Studio Reviews / Yoga Musings

Donation-Based Yoga Studios

Hello Readers!

My apologies for having disappeared for a while from the blogosphere.

I’ve been living in Portland, OR, since last year. Despite my on-going shoulder injury, I have managed to get a taste of the yoga scene here. I’ve been going primarily to studios in the Southeast region of the city, and was lucky enough to find a place called Sprout about two blocks from my house. Unfortunately, for me and the local community, this great little studio had to shutter its doors for good in February.

I suspect that the main reason they were not able to make it financially was that they were trying to run a donation-based model for their yoga business. I wonder if such a model can really be sustainable. Certainly, there are some studios (most notably in NYC and LA) that are thriving on a donation-based model. But these places tend to pack 40-70 students in a class, and they also tend to be located in higher-income areas where people can afford to make more generous donations.

In a place like Portland, though, people tend not to have the same kind of disposable income as yogis in LA or NYC. And I know from personal experience as a former studio owner/operator that it’s difficult to run a yoga space when people are donating just a few bucks. When I first started Bloomington Power Yoga in 2007, I seriously considered the donation-based model. I opted, instead, to just make the classes really cheap. On a few occasions, though, I did hold workshops on a donation-based model, and I found that most people donated as little as possible. It was not uncommon, in fact, for people to show up with a bunch of change and dump it into the donation jar. This was a bit frustrating after a while, since I had to pay to rent the space, not to mention food, drinks, etc. Eventually, along with the other teachers, we decided to give up on donation-based workshops altogether. It’s not that we wanted to make gobs of money. But when you can’t even cover your expenses, it starts to feel like people are just taking advantage of you and your generosity.

Despite its downsides, a donation-based yoga space does have some considerable benefits. Most obviously, a donation-based studio creates good will in the local community by making sure that no one is priced out of doing yoga. Not many people, especially in this economic climate, can comfortably shell out $15-$20 a class.  Monthly unlimited plans don’t make it much better. In my own household, for instance, my partner and I  are both yogis, and it would cost $250/month for both of us to be on a monthly unlimited plan at most of the local yoga studios. That’s a cool 3K a year! We just can’t afford or justify this kind of expenditure.

We were so thankful when we found Sprout, which is entirely donation-based. So when the owner, Skylor, announced that she was closing down the yoga studio, we were really sad, but we also figured this day would come. The studio just didn’t have the money to provide the perks and varied schedule that a for-profit studio can. As a result, attendance at the classes was spotty, and I think this affected the morale of the teachers (not to mention their pay).

Nowadays, I’m splitting my time between two different studios in SE, but I miss the more intimate and friendly environment of Sprout. There’s just something different in the air when a studio is profit-driven. You can sense it in every aspect of your yoga experience. There are advertisements for expensive workshops in the changing room, you get constant email blasts selling you this or that, there’s overpriced merchandise everywhere in the waiting area, and no one knows your name.

I guess a yoga business is a *business* in the end. If someone wants to run a donation-based yoga space, that’s great, but it’s only sustainable if the person running the space doesn’t need or want to make a living off yoga. And somehow, they have to find other teachers who feel the same way. I really don’t know if this is sustainable or possible. This conundrum, if I can call it that, goes to the heart of the bizarre mismatch between yoga and commerce in the first place. How can you charge for yoga? But, then again, how can you not charge?


4 thoughts on “Donation-Based Yoga Studios

  1. Its a shame the studio had to close, a few public halls that had gym classes near me have also shut. Most people do yoga in the big gyms these days, seeing as most gyms hold classes and its included in their gym membership.

    Its a nice thought doing the donation based studio, but in this day and age most studios like this just will not survive.

    btw – your pictures are awesome!

  2. Sorry to hear of your shoulder injury. I hurt myself transferring a patient who had brain damage. (She pulled away from me a tore my rotator cuff.) A great therapuetic yoga pose is to begin in prayer pose and raise your arms above your head. Inhale as you raise your arms and exhale as you bring your arms back into prayer pose.

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