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Making It As a Yoga Teacher: Not As Zen As You Think

Think most yoga instructors are rich, serene deities with legions of followers? Think again.

Four years ago, I decided to become a yoga teacher. I was walking through the housing projects near my shitty Brooklyn apartment after another weekend spent making Bloody Marys for hungover strangers, and it occurred to me: You’ve been practicing yoga for seven years now. It’s the only thing you’ve ever stuck with. Teach it. So I applied for a scholarship for the $3,000-plus tuition and books for a 12-week teacher training program at a studio on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

At the time of my epiphany, I’d been working in the service industry for more than a decade. I got my first food service job when I was 15 at a Dairy Delite in Pennsylvania. After that, I babysat, worked at a lovely sandwich shop called Subby’s and then at a fancy hotel, a skateboard shop, a cupcakery, a knick-knack store and countless other restaurants. The previous summer, I had decided to pursue acting and writing full-time. I resigned myself to waiting tables just a little bit longer.

A year and three serving jobs later, I felt hopeless. Somehow, I wasn’t famous yet. I hated restaurant work, and I kept getting fired—so clearly the industry had unsavory feelings for me, too. I couldn’t stand being subservient to people and faking nice so someone else could have gourmet whatever. And yeah, I could have temped or gotten an admin job. But I just can’t sit at a desk all day, in front of a computer, trying to stay awake under fluorescent lights. I’m not built for it.

I envied my yoga teachers, who seemed to be these rich, serene deities who lived in pajamas and had legions of followers. I wanted that life. I mean, sweatpants to work? (I’d sworn off khakis and blazers my first year out of college.) My childhood goal was to become a known philosopher. To me, yoga seemed like a perfect, zen way out of my grueling server lifestyle.

I was wrong. Turns out teaching yoga is just another service job.

It’s not hard to see why I got that fantasy stuck in my head. Yoga is the very symbol of yuppie luxury. A 2008 Yoga Journal poll found that yoga is now a $5.7 billion industry. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily translate to ballin’ yoga instructors. Making a living means shuffling around the city from studio to gym to private client and back, trying to cobble together $150 to make the day worthwhile. There were no throngs of fans flocking to my classes. And those pajamas? They’re $98 custom-hemmed Lululemon yoga pants.

The first few months were the worst. At the studio where I studied, graduates of the teacher training program were encouraged to teach their "Rising Stars" discounted classes—even though the studio only hired teachers with three or more years of experience. I taught Rising Stars classes for a year, with no pay and no promise of a regular teaching gig. The last time I taught there—my first paid class—was a last-minute subbing gig. I got kicked in the nose by a student practicing headstand (not doing it the way I’d instructed, obviously). I left with an ice pack and a possible concussion, holding back tears.

It didn’t get much better once I started getting paid. Because competition is so fierce, most new teachers will teach anywhere they can, and pay can be low if it exists at all. Startups and new places generally pay their teachers on a "bringer" basis: the teacher may have a base rate of five to 10 dollars, and then earn two to five dollars per student. I taught morning classes at a band’s filthy rehearsal space in a loft in Bushwick where there was no base pay. I’d get half of what the studio made. I usually left with blackened feet and about eight dollars in my wallet. Despite the current craze, not every yoga student is as committed as one might think, which “can lead to a lot of no-shows," says Amanda Deming, a private yoga instructor and owner of Inside Out Mobile Spa in Los Angeles. "You gotta' be a go-getter or you will be sitting in prayer pose praying for students.”

The established places, meanwhile, make bank. In New York City, most studios charge upward of $20 for drop-in classes—$26 at the studio where I studied. Many studios can hold at least 20 students, which can translate $400 for the studio for a full class. But the teachers only see a fraction of that cash. These studios will pay their teachers $25 to $30 per class, sometimes slightly more if the teachers have been there for several years. Chain gyms like 24-Hour Fitness are the more desirable gigs because they start their teachers off at $50 per class and offer benefits. Pure Yoga, an offshoot of Equinox, pays an unheard-of $80 per class.

I realized quickly that private lessons were where the money was. Teachers set their own rates, and, if they’re teaching them in-home, they can be pure profit. I charged my private clients anywhere from $60 to $125 an hour, depending on how well I knew them and what neighborhood they lived in. But even that didn’t add up to a life of luxury. For me, it meant sitting with a pile of 1099s fanned in front of me on the ground at the end of the year, owing $3,000 in taxes.

And hustling to two, three, four classes a day (if I was lucky) left me with no time for my own yoga practice or my comedy. I became jealous of my students who could fit classes into their schedules. Even though I was teaching often, I still had to wait tables to make rent. I had no days off. I had no time for auditions or writing. Worst of all, I was still doing what I’d done waiting tables: catering to (usually rich) people, like the guy who demanded we do certain postures, or the woman who argued with me about the proper way to teach headstands, or the types who had never done yoga before and came in 20 minutes late. I was getting paid to look serene and keep my mouth shut. "[Yoga is] like any other profession—it takes a huge investment of time and money to go pro," says Bridgid Ryan, who studied at Yoga to the People and now teaches independent yoga classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

When my agent told me I needed to pick a comedy career or a yoga career, I figured making $317 during a six-hour brunch shift is less painful than busting my ass for a career I'm only slightly interested in. If I'm going to be eating shit no matter where I am, I might as well be doing it in one place instead of several.

Besides, my time teaching yoga and waiting tables hasn’t been a total waste. As I write this, I’m sitting outside at a cafe in L.A., getting ready to perform my solo comedy show at the Upright Citizens' Brigade. It’s called "Minimum Rage," and it’s about the anger problem I picked up while working in the service industry.

Come see Sue Smith, GOOD’s associate editor Nona Willis Aronowitz, and others at "Minimum Rage," a panel about Millennials and the economy at the New America Foundation, this Thursday, 6:30 p.m., at 199 Lafayette St., New York City. RSVP here.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Synergy by Jasmine.

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