Donation Yoga: It’s a Beautiful Thing. Is it the Ideal “Yogic” Way to Operate?

Via Sean Conley
on Feb 24, 2011
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This is a follow up to:  The Evolving Role of Yoga Studios from Feb. 16.

Donation—it’s the latest fashion in the yoga world.  Power Yoga pioneer Bryan Kest opened the door in 1998 by doing away with standard pricing and asking students to donate anonymously instead. Pay what you can, or what you will, per class. For Bryan, it works: his studio is magnificent and thriving. His approach has inspired studios around the country to duplicate this generous offering. He has helped many to see that the idea of donation needs, in some way, to be a part of every studio. But does operating as a donation only based yoga studio make sense for everyone? Is it the most “yogic” way?

Before we opened the doors to our first studio in Pittsburgh in 2000, we weighed the possibility of operating solely on donations. Karen was teaching at a community center where the suggested donation per class was $7. After going back and forth, we decided to take the guesswork out for students and instead offer the most affordable pricing possible. We also instituted a Work Exchange Program for students who could not afford the set prices: rather than paying, dedicated students could work at the studio in exchange for free classes. It all seemed to work well.

Over the next 10 years, our prices increased gradually to off-set increasing expenses–teacher salaries, rent, utilities, etc. Still, the idea of switching over to donation kept popping up in our noggins. Given that we are idealists (some would probably even call us “naievests”), we decided to take the plunge in 2010: we would rely 100% on anonymous student donations.

At the time, we believed we were embodying the true nature of yoga. One of our hopes was to reach out to neighboring low-income communities. Sadly, very few people from these areas made it through our doors. Students could attend class by dropping their donation into an old wooden crate. Interestingly enough, when we announced the change it was met with great resistance. Many students saw it as a thinly disguised price increase. Many expressed concerns that it made them think too much about what was a fair price for their yoga. But we wanted to open the yoga door to everyone, and we thought we could still make enough to pay our teachers fairly and run the business. We thought it would work.  We were wrong.

In retrospect, many of our students’ concerns were valid.  (Perhaps the Gods and Goddesses were trying to send us a message.) The studio took a total financial drubbing.  We figured on a 5-10% decrease, but instead our revenues were cut in half. We began to look at ways to lower our expenses, but even after some creative maneuvering we needed a line of credit from the bank and paying the monthly bills became a small miracle.

Each year, we hold Thanksgiving benefit classes, giving all of the money earned to a local charity. Yet as the holiday approached, we realized we simply could not afford it. We didn’t have anything to give away. The financial strain was also putting pressure on our budget for teachers’ salaries. Given the high cost of ongoing training our teachers’ incur, this was also a big concern.

Before we would give up, though, we tried to tweak it. For the first 6 months we put out boxes into which students donated anonymously before or after class.  Once we realized this wasn’t working (some students did not donate at all), we ditched the boxes and began collecting donations at the front desk.  Can you say  “awkward”? By taking away anonymity, we felt the mutual interaction could possibly work. That didn’t cut it either. So we packed up the old donation boxes for good.

Our return to set pricing was met with much relief: for the most part, students were happy to know how much to pay. We began to see that those who truly valued the yoga would find a way to get it…The demand for work exchange positions skyrocketed.

One night, we ran into a student at a local tavern, a young woman who had been coming to the studio for a couple of years but had disappeared recently. She said she couldn’t afford classes anymore as she purchased three $15 martinis. We told her about the work exchange program, but said she wasn’t interested. Maybe our yoga needs to be better…

We have seen donation work around the country, but most often in more affluent cities where yoga is decidedly more expensive. Kudos to those studios. But as we discovered, the 100% donation yoga approach doesn’t work everywhere. Which is why we are finding other ways to spread the yoga love to our Pittsburgh community.

Yoga Studio Models – How To Give Back

1. Provide quality yoga at fair pricing.

2. Eliminate financial barriers by offering donation classes, lower priced community classes, and work exchange programs.

3. Community outreach by giving to local charities.

4. Creating environmental and social awareness.

Studios need to figure out the best way to give back. We have a responsibility to get into low income areas where yoga is under-served. We require our teacher training graduates to complete service hours in these areas. But to make lasting change we need to look at establishing long term outreach programs in these communities. For those who can offer donation yoga and thrive, it’s a beautiful thing. In fact, don’t think for a minute this article is a slam against donation yoga.  It’s the opposite. Donation yoga’s influence is incredible: it has spurred us on to remove the financial barriers that keep people away. Yoga needs to find its way into communities by being affordable and in some instances free. Yoga is for everyone and donation, giving, is what yoga is all about.


About Sean Conley

Sean Conley, along with his wife Karen, founded the Amazing Yoga Studios in Pittsburgh, PA. They are co-authors of Amazing Yoga: A Practical Guide to Strength, Wellness, and Spirit. They lead Power Vinyasa Yoga Teacher Trainings in Mexico and Costa Rica. They have 4 kids who sometimes tag along with them to these amazing places. Sean bounced around in the NFL for 4 years. But after injuries and getting cut by a number of teams, he moved on and luckily stumbled into yoga. He believes yoga is an incredible way for all of us to practice healing ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. And at the same time, we can help heal the planet. Yoga can change the way we think, eat, talk, and interact with others. Website: Facebook: SeanFacebook Twitter: @Sean_Conley_


26 Responses to “Donation Yoga: It’s a Beautiful Thing. Is it the Ideal “Yogic” Way to Operate?”

  1. Great, blog, Sean. I'm sure this will be much appreciated by studios struggling with this issue.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor<

  2. Kelly Clawson says:

    It was a great experiment and I was very sad to hear that the normally generous people of Pittsburgh were not able to support this system. However, since the studios have gone back to a regular pricing system, the environment has never been better. The energy in each class is fantastic. Thank you for providing such a wonderful opportunity for this town to experience the joys of yoga!

  3. Yogini5 says:

    There are so many popularly-priced, AFFORDABLE (without being no-frills) classes – even among the thriving donation-only studios in New York City (which have become a little overcrowded, grungy, and students may not be able to advance in their practice) first now cropping up here and in some parts of country. Priced for a walk-in at one-half the going rate (if $20, then $10; if $25, then $12). Full time college students (with ID proof) pay half that, as little as $5, sometimes. No waivers, no expectations, no ungenerous expiration dates on class packs …

    If the money goes to the studio and instructors, anyway, and the suggested donation was $10 – the difference had been of intention only …

  4. KimberlyPreston says:

    I am considering grant writing for a non-profit yoga studio in a low-income, high-crime town in Massachusetts that currently has no yoga. I have absolutely no clue how to go about doing this, but it is something that has been in the back of my mind for a little while! I think this could be one way to accomplish the same type of goal, but with having a bit of a safety net (although I know grants are temporary and can expire unexpectedly, having worked in social services for many years).

    I think it's great that you guys gave donations-only a try, even though it was unsuccessful. Clearly it can work, but only in the right place at the right time. Glad it didn't put you out of business 🙂

  5. nathan says:

    Sean, I'm really glad to hear your studio is looking into more sustainable way to serve low income communities. It's interesting to hear how miserable the donation experiment was. Hard to know how to take that. I guess people want money issues to be easy and clear cut, which is understandable, but also a sign of how strong the grip of our consumer culture is.

    Yogini5 – I taught yoga as part of my ESL classes for adult immigrants, and am now in a yoga teacher training program in part to better my own practice and figure out how to start a program for new immigrants. When we are talking about affordable for people on the bottom of economic rung, like my students, almost nothing is affordable. $10 a class – forget it. $5 a class -maybe some will be able to some of the time. But the reality is that if you're talking about really offering yoga for poor folks, a different model needs to be in place. Non-profit is one approach, but perhaps not the only one. And I agree with Sean that donation only is really hard to sustain without more affluent folks as part of the mix.

    And location – Kimberly's idea could work because the location is in the neighborhood. One of the thinking flaws more lavish yoga studios have is the idea that cutting prices will get more people in the door. Transportation is another expense though, and when you're almost broke, you aren't going to use gas or another notch on your bus pass to go across the city to a yoga studio.

  6. Great article Sean! There is a studio not far from where I live that also does a work exchange program – pretty clever idea! I can imagine it's a tough yet fine balance to find, but it seems you are managing. That's great. I wrote an article you might be interested in:

  7. Great article Sean! There is a studio not far from where I live that also does a work exchange program – pretty clever idea! I can imagine it's a tough yet fine balance to find. 🙂

  8. nathan says:

    To me, a lot of this just speaks to the general culture of yoga these days. For every studio or non-profit yoga group like Sean and Karen's place, where they are sincerely trying to spread their reach and serve, there are 2 or 3 studios mostly focused on bringing in money and catering to the affluent and middle class folks who still have extra income.

    So, anytime I hear of an organization getting creative about finances to extend their reach, I'm fully in support. Even if the experiments fail, they can teach us.

  9. Yoga2 says:

    After reading the article I found myself wishing there was some sort of middle ground. I love to practice yoga at the studio because of all the benefits. However, I find myself choosing not go due to the high cost. While the Work for Yoga Program is great, I am not able to take advantage of it. I do not have extra time to spare. I work 50+ hours a week and have 9 month old at home. Therefore, it is difficult just to find time to go to class. And while I did purchase the Groupon you recently offered, I have to say I was rather disappointed with it. Bikram also put out a Groupon (which I also bought). It was for two months unlimited yoga for $39 while yours was a month unlimited for $60. A couple of my friends, who happen to have introduced me to yoga at your studio, passed on your Groupon because they were so disappointed.

  10. Yoga2 says:

    con't: I understand the spirituality of yoga is the main benefit, but it seems as though it is a practice only for those with money or extra time to spare (in order to do the work for yoga program) . And I think it is unfair to base your feelings on those of us who aren't able to come to yoga as much as we would like on a conversation with one person whom happened to be buying $15 martinis at the time. That is one person. Not everyone who cannot afford $15/class or $100 for 10 classes, etc, is out buying $15 martinis instead.

  11. Yoga2 says:

    con't: I want to end by saying that I do love coming to your studio because the teachers are amazing! I always leave feeling refreshed mentally, spiritually, and physically. Each class I learn something new about myself and it is for these reasons that I suck up the cost and time and continue to come. My only wish is that it was a little more affordable so I could come more often and therefore benefit more from the practice.

  12. AMO says:

    The idea of donations is weird for lots of people, for lots of reasons. I particularly dislike the "suggested donation" model. I feel that it's dishonest. A "suggested donation" is the price of the class/event. Anyone who pays less will feel they are taking something and rarely will anyone pay more. People don't really appreciate things they get for free, and while I don't understand that about us humans, I work with the reality of it. My students MUST pay something. If they can't afford what I charge (20 Argentines pesos per class – about 5 US dollars) and mine is the cheapest power yoga class in Buenos Aires, they can talk to me and we'll work something out. No one is turned away, but everyone pays something.

    Yoga is for everyone. Price is not the only barrier for the poor. Most of the barriers are social, not financial. They don't know the etiquette, they don't have the right clothes, they can't get transport to the studios, people look at them as if they don't belong, or they believe this happens, either way, doesn't matter. It's been my experience that giving things for free PARTICULARLY to the poor makes them feel ashamed. They don't want anything free. They just want everyone wants, to be able to afford to take care of themselves well…

  13. yesica says:

    The dangers of popularity is pollution of the source. Donation Yoga is not only a beautiful thing, it is part of the spiritual practice. As your practice blossoms, and if you are practicing right, your desire to GIVE (Dhanna) will awaken as a natural result of your practice. As it happens in any spiritual practice, it is not the action of donation basis yoga who is in fault, but the followers who exercise their choices. There is room for everyone, if the yoga is pure, the universe provides for all – which is an ultimate truth in the yogic path. We must ask ourselves when arguments of materialism arise: What am I practicing here? Be still and let the practice practice you. Namaste ♥ Giving giving giving awaken

  14. I really appreciate your openness with this piece and the commitment you shared about sustainability for teachers and the importance of sharing yoga with those who don't usually have a chance to try it.

  15. Randall says:

    In India in the old days, teachers didn't charge a fee for teaching. But it was (and to some extent still is) a cultural tradition there to support the teachers. So, although no fee was charged, the teachers received gifts, "dakshina", so they could teach. But that's not the tradition here in the West. Here people charge fees. If you don't, it's unclear what's expected unless there is some understanding within the community to property support the teaching.

  16. Jelly says:

    In the Netherlands, many community centres and sports' centres and music schools, etc. have the following system, which I like very much: they have three prices for the same course: A, B, C. The students are to check their own income and see whether they earn from 0-n, n+-n++, or n++-n+++. My dad would pay tons for our piano lessons, whereas parents from kids from my same school would pay a nominal fee. So, it came down to the fact that my taking piano lessons actually financed those of a couple of others.
    I myself now do not earn n++ nor n+++, so I am happy I can do many activities, be it cultural or sports or education and pay only the cost of it, that is, the middle category.

  17. Jelly says:

    What I hate is the Tibetan system in the West: an entrance fee for lectures/teachings AND to have to listen to the constant begging to pay *more extra* money. I find it agressive and degrading.

  18. Jelly says:

    I find it also important that yoga classes or centres are not solely classes or centres for the "poor" and that others are there for the "rich". A fatal formula.

  19. Yogini5 says:

    And what if they were?
    Or what if it were S*bux lattes,
    It's THEIR budget, their priorities (socializing or touring)
    Yoga2 – I commute hours and hours a day to a job, and I caretake elderly relatives.
    That is MY work exchange program …
    Unfortunately – and I am pushing 60 with chronic health problems –
    Most studio Yoga is for the relatively (no pun intended) unencumbered who can throw cash or time around

  20. Yogini5 says:

    Yes and no.
    You are talking mostly about the poor but proud.
    That is a subset of the poor.
    The avante-garde poor includes many college students, who would like to feel that they are gaming the system.
    But that's different from the chronically poor.

  21. I have noticed some of the same things— by offering donation classes to get under-served people in the door, I still did not manage to get the under-served people in the door. We offer community classes once a week, and also offer some work-trade programs, as well as doing the occasional class for charity. It works well. I have also had students who are very financially sound who have donated classes to people who can not afford it, because yoga has changed their own lives sop much. Talk about paying it forward. Meanwhile, I will never turn anyone away for inability to pay. True community involved anyone who wishes to be involved. Thanks for the great article.

  22. Sean Conley says:

    Hi Yoga 2,

    Please know that we did not make our decision based on one conversation. it was just to make the point that some value the yoga more than others. it is a personal decision. we dont expect everyone to budget their money for yoga. we are very aware that some would like to come and are not spending money on alcohol instead. the work exchange program allows everyone the opportunity to come to the studio. even people who are busy like yourself. some people do data entry on their own time in exchange for free classes. there are other misc. jobs that have lots of freedom as well. please talk to one of our managers they would be more than happy to work out an exchange for you. our work exchange program is very flexible, im pretty confident we could do something.

  23. Sean Conley says:

    Hi Yoga 2,

    The hope of the article was to show that there is a "middle ground". feel free to look at my response to your other comment below. the work exchange program enables everyone to get yoga affordable or free. the work is just approximately 30 minutes (15 mins before and 15 mins after). that is the same amount of time that most students are in the studio already. if that does not work just ask the managers for other "trade" options. i.e data entry, laundry, etc. these jobs can be done at a a more leisurely pace and you are not restricted to class times.

    as for as the groupon goes we did this out of request from a number of long time unlimited students. we had consulted with other studios who had participated in groupons. if we had offered a groupon similar to the one you mention it would have made the studio chaotic and would have made for some bad experiences for everyone. the groupon was one time deal for us. it is not a long term solution for making yoga affordable. in the future we will use our own methods and system to offer discounts and such.

    you may notice that we do specials every few months. for example, in december we had a Toys For Tots program where you could receive a discount on a class card if you brought in a toy. we will have something in the spring and summer as well. if you and your friends have any cost concerns just talk to us. thanks!!

  24. Sean Conley says:

    Hi Tanya,

    thank you. I just checked it out. i loved your last line: when is enough enough? that is the big question. i think every studio must ask that of themselves. you want to pay all your bills, your teachers, and yourself for your family. only the owners themselves can answer that question. if they are making enough hopefully they are not raising prices due to growing demand and finding ways to open it up.

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