Anna Hughes, 38, began teaching yoga in her twenties, before pediatricians and babysitters were in her budget. Recently, she became a real estate agent with Urban Luxe Realty in New Jersey. Hughes observes: “When I started teaching, I did it to serve. Today, self-promotion is half an instructor’s job. You don’t necessarily have to be good. Studios are looking for social media presence. I’m average looking. What average person do you know who has 6,000 followers?”
I feel Hughes’s pain! After more than a decade of teaching yoga, commuting on off peak subways to three different boroughs, I exhausted myself. Now I am a full-time recreational therapist and offer free asana to older adults.
Hughes, who still has private clients and group classes, couldn’t make ends meet as a teacher. When we started, we both saw potential in a growing $27 billion a year industry. But rising rents combined with no raises left us without enough to meet expenses.
I don’t regret 12 years of education and practice—more than it takes to be an IT technician or doctor—that led to real expertise and strong daily rituals. Still I can’t help feeling like I was duped into believing I could make a living as a yoga teacher. Hughes suggests a real paradox, “How do I do what I’m doing, but make it lucrative?”
Hughes displays the skills of a seasoned pro when teaching: a well-sequenced class thoughtfully interspersed with music, simple cues and purposeful silence. In a noon class I took at YogaWorks, she finished with her own beautiful recitation of the Guyatri mantra. Beginning instructors never ground me in the way she does.
At Roosevelt Hospital she co-created a mindfulness curriculum in an addiction program. When she asked her boss if he could give her more hours, qualifying her for benefits he said, “We love your classes, but yoga is a dead end.” She now sorely agrees. “As someone looking 40 in the face, I am aware that health and wellness is more cutthroat than most industries. I’m waiting for the email from the studio I teach at that says, ‘Thank you for building attendance for 11 years, but we’re moving in a different direction.’ And I get it. Studios have to stay on top of trends.”
Is this endless promotion and fleeting financial picture any better outside New York? Theresa Elliott, director of Taj Yoga in Seattle says it’s the same in her area. She recently celebrated her first year as a sales associate at the mall. I remember her wonderful demo pictures in Judith Lasater’s books. Elliott, 55, refused to submit to Groupon to fill her studio. She thinks the “Golden Era of Yoga” reigned from 2007-2009, but in 2013, attendance in her teacher trainings dwindled because of a saturated market.
“I have reinvented myself many times as a yoga teacher, but I needed a major remake even though as a yoga instructor, I had never been better,” Elliott said. I realize that’s the sad true statement for many mature teachers. Unless you teach classes that meld yoga and surfing, you can’t make it work anymore. And, now you can’t help students ascend to enlightenment without ClassPass.
“Before the recession, it was possible to make millions,” he said. “There was a period of conference circuits with personalities like Shiva Rea, but money is made differently now. It used to be how many people showed up to your conference. Now, it’s authors. It’s festivals like Wanderlust.” And for studios, it’s churning out teacher trainings.
Brown, a long-established instructor, works hard to stay marketable, recently introducing podcast talks. His blog attracts up to 20,000 readers month. Yet Brown earns nothing from these. “My intention is to create useful and inspiring content that people find helpful,” he said. “I believe I can then potentially make money off that service. Selling is secondary to the soul of it.”
I asked if yoga is losing terrific dyed-in-the-wool teachers forced to reduce their hours. He answered philosophically: “What’s happening is a paradigm shift in the world economies and use of the Internet playing out across many sectors, not just yoga, which had always been on the margins. Now, yoga is mainstream and subject to the same stipulations as other industries.”
Brown noted growing backlash against screens and an increasing demand for quality instruction. But what happens next? Brown, a yogi since his early 20s, couldn’t answer.
—Illustration by Sharon Watts