Maris Degener

Can you make a living as a yoga teacher?

Maris Degener
Can you make a living as a yoga teacher?

I recently put out a request for topics to discuss, and one that came through more than any other topic was if it’s possible to make a living as a yoga teacher.

In a world where the vast majority of people have felt the pressure of making ends meet, it’s not a surprise to me that this question arose. It’s one I’ve chewed on, especially as I try to navigate the fine lines between ethically teaching yoga and figuring out how to support myself once I graduate college.

I’d argue that the vast majority of modern-day yoga teachers didn’t get into this role for the money (I don’t think anyone is under the impression that it’s a very profitable role), but rather to share their passion for yoga or pass on what their teachers have taught them. But no matter how much passion we have for teaching or how much it fills us up to share a practice that has given us so much, we can’t pay the bills with that fulfillment alone. It’s only natural for yoga teachers to ask: can I teach yoga and take care of myself and my family?

Here’s where I need to be really honest about my unique situation and be up front about the fact that I’m not making a living solely based on teaching group yoga classes (in fact, I’m not really making a “living” at all).

Talking about money and income is a big taboo, but it’s important to me to be honest and transparent about my situation if I’m going to throw my voice into the yoga and income conversation.

I’m a college student. My parents cover my housing costs while I’m in school. Not having to pay rent is a HUGE burden off of my shoulders that I would say the vast majority of yoga teachers don’t experience. While I do teach group classes regularly in-studio (or on-campus, when I’m at school), the bulk of my income does not come from those in-studio classes. I think most yoga teachers would agree with this statement, unless they’ve successfully negotiated a higher per/class fee based off of their experience or how many students they bring into the studio.

When I’m invited to guest teach and talk about the film in studios where I’m not a regular on the schedule, teaching a class or two is generally lumped into my “speaking fee,” which is much higher than what I get paid for my classes that are just on a schedule at a studio. This is because of exposure and demand: because the film came out this year, I got an influx of guest teaching/public speaking requests, so I could increase my speaking fee. However, it is not as high of a fee as you sometimes see making headlines for politicians speaking at dinners or celebrities speaking at conferences. I couldn’t live off of my appearances alone as of the amount I do right now (I’m limited by school for how much I can travel). I also sometimes donate my time for non-profit groups or student-organized conferences.

My most reliable income is from the work I do online: I run marketing/social media for the yoga studio I teach at. That’s an hourly wage (so basically, my most reliable income isn’t from teaching at all: it’s from what you could either look at as my “real job” or my “side hustle”).

Another source of income, more directly related to teaching, is leading workshops, or retreats. While these are a larger time investment in preparation than preparing to teach a group class, at the end of the day I do make a larger amount of money from them than I do from my regularly scheduled classes. However, I’m in a position in my life where I don’t do these with money as my top priority (that’s a privilege). I do them because I love leading them and loving having more time and space to dig into nuanced conversations that we don’t always have time for in hour-long classes.

If I needed to schedule them more regularly or with pricing more intentionally set around taking home a larger profit, I would need to approach them differently than I currently do. For now, as a college student with parental financial support, that is not my current situation and I don’t have personal experience with generating a liveable income from leading these gatherings.

Private clients are typically one of largest sources of income for almost any yoga teacher. For the same amount of time in the yoga room as a group class, your hourly fee is much higher (and oftentimes more reliable, if you have a regular private client). I have personally found them to be a different energy investment (sometimes more tiring, depending on what kind of experience the student is seeking) than leading a group class, but I do enjoy the one-on-one connection these kinds of experiences offer.

What must be considered here is venue costs: if you schedule them at a studio they’ll either charge you for use of the space or take a percentage of the private session fee. Otherwise, the client may host you in their residence (reducing/eliminating that venue cost, but sometimes putting the teacher in the vulnerable situation of going alone to a relative stranger’s house).

Now, there is a big conversation concerning ethics in relation to the “business of yoga.” 

For simplicity’s sake, I won’t be addressing owning a yoga studio (because I’ve never owned one before). That comes with all kinds of business decisions that serve as a unique challenge for those who strive to be as ethical as possible.

I’ve experienced the yogic principle of Seva being used to “guilt” yoga teachers into working for free. Seva is incredibly important and it’s something many yoga teachers invest considerable time into, but it also doesn’t pay the bills. Showing up in service with no expectation of anything in return is different than showing up prepared for an energy exchange that can sustain your life: when service crowds out your ability to care for yourself (and maybe even your family), it begins to have a harmful effect on yourself. 

In an ideal world, no one ever has to worry about paying rent or putting food on the table, and all yoga can be free and all yoga teachers can donate their time for every class ever. But unfortunately, we don’t live in that world, and some elements of the “business” side of yoga don’t reflect that reality.

For one, when you break down the time investment of prepping for class, sometimes arriving early and staying late to do check-in or clean the space, there are yoga teachers out there not making a livable wage. There are also teachers who have to teach multiple classes every single day of the week and workshops or retreats to make ends meet…and on the other side of the spectrum there are teachers who struggle to get enough classes on the schedule to pay the bills.

This is taxing on the body, requires huge time and energy investments, and creates a fragile or unreliable source of income. If you get sick or too injured to teach, you’ll have to sub out classes, which can seriously impact your ability to sustain yourself if it lasts for even a week. 

Speaking of which, teaching yoga doesn’t tend to come with “benefits.” Things like health insurance aren’t typically provided by yoga studios that hire you, generating another financial burden to pay for yourself (or, a source of worry if you can’t afford it and find yourself sick or injured from over-extending yourself).

Who becomes a yoga teacher (and who gets classes as a yoga teacher) is another key element to this conversation.

The yoga teachers we see getting a lot of attention, and being invited to guest teach for a higher fee, are often of a very narrow population. Young, conventionally beautiful, oftentimes with a focus on asana (think all those beautiful handstands you see on Instagram). I’m not here to argue that these are inherently unworthy yoga teachers (or that I’m a far degree away from them), but the pay gap between the average yoga teacher and a yoga “influencer” is tremendous: and it’s not a very diverse group of people. 

Many of the yoga teachers who gain a large following online are wonderful people who do great work, like starting non-profits or speaking up about what yoga is really all about. But there are also some who have limited credentials, and don’t often/ever speak about the non-physical elements of yoga or acknowledge its lineage…but still set a high bar for teachers to reach. 

Many yoga studios nowadays look at a teacher’s online presence before making any hiring decisions, and when they are compared consciously or unconsciously to these “yoga influencers,” it generates a whole new expectation for yoga teachers; many of whom don’t want to, or haven’t been trained in the skills required to, build a large social media presence.

Here’s where things get even trickier:

Yoga is not “ours.” There’s nothing we share that we alone have created, we are passing along the teachings of our teachers. 

But yoga teachers have bills to pay. And sometimes kids to feed. And it pains me to see how many teachers are out there risking their health teaching 15+ group classes a week non-stop, knowing that if they get injured it could affect their ability to teach and, oftentimes, knowing that they can’t afford healthcare. 

I’m also an advocate of yoga being affordable. It’s really, really hard for yoga studios to keep prices down and classes accessible when you factor in paying your teachers well and maintaining a studio. Especially with so many yoga studios around these days, competition is high and having competitive pricing for classes can be key to getting students in the door. Providing a livable wage for your teachers ultimately has to come from the studio’s bottom line.

Ultimately, sustaining yourself as a yoga teacher is a challenge. You have to walk a fine line of taking on enough work to care for yourself, but not stepping out of alignment with Ahimsa and overtaxing your body or mental health. You have to walk the fine line of honoring Seva and showing up in service, but also being firm in asking for the energy exchange you need to take care of yourself. You have to honor the sacredness of yoga, while at the end of the day throw it into the world of business and profitability (which doesn’t tend to care much about sacred practices). 

A shift that must be made to honor yoga, in my opinion, is paying teachers a livable wage for the work they do without above-and-beyond expectations in terms of time investment (and by reducing the amount of unpaid labor yoga teachers are often expected to do).

By relieving some of that burden, we create more space for teachers to honor the practice of yoga through continued education, service, and self-study. 

At the end of the day, though, I’m not a business expert nor am I someone who has ever sustained myself on teaching yoga alone. I’ve always done something besides teaching, whether that’s working the front desk at the studio, babysitting, marketing, or just attending college. I don’t have all the answers for improving equity in the Western yoga world, nor do I think I’ve tackled every nuance of ethical business here.

A key conversation I’ve seen raised more frequently as of late is unionizing yoga teachers. I’m not an expert on unions, but the point has been raised that unions will help protect yoga teaches from unfair labor practices (such as free labor). It would help create a strong, more concentrated voice to advocate for teacher’s needs, help with legal representation, and provide support for yoga teachers to advocate for their needs (such as negotiating fair wages). 

Ultimately, I want to see equity improve across the board for those who teach yoga and invest their time and energy into it (just like I want to see that equity for everyone and anyone who hones a skill and shares it with others). I want teachers to feel empowered to advocate for themselves and their needs. I want yoga to be honored, cherished, and accessible without infringing on teachers’ abilities to support themselves. And I want everyone to feel welcomed into the practice of yoga: because “yoga” is “union.”

What I don’t want to see more of is using “spirituality” and toxic positivity to drown out the voices of yoga teachers speaking their needs.

I’ve seen teachers who raise this conversation not just shut down with the the “aren’t you doing it to be of service?” reply, but also told that any financial struggle is just their fault. I’ve heard genuine concern over paying the bills met with questions like, “How are you manifesting abundance? Is your fear of scarcity getting in your way?”

While I’m all for creating a positive mindset, toxic positivity is a whole other beast. Toxic positivity ignores the reality of the situation, sends the messages that the pain or hardship someone is experiencing isn’t real, and invalidates someone’s request for support. We can’t expect yoga teachers to pay the bills by just staying positive and being better about manifesting abundance. They deserve a liveable wage, and that is not something they should be ashamed about asking for: every single human on this planet deserves to have their needs met like reliably having food on the table and a roof over their head.

If those needs aren’t being met (especially considering just how many classes are being taught and hours of work are being done by yoga teachers), structural change needs to happen, not just “being more positive.”

Below are some resources that I’ve found to be helpful in navigating this conversation or just thought-provoking (many I found after listening to this podcast episode by Jesal Parikh and Tejal Patel):

  1. 10 Reasons Why Yoga Instructors Need a Union

  2. Inside CorePower Yoga Teacher Training NYT

  3. Who qualifies as a yoga studio employee vs. an independent contractor?

  4. Selfless Service, Part II: Different Types of Seva

  5. Income Inequality in the United States

Photo by Lisa Vortman.