In Part 1 of this thread, I provided an overview of the various ways in which yoga teachers typically make money. I ended with some cautionary words about how difficult it is to actually make a living as a yoga teacher. I don’t mean to discourage anyone who has his or her heart set on becoming a yoga teacher. But there’s a lot of misleading information out there, and this series of posts is my attempt to share what I’ve learned about the sobering realities of being a yoga instructor.
This time around, I’ll be discussing some of the hurdles and obstacles that you can expect to face if you decide to become a yoga teacher. Of course, most of what I say here is the result of personal experience, and not everyone will encounter the same difficulties that I have. I should note, however, that I’ve taught yoga in both large cities (Los Angeles, CA) and small (Bloomington, IN), so I have a pretty good sense of the range of issues that arise in the course of trying to make it as a yoga teacher.
In no particular order, here are some of the challenges to making it as a yoga teacher:
Teaching Yoga is Time Consuming and Exhausting
In order to make even a modest living as a yoga instructor, you’ll likely need to spend a lot of time teaching classes and giving private lessons. This will typically involve a lot of driving around, sitting in traffic, and juggling missed and cancelled appointments. Moreover, teaching this much is really exhausting. I’ve never personally been a full-time yoga instructor, but I have had a part-time schedule teaching as many as ten classes a week, and this practically wiped me out. Teaching yoga is, in many ways, a lot more demanding than taking a class. When you teach, you inevitably give a lot of yourself, and there’s also an expectation that you’ll always be upbeat, happy, and energetic. This is draining. Most human beings cannot be “on” like this for hours and hours a day.
Yoga Teachers Do Not Get Paid Well
Teaching yoga might sound like a lot of fun, and it certainly can be very rewarding to share the joy and miracle of yoga with other people. But the unfortunate reality is that most yoga teachers don’t get paid well. There are certainly exceptions, but the vast majority of teachers I’ve known in my life were not able to support themselves (and certainly not a family) on a patchwork of teaching gigs. Even my teachers in L.A. with celebrity clients could not, at the end of the day, afford anything like a middle-class lifestyle. It’s one thing to be in your twenties without health insurance, living in a small studio apartment, and still driving around the old car your parents gave you in college. But for most people, “slumming it” in this way is not going to be so fun when they’re in their thirties and beyond.
Although I never pursued yoga as a full-time gig, teaching yoga was definitely a serious part-time job for me, demandin upwards of thirty hours a week sometimes. Yet I never managed to make more than $10,000 a year doing this. That’s not an amount to sneeze at, of course, but it’s also officially poverty-level income.
If I had to put some numbers out there, I’d guess that the average yoga teacher — i.e. someone who doesn’t own a studio, and makes all of his or her money from group classes and private lessons — can make about $20,000 to $30,000 a year, working a 40-50 hour work week, six days a week. If you live in a big city, maybe this number inches up a bit. If you live in a smaller city or the ‘burbs, this number might be quite a bit less.
Yoga Teachers Get No Benefits
Even if you can earn $50,000 a year teaching yoga — and that’s a big “if” — you’ll probably be working without any benefits, which means you’ll have to pay for your own health insurance out of pocket. Retirement savings? 401(k)? Vacation days? Sick days? Maternity leave? Forget it. It’s very rare that a yoga studio will provide its teachers with these sorts of benefits. (I hear that if you teach exclusively for Yogaworks, they will provide health insurance and other employee benefits, but this is an exception, not the rule, among yoga studios.) Most studios do not even hire their teachers as employees. Rather, they are classified as independent contractors, which means it’s easier to fire the teachers, and the studio doesn’t have to deal with payroll taxes, benefits, or any of the other inconveniences that come with having real employees.
Teaching Yoga is Hard on the Body
In order to have any legitimacy as a teacher, you need to keep your own practice in tip-top shape. Why? Because a strong personal practice is the foundation of good teaching, and it becomes very apparent to students when you’re not on top of your game. Not surprisingly, the best teachers are the ones with a strong, consistent practice, so it’s imperative that you maintain your yoga practice at a high level. But when you’re teaching yoga every day, all day long, it becomes very difficult to find the time or energy to practice yoga yourself.
And what happens if you injure yourself? This happened to me, in fact, and it was one of those “Oh, sh**!” moments when I realized that my career as a yoga teacher might be in jeopardy because of a shoulder injury. Of course, some types of yoga are less physically demanding than others, but no matter what style of yoga you practice and teach, your ability to continue on is highly dependent upon the cooperation of your physical body. Hopefully, with a healthy lifestyle and regular yoga practice, this won’t be an issue. But a serious back or neck or shoulder injury might just mean the end of your yoga career.
Yoga Teachers Often Work for Free
Yoga teachers do a lot of time-consuming things for which they receive little to no compensation. For instance, if you teach a 90-minute class at a yoga studio, you will likely be expected to arrive at the studio early to sign in students. You may even be the first person at the studio, so you’ll have to unlock the place and prepare it for business. This might include booting up computers, cleaning, turning on lights, checking the bathrooms, administrative tasks, etc. Are you paid for any of this? Usually not. Your pay will typically be just for the 90-minute class. So the time you put in before and after class is time you’ll be expected to essentially donate to the studio. In other words, for every 90-minute class you teach, you may in fact have to work an extra half hour or more.
And what about all the driving you’ll have to do, going back and forth from one studio to another? Can you charge the studio for milage or wear and tear on your car? Highly, highly doubtful. In fact, I even know of some studios where the teachers have to pay for parking when they come to work. To be fair, yoga studios are not unique in this, since most employers these days don’t reimburse you for travel expenses, and many employers do charge their workers for parking. In any case, if you are going to teach yoga, you should be aware that there will be some, perhaps a lot, of expenses that you’ll personally have to pay for out of pocket.
A lot of yoga studios will also ask new teachers to teach “community classes” or “graduate classes” for awhile, so that they can test you out. Usually, you’ll receive little or no payment for teaching these classes. Some studios require you to teach these free classes for a minimum of, say, six months before you are even eligible to get a regular class on the schedule. In addition, many studios require you to take their teacher training program (at your expense, of course) before they’ll even consider hiring you as a teacher. So, what this boils down to is this: you have to bear the cost of professional development, training, and certification; you have to pay for your own teacher insurance; you have to teach for free to prove your worthiness; and then, maybe, you can get a regular class on the schedule. By the time you do get on the schedule, you’ll have not only done hundreds of hours of work for free, but you’ll have potentially paid the studio quite a bit of money, perhaps thousands of dollars. Granted, not all studios operate like this. But a lot do, and before you have your heart set on teaching at your favorite studio, do some research into what it’s going to cost you, both in terms of time and money.
Teaching yoga is a lot of hard work, and if you don’t love it, don’t do it. (Note: You might love doing yoga, but teaching yoga is an entirely different thing…) It’s generally not worth it from a financial perspective, and there are a lot of other downsides as well. The reward of teaching yoga should be the joy of teaching itself. If this alone cannot fulfill you, you should probably consider a different career path. Or you can just teach part-time, but do it primarily as a serious hobby, one that may even supplement your personal income, but which is not the main source of it.
Of course, there are people out there who manage to teach yoga and make a good living at it. In other words, the challenges and hurdles I describe in this article are not, by any means, insurmountable. For instance, you can dramatically improve your life as a yoga teacher by teaching at just one or two studios. This is difficult to set up, though, since most studios like to have a roster of many different teachers. When you’re just starting out, you’ll be lucky to get even one class at a studio, and it’ll likely be at an undesirable time. But if you can get to the point where you’re teaching, say, seven popular classes a week at just one location, this will drastically reduce the amount of time you spend driving around, and it’ll help you to build a following of students. This stability and exposure can be the first step towards other work as a yoga instructor — e.g., private lessons, leading yoga retreats, workshops, or even teacher training programs.
In my own experience as a yoga teacher, I found that teaching was a great way to enhance my practice, and to help others discover the wonders of yoga. But teaching yoga did not, in the end, seem like a viable career to me. I simply didn’t make enough money doing it, and the income I did make was very unpredictable and would rise and fall dramatically from week to week. Certainly, there are examples of people who have been far more successful at building a career as a yoga teacher, and aspiring yoga teachers would be wise to look to them for inspiration. It’s also a good idea, though, to be realistic about what the career possibilities are in yoga, and to know that the vast majority of people do not turn into the next Shiva Rea or Bikram Choudhury. Most professional yoga instructors are regular people who work really hard just to make ends meet.