Teaching Yoga: The Financial Challenges

This entry was posted on Jun 28, 2012 by Charlotte Bell.

Teaching Yoga

I began teaching yoga in 1986 and have taught continuously since then. For the first 11 years of my teaching career I had either a full-time job or later, a part-time job. When I left my job managing publications for a private school in 1997, I decided to take a leap of faith and not look for another job outside of yoga teaching.

Over the span of more than a decade, my classes had become stable and consistent—certainly not huge by today’s standards. But my classes were as large as I wanted them to be, 15 to 25 students, a size I find manageable that allows me to spend time with each person. And as an independent teacher, I was not giving most of the class income to a studio. After reconciling my budget with my income, I decided the risk of not taking on another job was one I could manage.

Over the next 11 years, my teaching income paid my bills and allowed me to take one or two workshops and retreats each year. It was enough for the simple life I lead.

Yoga Boom Spells Doom

Then came the yoga boom. You might think that an experienced, well-established teacher would only benefit from the exponentially increased interest in yoga. But this has not been the case. With the increased interest in yoga came an influx of new studios. Gyms began offering yoga as part of their membership packages. With the studios came quick trainings that have turned out thousands of new teachers into the community. The yoga these teachers offer—fast-paced, sweaty, flow classes—appeals far more to the mainstream than more traditional, meditative, Hatha-based classes.

I’m immeasurably grateful for the loyalty of my students, most of whom have been coming to class from five to 20 or more years. But when some of these students inevitably moved away or experienced a change in home or work situations that prevented them from coming to class, they were no longer being replaced by new students. New students, curious about the yoga phenomenon now sought low-priced gym classes or the convenience, and they wanted to raise their heart rates and get sweaty. Over three years, my classes dwindled to the point where there was barely anything left after expenses.

I felt humiliated at having to look for part-time work after a decade of being able to support myself teaching yoga. I was humiliated every time I heard about novice teachers filling a studio to capacity and proceeding to injure people. I thought about going back to school, but when I did the numbers I realized I’d be paying off my debt into my 70s. Not an option. Without a financial safety net I had no other choice but to look for work.

My grief at my perceived failure as a yoga teacher—despite my decades-long dedication to practice—was overwhelming at times. I so love teaching and the small community that has formed around my classes that I didn’t want to quit, but I felt boxed in. My practical nature dictated that I look for work. If I found part-time work, I could continue teaching. If full-time work was all that was available, I would entertain the possibility of quitting teaching altogether, and in a strange and unpredictable way, I was okay with that.

The Freedom of Employment

Much to my surprise, reentering the world of employment was a multifaceted blessing. About 10 years ago, my longtime friends at Hugger Mugger invited me to manage their blog part time, and I have enjoyed working for them since then. About four years ago, I began writing and editing for YogaUOnline, which has been fun and edifying. I get to learn on the job as I read informative articles by a variety of experts in the field of yoga and anatomy.

Having a predictable income has been a relief. Now that my financial well-being is no longer dependent on how many people came to class, I can relax and enjoy my classes more. And guess what? More students started showing up. In 2013, I found a lovely space to share with other longtime yoga teachers. We call it Mindful Yoga Collective. We consider it to be a “boutique” studio, where students can enjoy small classes and lots of quality attention from our teachers.

The Renewal of Letting Go

In retrospect, I think the most important thing that renewed my teaching and classes was being willing to let it all go—with positive acceptance. Clinging to being a yoga teacher is no healthier than clinging to any other identity we make up for ourselves. For now, it seems I am still meant to teach, and I’m grateful for this. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned from my small sangha, and glad that it remains modest, casual and welcoming.

Teaching yoga is not an easy way to make a living, especially now with so many new teachers entering the world of teaching every day. Teaching requires commitment, patience and a willingness to keep your day job, maybe throughout your teaching career. But for those of us who stick with it, it is incomparably rewarding, and its only gotten more so as the years pass and my own practice has softened and deepened.

What challenges have you faced as a yoga teacher? How do you envision your teaching life in the next few years?

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.