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“That’s not ‘seva,’ that’s extortion!”
This is what my husband said to me after I was asked to be a part of a Level 1 (200 hour) yoga teacher training program as a group leader for 12 to 14 hours a day for nine weekends as “seva” (selfless service).
And it actually takes more hours to lead a group—this estimate only takes into account the “in person” weekends.
I have a master’s degree in dance and movement therapy from UCLA and have completed five years of my Level 2 training in Kundalini yoga and meditation with master teachers. I’ve been teaching yoga for 20 years and have, with a partner, led three of my own 200 hour Hatha yoga teacher trainings through the studio that employs me. I have clocked in over 20,000 hours of teaching.
The cost of my training adds up to an estimated $500,000—and more if I count my trip to India and all the online training I’ve taken:
>> Undergraduate Degree in Communication—$80,000 (Yes, this affects how I teach now.)
>> UCLA Masters’s Dance/Movement Therapy—$40,000 (My Dance/Movement Therapy Degree is essential for me as a yoga instructor.)
>> 1st Hatha yoga training—$1,500
>> 2nd Hatha training—$2,000
>> 1st Kundalini training—$2,800
>> Clearsight Clairvoyant School—$3,363
>> Five Level 2 Kundalini Trainings—$8,000
>> Trip to India—$4,000
>> Studying with Desikachar in India—$200
>> Studying with Pattabhi Jois—$400
>> Studying with Dharma Mittra—$400
>> Countless workshops and classes—$5-$10,000 over 20 years (Yoga trainings are expensive!)
>> Online school to sell my classes online/coaching—$5,000
>> All my retreats I’ve paid upfront for, including attended retreats for my education—$35,000
>> Plus retreat center rentals and private chefs—$5-7,000
>> 20 years running my business while breaking even or at a loss—$10-15,000 (Per year.)
And so, to the request of my time serving for free, I said no thank you.
“Seva,” in the yoga world, is literally drilled into us as teachers.
Wikipedia defines it as:
“A service which is performed without any expectation of result or award for performing it. Such services can be performed to benefit other human beings or society. “Seva is an old Sanskrit term, which originally referred to the service performed by members of the low castes to those of the higher castes”. A more recent interpretation of the word is “dedication to others.”
I wouldn’t really call it “extortion”—those were my husband’s words, coming from a business mindset. I, on the other hand, come from a service mindset. I truly want to help people.
He sees how many hours I work for little money—and he pays all the bills, so he supports me in my passion project.
When I became a full-time yoga teacher on my own in the year 2000, I never really thought about it as “running a business.” I just wanted to teach yoga. And so many of us yoga teachers are not business minded.
“Extortion,” according to Dictionary.com, “is a criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from an individual or institution, through coercion.” So maybe it’s not exactly extortion…although I do feel coercion is present in the yoga world when we are expected to serve.
In my case, the studio is making approximately $195,000 for this particular training, charging $3,000 per student, with over 65 students enrolled at that time…and I’m sure more by the end.
They do pay the senior teachers, which you have to seriously earn your way to become….(this involves 40 years, a lot of seva, and following all the dogmatic rules). Everyone else is serving/volunteering. I do know they offer discounts to students who want to take the training in exchange for working them. This is “how it’s done.”
When you ask to get paid, senior teachers share stories of all the seva they have done to get where they are.
When does it end? When have I “earned my way?” Paid my dues? Surely, 20 years is enough!
Most of us become yoga instructors out of the love of the practice, and of sharing how we healed ourselves. We are definitely not in it for the money.
And the best part is: I actually do a ton of seva already! I teach for free online, lead free 40-day meditations, and run a free Facebook group where I teach via weekly live-streams. I also offer free community events at my home, where I feed people and offer “donation” classes. That’s my seva—something I share freely, that helps people, and that I am joyfully empowered to do!
With the recent New York Times article outing Core Power Yoga, detailing the loss when they settled a class action lawsuit for 1.65 million where over 1,200 yoga teachers signed a complaint against the company for requiring “seva” as part of their teacher training, many teachers have decided to talk about this issue in our community:
“CorePower used to ask its teachers to work for free, not just as teachers-in-training, but also at the front desk in its posh in-studio boutiques, where expensive merchandise ($98 Lululemon leggings, for example) is sold, according to a 2011 lawsuit. It now pays teachers for this labor.”
This is a huge problem in the yoga world.
We, as teachers, are often asked to teach for free, while companies make millions.
According to Inc.com:
“In 2012, CorePower Yoga had $45.2 million in revenue; Tice says revenues are now on a $100 million run rate. Tice says he funded the first 20 studios, each of which costs from $500,000 to $750,000 to open, with proceeds from the sale of his last company.”
I’ve been teaching at a gym in Los Angeles since 2007, where most yoga teachers generally start at $17 a class. However, some studios have made as much as 230 million in profits per year, while some of their senior teachers are still making only $30 per class.
It is frowned upon to speak about how teachers don’t get paid for all of our work, including planning classes, making copies of chants, paying for music, and transportation time. We essentially live in “Yoga Land,” as my sister calls it.
In writing this article, I have fear about the repercussions.
Many of us have asked and asked for raises to no avail. And we are not allowed to talk about how much we get paid. Why? Because of so much inequality and unfairness. I know teachers who have worked a quarter of the time as I have with half the training, who make double what I make.
We are told to “selflessly serve” (which we all do), and we are told to not expect anything in return from our students. We are asked to give and give and give. I’ve worked at a gym for almost 12 years now and have been given one $3 raise since 2007—but I “love what I do” so I’m one of the lucky ones.
I realize I have chosen to teach yoga and meditation as my profession. I accept that fully. I am a teacher! And I love to teach—it’s my dharma (my righteous path). I’ve been told I’m like “clergy” or a “church counselor.” People fall apart at the end of my classes and spill their guts, and then message me for help days after—and yes, I respond to those messages for free.
I made $21,000 last year and spent $20,000 on my business. At one point (before I had my daughter) I was teaching 17 classes a week (pregnant!) to pay all my bills, which is not sustainable.
I am merely telling you my experience in the yoga world for the last 20 years in Los Angeles. I am not a famous yoga teacher. I have never been in Yoga Journal (I don’t even read it). I have a small local, loyal “following” (I hate that word).
We need to talk about this.
Thanks to “YogaGirl” Rachel Brathen with 2.1 million followers on Instagram alone, for bringing awareness to this:
“Whoa. 1200 yoga teachers have filed a class-action lawsuit against CorePower Yoga for working below minimum wage…This article is a very interesting read and paints a picture of just how common putting profit above people is in the yoga world.”
Thanks as well to Waylon Lewis and Elephant Journal for giving us this platform to talk about real issues in “Yoga Land,” in which we are told, “That’s just your ego talking; how can you focus on money so much? Serve, serve, serve, and all will come to you.”
In the business and entrepreneurial world, we are told, “You have mind-set issues, you have money blocks”—and so much more crap! Can we get a break here? We’re just doing what we love, sharing how we’ve healed ourselves—in my case, from depression, anxiety, and childhood abuse.
I truly have a pure heart and want to help people. I’m lucky that my husband of almost 20 years supports me in serving our local community and I can continue to study, practice, and teach yoga and meditation.
When you are doing what you love, there should be an energy exchange: it should okay to receive financial compensation, even if it’s something you love. I do the work, out of love for the work, and in this day and age, with the cost of living in California, we should be rewarded financially. It doesn’t mean I’m serving any less to get paid for what I do.
We are undervalued as teachers. People tell me I “saved their life,” or they “get through grief,” or they “survived their cancer” because of my classes.
And I’m privileged to be able to do this work. I acknowledge that.
And I continue to teach, because I don’t know what else to do.
And by the way, this article took me about six hours to write, to provide another voice for our yoga community, and I did that all for free too.