by Ali Valdez
A particular subject has weighed heavily on my mind over the past several years. My interest was sparked when I jettisoned out of the corporate world after almost twelve plus years of teaching yoga and even more studying of this vast discipline to focus on yoga research and training. It started with a conversation with a woman who wanted to hire me to lead her teacher training program.
My proposal was simple, and she had no objections except one: why would we ever consider paying the teaching assistants for their time? According to her, Baptiste nor Bikram ever paid their assistants. I have never studied with either of them to confirm or deny this, or to speak to their evolving business practices from the past ten to fifteen years. My potential client claimed her teachers would do it for the privilege. My plan had included compensation for the assistants as if they were being paid to teach their classes; to be treated as subject matter experts in their field like I would expect to be compensated for my multiple degrees, over a decade in the practice and study, and years of actively teaching and doing workshops. This is for many individuals their career and livelihood; why wouldn’t I want them thrilled and excited to find new areas to develop both?
What I see around the yoga community is this insatiable desire to not expect to be compensated for one’s time and valuable skills as teachers. Why do yoga teachers think the person using their expertise for their own financial gain is doing them a favor? You really wouldn’t see this in any other industry but it appears to be rampant in ours, a community of people that cannot in their career expect to physically teach yoga 40 plus hours a week, have no insurance or benefits and may be out of work in the case of injury without compensation.
It’s the practical blindness of love and light. Can you be boldly in love with yoga and committed to staking your claim in making this world a better place and make money doing it?
Compensation does not necessarily need to be an hourly rate, a monthly salary. I am not talking about karma yogis who, in exchange for volunteering time at the studio, receive as trade a yoga membership. I do not mean those who do trade of services for private sessions or training. I am talking about businesses who are making money, monetizing at the expense of those that they are unwilling to pay but would desire and expect their services anyway. This isn’t about filthy lucre (unless, of course, you want it to be). It’s about respect for yourself and the services you offer. It’s also about business owners understanding what they can afford to pay others and make sure their checks clear when the first rolls around. It’s about a yoga teacher having the courage to discuss getting a raise; but also about the studio owners’ prerogative to say no if it’s not viable for the sustainability of their facility.
It’s about finding a fair and happy medium.
On Instagram, brand ambassadors receive free product and other incentives to shill their wears. I consider that a form of compensation. Others, like the Aussie girl who recently quit her social media charade, could get paid money $600 to wear a particular item in her feed.
This is not about judging anyone, but putting the mirror up to our own reflections and inquire what we are doing for others that should not be given away for free. I have made each and every one of these choices as a new teacher and I still struggle with tendencies to be my own worst enemy. It is my hope to inspire you to not make them for yourself unless these are absolutely the things you feel a conviction to do, and pro bono. Not sure? Check in with your gut; the wisest part of your body.
1) Working at a conference or festival without pay. The big act is in the main tent when you are teaching off at tent 245-C. Not to mention airfare cost you a fortune and you have to pay to kennel your dog. Have a blast! I did this; once. I won’t do it again. The big names get ample compensation; they wouldn’t come otherwise, so why should you for no pay at all? The people putting it on receive sponsors (been one, not cheap), possibly benefit from grants, conference fees from tickets and vendors, have a band of merry volunteers, but they cannot pay you and provide you with a day pass for the two to three classes they ask you to teach on their behalf.
Also what has been your conversion rate from the attendees in tent 245-C in coming to your Baja retreat or your back-bending workshop series?
2) Writing for a blog, magazine for the “exposure”. There are even blogs that make YOU pay to write for them. God, I’m in the wrong business. So they make their money off the authors of the content that fill their webzines, you are expected to post how “humble” and “grateful” you are to be featured and for what? So their subscription base grows, they increase their advertising revenue, and you can spend an extra five minutes at the Whole Foods check out marveling at your sunset-lit astavakrasana? I write for several blogs, one being my own (I don’t sell ad space or make money on it; it’s free).
One blog I write for is just getting off the ground. They pay contributors $5 per article. I choose to do this blog because I love the topic. I also do it because I am a sucker who loves and lives to write and be a part of a thoughtful, intelligent community of yogis. I also do it because I know of so few that offer to pay anything at all or that even publish content that is interesting. Dilemma or damnation in writing this piece, I am not compensating myself for writing this or staying up until midnight to do it and yet, here I am because I am hoping this is beneficial for our community to talk more openly about.
I remember a national brand was dangling a carrot about coming to Seattle; another wanted me to pay to have a stack of their magazines at my studio to hand out for free. Once, a few yoga teachers met and nibbled on that carrot because we thought it would be a great way to unify the community. The brand’s list of demands for content were ample.
So many eager yogis said yes, so few delivered. That in my mind is the value of free. You tend to get what you pay for.
The magazine never took off but I hear they will be rattling their tin cups around these parts again soon looking for free labor, free content all for the ‘privilege’ and ‘prestige’ of being a part of, you know, the “movement”, the “tribe”.
3) Teaching for free or co-leading teacher training for free. The reasons may be many; some perhaps more valid than others. Respectfully, then why hire you other than to save money? Maybe you haven’t completed your certification yet but there is no problem having you work for free teaching. You may also see this in the arrangement of a mock class (auditioning for the studio) where you teach an open to the public class but are not paid for it. This is also true when there are trainings abroad. Room and board to work for twelve hours a day for ten days on an exotic island does not make up for the loss of income while you are out. Perhaps you find the experience invaluable and that is enough for you, but I would encourage you to think about it.
I have a teacher who really wanted to offer an early morning Meditation class at my studio when we first opened. I said no because I knew we couldn’t afford to pay for more classes (we had over fifty at the time). She insisted she wanted the experience so I told her let’s make it an optional donation and once she hit a milestone in attendance (eight people) she would get paid full salary. She agreed. Once she hit six people we put her on salary; eight people we upped her compensation and removed its donation status. To this day, I am not sure I would ever do that again. Although in the end it worked out well, it still doesn’t sit right with me. I regret not paying her because I love and value her skills and commitment to her students.
I felt really uncomfortable at first and she asked why. Why was because of that conversation I had shared early in the article. I need to know I am compensating people for their time. I value their time and expertise; and I want them to know it. There are a million things I would love for my yoga-related businesses but the fledgling businesses cannot sustain the costs of all my wants so I have to either rearrange my priorities, figure out an equitable trade, not do it or do it myself until I can pay someone else. There have been moments when I have had to make the hard choice of putting big projects temporarily on hold because I had to get creative with finances.
It’s not easy on either side of the equation in business and yoga; but it can be when the common denominator is mutual respect.
My teacher trainees have asked if they can teach a community class upon graduation and I am sort of on the fence about this. First, I want to support and empower my crew of new graduates. We are a training facility at heart. I love community classes that are offered by new teachers, but that are also complementary for the students. Where I struggle is paid classes where the teacher works for free. I told them no and they asked why. I answered because I don’t like to hire people and not pay them for their work.
4) Individual contributors being treated like employees. This is about the bookends of compensation that happen before and after the class within a reasonable set of parameters. When I was a new teacher, I would be expected for at least one hour around the time of my class. People teaching one hour or ninety minute classes got the same flat rate regardless of the fact that each class was packed up to 80 people per sweaty session and one class was 50% longer than the other.
Take out garbage? Done!
Mop floors? No worries, I’m on it.
Suds and squeegy mirrors? Sure, why not?
Scrub some toilets? Right on; I will even whistle while I work.
I loved it all. I loved the studio (recently shuttered) and my students there. I loved the owner; for many years, she was a dear friend who I still treasure deeply.
What I didn’t love in this scenario was myself nor did I show any respect for my time, a most precious commodity. My bad.
At my studio and for my teacher training, my faculty and teachers are all employees; very few are ICs unless they only come in to do one specific task and with great infrequency. This is intentional and by design. Also it costs me a fortune, almost 25%-30% more per pay period and with tax filings. If you are an IC and work before and after, you need to be paid for it. Professional courtesy as a yoga teacher should include arriving at an appropriate time, interacting with your students, making sure the room is set up as you desire for the purposes of teaching your class and returning it as found, and you are available to interact with your students prior to leaving. Don’t be lame and difficult like a primadonna, but go the extra mile to do what’s best for your students, the studio and don’t forget what’s best for yourself.In short, keep that rubber haz-mat suit in the supply closet.
Doing your best professional work and setting good boundaries can be closer to win:win than you imagine.
Anywhere else in the business world (monetization around the service of yoga is a billion dollar industry so to not call it a business, right or wrong, is your call) no one would want to go to work for someone who doesn’t have a plan to compensate you or as a business turn a modest profit to remain viable, or if in a start-up either revenue share or give you equity in the company. Conference or magazine can’t pay you? Well, can they profit share with you, provide free advertising for your services (no, not the 100 words or less bio on their schedule). Maybe they should write a better business plan or revenue model so they can compensate you and themselves at the same time.
There is no one who starts and opens a business who doesn’t desire to be reasonably rewarded for their time. Paying your rent and having food on the table is the baseline, not the reward of your hard work. That means if this is your desired career, then it’s okay for you to also want to make a good living, a comfortable and even abundant one. This can be accomplished without suffering to others. Sometimes, sadly, it doesn’t always work out and businesses can go bust, but even that can create an opportunity of abundance through learning, humility and self-study.
A common response might be what about for seva (selfless service), or good works? Yes, awesome. I love that, too. I love it, and I do it, with proceeds derived joyfully from my earnings. The difference is I am making a choice of what to do with my money and time vs. how I chose to spend my time not making any money for myself while making it on behalf of others.
My recommendations? Take a moment to ask: What makes you happy? What are your needs and what are your wants? What can you do without? In what ways do you feel valued and living a life of meaning and purpose? How much does it cost to see all of your baseline and aspirational goals to fruition in time and resources? As a new business owner ask what you can do to ensure that everything you need to get off the ground can be compensated for in your business plan.
I sometimes feel like new teachers can be so easily exploited because their hearts are so full and enthusiastic and their desire to make impact immediate. Consider how you would want to be treated and what would be acceptable to you if you where on the other side. If you were on the other side, like I was, you might realize now what you didn’t before. Lesson learned. Honestly, I have no regrets because I learned so much about how people operate in business early on before dipping my toe in. I learned so much about myself and how much I seek to serve and give without caring for myself. I recognized early on my desire to share the incredible gift of yoga daily and knowing I am blessed to be able to do so.
But in hindsight, if I had to do it all over again, I would have set much better boundaries with my energy and time, especially now that I am older and things like time and energy seem exponentially more valuable.
The intention behind this article is not to criticize or call anyone out. It is designed to share some of my own experiences, shortcomings and perspectives as someone who has worn many hats in the yoga game over the past fifteen years. This cannot be a successful community if we cannot find a way for everyone to find their way as new teachers, new yogapreneurs, and as leaders. Collectively, is it worth exploring whether or not we are all worth a little more than we give ourselves credit for and if so, how do we go about setting a higher standard, the golden standard for the industry.