direct change? And I think it’s about waking up.

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Sarah Dittmore: 01:06:20
Thank you again to Norman and Liz for sharing their perspectives with me and helping me get a bigger picture of this whole conversation. I think the more people I talk to, the more interesting it is to hear the similarities in what yoga teachers are going through in the Western world. You know, a big part of what both teachers have touched on and a big part of what this unionization movement is about is about connecting and hearing each other’s stories and, and discovering our shared needs and different needs and working together to make sure all of those needs are met. We’re going to be taking a short break from this unionization conversation. Um, next week on October 2nd, I’m going to be discussing accessible yoga with Jivana Heymann and on the ninth I’m diving into yoga and body image with Melanie Klein, but then we’re going to return to this conversation looking at it from a different perspective and a different light. On October 16th I’ll be sharing conversations I had with two studio owners, Amy Quinn Suplina and Marcela Xavier and we’re going to be talking about ethical studio management and how a company can both prioritize their teachers and value their teachers and still run a successful yoga business or yoga studio. And then to kind of wrap up the conversation about unionization and also dive into the next section that I’m, I’m hoping to explore. I have a conversation I’m really excited to share with you guys. I, I spoke to Luvena Rangel who’s an Indian yoga teacher working in both India and the United States, about two kind of different topics that actually came together in a really interesting and fluid way. We started talking about this unionization movement and the importance of including Indian voices or rather centering Indian voices in the conversation. And then we also talked about sort of the relationship between the Western development of yoga and yoga in India and the Indian cultural foundation of yoga. And it was a really fascinating conversation and will lead really, really nicely into what we’re going to talk about at the end of October, but I don’t want to give too much away. So for the rest you’re going to have to wait. And as always, if you’ve enjoyed this podcast or learned anything, please rate, review, subscribe and share with anyone that you think would find this interesting. And most of all, please reach out. I love to hear from you guys about your thoughts and opinions and questions and everything and anything related to what’s going on over here at the beginner’s minds so please. You can always reach out to me at Instagram, @TBMpodcast on Facebook at the beginners mind podcast or directly via email at SarahDitmore@gmail.com and as usual, all those links are in the show notes below. Thanks again for all your support with with this really fascinating topic and I’m excited to explore more with you moving forward and until then, stay curious

Music: 01:09:51
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