April 6, 2012

Putting the “Union” Back in Yoga. ~ Simon Maxwell Apter

Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

Why organized labor is important for yoga teachers.

You can find one of yoga’s most stinging ironies hidden within the word “yoga” itself. As any teacher will tell you, the common translation of “yoga” is “union,” derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” which means to yoke or join. The irony is that most American yoga teachers, including me, are independent contractors. It’s every holy being for himself, with absolutely no collective bargaining power or economic leverage to bring to bear on our employers.

True, we’re all supposed to be practicing vairagya, or non-attachment—something that certainly flies in the face of the purpose of organized labor—but nowhere in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras does he mention anything about making sure to spread his teachings in a exploitative, socially and economically unfair system.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Though I’ve heard complaints from fellow teachers about unfair labor practices of various yoga-studio owners—i.e., “management”—it would be irresponsible and inaccurate to portray them as latter-day robber barons. Most owners that I’ve met, including my boss, are in it for the yoga, not the cash, and probably have more in common with Mother Jones and Big Bill Haywood than with Henry Clay Frick and Jay Gould (or Mitt Romney, for that matter).

But even so, it cannot be overlooked that studio owners do employ their teachers in dangerous—both physically (“You will get hurt doing this,” one of my teachers told all of us at training) and litigiously (“You will hurt someone doing this,” the same teacher said)—work. At the same time, they provide none of the safeguards that would offer even a modicum of a safety net in case of catastrophe. If I miss a Wednesday class because I’ve unfortunately torqued my sacrum while teaching on Tuesday, I have neither the insurance to cover medical bills nor the lost wages to make up for that lack of coverage.

Really, if you can’t work because of a broken leg it doesn’t matter if you wear Carhartt or Lululemon to your job and it doesn’t matter in what language the tattoos on your arm are written—without representation, you’re out in the cold.

According to elephant journal, the average salary for a yoga teacher is $45,000. Nothing to sniff at, especially when you consider that just about all teachers are doing something they love. But organized labor is as much about fairness and justice as it is about dollars and cents, and we should expect the equality-minded yogi to be at the forefront of a movement that seeks to organize those in non-traditional industries.

Yoga teachers should gather at festivals like Wanderlust not as competitors which, all high-minded yogic rhetoric notwithstanding, is what independent contractors in the same industry are, but as partners and custodians for one another. We’d all like to consider ourselves as positive contributors to a global community of teachers, but to do so, we should put our money where our dharma talks are.

In the Writers Guild of America (where I happen to be on staff), contributions of the highest-earning writers subsidize the benefits of those who earn less. In a given year, roughly half of all WGA members cannot find employment as screenwriters, yet they’re able to maintain a foothold in the middle class and avoid catastrophic medical bills because of the contributions of fellow Guild members. Similarly, the generosity of a handful rock-star yoga teachers could support the basic well-being of hundreds of their brothers and sisters.

“With all their faults,” Clarence Darrow wrote, “trade unions have done more for humanity than any other organization of men (and women) that ever existed. They have done more for decency, for honesty, for education, for the betterment of the race, for the developing of character in men (and women) than any other association.”

In other words, May all beings everywhere be happy and free…

Simon Maxwell Apter is a certified Jivamukti Yoga Teacher and writer. He is the Online Communications Manager at the Writers Guild of America, East. Visit his monstrously yogic blog,  at Monsta Yoga.

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Prepared by Aminda Courtwright/Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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