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February 24, 2011

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

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.

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