Way back in the day, yoga was free. Well, not exactly free but no money was exchanged for your guru to take you under their wing and impart their wisdom to you. That’s because gurus were renunciated and mendicants considered holy by the community that supported them in all the ways essential for survival and the propagation of their yogic teachings. So while the student didn’t pony up cash per class, the community did everything necessary to take care of their local guru’s needs for the spiritual health of the entire community.
When modern postural yoga was exported to the U.S., this support system didn’t translate and instead teachers offered classes for a fee or a suggested donation and covered their personal expenses themselves. Studios were independently owned by some lover and teacher of yoga who yearned for a feeling of life purpose in being of service, fulfillment of dharma and a high “soul salary.”
As yoga’s popularity increased, some studios began to explore bigger spaces in better neighborhoods, fuller schedules, more teachers and higher prices associated with both greater expenses and a greater opportunity to profit from our population’s interest in this mystical embodied practice. Students were willing to pay for excellent teaching and this powerful practice that brought balance, insight, spirituality, strength and flexibility into their lives.
Fast forward to today … 37 million people practice yoga in the United States and spend $16 billion annually on yoga and related gear. And yet, the perceived monetary value of a yoga class offering is in decline and independent teachers and small businesses are being forced to give it away or severely reduce prices to stay in business. What happened? Well, in the “yoga boom,” the market became saturated, corporations with deep pockets jumped on the bandwagon to open chains and franchises, teacher trainings became a cash cow resulting in a massive glut of teachers on the market which then created an unemployed desperate mass in a race to the bottom — who will work for the lowest wages with the hope and promise of it becoming a sustainable wage? And through all this, the inevitable preponderance of free or nearly free yoga emerged. It’s a nice idea though isn’t it? Yoga for the people! Make it free — put these teachers to work and spread the yoga everywhere!
37 million people practice yoga in the United States and spend $16 billion annually on yoga and related gear. And yet, the perceived monetary value of a yoga class offering is in decline and independent teachers and small businesses are being forced to give it away or severely reduce prices to stay in business.
Here’s the rub. With some notable and admirable exceptions, free yoga is happening in affluent communities with median home prices of $400,000-$600,000 and income levels that afford people the ability to pay $9 for fresh-pressed juice or $5 for their daily cup of coffee. Which begs the question, is all this free yoga really bringing yoga to those who would otherwise not be practicing it? Between chain studios using free classes to hook people into memberships, teachers doing nearly anything for free to build a following for a more “secure” future and retail stores trying to capitalize on yoga consumers, free yoga is everywhere and is driving the perceived value of yoga DOWN across the board. This free yoga is not about access for those who can’t afford it, it’s a hook. It looks eerily similar to Walmart’s low prices that push independents out of business and give a seriously skewed sense of the value of things, like produce, for example.
The cascade effect of free yoga is that so much saturation and a lower perceived value suppresses the yoga teacher’s wages since the chains have more teachers eager to teach than they need (and can pay them less because of the competition) and the independents have to reduce their prices (and thus, wages) to stay competitive with the chains. Teachers who get paid less aren’t likely to be able to continue their education nor focus on evolving their craft to be of greater service to an expanding and possibly more diverse community. And it certainly makes it harder for those same teachers to volunteer their time where free yoga might be more appropriate. And though it may be hard to see in the short term, in the long run, it is the practitioner who is hurt most by free yoga. The quality of yoga will continue to decline because without a reliable source of income, teachers will have to focus elsewhere to survive, which inevitably takes away from the quality of their yoga offerings.
Free yoga has its place. Let’s make yoga available for free to those who want it but truly can’t afford it. Let’s focus our free yoga on places like domestic abuse shelters, prisons, community centers, libraries and churches in underserved communities that want yoga, in schools, with veterans and at-risk youth! If you feel called in any community to make yoga more accessible, consider using a sliding scale and if a retailer wants to offer a class to draw people in, pay the teacher fairly for their time and ask students for a donation to give to a cause in alignment with your offerings. As business owners, teachers and retailers, we must consider the broader repercussions of our actions. If we sincerely believe in the value of yoga, we must act in ways that reflect that, for the benefit of all.