As Yoga Studios Die…What’s Next?
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | November 10, 2023
Here’s a little embarrassing nugget from my past: I was an aerobics instructor in college – complete with high cut pink leotards and white ankle Velcro Reeboks. When I graduated in 1988 I left my sweat bands behind – its popularity was dying down. A few years later, the aerobics craze had been absorbed into and transformed by the gyms. The aerobics studios (and the big hair) vanished.
It’s not that people stopped exercising, it’s that the exercise trend shifted.
I started practicing yoga regularly in the late 80s, but the first yoga class I attended at an actual yoga studio was in 1995, in Pennsylvania. Yoga studios were springing up from the graves of the aerobics studios. They provided a place to gather and exercise that was more attractive to many than the smelly gyms.
I saw the rise and proliferation of yoga studios in the late 90s and early 2000s. But, because I remembered the wilting of the aerobics business, I thought I might see the same thing happen quickly in the yoga world.
I was wrong.
Yoga studios survived because they served purposes and needs beyond that of exercise. They provided not only an alternative to the gym, but also, for some, an alternative to traditional houses of worship, and, for others, sanctuaries to find support for their mental or physical health challenges. Yoga studios had a lot of staying power.
But the digital world was also quickly evolving…and then we had a pandemic.
And people who normally went to yoga studios got used to home workouts/self-care activities. They found free yoga on YouTube. And, after COVID many were no longer interested in returning to the studios. COVID threw a wrench in the brick and mortar yoga studio model. By some estimates, more than 50 percent of yoga studios have closed.
Today, some studios are surviving, a few are thriving, and many are just hanging on. The other day a studio owner wrote saying that she was shocked when a close friend told her, “Why would I pay you for yoga when I can get it for free from Adrienne?”
Doh…. the Ouch of honesty.
While it might feel like it’s time to throw in the Lulu’s and get a real job, on the bright side, yoga teaching is not going to go away – but it is changing. While some yoga studios will survive, more and more yoga will be offered in other settings. It can be useful for yoga teachers to think differently about how and where they want to teach.
First things first, if yoga professionals and yoga organizations don’t step up and define yoga, the mass media, pop culture, and to some extent, health care world, will. If you are a member of any yoga organization, and you are interested in the future of the profession, it may be a good time to reach out to them. Share this blog if you like. Ask what they are doing to define yoga and craft the public’s perception of it. Ask them how you can be involved.
As the industry pivots, the creation of stronger definitions and also stronger standards of training, competencies, and scope of practice – of yoga teaching and yoga therapy – will help the profession as well as the public to get a better idea of what we do and what yoga can do for them – exercise-wise and beyond.
I think YouTube and the gyms will probably increase their vacuuming up of yoga teaching – but it’s important to remember that most of that yoga is fitness oriented. Whereas the intersection of yoga with the health care system is really just in the beginning stages. This integration will be much smoother if yoga professionals and yoga organizations make a strong effort to define it in terms of health – physical, mental, and spiritual.
Achieving Whole Health
In the U.S., the major shifts that are currently happening in the health care system present opportunities for the yoga profession. If we can get our act together and agree on definitions and be creative about how and where we teach, we may not only survive, we may actually thrive.
Earlier this year, the National Academies of Medicine released a report, Achieving Whole Health, A New Report for Veterans and the Nation. You can read a summary of that report here.
According to the VA:
“Whole Health is VA’s approach to care that supports your health and well-being. Whole Health centers around what matters to you, not what is the matter with you. This means your health team will get to know you as a person, before working with you to develop a personalized health plan based on your values, needs, and goals.”
The VA’s pilot Whole Health program has been so successful that the National Academies recommends scaling it throughout the VA and also throughout the whole country.
The National Academies’ report references yoga as part of the Whole Health Solution 20 times, however it never defines it. So, the default assumption is that yoga is a fitness modality or a basic somatic intervention – one that’s separate from meditation, spiritual care, breathing practices, and health/lifestyle coaching.
I think it’s important for the yoga profession not to compromise on yoga’s definition. In other words, it’s not enough for yoga postures to be firmly established in this new Whole Health model. We need to stand up for our professional, explain the full scope of the tradition, and teach the powers that be that yoga goes beyond the frameworks of “health” or “wellness” and includes tools for self-actualization and thriving. And then figure out how to include these aspects in Whole Health initiatives.
Yoga Teachers Need to Pivot
The report emphasizes the need for structural innovation to support Whole Health, including “patient and family advisory councils, health coaches, and peer support specialists as well as the other workforce innovations.”
As the health care world expands into Whole Health – yoga professionals have so much to offer to the conversation of Whole Health. As a yoga teacher, you may already being doing health coaching, peer support, balance training/fall prevention, chronic disease prevention, etc. If you work with folks in ways that help them lead healthier, more functional lives, then you have something to offer to Whole Health. You may want to seek more training, but you won’t necessarily need to spend years pursuing an entirely new profession.
Some health care roles require relatively little training. For example health coaching, peer support specialists, and Community Health Workers. The Community Health Worker role may be an important piece of the Whole Health puzzle. “A CHW serves as a liaison between health and social services and the community to facilitate access to services and to improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery.”
CHWs are paid a living wage – which is not always the case with yoga jobs. This infographic may be helpful if you’re interested in finding out more about the role (and rise) of Community Health Workers. Each state has different initiatives, so you want to check it out in your area.
Whole Health will increasingly present new opportunities for yoga professionals to find ways to share their knowledge with groups of people who aren’t in gyms or studios – and also earn a living.
I’m not suggesting that teaching within the health care system is for everyone, but if you are feeling frustrated watching yoga studios wilt, I think it may be time to shift your perspective. With a little initiative and creativity you may find that it’s not only a way to make a living, but also incredibly satisfying to work with people who would never go to a yoga studio.
Please check out my free eBook, How to Be Trauma Attuned in the Yoga Space.