“Can you teach a class for us? for free? I think it will help you advertise your work.”
She was calling from a wellness venue that was having an event to showcase its beautiful site and great programs. They wanted me to be one of the presenters. This was not the first time I’d been asked to teach for free and offered this “advertising your work” as an exchange.
I have been asked to teach for free many times over the course of my career (including a 3 year pro bono stint at a studio). And I often said yes because I felt like I wanted an opportunity to teach, and maybe in some peripheral way it would help my business, and I felt like I owed it to my community because I’ve been given so much from this practice and I want to give it back. I came up with so many stellar reasons to give my skills and expertise away.
But, when I’m really honest with myself about it, I think I taught for free mostly because I didn’t value my time or my energy.
In fact, I didn’t value myself very much.
I know that the yoga tradition was, perhaps for millennium, passed on teacher to student with no money exchanged – just commitment, good will, and perhaps some figs or barley.
What a lovely system!
But in today’s world, where good yoga teaching is a skill that requires time, energy and financial resources in order to become proficient, and decades to master (and where it’s hard to survive on figs and barley) it makes sense for that skill to be compensated accordingly.
And I think it’s rational and healthy to professionalize yoga teaching.
Here’s a report I saw about the mindfulness industry recently:
“…By 2024, the alternative healthcare industry—which includes meditation, massage, acupuncture, breathing exercises, yoga and tai chi, chiropractic services, and natural products—will be worth a staggering $19.9B.”
That’s a lot of money.
But who exactly is receiving a healthy percentage of that figure?
I know so many yoga teachers who are struggling to make their careers work, who are thinking about quitting and getting a “real” job, who have closed their studios, who wonder where their slice of that pie is?
There are many things to consider here including certifications, standards, yoga therapy vs. yoga teaching, insurance reimbursement, business acumen, the tradition, ideas around money, and issues of women valuing themselves and their skills and being valued by the larger culture.
But perhaps one of the most important aspects of this conversation is to acknowledge that good yoga teaching is, essentially, an antidote to so much of what ails us in western cultures. And if you are good at teaching yoga, you are a professional with a very valuable and unique skill.
We live in a world where 6 out of 10 Americans have at least one chronic disease and 4 out of 10 have two or more.
Lifestyle medicine is beginning to be recognized as the solution to the chronic conditions that plague our culture.
Yoga, as a holistic system, is perhaps the finest iteration of lifestyle medicine.
At a workshop last year I asked Harvard researcher Sat Bir Khalsa if he thinks that yoga is one solution to the chronic disease epidemic.
He said to me, “No, it’s not one solution, it is THE solution.”
So, if as yoga teachers, we hold a solution (I’ll stick to “a” for now) to the $3.4T health care crises (90% of which is spent on chronic conditions) why should we give such a precious and important skill away for free? An average physician’s salary in the U.S. is $300,000. Why shouldn’t well-trained, well-qualified, experienced yoga teachers be earning a lot more than they are? And not expected to give their skills and talents away for free?
As I mentioned above, there are many factors that are at play here. But, it has to start with a mindset shift.
We, as yoga professionals, have to stop thinking about yoga as a fitness or recreational activity akin to all the other gym classes, and start thinking about yoga as a lifestyle medicine intervention which can change the trajectory of health of whole populations.
And if you, as a yoga professional, don’t start thinking about it that way – don’t expect the powers that be will do it for you.