Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Yoga teacher trainings, the business of yoga, and the American Dream

Before you read this post, I should issue a couple of disclaimers here:

Disclaimer (1): This is more of an apology, really. This post is super-long. I can't seem to find a way to make it shorter. So if you don't have a whole lot of time, don't read this; no, really. Don't worry, you won't hurt my feelings. I'm not that easily hurt :-)

Disclaimer (2): PJ Heffernan, an authorized Ashtanga teacher who features prominently in this post, was my first real Ashtanga teacher. More precisely, it was my meeting PJ and studying with him at his shala in Milwaukee during the one year I lived there that turned me into a full-time Ashtangi (before that, I was a "dabbler" who did primary series once or twice a week). I suppose you can even say that PJ was ultimately responsible for turning me into the Ashtanga Fundamentalist that I am today, for better or for worse. Anyway, the whole point of this disclaimer is to alert you to the fact that I may not be very impartial or unbiased with regard to the story I'm about to tell (then again, when have I ever been impartial on this blog?...). But I'll try.

So here's the story. A few days ago, I read this blog post on OnMilwaukee.com by Lindsay Garric. The post is motivated by a recent incident that happened between PJ and Core Essence Yoga, a prominent yoga studio in Milwaukee. Core Essence recently offered a yoga teacher training (YTT) which it advertised online as follows: "Core Essence Yoga's 200hr Teacher Training Program is a foundational program rooted in Ashtanga yoga (the eight limbs)."

This advertisement prompted PJ to respond by posting a public facebook message. In this message, PJ sternly chastised Core Essence for dishonoring the international Ashtanga community and Guruji, by offering Ashtanga Yoga TTs and purporting to certify people to teach Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga when they have no connection to the lineage. He writes:

"My guru taught me Astya, in the first limb of Ashtanga, means no stealing. I asked Guruji what I should do if unauthorized people start teacher trainings and charging others for classes. His eyes welled up a bit and he said to me 'You go there and ask them why they are doing this!' How do unauthorized teachers with no connection to this lineage certify others to teach a method they themselves have no right to be sharing? This is lying, stealing, greedy and it harms terribly. It is dangerous and unjust... I shake with sadness for what you are doing. I promised Guruji I would ask and his spirit compels me to do so. You have full legal right to make up your own yoga. You don't have the right to lie and steal. You dishonor the international Ashtanga community, you dishonor us, you dishonor my Guru and the Jois family. You dishonor Ashtanga yoga itself and its core teachings. You are capitalizing on people's ignorance and should be ashamed of yourselves. For what you are charging ($4,000!) students could fly to India, live, eat, train and study sanskrit and mantras at the AYRI for 3 months."

In response, Core Essence Yoga explained that it was not their intention to train people to teach Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois. Rather, their intention was to train people to teach Ashtanga (eight-limb) yoga, as in the eight-limb path that was laid out in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. Shayne Broadwell from Core Essence responded to PJ's message thus:

"I would like to clarify that we are not teaching Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as taught by Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. Through our teacher training program students learn to teach a vinyasa style class. Any reference that you might have seen to Ashtanga is referring to the eight limb path as laid out in the sutras by Patanjali, and is stated as such."


PJ was happy with this explanation, and was satisfied that Core Essence had no intention of dishonoring the international Ashtanga community and Guruji. The entire incident, it seems, was sparked by a simple misunderstanding. But in his reply to Core Essence, PJ also brought up a big-picture issue:

"I think shining a brighter light on all the teacher training madness is the issue. I am glad this happened though because it has a lot of people talking and it forces us to look at ourselves as a community and examine some of the greed and silliness being displayed. Short cuts and quick fixes. Quick cash does nothing for knowing and growing. Bless."  

If PJ is right (and I personally think he is), then this Core-Essence-Ashtanga incident is really just the tip of a much bigger iceberg; an iceberg involving YTTs, big money, quick fixes, greed and silliness (not to mention the thousands of aspiring yoga teachers each year who buy into all this in absolute good faith and total purity of heart). YTTs, as many of you know, are not cheap to attend. To get a sense of where things stand, Garric gives us some useful information in this area:

"In the Milwaukee area, here are some fees for teacher trainings I pulled directly off their websites:

Yoga One, Cedarburg: RYT 200-Hour Teacher Training Program: $2,800
Kanyakumari, Glendale: $3,500
YogAsylum, Brookfield: $3,800
Yama Yoga, Third Ward: $3,150
Haleybird Studios, Wauwatosa: $3,000
Core Essence, East Side: $3,200-$3,500"

As PJ points out, for the amount of money that one would spend on any one of these YTTs, one can fly to India, live, eat, train and study sanskrit and mantras at the KPJAYI for 3 months. But maybe this is kind of beside the point: After all, we can't assume that everybody wants to go to KPJAYI :-) In any case, Garric goes on to observe:

"Let's say 10 students sign up for one of these studio's training programs. You do the math. That's a nice chunk of change for the studio. With drop-in class rates averaging between $10 and $20 and "monthly unlimiteds" hovering around $100, teacher trainings (and retail products) are driving most studios' revenue these days."

As many of us know, most YTTs that are in session often have more than 20 students enrolled at any one time. Which adds up to, well, a very nice chunk of change.

So here's the question: Is there any problem with yoga studios offering YTTs and making a nice chunk of change from doing so? Garric tries to offer a balanced perspective when she says: "I personally see both sides of the issue. Studios have costs to cover and need to make a profit to exist." 

I think Garric is being very kind and diplomatic here. But I will be a little less kind and diplomatic. If you'll bear with me, let me start by stating the obvious: In a free-market economy, businesses have to cover their costs and make a profit. Covering its costs (making overhead, paying its workers, etc.) enables the business to stay solvent. Ideally, however, a business should strive to go beyond simply staying solvent: It should aim to make a profit. This profit can then be channeled back into the business to buy new inventory, expand operations, develop new product lines, and basically do a whole bunch of things that enables the business to stay competitive. And all these things would, ideally, allow the business to make even more profit, and continue to stay competitive. If the business doesn't stay competitive, it risks losing market share (i.e. customers) to other competitors and eventually going out of business. Thus, in a free-market economy, making profits isn't just good for the business: It is a matter of survival. 

Those of you out there who own businesses (such as yoga studios, for example) should already be familiar with all this. So I thank you for putting up with my long-windedness here. But there is a point to all this  long-windedness. Try asking this question: What can a yoga studio do to make a profit? Some possible ways include: Building a new studio/expanding the existing studio, attracting new students, or selling merchandise such as mats, clothing, fancy props, yoga shoes (?) etc., which the student may or may not need in order to do yoga. And, of course, offering YTTs. Which--depending on the student's motivation for taking the YTT and who is conducting the YTT--may or may not enable the student to grow in his or her yoga practice and become a great yoga teacher.

There is thus a certain tension in the very idea of running a yoga studio as a business. As an entity that is ostensibly devoted to spreading this wonderful thing called yoga, the yoga studio should only do things that enable its students/clients to grow in their yoga practice. As a business, it needs to generate profits. And theoretically, it is very possible for yoga studios to do both at the same time. After all, a yoga studio is offering a product (yoga) that is good for you. You go to the studio to do yoga. In the process, you do something that is good for yourself, and also help the studio to survive as a business. 

But things become more complicated as more yoga studios appear in a particular area. Now we have more and more businesses competing for the same pie. Which means that unless a yoga studio finds a way to hold on to or attract more students to its classes, its slice of the piece can only shrink. Which means that there is more and more pressure on studios to do things to attract students, even if these things may not actually help the student to grow in his or her yoga practice. 

How to attract more students? A studio could try offering more unconventional classes ("Yoga for Chocolate Lovers", "Yoga for Wine Lovers", "Yoga for Sex Lovers/Addicts", "Yoga for People Who Hate Yoga"... hey! somebody should offer a class like this. I'll definitely sign up :-)), offer class deals ("buy 10 classes, get 1 free"), and so and so forth. 

But all these ways of holding on to or attracting more students may or may not work. And even if they do work, they may or may not bring in that much extra revenue. Enter the YTT. At $3,000 a head, that's a lot of revenue, even after you take into account things like running costs, whatever fees one has to pay the Yoga Alliance to run the YTT, and the costs of making binders for trainees and fliers to promote the YTT. However you look at it, YTTs are a very good way of generating profit for the studio. And moreover, most YTTs do not even require students to have any desire to teach yoga; all that is needed is a desire to "deepen your practice." Which means that the pool of potential teacher trainees is very big indeed. Which means even more revenue and profit. 

Maybe I'm being overly cynical here. After all, there must be a number of good-quality YTTs out there, run  by great teachers who sincerely want to pass on the flame of yoga to future generations by training and fostering more capable yoga teachers. But given the rather lax manner in which the Yoga Alliance is policing (is this an appropriate word choice?) YTTs, it seems like any--excuse the expression--Tom, Dick or Harry (or Mary, Jane or Sally) with some business savvy can open a yoga studio and start a YTT. I mean, how else would one explain the proliferation of YTTs across North America? Which makes it difficult for one not to be cynical here and conclude that a great number, if not the vast majority of YTTs are run by people who want to make a quick buck while compromising the quality of yoga instruction and exploiting the good faith of yoga teacher trainees.


So what to do? What can be done to address this crisis of North American yoga, to put the point rather dramatically? Well, I don't know. Maybe somebody with enough clout in the yoga community (who would this be, I wonder?) should stand up and impose a moratorium on YTTs and yoga studios, and declare that from now on, yoga studios will cease to exist, to be replaced by employee/teacher-owned yoga co-ops. And maybe only a centralized authority (again, who would this be, given that there are so many schools and lineages of yoga?) should be qualified to train and certify yoga teachers.

But even if we can overcome all the difficulties and put such a co-op system in place, it wouldn't fly. Why not? Because like all good Americans, many yoga teachers and yoga studio owners cherish the American Dream. You know, having a nice house in the suburbs, two (or more) cars, sending your kids to nice schools, being able to send your kids to college, and still have enough left over for a reasonably comfortable retirement. Now don't get me wrong; I have nothing against the American Dream: if you can afford it without stepping on other people to get it, more power to you. But again, to state the obvious, to be able to live the American Dream requires money. Quite a bit of it, actually. And if you don't start putting away the required money when you are relatively young and strong and able to, how can you possibly be able to afford the American Dream? And let's face it, it is pretty difficult to be able to build this nest egg if you are self-employed and running a business that is only just breaking even all the time. So, to put it very bluntly, the YTT is many a yoga studio owner's ticket to the American Dream; given the cut-throat nature of the yoga business, YTTs remain one of the only sure-fire ways of generating a lot of money in a relatively short time; and some of this money will surely go towards building up the studio owner's American Dream Nest Egg. 

But maybe there's nothing wrong with any of this, when all is said and done. After all, we Americans (okay, I'm not American, but whatever...) have an inalienable right to live our lives as we see fit. Including pursuing happiness, as embodied in the form of the American Dream. Moreover, any feel-good spirituality out there that's worth its salt will tell you that you have an inalienable right to abundance. Furthermore, all those teacher trainees out there who signed up for these YTTs in good faith did so of their own free will; nobody put a gun to their heads and forced them to sign up. Everybody's happy. So, what's the problem? Huh... maybe there's no problem, after all. Which means I just spent half the afternoon writing this long-ass post about... nothing! Gosh... don't I have better things to do with my time?        


  1. My biggest problem with teacher training is simple supply and demand and its effect on the long term yoga scene.
    Economics. The more of something in existence, the less rare and the less it is valued. In the long term, there are more teachers in the market than is really needed. Yoga studios per class fees lower. If the fees don't lower, then the margins for the yoga studio will lower because there are studios on every corner being opened up by teachers who have no where to teach. Yoga Studios cease to pay teachers a living wage because they can be easily replaced.

    Teachers, who are a book of knowledge and eat, sleep, breathe, yoga, become fewer and fewer and are replaced by Yoga Choreographers who know just enough to execute a class. Information starts to be lost and we are left with a hollow culture based on physical yoga and not the spiritual. Without the spiritual aspect, yoga will perish because physical stuff like Jazzercise and Tai Bo is a fad. It is the questions like "why are we here" and "what is my purpose", "how can I be happy" that yoga helped to answer that kept it alive.

    1. Thanks for reading this long post and then commenting, Shanna.

      I don't know if this is related, but over the last couple of years, as I went deeper into the Ashtanga practice through my journey of mostly home practice, I have also felt an increasing reluctance to teach, even though I know that, on one level, this may be what the world needs. I feel like I am more aware of my limitations more, and am also more aware that being an effective teacher (especially in Ashtanga) is a lot more than simply being able to go through certain motions to "execute a class."

      I didn't want to say this in my post, as I thought it would come across as being too pedantic and preachy, but I often think that teaching and learning Ashtanga Mysore style is a great remedy for this proliferation of yoga choreographing: If more people understand that yoga teaching and learning is more than just about being able to do postures, then perhaps more people will think twice about starting another gratuitous YTT.

    2. thank you for sharing your journey in such lovely words. you have been helpful with your knowledge y encouraging with your word y practices. it is good to read in the post above your are feeling at least somewhat better~bless
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