The Business of Yoga

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Yoga Australia asked me to contribute to their Yoga Today magazine ‘Beyond Asana’ issue. It was timely as i’d been musing over the sector on return from teaching Good Hustle yoga of business workshops around the country. Here is my article in full, let the conversation begin.

Yoga teaches us that we can have whatever we may want in life if we are willing to provide it for others first.” Sharon Gannon, Jivamukti Yoga Co-Founder.

Towards the end of 2018, Yoga Australia, in response to strong demand from their members, ran a series of business workshops across Australian capital cities. I facilitated all of them and had the great privilege to meet and hang out with a very diverse cross section of the Australian yoga business community. Every person who sat in those classes had a dedication to yoga, for many it had saved their lives and sharing that experience with others was close to vocational.

 Most of the participants were earning their primary income from teaching yoga either in a studio they owned, as a sessional teacher, as a yoga therapist or as a yoga teacher with a mixed modality healing practice. Those who weren’t earning their living from yoga were there because they were looking to transition to yoga as a full-time occupation and were constructing their business models and concepts to do so.

 As an business strategist with a passion for heart-centred businesses and yoga, I’ve got a broad span of business experience. I’ve worked at both ends of town when it comes to major corporates and solopreneurs, with all kinds of not-for-profits and social enterprises in between. One of the reasons I choose to work with what I call ‘Good Hustle’ businesses, is that for me, business and spirituality aren’t separate. You can be in service to others from pretty much any occupation and approaching work from that mindset brings meaning and purpose to our lives and yokes us together, we become yoga.

 To continue to offer service to others, a business has to be sustainable, both in the sense of making sufficient profit to keep operating, and in providing the business owner a lifestyle that allows them to have and be enough. Most of us don’t work from a place of equanimity and compassion when our backs are to the wall, when we are working too many hours and in perpetual fight or flight mode with our adrenals cranked to 10.

 I met a lot of yogis on tour who fitted into that category.

As a community, we need to begin a conversation about yoga and business, and the business of yoga today. I want to begin this from the position of the observer rather than solver, as I spent a lot of time observing conversations on my Yoga Australia road show: hearing the pain of teachers feeling they were constantly competing with other yogis for students, price cutting and undercutting was common, feeling forced into offering teacher trainings to bring in revenue then losing their best students as they left to open studios and teach with minimal time in front of a class before going out on their own.

 I heard the heartbreak of teachers being paid poorly and treated badly, studio owners being stressed out of their minds trying to make ends meet with no time for their own practice. Most shockingly from a sustainability point of view, so many of the yoga teachers, business people and practitioners I met and continue to meet have no basic business plan, no budget, no revenue forecast and are unable to break down the base input costs to running a class. The usual pattern is they have been passionate yoga students, taken a teacher training so they could make yoga their work, and then gotten onto the teach-for-any-cost-at-all-costs cycle to gain experience and reputation and before they know it are burnt out, injured, feeling ripped off and have lost the meaning of what yoga was for them.

 I couldn’t count the number of times yoga teachers told me they are deeply conflicted about charging for yoga, that it should be free, their students tell them they can’t pay but do the class anyway. Many newbies were told they have to work their way up through the ranks by more experienced teachers, and work for free. I’ve never, ever heard a Pilates instructor, therapist or physio say that they feel they shouldn’t charge for their classes or their services. Not once. Their work is a clear beneficial exchange, and everyone involved understands the value proposition.

 In the business of yoga, the value proposition is mired in a spectrum of beliefs. At one end, there is the school of thought that the teachings of yoga are free, for the benefit of all sentient beings and should be distributed in that mode. On the other end, that the market for yoga asana classes, accessories, apparel and lifestyle is one of the fastest growing sectors and that people will pay for access to what it brings - and the free market economy will set that cost and meet the demand.

 Along with this striation is a widening and often harsh divide within the yoga community (which is not homogenous and should not be viewed as a single entity):  that yoga is elite, commodified, tainted with this commercialisation. That yoga is wholly unrepresentative of the majority of bodies and ethnicities and far from the intention of its origins with a Caucasian, slim, able bodied Instagram lens that forms a barrier to entry for so many. Fundamentally that yoga shred bodies and yoga diets have no place in Patanjali’s pantheon.

 These concepts form the narrative conflict for many teachers that they can’t charge what they need to make their own ends meet, that they aren’t worthy, and that their service is without an inherent reciprocal value. Add into this the business model that has been co-opted from gyms where yoga studios offer blocks of classes at low prices as a loss leader to capitalise on subscription memberships. For the consumer, yoga classes become an exercise in studio freebie shopping.

 With so many studios opening up, looking to attract customers, it is easy to go for months on $40 passes, which creates a commodity mentality, rather than the idea of paying for the expertise of a teacher and deepening a practice over time. After you’ve had so much low-cost yoga, the perceived value is decreased – why pay $100 a month or more when you’ve had it for $40 or less?

 What to do? I finished up the Yoga Australia road show wondering just this.

 While the experience was deeply nourishing and filled with inspiring humans, there were so many similar stories of struggle. How can the business of yoga today find harmony with the traditional teachings? Can we even talk about tradition in yoga when most of us are far from lineage transmission, and is even doing some kind of cultural appropriation? What is the acceptable confluence of the evolution of western influence, the consumer demand driven commodification and the homogeneity of the ‘brand’ of yoga? In a global market that is largely unregulated it’s estimated there are over a hundred thousand new teachers are being graduated every year globally, many with little practical time in front of a class and no business support when they hit life after TT.

 As I noted earlier, I want to start a conversation rather than wrap the discussion up with a bow of neat solutions and social sound bites. The problem of the business of yoga today is a wicked problem, one that for every solution, there will be a new question that arises. Of course, I have some views on this, I acknowledge they are subjective and biased by my lived experience.

 I think there are many ‘yogas’ today and as such, there will be many ways to deliver yoga to the people. Some will be elite in beautiful studios. Some will be free in parks and church halls. Some will be in converted garages. Some will have branded leggings and matching tops. Others will have trackies and t-shirts. Some will be streaming online, some will have flyers taped to telegraph poles. All will have heart, and intention and matter if they give one person a gateway to comfort and ease through the teachings.

 For me there are a few fundamental questions for any yogi who wants to do business: who are you called to be in service to with your yoga offering? How will you deliver it? What will it cost you to do that sustainably, how will you charge to cover those costs with enough on top to live in a way that is enough for you and your dependants? How will you know you are giving your clients what they need and how will you measure that value? How will you set boundaries and good self-care and most importantly, how will you give back to your community?

 Wherever there is need, there is a business to fill that need. Wherever there is pain, there are industries predicated on capitalising hope. Of course, yoga is part of this ecosystem, as this is the human condition, this is samsara, and yoga is part of the solution and part of the problem, as are we all. When we are in service to others, we operate from a place of service and compassion, to others but also to ourselves. If we see with those eyes, and look for innovative ways to be yoga, we can seek to incorporate the beautiful traditional elements of all eight limbs, within the contemporary, complex and paradoxical experience that is 21st century yoga

The Good Hustle, is available in bookshops, on Audible and online.

Polly McGee