October 04, 2009

Can You Make a Living Teaching Yoga?

Over on the Yoga with Nikki Chau blog, here. Really good thoughts for anyone contemplating a career teaching yoga or embarking on their own teaching career. It's pretty tough to imagine anyone getting rich teaching yoga unless one is nationally renowned. Linda's Yoga Journey has also blogged about it Price We Pay and How Much is a Yoga Teacher Worth. Some of my own thoughts:

Product Mix
I've been self-employed for 15 years now. I do a variety of jobs - ranging from engineering, production support for corporate meetings, production support for entertainment, websites, powerpoint design. And for the last year or so, teaching yoga. And I have come to look at every project, every gig as being part of a product mix. Stuff I relly love to do that I might not be able to bill all that much for. Stuff that is perhaps more lucrative but less fulfilling or interesting. And work that lies somewhere in the middle. And I am constantly tweaking that product mix, depending on my finances, my time and energy, the available work, and where my spirit leads me.

Even something as fulfilling as teaching yoga has its "product mix" aspects. Nikki says "An average class at a studio can get anywhere between 1-8 people..." and well, I teach some big classes (15 - 25, sometimes higher) but they are often the $5 Gentle classes, which do not pay so well. But pretty awesome experience to teach to that large a class. On the other hand, some of my smaller full price classes pay better - rewarding in different ways. So even within a yoga teaching career there is a spectrum of "feed your spirit or feed your checking account" choices.

In her post, Nikki writes:

Do I want more students in a class? Not necessarily (workshops are different). First, I don’t teach yoga to make money. It’s not my primary motivation. If it were, I’d need a lot of math help. Secondly, the small class size lets me pay more attention to each individual person and adapt to their specific body, and that’s important to me.

And there is a balancing act there as well. Most studios pay a minimum per class with a percentage or per student amount above the minimum. And the amount that students are willing to pay for yoga is all over the map - locally $17 walk-in, $10 or $12 with a class card, or $5 for some classes. So limiting to 8-10 students is really going to cut back on earnings potential.

As much as it's hard to focus on individual bodies and practices in a larger class, there is something pretty amazing about a large class (speaking both as a student and as a teacher) - resonating with the energy, working flow, conscious of the bodies and spirits in the same postures and same-but-separate life journey. Some of my more memorable classes (as a student) have been with 40-50 students where the class energy just soared - I look across the row of mats with my friends and peers in Vira II or working through a dancing warrior sequence - and fill with love, respect, awe. Strong, brave, beautiful, and amazing. Perhaps not very yogic to step outside of my own body and my own practice like that - but I'm a yoga rebel and when the divine intervenes, who am I to not take a moment to watch and appreciate. So a mix of big classes (make some money, work with collective bodies and spirits) and small class (work with individual bodies and spirits) can work.

Something Else on the Side
Pretty much every yoga teacher down at the studio has something else going, workwise. Body worker (several). Counselor or therapist. Nutritionist. Engineer (guilty). Corporate drone. Stay-at-home parent (presumably with a working partner). So it's pretty realistic to look at who is teaching yoga, and perhaps decide to teach yoga as an adjunct to something else that can bring in some income. Oftentimes, the yoga teaching can be a good conduit / outreach for clients and business for the other work you do.

Paying Your Dues
I always thing of doctors doing their internships and residencies (Grey's Anatomy comes to mind) when I think of my first year of teaching. Even docs with years of education (and a far higher investment in education than a few thousand dollars in formal yoga training) spend a few years getting paid peanuts and working their tails off.

I came to look at my first years of teaching in that light - I'm a first-year, I'm paying my dues. Basically, I'd take any yoga teaching gig I could - to hone my teaching chops, to get experience, to build a reputation. Yeah, I've taught some classes for a few bucks. Yeah I've had some long days and long weeks. But more and more I am able to be selective in how and when I teach and am able to start to control my own teaching product mix.

So I think there is a certain level of "patience, grasshopper" here - teachers fresh out of training are probably not going to hit their stride, earnings wise, for a few years, regardless of how strong their personal practice or inspired their teaching. So be prepared to spend some time in the trenches.

As a sidelight, it's interesting to take the long view of this stuff. I've been embedded down at my studio for years, and in that time I have watched a lot of really top-notch teachers come through. Oftentimes they promote themselves to the studio owner as great teachers, talk their way into a chance to sub in for one of the senior teachers in a prime-time slot, and get handed their collective head by the students who just don't deal well with change (and are plenty vocal with the studio management). I suspect if they had invested some time hanging out, coming to classes to get the studio vibe, becoming familiar to the students and perhaps starting a little lower on the roster (in terms of what classes they sub and how much they ask for) they could potentially build up a reputation and a following, and end up with one of the prime-time slots and large classes that they seek.

As Bill Morrissey writes in his song Birches:
Oak will burn as long and hot as a July afternoon,
And birch will burn itself out by the rising of the moon.

Neil Young might disagree, however. My my, hey hey.

Subsidizing Ones Addiction
Before I started teaching, I was spending a lot on yoga - for classes, for workshops, etc. Now that I'm teaching, I spend a lot less money on yoga (although I practice as much if not more). My studio policy lets teachers take classes for free; there is also work-study, trading hours staffing the studio for free classes or workshops. And since I make money teaching and file a Schedule C, a lot of my yoga expenses come right off the top line as business expenses.

So even though I'm not getting rich from teaching, I'd still be practicing and spending money even if I were not teaching, so the actual net benefit from teaching might be expressed as Income + Subsidized Practices and Workshops + Tax Benefit.

Become Management
As a self employed person, I'm keenly aware of my income limitations related to my time and energy. If every dollar I bring in is directly connected to my time, I have a limitation based on the hours in a day, week, month or year and the amount of money I can charge for any given activity. But if I start to subcontract work - hiring employees, having people "downstream" (in a coarse, multi-level marketing kind of way) then I can start to get some income based on other people's time.

The studio owner gets a cut (I hope, although sometimes I know she takes a hit for small classes) everytime I step into the studio to teach (she also has to pay for rent and heat and all that stuff). So if I can get people downstream of me, I'll start getting an incremental benefit. Opening a studio is a huge risk, a lot of work, and perhaps might take a few years to grow, but it's a way to transition from teacher income (100% dependent upon being in the room) to a potential for higher income (some percentage of one's income derived from getting a piece of other's work). And I suspect there are other business models, heretofore unexplored, that can insert one into the yoga economy in ways others than direct teaching.

But yeah, mostly we do it for love. And every so often, we pick up a check.....

1 comment:

Nikki Chau said...

Hey Jude,

I'm so glad to have discovered your blog! Thank you for your perspective on this topic. It's a hotly debated one for sure (there are at least a dozen of comments at yogadork.com).

Totally hear ya on the size = energy of the class thing. There's something really nice in both large and small sized classes.