The politics of underpaying yoga teachers, Part II

[6-8 minute read]

My last piece received a lot of feedback – all of it welcome and valuable. What strikes me is the correlation between who responded, what their positionality to this work is, and what they therefore made of my commentary.

I’ll over generalize just for context sake:

The general public & yoga students: “Wow, I had no idea!” and questions ensue. 

Yoga/fitness teachers: “Thank you so much for writing this piece,” with an occasional added, “I’ve been wanting to talk to someone/my supervisor/you about this.” In one case, I’ve (with much help from other powerful female friends) even inspired a friend to ask for the raise she deserves. 

Small business/studio owners: “But wait – that’s not me! I do this, this, and this!” or, “You’re missing the bigger picture,” generally with much appreciated additional perspective.

And, from larger business owners there’s been a bit of plain old, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

I’ve been thinking about some of the gaps in my previous piece, either due to my own lack of knowledge, my decision to omit nuanced facets, or my inability to think through what I have to say. My perspective on this will always be evolving, but in conversation I consistently notice a theme of begging the question:

Who, exactly, is to blame for this situation?

The answer is both simple and complex.

I’ll start by laying out my opinion, which is deeply grounded in personal experience, organizational understanding, and philosophical study (of both logic and academic nature)

So, does the fact that many business owners, particularly those of small local businesses, hustle hard to keep their doors open make it right to underpay?


But, ugh. I empathize with this. How are we all ever going to be able to successfully own and operate any business without following some sort of model? Whether we know it or not, as small business owners or even as sub-contracting yoga teachers, we buy into business models that have been used for years. They are [relatively] simple, straightforward, and we know how to set them up, who to ask for support, and what to do if x, y, or z happens.

So what’s the problem?

They perpetuate the best and worst parts of capitalism because they are – no doubt about it – part of our capitalist society, which we all live and participate in no matter how hard we try.

Everything we do, use, buy, and sell is a commodity.

In this commodification of fitness and the ancient practice of yoga (which does not have purely, if any, fitness roots, to be clear), we (in)advertently determine who is and is not able to teach – whether full or part time – and therefore, who is and is not able to access those services (in all the ways accessibility plays out).

When I embarked on my teacher training, I hoped to share the practice primarily with folks in my ethnic community. I hoped that the presence of a familiar face would encourage participation and fully disband the myriad reasons yoga is a largely hegemonic space.

Therein lied the problem: the myriad reasons could not be confronted by simply one face. The wellness community has a diversity problem, but it’s so deep rooted that it will take multi-level and likely multi-generational efforts to change the culture and its participants.

This brings me to my interrogation of a second question: Does the complexity of all this mess make these studio owners wrong?

Eh, yes and no. Equally simple and complex.

No in the sense that everyone has to make money to live and we live in a capitalist system, blah blah blah, and most of the studio owners I know are great people (mostly women!) who are providing something lots of worthy people have benefited from.

On the other hand, complacency in the system is incredibly problematic.

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

-Paulo Freire

We all play into capitalism and other forms of oppression on a daily basis – I repeat – none of us are 100% angels.

I recently read an article for class that I appreciate so much and want to share with others. It’s dense, but it’s a must read if you consider yourself an agent of social change in any way. Andrea Smith argues that slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, and orientalism/war are three pillars of white supremacy that uphold our current heteropatriarchal society. 

(I’ll add a caveat that there is contentious discussion around this individual that I cannot unpack in this piece, but I do think what she offers in her article about heteropatriarchy adds value to what I’m arguing. If you’re curious, you can read more here and here.)

As you might have gleaned from her piece (if you read it… 😉 ) nearly none of us are immune from oppression – both in perpetrating and being victimized by it. We’ve spent a long time – the whole of modern humanity, at least – creating structures that privilege some and destroy others.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

-Desmond Tutu

As humans – and especially as American humans – we long to categorize, we need to be able to identify something as right or wrong, point our finger at someone to blame, and believe there is a clear and simple solution to any problem that comes our way.

The fact is that social ills are so incredibly complex that this just isn’t possible.

In reality, often times, one solution causes another problem.

We can all benefit from intensive therapy (if you know me personally you know I think everyone on planet earth should be assigned a therapist at birth) and acknowledging that complex problems require multifaceted solutions, with lots of trouble shooting, over a long period of time.

In this way, we’d all do good to become more comfortable with uncertainty, ambiguity, and not having all the answers, all the while remaining committed to social change. 

In my opinion, radical thinking – that allows us to think outside of the box of what is “possible” – offers more benefit and less detriment generally. Though it might seem too difficult or too out of reach for some, maybe there are pieces that feel more realistic, at least for right now. Take, for example, this piece about rethinking the yoga studio paradigm (I know I included it in Part 1 of this saga, but wadownloadnted to share again!).

I do my best on this blog and with friends and colleagues to process my own thoughts aloud, share resources when I find them, and, as always, encourage dialogue around these topics no matter how uncomfortable, or even unprofessional they feel. 

We have to realize that explicitly, openly, and vulnerably confronting the ways we play into the commodification of fitness and yoga is the only way we can reconstruct our models for these services – students, teachers, and owners alike. The only way we will ever reach a society that feels socially just – or hell, even a damn yoga studio – we’ve got to open ourselves up to all the discomfort surrounding it.



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