Why Are Yoga Teachers Unionizing?

In January 2019, UK yoga instructor Norman Blair released an article discussing the issues surrounding yoga teachers and pay. In April of the same year, news broke regarding CorePower Yoga and the 1,200 teachers involved in a collective-action lawsuit arguing that they were being paid less than minimum wage. Poor labor conditions have impacted yoga teachers around the world for years and we’re seeing more and more yoga teachers speak up. Clearly, something needs to change.

While teachers have hinted at the potential need for a yoga union for some time, to date there is not a single yoga union anywhere in the world. However, New York City yoga teachers are working to change that. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been in conversation with a group of YogaWorks employees who are working to create a union for the four YogaWorks studios across New York City. Our conversations quickly moved beyond the formation of this individual union and explored what organizing would do for the industry as a whole, begging the question: should yoga teachers unionize?

What does unionization mean for yoga teachers?

I decided to press pause on my teaching career in 2017 due to exhaustion with my own employment standards. I had been working part-time for Tribe Yoga in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was making £8.50 per hour (about 10 USD) and was expected, at this rate, to teach 2-3 classes per day (often back-to-back), prep the studio by laying out mats and props for every student, check all the students in, wash every mat after class, clean the bathrooms and studio spaces, answer emails and phone calls, sell retail, and keep a peaceful and cheery attitude through it all. This was without breaks or benefits and it wasn’t uncommon for me to have a 5-minute breather between teaching a power vinyasa class and a yin yoga class. It wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined when I decided to become a yoga instructor.

Unfortunately, I am not the first yoga teacher to quit due to burnout, and I won’t be the last. It’s one of the symptoms of the unethical way we currently employ and treat yoga teachers. The unionization movement was born out of a desire to change these norms, but how would organizing impact the treatment of instructors?

Pay, Benefits, and Job Security

In researching the unionization efforts of yoga teachers, I spoke to eight different yogis who were either currently teaching or had taught in the recent past. I asked each of them what felt unsustainable about their employment. Almost unanimously, the first things to come up were job security, benefits, and pay.

In Norman’s aforementioned article, he writes, “Plenty of yoga teachers struggle to make ends meet.” A huge part of this is pay. According to Glassdoor, the average base pay of yoga instructors in the U.S. is $17/hour. Compare this to pilates instructors, who average a base pay of $38/hour. It’s considered the industry norm for studios to pay around $20-30 per 45-90 minute class, but this pay rarely accounts for the number of hours that actually go into that single class. Norman lays it out perfectly:

When teaching, it is a standard requirement that yoga teachers are at the studio fifteen minutes before the class starts. Afterwards, students frequently ask questions and equipment has to be tidied up. Plus there is often the expectation from studios that we will advertise classes through social media. It all adds up. For every hour taught in a studio, I calculate there are 1-3 hours of work that are not paid. This does not include travel time.

Not to mention the work that goes into creating relationships with the community and building trust with your students via private out-of-studio interactions and student consultations, writing and sending newsletters, promotion on social media, and the like. Or continued training and education. Or the expectation that you will attend other classes at the studio to show your support for your fellow teachers… The list goes on, and when you break down the number of hours most yoga teachers put into their profession versus the amount they are paid, many instructor salaries fall far below minimum wage.

In addition, few yogis are given benefits such as paid time off, insurance, parental leave, retirement benefits, or really any benefits at all. Plus, the majority of yogis are at-will employees, meaning they could be fired at any moment without any warning or any severance pay. 

This means we have a huge community of yoga teachers struggling to pay the bills, who can’t afford to take a vacation or go to the doctor, and are in constant fear of losing their job. Nora Heilmann, a teacher at YogaWorks, teaches 20 classes per week. “I don’t have any days off.” She said time off was something she was working toward, but it isn’t that easy. “I cannot teach more than a certain number of classes per day, but I need to teach enough to pay my rent, so it has to spread out over all seven days.” When our yoga teachers have to choose between their own wellness and their ability to pay their bills, it means something is wrong with the business model. This pattern is not uncommon in capitalistic societies, but that doesn’t mean the yoga industry has to fall prey to these same traps. We can do better.

“Unionization would give teachers an avenue for negotiating job security, benefits, and higher pay.”

That’s where unionizing comes in. Unionization would give teachers an avenue for negotiating job security, benefits, and higher pay. It would be a place where people in the yoga industry could band together, share their concerns, and make sure their voices are heard.

Another YogaWorks teacher, Tamar Samir, also works as a university professor, and she has seen this exact change occur there. “I teach at Parsons, the New School for Design and I’ve worked there for 17 years. The Academics Come Together Union (ACT-UAW) was formed a few years into working there. I’ve seen the difference at my workplace; thanks to the union, we got health insurance, a pension plan, yearly contracts, and many other benefits. I think there are a lot of similarities; educators in the wellness industry need stability and need to be well so they can provide high-quality education and help others be well. Unionizing provides that sustainability.”

The conversation about unionization goes beyond compensation and benefits. When teachers have their basic needs covered, they can put time and energy into further study and becoming better teachers.

Valuing Experience and Training

In an interview with The Cut, Yoga Alliance spokesperson Andrew Tanner reported that in 2008, there were 818 registered yoga schools in the U.S. That grew to 2,500 by 2012 and 3,900 by 2015. That same pattern has been seen in the growth of yoga teachers, with an estimated 15,000 new teachers registering on Yoga Alliance each year. With the constant influx of teachers, studios often prioritize those who will accept lower pay over those with experience and training.

This issue came up in many of my interviews.Yoga teachers felt their hours of training and commitment to the practice were ignored in favor of new teachers who would teach more classes for less money. But yoga is a lifelong practice and the value of experience is indispensable.

“I’ve been teaching for six years,” Effie Morgenstern told me. Effie was a part of the CorePower lawsuit mentioned at the start of this article and agreed to talk to me about some of the issues she sees in the yoga community. “Say I decided my time is worth $50 per hour, but the studio doesn’t want to pay that,” she continued, “There will be someone behind me willing to work for $30 per hour. That means the yoga teachers who are experienced and involved in the community have no job security. They’ll be underbid by the people who are willing to work for less.”

When we prioritize paying teachers as little as possible over celebrating the training and experience of committed teachers, it is an insult to the practice of yoga. It is a problematic yet subtle way of saying we do not value the depth or significance of yoga. Instead, it shows we think of it as something anyone with 200-hours of study can grasp and share with others.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a definite value to new teachers. As an inexperienced teacher myself, I believe I brought a lot of value to the studios I worked at. I had a curiosity and excitement about teaching that comes with being a fresh and wide-eyed newbie. However, that should not undermine the value of experience. My mentors and senior teachers have dedicated thousands of hours to training and studying the practice, and they bring a deeper understanding to the practice. Working with these teachers has helped me grow, as it has helped my fellow students. The value of experienced teachers is immeasurable. Through unionization, we can ask studios to recognize this value.

Giving Teachers a Voice and a Vote

At the end of the day, what it all comes down to is giving yoga teachers a voice. When the teachers at YogaWorks decided to unionize, a huge part of that was the fact that they weren’t being heard. “In February 2019,” Markella Los, a YogaWorks teacher, told me during an interview, “we began having conversations with our fellow teachers and hearing their experiences and concerns. We began meeting with management and acting as a collective, and we realized that our power was limited by not unionizing. We had to accept whatever we were given; that would change if we unionize.”

This effort to unionize is a form of “concerted activity” protected by law. The National Labor Relations Board explains that workers “have the right to act with co-workers to address work-related issues in many ways.” They go on to give some examples, including talking with your fellow co-workers, government agencies, and the media about your concerns with your workplace environment. When this occurs, an “employer cannot discharge, discipline, threaten, or coercively question [employees] about this ‘protected concerted’ activity.” 

Right now, the treatment of yoga teachers and the future of yoga is predominantly dictated by studios and yoga business owners. And their choices are often driven by the bottom line: profit. No one pushing for unionization wants to see studios fail or incomes falter; they simply want a voice in what the priorities of the practice they teach should be.

“[Yoga teachers] simply want a voice in what the priorities of the practice they teach should be.”

David DiMaria, an organizer with the IAMAW (IAMAW is the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the group the YW employees are unionizing with; editor’s note), explained to me, “It’s not really about YogaWorks. We don’t think they’re a bad employer. They’re just an employer like everyone else in an industry that’s non-union. And when the employees get a voice, it will change what’s expected and how [their] job works.”

Many of the issues facing yoga in the United States are a bi-product of yoga teachers not having a voice in the development of the industry. Unionionization gives teachers that platform. It creates a space where every yoga teacher can feel safe to express their needs and know they will be heard. It creates a system through which yoga teachers can make requests and expect them to be met. As Tamar expressed, “Currently, the yoga industry doesn’t consider teachers to be an important voice. There isn’t a formal channel for input from teachers about their own profession. And even if you feel comfortable speaking up, there’s no requirement that [studio management] listen.”

With a yoga teacher union, not only would teachers be given a voice, but the businesses would have to listen. When a group of employees forms a union, employers are required by law to address the issues raised by the union and bargain with the union in good faith.

What would unionization mean for the rest of the yoga community?

Greater Diversity and Representation

Let’s face it; in the Western world, yoga teaching is a career for the privileged. In a 2016 Yoga Alliance census, only 29% of yoga teachers reported yoga as their primary source of income. The rest expressed that it was either a part-time job providing spending money or a feel-good hobby. A majority of yoga instructors have a second job, or they have partners or parents that can pay the bills so they can teach yoga without worrying about the low pay and lack of benefits.

Even teachers who make a full-time career out of yoga, often do so because they can attend training without worrying about debt, have the capital to support them while they work their way through the trenches, and know they have a safety net to fall back on if yoga teaching doesn’t work out.

Through unionizing and raising the standards of employment, the yoga community can create a career path that is more accessible to people of all economic backgrounds. We can expand the yoga industry to include dedicated students and practitioners who cannot afford to devote themselves to a career as a teacher without the security, pay, and recognition any kind of employee deserves.

Right now, the yoga community is immensely homogenous. Data USA reports that U.S. yoga teachers are 89.9% female and 71.3% white. One reason for this is the barriers to entry, such as the high cost of teacher training compared to the low salary for new teachers. Another element of it is the way yoga is represented in the United States. Yoga media promotes a thin, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered yogi who can afford $90 yoga pants. This sort of representation perpetuates a perception of yoga that is unwelcoming and inaccessible to many folks who do not fit the media image of a “yogi.”

“Yoga media promotes a thin, white, able-bodied, cis-gendered yogi who can afford $90 yoga pants. This sort of representation perpetuates a perception of yoga that is unwelcoming and inaccessible to many folks who do not fit the media image of a ‘yogi.'”

While organizing would not necessarily solve this issue, it would create a platform for discussion. If organizers make an effort to create a union that centers on diverse voices, it can create a new and much-needed standard for the yoga industry. It could shine a light on the voices that are missing from conversations about yoga and why those voices are missing. A union would be a place where teachers gather collectively to share their concerns and discuss solutions. In a yoga union, POC would have a seat at the table to not just discuss the issues making the yoga industry inaccessible to POC practitioners, but to demand that we, as a yoga community, work to actually address these issues.

When I asked Tamar why she was interested in unionizing, she explained that it went beyond her individual needs as a yoga teacher. “At this moment, at YogaWorks, we are experienced teachers advocating not just for ourselves, but also for newer teachers. We’re also advocating for an invisible group of people; the people who aren’t able to be yoga teachers because the salary is not sustainable.”

With a mostly homogenous yoga teacher population, we are missing out on so much. We are missing diverse perspectives, important voices, and conversations that should be happening in every yoga community. We all grow and benefit from more voices and more dialogue.

“It’s very difficult for Indian teachers to get into a studio and have these open conversations. In all these years of work I do, I can name maybe ten white teachers who have approached me with the awareness that they may be causing harm.” Luvena Rangel, an Indian yoga teacher who works in both India and the United States, shared this with me in a discussion we had about how unionization could help give a platform to more voices in the yoga community. “With the unionization move,” she suggested, “it would really help to set the tone by recreating a narrative that does have a good influence of South Asian voices. Instead of just making it something that suits the 72% of white teachers.” 

Creating a union would help build an avenue for change and a system for facilitating these important dialogues. A union would allow us to work together as a community to bring the industry to new heights.

Elevating the Standards of The Yoga Industry

In every single one of my interviews, the conversation came back to the same thing: unionization is an effort to elevate the standards of the yoga industry. Right now, the norms of what is acceptable and how yoga should grow are largely determined by the low standards of profit-driven studio moguls, such as what we’ve seen with CorePower. It’s time to tip the scales and give the power back to the people who are dedicated to the practices and their role in people’s lives.

When we enter the world of teaching yoga, most of us accept these ways of going about the profession because we believe there’s no other option. “As a newer teacher, I felt like there were certain norms I had to adapt to,” Markella told me in a recent interview, “I had great education, great mentors, I worked my ass off, and I still realized in the first couple years that this was really unsustainable. I am successful on paper; I am a YogaWorks teacher trainer, I have had a lot of amazing opportunities and yet it’s still really hard to make a living in NYC.” This is the story many yogis have, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Markella continued, “If we’re able to unionize at YogaWorks and raise working conditions and standards, then teachers will be less likely to accept jobs that offer less.”

David explained that when an industry begins to unionize, it creates a new level of workplace standards. “You kind of reach a tipping point where, if enough people in the industry organize, instead of the low standards dragging you down, the higher standards start lifting others up.” And that’s the goal with the YogaWorks unionization; to set a new standard for the yoga industry as a whole.

So… should yoga teachers unionize?

Based on my conversations and research, I have become convinced of the benefits of unionization. It’s a powerful way to give yoga teachers a voice and allow those with an investment in the purpose of the practice to re-define what it means to be a yogi in the West. However, when it comes down to whether or not yoga teachers should unionize, I can only decide for myself. A big part of yoga is discernment, so it’s up to you to research the facts and determine whether or not to support unionization.

If like me, you believe that the unionization effort is an important element of raising the standards of yoga, then the next step is to get involved…

How to support the unionization of yoga teachers

Supporting Unions as a Yoga Teacher

If you are a yoga teacher looking to support the effort to unionize or begin unionizing in your own community…

  • Follow and engage with @unionize_yoga on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If you’re based in Europe, you can also connect with European Yoga for support.
  • Talk with fellow teachers, hear everyone’s issues, create community and solidarity at your workplace, compare pay rates and raises, and collaborate with each other on common goals. Create solidarity, not competition, with fellow teachers and colleagues.
  • Research and understand your rights and protections as an employee. In the US, the National Labor Relations Board is a Federal agency responsible for enforcing U.S. labor law in relation to collective bargaining and unfair labor practices. Learn about “protected concerted activity”. The best thing to do is find your local trade union and ask them about your right to unionize (in Europe, this right is often referred to as “freedom of association”).
  • Understand the difference between being an employee and an independent contractor. Many US yoga teachers are told by employers that they are independent contractors and they never question that, despite the fact that teaching regularly at a studio makes you a part-time employee, not an independent contractor.
  • Know your local employment laws. In the US, these differ from state to state. NYC’s Know Your Worker Rights is a great resource for New Yorkers. Learn about Unemployment Insurance which is available to part-time employees. You can get unemployment payments if an employer reduces your shifts or pay.
  • Learn about how to form a union at your workplace and get support from a union organizer (i.e. AFL-CIO).
    Info for the UK: https://www.gov.uk/browse/working/rights-trade-unions
    Info for Canada: https://www.labourwatch.com/
    Info for Australia: https://www.actu.org.au/
  • Connect with the Machinists’ Union, a labor union for the 21st century supporting workers in the gig economy, the group the yoga union is being formed through.
Follow and engage with @unionize_yoga on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If you’re based in Europe, you can also connect with European Yoga for support.

Supporting Unions as a Yoga Student

Just because you are a student doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice in this conversation. In fact, as consumers of yoga, students are one of the most powerful people in shaping the future of yoga.

If you are a student and want to support the ethical treatment of your yoga teachers, here are some ways to do that:

  • Be curious and open. Don’t assume you know what your teachers are going through. Ask questions! Ask your teachers about their experience, read articles from yoga teachers in your area, and explore the reality of how yoga teachers are treated where you practice. By being open and willing to listen, you will be showing your teachers that you support their right to express their needs and pursue sustainable working conditions. 
  • Check-in with your teachers. Teaching yoga can be a very isolating career and often it can feel like you’re the only one experiencing these issues. As a student, telling your teachers that their wellbeing is important to you and asking if there is any way you can support the fight for teacher rights is a great way to show solidarity.
  • Express your concern with studio management. If the studio where you practice does not take care of their teachers, tell them that this is not okay with you. Explain to your studio management what it is you find troubling about their practices and what you would like to see change. Management is more likely to listen to concerns when it comes to paying customers, and the more they hear it, the more likely they are to change their ways.

Supporting Unions as a Studio Owner

If you are a studio owner seeking to create a more ethical employment model, here are some great tips to get you started:

  • Ask your teachers what they need. And listen. This is by far the number one best thing you can do. If you want to take care of your teachers, you need to talk to them! Create a system through which teachers can safely and anonymously express their concerns and be committed to actually addressing the issues that come up.
  • Talk to other studios about what works. A big concern I hear from studios is how they are going to keep the lights on if they start re-writing the economics of how they pay and support their teachers. However, a lot of studios thrive and alongside, rather than in spite of, their teachers thriving. Start opening up dialogues with other studio owners and share what works and what you’re struggling with. We can learn and grow from the practices of those around us.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Most of all, it comes back to communication. Keep your doors and ears open and create a culture where teachers and students feel they are safe to share their concerns and that their needs will be addressed. In addition, the more you communicate about what the studio is dealing with on the administrative end, the more you and your teachers can have open dialogues about how to meet their needs without compromising those of the studio.
  • Take action. While communication is key, it doesn’t stop there. As a studio manager or owner, you are in a position of power, and it is your responsibility to use that power to effect change. When your teachers express their needs, don’t just listen, but take action and make a change.

Supporting Unions as a Leader in the Yoga Industry

If you are a yoga writer, podcaster, magazine owner, social media influencer, company/brand, or anyone with a large following in the yoga industry, here is how you can support the movement:

  • Share stories from a diverse community of yogis. Using your platform to elevate the voice of others is a great way to share the reality of the situation. By sharing the stories and experiences of yogis from different backgrounds, you’re helping shine a light on how prevalent this issue of the unethical standards of yoga employment is and why change is needed.
  • Open up a forum for conversation. If you have a platform that is conducive to this, such as a Facebook Group, web forum, or even the comments section on Instagram, use this to create a space for safe and open discussions. Open the door for dialogue and invite as many voices as possible to join the conversation.
  • Express your support publically. By sharing your perspective on the issue and support of unionization, you’re raising awareness about what is wrong with the way things are and why change needs to occur.

Edited by Ely Bakouche

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