An open letter to an anonymous yoga instructor

Dear Anonymous,

I read with great interest your post from last year titled “Yoga Teacher’s Labour Rights: A call to action". Before I begin, I’d like to let you know I’m a friend. 

There are numerous yoga instructors who have touched my life, and helped me in extraordinarily positive and unexpected ways. There truly is a special place in my heart for the people who have introduced me to yoga and I spend a lot of my time helping both yoga instructors and studio owners with their respective businesses.

I say this because I want you to know this letter comes from a kind place. 

I do believe however you have dramatically misunderstood a number of things related to the profession of yoga, and believe you could benefit by thinking about the business of yoga in a slightly different way. I also think you are finding yourself confused by basic economic principles that affect all businesses, and are instead taking them as an attack on you. My hope is that this letter will ultimately help you as a yoga professional.

The crux of the argument in your post is that people who own yoga studios are making more money than they should off their instructors, and that in this way instructors are being exploited. With this argument, you also make the assumption that these studios are making significant sums of money.

While I don’t doubt there are some studios that should treat their instructors better, I take significant issue with your representation that the common state of affairs in the yoga community is that studio owners are exploiting their instructors. 

Instead, I believe you are mistaken on three core things:

1. The relationship between a studio and their instructors
2. The difference between revenue and earnings
3. Basic principles of supply and demand

You are not an employee

First, at a high level, I believe you may be misunderstanding the professional relationship that yoga instructors have with the studio owners they work with. Most of the time yoga studios are not an instructor’s employer. I realize there are exceptions to this, but in the dramatic majority of cases, yoga instructors should be looking at yoga studios as their customer, not their employer.

This one shift in perspective will I believe help you dramatically in your yoga career. As an instructor, you should always be asking yourself the question: “How can I bring more value to my customer?” 

How many special events and workshops have you put together and pitched to the studio owners you work with? How many students are coming to the studio because you have the big following through your online videos? How many students are coming to your class because they know what you'll be teaching and what your playlist is going to be because you keep this updated regularly on your site?

Every good business is constantly doing a dance with the market to figure out what kinds of things their customers need from them. If you look at teaching yoga as a job, with the studio as an employer, both you and the studio will be worse off than if you look at it as your business that has customers. 

Revenue does not equal profit

I also have a strong feeling that throughout the article you misunderstand the difference between revenue and earnings. Or quite possibly you aren’t aware of the numerous expenses that studios have. There is a joke among business owners that people always see the money coming in, but they never see it going out.  

As an example, I’ve seen my wife’s studio have $20,000 revenue months that did’t turn a profit. And yet I suspect you might accuse her of exploiting her instructors without properly understanding the expenses. 

In particular you say:

Like musicians in a big band, individual yoga teachers function under the umbrella of a yoga studio’s name and the owners associated with that name. Whether the client is coming to practice with the owner-teacher, or with one of the owner’s handpicked teachers, the bulk of the earnings, the street credibility, and the visibility, go to the studio owner. 

You use the word ‘earnings’ here which is interesting, because I think you meant to say revenue. Were you calculating in the rent, utilities and marketing expenses associated with running a yoga studio? Were you thinking about the business licenses and the liability insurance? Were you thinking about the first 6 months the studio opened and was losing a few thousand dollars each month? Were you thinking about the $5,000 to buy the new retail line?

Were you taking into consideration the initial investment to open the studio? How about the 401(k) plan that was cashed in to open the doors? Do you think it's reasonable for a studio owner to pay themselves?

How are you valuing all these things when you proclaim that these studio owners are taking too much money away from their instructors? 

You talk as if it was yours to begin with, and the owner is just taking it from you.

I talk with studio owners every day who begin to question whether they are bad people the minute they start to turn any profit. Financially healthy studios are the ones that provide a yoga space for their communities on a continued basis, give hope to those who want to open their own studios, and they provide teachers with regular schedules. 

Financially healthy studios should be celebrated, not turned into villains.

The laws of supply and demand

In addition to conflating revenue and profit, I fear you are also simply upset at the basic economic principles of supply and demand, and you direct your anger at ‘greedy studio owners’. In your post you say:

With so many yoga teacher trainings, yoga teachers have become a disposable commodity, and yoga studios can demand more of their teachers for less. 

I believe however that your premise is false. Yoga teachers can be turned into a commodity, but not all yoga instructors are a commodity. This is true with studios too, and I have this conversation with owners regularly about how the different ways they can fight this ‘commoditization of yoga’. 

But the thing is, this is a trend that everyone is fighting, not just instructors. I mean, just look at the number of daily deals sites peddling cheap yoga.

Your particular implication though is that good, well paid teachers are being replaced by crap instructors that are poorly paid, and I do not think this is the case. The simple truth is that there are more good yoga instructors than ever before. Exacerbating the situation is that often times they all want to live in the same markets.

As a yoga instructor, you might actually be able to make more money in a smaller city because of the reduced supply of instructors.

In any event, my point is that pretending that the most basic economic laws of supply and demand don’t affect your profession, or shouldn't affect your profession, is bound to set you up for failure.

Shifting your perspective

The general theme of this letter is that I think you simply need to shift your perspective. 

Stop thinking of yourself as a traditional ‘worker’ and instead understand that you’re an entrepreneur that has to navigate the waters of business like everyone else.

Most of what’s bothering you is just the free market at work and a lack of clarity into all your customer’s expenses. It’s not some attack on you, and it’s probably not a greedy studio owner disrespecting yoga.

Trust me, they’re all fighting their own battles too.

In kindness,