Yoga is no money tree: The business of yoga

Sep 26, 2018 at 10:33 am
Yoga instructor Charlotte Boyd.  |  Photo by Kathryn Harrington
Yoga instructor Charlotte Boyd. | Photo by Kathryn Harrington

You stretch, and you sweat... but it’s supposed to be more than exercise.

You chant and count breaths... but it’s not quite meditation.

Yoga means different things to almost everyone who practices it. To some, it’s spiritual. To others, it’s purely physical. There are those who feel that yoga is a gift, and there are those who see it as transactional.

In its current incarnation in America, yoga clearly is a business, but how that looks is also open to interpretation and, locally, behind a growing debate. Despite yoga’s glossy, Zen image of enlightened minds in perfect bodies, the business of yoga in Louisville is creating drama, dissension and tense discussions that are shaping what you do on local mats and where.

The disputes include whether “non-certified” yogis should hold jams and meet-ups in parks — not to mention what, exactly, is teacher certification? The questions include whether the Inner Warrior yoga boutique should be offering a 100-percent donation-based schedule of classes in its new space at Distillery Commons. Some say that undercuts the growing number of yoga teachers and studios trying to make a living. Yet, because teacher training is one of the few profitable areas of the yoga business, studios continue to turn out new instructors.

At the heart of all of these controversies lies a set of differing perceptions about what yoga is and who it is for. Is it a form of intellectual or private property, to be guarded and bartered, or an abundant good to be shared with all? And to the extent that yoga becomes a set of products and services, is the local market saturated, or is there still room for more people and ways of practicing?

Yoganomics: profitability is a stretch

The brand image of yoga in America is a leisure-time pursuit of the fit and affluent, with social media feeds of lithe bodies striking dramatic poses and studios that lay out stacks of fluffy white towels.

“It’s targeted at middle-class people,” said Ashley Baldwin, 33, yoga instructor and founder of event-based yoga company Soul Cleanse. “It’s expensive. Most people can’t afford both a gym membership and a yoga membership.”

In Louisville, the rate for a drop-in class averages about $20. For a monthly card, it is in the range of $100. Some studio owners said those price points do not make for a sustainable business.

“If you’re charging $100 a month for unlimited classes, that seems expensive for the student. But for the studio that would be the bare minimum when you break down the fixed costs,” said Logan Dunbar, 30. Dunbar was a co-owner of the YouDo Yoga studio in Louisville, which closed after a year and a half. He said he became disillusioned with an industry that he characterizes as “compassionately cutthroat” — where studio owners have to guard against their customer email lists being stolen by competitors while fending off the advances of would-be corporate sponsors. Dunbar recalled: “Lululemon contacted us constantly. And they have such deep pockets. They’re like the record labels in the music industry, using you to market their product. And, then, there you are sitting on your $150 yoga mat in your $300 pants, but you can’t pay your bills.”

Studio owners aren’t the only ones who struggle to make a living in Yoga World.

Most instructors, who have paid local studios around $2,500 to $3,500 for 200-hour teacher training, find themselves collecting crumbs from the gig economy table when they graduate as independent contractors.

There is no standard for how teachers are paid. Some studios can provide a base pay of $25 to $45 a class or possibly more, depending on education, with incentives for the size of the class. Others pay teachers a 70-percent split per class, based on attendance, or whether it is a workshop. A teaching gig with a business or corporation can pay $100 a class.

“It’s impossible to teach yoga full-time because of the money,” said Baldwin.“Per class, $20 to $60 is all you’re looking at. It’s a huge commitment for the teacher, in terms of class planning, having to open and close the studio — it’s a whole production.”

A new model emerges

Much like healthcare, the conventional business model for yoga doesn’t seem to work particularly well for either providers or consumers: Studios and teachers are stressed, while students can’t afford to attend the full number of classes that would really benefit them.

The idea of “community,” sliding-scale or donation-based yoga, in which students pay $5 or $10, instead of $20 for a class, has emerged in recent years as an alternative. Its premise is to make yoga more available by making it more affordable. But that also seems to posit a different business model: one where yoga becomes more of a social enterprise than a profit-making venture.

“The Inner Warrior is a heart-based business and we want to make yoga accessible to as many people as possible,” said Sabine Gaona of the Inner Warrior. “I could have said ‘free’ for the community classes, but I wanted it to be a donation for the instructor.”

Initially offered twice a week, the community classes at the shop’s Frankfort Avenue location became so popular that Sabine and her daughter, Gabriella Gaona, decided to open a dedicated community studio with a weekly roster of donation-based classes.

This spring, the Inner Warrior announced on its Facebook page that the classes would begin soon at the boutique’s new Distillery Commons location. But among all the likes and positive comments was a dissenting voice. Charlotte Boyd, 27, an area yoga teacher, asked if the Inner Warrior had a plan to follow up its stated intention of making yoga more accessible through an outreach effort to the elderly, people of color, the differently-abled and those without vehicles. Gabriella Gaona responded to Boyd’s question by saying the new location had been chosen in part because it was better served by public transportation. Beyond that, she said, they were open to suggestions and help for doing outreach.

A few weeks later, Boyd wrote to LEO to express her belief that the Inner Warrior’s donation-based yoga classes were not really aimed at underserved populations. Rather, she felt they were a pretext to get consumers into the shop to buy clothes. “If the mission is truly to bring yoga to our community then it needs to be for people who can’t afford fancy pants,” Boyd said. She and other teachers also have concerns that the donation-based model undermines the value of yoga classes and can hurt teachers whose income relies on attendance. “By lessening the value of a yoga class, not only are we underpaying teachers, but we are ultimately making yoga less accessible because it is totally unsustainable.”

Sabine Gaona spoke to Boyd’s criticism: “The yoga is completely separate from the boutique. We don’t profit from the yoga.” When the Inner Warrior first started offering donation-based classes, Gaona said, all the money in the “karma jar” went to the instructor. “But then we realized that different instructors got different amounts, so we settled on a standard amount for the instructor [currently $25 per class], and the rest of it goes back to the community in some way, including keeping the space open.”

Apart from good karma, some in the yoga community believe that offering donation-based classes makes good business sense. “Allowing people to pay what they can removes an economic barrier to entry,” said Chris O’Bryan, 42, a yoga instructor who teaches at The Inner Warrior and is a co-owner of Limbwalker Tree Service. “People who are introduced to yoga through the Inner Warrior will end up making more money in the future and enter other studios.”

Others have a less rosy view. “I researched the idea of donation-based classes for YouDo Yoga, but I didn’t feel it would be viable in this city. Donation equates to free for some people, and they take advantage of that,” said former studio owner Logan Dunbar.

More broadly, there is a fear that more donation-based classes will drive down the perception of yoga’s value and the earnings of teachers and studios as a result. It is a worry not limited to Louisville. In a blog post about the pros and cons of community classes, New York-based yoga teacher Francesca Cervero wrote, “If we aspire for yoga teaching to be a career path that is respected and allows for sustainable income there must be some boundaries around free and donation-based classes.” One studio in Washington, D.C., that offers classes on a sliding scale requires students to submit proof of income.

Others, such as Yoga East in Louisville, provide scholarships and work-study options such as helping around the studio in exchange for classes. “It can be as simple as folding a blanket or greeting people at the door. If someone wants to be involved, we seek to include them, but there are no conditions attached,” said Yoga East president Laura Spaulding.

In general, accessibility is a theme embraced by the yoga world, with many studios offering $5 or $10 community classes as part of their schedule. (Yoga East launched an entirely-free weekly class at its Kentucky Street location in August.) So it is not the idea of donation-based yoga in itself that is controversial so much as building a business entirely around it.


Other emerging business models are making owners of conventional yoga studios even more, well — exercised.

“You get people going into nightclubs, breweries, and bars with pop-up classes, and doing it for a third of what I charge because I have overhead,” said Kristi Fulkerson, 41, owner of Yoga on Baxter. “This takes the clientele base and spreads it out. It hurts the people who have been doing it the longest as brick-and-mortar businesses.”

Like Yoga on Baxter, most studios are small businesses. But because yoga has been increasingly marketed as a lifestyle or consumer “product” available in gyms, malls and entertainment venues, studios have had to find a way to stand out in a crowded market or make money by other means.

Chris O’Bryan said some types of yoga just are more expensive to provide.

“Hot yoga studios, for example, are more capital-intensive because they have to heat their rooms, offer showers and towels and so forth, but the experience is completely different from other kinds of yoga,” O’Bryan said. “People who are attracted to that experience will pay for it.”

Having a specialty offering with its own devotees was key for Emily Welsh, 36, and her husband in buying Betsy’s Hot Yoga from its original owner a few months ago.

“One of the advantages we had is that the studio was here for 20 years when we came in, and it had a stable client base, so it was already up and running,” she said. At the same time, taking over the studio was also a leap of faith. “The numbers are tricky. Some of the other variables for us were being more independent in our work and owning our own business instead of working for large corporations,” she said.

Selling yoga training

To help keep the lights on at a typical studio, owners may sell merchandise or offer additional services such as spa treatments. But the most common way to make extra money is to make more yoga teachers. “No studio would survive without teacher trainings,” said Ashley Baldwin. “In the past four years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of yoga teachers coming out.”

Yoga on Baxter is unusual in that owner Fulkerson does not offer TTs, as they are known. “I could make a lot of money doing teacher trainings, but I don’t see the integrity in it,” she said. “For one, it’s dumping more competition on a labor market where there aren’t any jobs. Two, you’re letting someone be a teacher without seeing if they’re any good or not. There’re no regulations on yoga like there would be for a personal trainer.”

The main yoga industry interest group,  the nonprofit Yoga Alliance, or YA, says its mission is “to promote and support the integrity and diversity of the teaching of yoga.” It actively fights government oversight through lobbying. A four-page position paper on YA’s website outlines why the association opposes government regulation of yoga practice and instruction, with an entire section devoted to the reasons that the post-secondary education and vocational training regulations that apply to other professions, from hairdressers to HVAC mechanics, should not apply to yogis. (Among the main reasons is that “only a fraction” of registered yoga teachers pursue their profession full-time.)

Teacher “credentialing” is a moneymaker for the Yoga Alliance, which charges studios and teachers a fee for lending its logo to their offerings. It’s common to speak of this process as teachers being “certified,” which might give the impression that the Yoga Alliance administers the equivalent of a state licensing examination that authorizes yoga instructors to practice. But this is not the case. Indeed, it says, “Yoga Alliance does not certify teachers or accredit schools. Yoga Alliance’s credentialing system is a directory, not to be confused with other types of credentialing systems (such as certifications, accreditations, licensure, etc.).” All the Yoga Alliance does is “register” studios and teachers in its member directory. Individual students pay a total of $115 to register for the first time with YA (thereafter $65 to renew), while studios have to fork out an initial $640 and then $240 per year to renew. The Yoga Alliance reports it currently has some 90,000 teachers and 6,000 studios as registered members. And, for the tax year of 2016, the Yoga Alliance reported $2.38 million in gross receipts.

What does the YA registration process consist of? When asked whether it included in-person evaluation or testing, Dani Mackey, a PR representative for Yoga Alliance, said in an email: “To become a Registered Yoga School (RYS), a school must submit a syllabus that meets or exceeds Yoga Alliance standards. Yoga Alliance reviews each syllabus, and those that meet our standards become approved as an RYS and may display the RYS trademark. If a trainee completes a training at an RYS, the trainee may then register with Yoga Alliance.” In other words, registration comes down to paperwork. “There’s no testing out to see if [trainees] are prepared to deal with illnesses, injury or pregnancy,” said Fulkerson. “So, you can end up injuring people. Even if it’s not a quick injury, it could be a repetitive motion injury that sets into someone’s body over time.” With no independent auditors to evaluate what students actually learn or how they teach, the Yoga Alliance’s registration process is a little like restaurants sending the city a written description of their hygiene standards in lieu of a visit from the health inspector. For its part, the YA says it works at “Encouraging safe yoga instruction by promoting adoption of Yoga Alliance’s quantitative Standards.”

The complications of community

Nevertheless, the Yoga Alliance has become such a dominant force in the yoga industry that yogis who pursue non-YA forms of training may find themselves treated as outsiders. Max Mitchell, 30, a local music and event promoter who practices acroyoga — a blend of acrobatics and yoga — said his teaching has been repeatedly challenged because he is self-taught. Incidents have included being suddenly “disinvited” from leading an acroyoga jam and direct messages on Facebook criticizing videos of him and a partner performing acroyoga. “Some people were questioning the safety of what we were doing. They said it was dangerous because I am uncertified,” he said. “The other feedback was that I was taking students away from yoga studios’ client bases.”

Mitchell holds acroyoga “jams” or “sessions” — he prefers not to call them classes — twice a week in Cherokee Park on a donation basis. Attendance averages around 10 to 12 people, who contribute a total of $25 to $30. “My goal is not to make money but to blossom the acroyoga scene in this city,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s sessions are part of a larger phenomenon of free or donation-based jams and meetups in the acroyoga scene. “It’s really important for people to get together and play — but,” said Dunbar, who started his yoga practice with acroyoga. “Free is cool to get people involved, but then, when you try to put out a $25 workshop for 90 minutes, even though you are offering concrete things, people will balk at paying.”

And therein lies the rub, both for acroyoga in particular and yoga in general: At the intersection of community and commerce, social expectations come into conflict with market norms. Behavioral economist Daniel Ariely explained the difference in his book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Factors that Shape Our Decisions.” Social norms are the domain of gifts and favors that strengthen relationships. Ariely wrote: “Instant paybacks are not required: You may help move your neighbor’s couch, but that doesn’t mean he has to come right over and move yours.” By contrast, market norms govern cash payment between people whose only connection is the immediate business they are transacting. “When we keep social norms and market norms on their separate paths, life hums along pretty well.”

But when social norms and market norms get muddled, as they seem to do more often these days in the yoga world — especially when the idea of “community” is invoked —  misunderstandings and conflict result.

“It’s a big point of debate now in the yoga community: What are we doing and where are we going?” said Spaulding, who has headed Yoga East since 1994. “It’s often said there’s a lot of money in yoga, but that’s not true of yoga classes. That’s true of clothes and knickknacks.”

Whose business is yoga?

In the conflict between market norms and social norms, it is, unfortunately, the case that market norms tend to get the upper hand. For yoga to be shared as a communal good, it will need its own domain outside the marketplace to flourish. •

Just breathe...

I’ve been practicing yoga for about six years, several years before I took this job as LEO’s managing editor. I do it for the mind-clearing exertion and for the community. We are told to be in the present while practicing yoga. That, alone, is exertion for me. So I notice things while on and off the mat. Like the relatively small troupe of teachers who come through studios, including where I practice, Yoga on Baxter. I notice how some teachers move on to open their own studios, and then, alas, some close them. I notice how studios keep turning out teachers.

I knew there was a story in the business of yoga. And then LEO writer Anna Rohleder called to talk about some of the same issues she had noticed.

So here is our story.

Because Louisville’s yoga community is relatively small, we know some of the yogis and studio owners in this story. I am certain the piece will provoke discussion, disagreement and validation. That is why we wrote it.

Just breathe.— Keith Stone