When you think about yoga, you probably imagine an ascetic devotee in a loincloth, sitting motionless under a blistering summer sun, focusing his attention inward in a search for truth and oneness. But take a look into any one of over 26,000 yoga studios in the U.S., and you’re likely to see something a little more comfortable.
For many Americans, yoga is no longer just an escape from the material world. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Yoga has become a powerful part of fitness, social, and spiritual culture. And perhaps more tellingly, it is now one of the fastest growing industries in American business. As the yoga industry continues to thrive, it faces a new dilemma: How will yoga as an industry align financial practices with its deeper principles of well-being, and in so doing, support the success and fulfillment of its instructors? After all, it is becoming increasingly clear that the practice of yoga brings benefits to our brains.
Now, neuroscientists are discovering what practitioners have claimed for centuries: Yoga can literally change your brain. Images of brain activity show that meditation strengthens communication between the prefrontal cortex, the most evolved part of the brain that is responsible for concentration and rational thinking, and other vital regions of the brain.
Recent studies show an association between regular practice and increased GABA levels a neurotransmitter whose low levels are related to depression and anxiety. Other studies reflect how subjects who meditate regularly have a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, the region of the brain where fear and anxiety are triggered, and an increase of gray matter in the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory formation.
So let’s take a closer look at the industry. By all accounts, the business of yoga is booming. Participation is up as over 20 million Americans reported taking yoga in 2012, the number of studios is up 23 percent since 2008, and spending is up $27 billion in the U.S. every year. Compared to other industries, yoga has been virtually recession-proof. Why has it become so popular? Well, there are a few factors that made the boom what it is today.
Celebrities like Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey, who are openly proud yogis, have embraced its benefits, as has much of sports culture. Studios have expanded inland to new markets from the coasts. The baby boomer generations, as well as men in general, have been participating in yoga more than ever before.
In 2005, there were an estimated 70,000 yoga teachers in North America, a number expected to triple in the near future. And while there are many reasons why people choose a career in teaching yoga, many do so with a strong sense of mission.
These passionate instructors have contributed to the expansion of the industry by bringing it to new markets and populations. But as the yoga industry has expanded the compensation structure for instructors hasn’t necessarily gotten better. In fact, instructors are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, and the boom in the industry may be directly to blame for it.
Yoga studios often hire teachers as independent contractors (almost 80 percent of them are women). In this case, the studios save money on workers’ comp, reduced paperwork for accounting and taxes, and they can pay teachers per class based on how many students show up. If no one shows up for a certain class, oftentimes that instructor doesn’t get paid.
Cheap classes have long been a strong incentive for taking up yoga. Online coupons offered through sites like Groupon and LivingSocial have driven prices down (and in some cases, reduced wages for instructors even further). Class attendance typically fluctuates due to seasonal schedules, economic patterns, and even the weather, so oftentimes an instructor can’t be sure what their income will be from month to month.
For the time being, however, prospects look promising. Industry revenue is expected to increase by 4.8 percent annually through 2017. Owners and investors stand a good chance to make a profit and new instructors can hope to discover untapped markets where they can get in on the ground floor. Yoga businesses typically have low capital costs, requiring little necessary equipment, with most of the investment being used towards securing instructors for leading the yoga sessions.
With so many factors contributing to drive down the prices of group classes, how do studios still make money? Many have found they can make large chunks of income by running instructor training programs, charging between $3,000 to $10,000 per term. This does create a new drawback, however. The flood of instructors competing for teaching positions has the unfortunate result of driving down wages, making the lives of these instructors even more difficult.
Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong with needing to work hard to build your career as a respected and well-known yoga teacher. But is the yoga industry taking advantage of the mission mindset of many instructors to avoid providing better compensation structures? Is this kind of competition really good for the health and wellness of the teachers, and by extension, the yoga industry itself?
The ideal underlying many traditional forms of yoga and meditation encourages the development of an individual who can benefit the common good by being more self-aware. This principle can be applied to business management as well as personal practice. You might call it a self-aware business — a business supporting the development of individuals who grow their own self-awareness, integrity, and honesty to the point of becoming naturally beneficial to their surrounding community.
It starts with a few simple endeavors: encourage stable and predictable salaried or hourly positions for instructors, assist them in getting insurance and doing taxes, and provide education and support for healthy money management. To be fully self-aware, professionals in the field of yoga and healing arts need to be masterful not only physically and emotionally, but financially as well.
Already, the Yoga Alliance has taken on the formidable task of regulating the yoga industry. They are working hard to uphold basic standards of safety and quality in teacher trainings across a spectrum of yoga traditions. It’s a delicate balance. In the same way, promoting financial practices that empower instructors while maintaining the growth of the yoga industry will require passionate, dedicated work. Luckily that’s just the sort of spirit that many people who decide to become professionals in the yoga industry have.
Many spiritual leaders say that enlightenment, which cannot be shared, is not true enlightenment. I would suggest that in order to blossom to its true potential, the yoga industry must further develop business practices to grow people as well as profits. The delivery of yoga is a deeply human art, rooted in the commitment and practice of every instructor who seeks to share it. It’s worth investing in rock-solid ways to support their financial health. The yoga industry is built on individuals who develop their character through self-awareness. Their own financial success is a good investment for us all!