The economics of yoga teacher training
Updated: 6 days ago
During the 10+ years I have been teaching, the global yoga industry has seen a colossal expansion. New studios, retreat centres and yoga teacher training courses have appeared at an exponential rate. Over the same period however, yoga teachers pay has largely remained static (even without accounting for inflation). Within this article I explore some of the reasons for this disparity.
Before I begin, I must confess that there is a high probability of me bitching in this blog. And before you recoil at my negativity, let me say that 'having a whinge', is not my principal objective. Normally, I endeavour to avoid writing in such terms, unless that is, I am able to offer some sort of solution, to send the reader away with. In such situations, a good old moan is perfectly justifiable and can be a useful tool to get one's point across. Unfortunately I have no such solution to offer.
However, this topic is one I believe should be talked about more, and yet somehow rarely is. I’m merely the poor soul, dragging myself through shards of broken yoga glass, all for the benefit of the wider community. (Violins are welcome at this point). This blog is thus designed to be provocative commentary with the intention spawning debate. I wish to merely highlight the issues and hopefully provide the reader with an understanding of how we got here. Perhaps then, visionaries greater than I, can seek a route out of this fog that has so far eluded me.
Also, (I then I promise to get on the topic at hand) I have a level of discomfort with my chosen title. As a pseudo-economist myself, (if it counts for anything I have a bachelor’s degree in economics from the prestigious intuition of Coventry University, albeit over 20 years ago…), I can’t help but question exactly how much actual ‘economics’ will be discussed here. There is no direct statistical analysis and very little in the way of research. I can guarantee you now, there will be no econometric models on display. I did consider alternative titles but somehow, they just don’t seem as catchy.
But then, this is sort of highlights my point. I can’t help but feel that the economic side of yoga is an area that broadly gets ignored. And why that may be, is perhaps a good place for us to begin.
Why don’t we talk about it?
Well in general, economics is not often perceived as a sexy subject. Added to this, I suspect that many (perhaps most) in the yoga world are not naturally inclined towards finance and business. While there are always some, the stereotypical yogi/yogini does not exude a business persona from their core.
‘And rightly so’ I imagine many will respond. Yoga is often held with a more lofty status, something higher than evil money making. In the west at least, money and yoga are supposedly polar opposites. There is a prevailing attitude that one shouldn’t mix business with their spiritual practice, and therefore discussions on such subjects get ignored. (For anyone wishing to understand more on yoga spiritualism, then perhaps read my previous article).
Despite some of these well-intentioned attitudes, let’s face it, even at a base level, yoga teachers still need to eat. Studios still need to keep the lights on. While the idea of the cave dwelling yogi may be enchanting to some, living on donations and the good will of others is not so straight forwards in most parts of the world.
Unfortunately, we can’t get away from the fact that yoga and business are intertwined, and as a community we would benefit greatly by being more open and honest about the costs involved.
So, what do we know?
First of all, and I doubt this will be a shock to most readers, yoga teachers aren’t paid much. Yes, there are a few megastars who earn a bomb, but the vast majority struggle to make anything resembling a living wage through teaching regular yoga classes.
In Berlin for example, the basic rate for a typical 60-75 minute yoga class, is around €30. While relative wages vary from place to place, from what I have seen, this is pretty reflective across the western world.
Friends of mine at Yoga Futura recently undertook a survey of yoga teachers wages in Berlin. While I don’t know the full scope of the survey (eg: number of respondents), they found the median payment for a 69-minute (average length) yoga class was €40. While slightly higher than I thought, some potential data skews are highlighted, (for example: 1 respondent entered €180 per hour, which at the very least, is an outlier).
Some might see this rate as high when compared, for example, to Germany’s minimum wage of €12.50 per hour. However, this should be considered in its broader context of an overall income.
It’s difficult for any teacher to teach more than 15 classes per week. Again, I realise some may be thinking ‘15 hours a week – is that all?’ If you think that’s low, then I strongly suggest giving it a try. Not only is teaching physically and mentally draining, so too is travelling to multiple locations each day. (A 1-hour class can easily involve 2 hours travelling). For many teachers, this much teaching is unsustainable over a prolonged period.
For simplicity however, let’s use this metric as a basis. 15 hours of teaching time at €30 per hour, would provide a grand total income of €375 per week or €19,500 per annum. This can be supplemented with the odd workshop but let’s also assume that they don’t plan to work 52 weeks each year and, heaven forbid, may need to take some time off sick. This also then needs to be netted down to remove tax, health insurance, social security etc etc…. In reality this number can be cut in half. A liveable salary? Personally speaking – no way.
And the truth is, that very few teachers have the opportunity to teach this many classes anyway. The Futura survey found that the average teacher, taught less than 5 classes per week. Given the level of competition between teachers, getting regular classes takes years of patience, good luck and opportunism.
For most teachers, yoga is rarely their sole source of income (myself included) with most providing classes only as a side-hustle.
Whatever you think about teacher pay levels, the last and final point I want you to consider is that, in the 10+ years I have been teaching, rates have essentially not changed.
Why is yoga pay so low?
Many in the community cry foul, that low pay is simply as a result of teachers constantly being screwed over by scrupulous studios. It’s a common view that things were far better for teachers in the ‘good old days’.
Somehow, I doubt that there was ever such a golden age of yoga teaching pay. Such ideas are little more than classic fancies of nostalgia. I am pretty sure that minus a few exceptions, it has always been a poorly paid occupation.
Why? Well I think there are multiple reasons. and I will try to cover just a few here.
From what I understand (and for clarity I’ve done no research), yoga teachers earn roughly the same as those who work in similar fields – fitness instructors or dance teachers for example. While I know many teachers will baulk at the idea of being compared to a humble gym bunny, they are ultimately in the same sector, and often cater to similar crowds. And rightly or wrongly, these fields are considered as manual or low skilled occupations.
While many will profess the experience and added value they bring, unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how well you know the Bhagavad Gita, how authentically you can chant a sutra, or how kick ass your warrior pose choreography might be. The simple fact is that, pay is never going to be deemed on a par with a white-collar professional.
Doing what we love
The next thing to consider is simply the trade off people make in order to do something they love.
I have many friends who are talented musicians. They all spent years dreaming of hitting the big time, as a small percentage of bands and artists do. But in the interim they spent years playing gigs and shows that barely covered the cost of their petrol (let alone the beer consumed at each performance). They were happy to do so because it was what they loved.
In a similar way, most people become yoga teachers because they love teaching and as a result are prepared to be paid sub-standardly for their time. This is generally true for anyone who chooses to make their passion into their career.
Economists often talk about something called ‘opportunity cost’ ie: the cost of missing out on one thing because you are doing another. Each person will carry a different cost-benefit analysis of doing something they love. Even if it pays badly the opportunity cost is still lower than something they may hate but pays well.
Another factor that I don’t think we should ignore, is that the vast majority of yoga teachers are women. The various factors that contribute to the disparity between men and women’s pay are well documented and too vast for me to get into here. It is also a subject which I do not feel qualified to properly discuss, particularly as a man, who is well known for wading through delicate situations in his size 9’s. I will therefore say no more on this point, other than that I strongly suspect, if the vast majority of yoga teachers were men, pay in the sector would be different.
Too many teachers
While the above points all help to explain why yoga teaching doesn’t rake in the cash, the most significant factor in my view is that there are simply too many teachers. Studios/students don’t need to pay anything more than the current going rate, since there is always an army of other teachers readily available and desperate for classes. It’s a simple case of supply and demand. As the supply of teachers goes up, pay will come down. (You see, I knew we’d get a bit of economics in there somewhere). ;)
The question of why there are too many teachers is one we shall come to a little later.
One answer to the ‘income problem’, for some yoga teachers at least, is to create their own studio. This might seem like a natural progression for many, providing them a single location to teach from, that they can shape in their own style and potentially earn a decent living from doing what they love. And it’s clear there must be scope for it.
The European Pilates & yoga studios market was valued at over $15bn in 2020 and is projected to reach over $71bn by 2030 - compound growth of 13% a year.
While starting a yoga studio might be a smart business idea, it can create a number of problems. In food circles, people talk about chefs that cook amazing food but are terrible at running restaurants. In a similar vein, a great yoga teacher is not necessarily naturally equipped with the qualities needed to run a studio. Consider managing budgets, dealing with customers, websites, booking systems, general admin tasks. Are these the abilities typically associated with the free-spirited yoga adventurer that many such owners started out as. Running a studio, also means managing other yoga teachers, a task that only the most patient and fearless should undertake.
Despite a pandemic induced pause that affected much of the world, yoga included, the growth in the number of new studios has continued. Covid has created some changes, a redrawing of the map if you will, with a shift from the city centre commuter focused studios to more local neighbourhood locations.
Even with evidence of the continuing growth in the yoga market, I must admit, I am still somewhat surprised at the ever-increasing number of studios. I appreciate that this may simply be, a reflection of the popularity of the health and wellness sector at large. It may also be a factor of growing urban populations.
But am I alone in questioning the sustainability of the model? Exactly how many yoga studios do we really need? Is there demand for this number of classes? How many bums on yoga mats do you need in order to turn a profit?
And then you realise, like cinemas that make virtually nothing out of ticket sales, and everything from selling popcorn, that this is no longer how many studios make their money.
Yoga teacher training
Yes, we were always going to get there in the end. The good old teacher training chestnut. The source of so much excitement, bewilderment, and vitriol, throughout the global yoga community.
I doubt it will have failed many people’s attention, that alongside the exponential rise in the number of yoga students, teachers and studios, we seen a perhaps even bigger rise in the number of yoga teacher trainings being offered.
The rights and wrongs of modern yoga teacher training (TT) model are numerous, and the topic is an essay in itself. Given the length of this blog already, I shall try to avoid getting drawn too deep into the weeds, except for where it relates to the issues at hand.
I, like many others, do have many criticisms of the TT industry however I fully acknowledge, that I have completed a TT myself. And I am very happy to say it was one of the best things I ever did. Not only was it a great learning experience and helped shape the teacher I am today, it also quite literally changed my life.
(A very brief) history
TTs in themselves are not a new thing. They were being offered by the Sivananda school in the 1960’s, and I personally have been aware of them in Ashtanga circles for more than 20 years. This was closely followed by the development of the lengthy structured programmes from national institutions such as the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY) or Berufsverband der Yogalehrenden in Deutschland (BDY).
Then came the rise of Yoga Alliance 200-hour (aka: 4 week) package. BOOM! The world changed. Established in 1999, Yoga Alliance helped shape the modern phenomenon of teacher training that we know today. In many cases this embodied the exotic escape, something that people went to Bali or Goa for a month for, an extended yoga holiday if you will. It became a sort of rite of passage for anyone taking a gap year or career break (or early 30s’ life crisis in my case).
The significant change in the last 10 years, however, has been the increase in TTs taking place at home, via local yoga studios. Again, these aren’t new, but it’s where most of the recent industry expanse seems to have come from.
The rationale makes sense. We have lots of new yoga studios looking to turn a profit. There are lots of yoga teachers looking to find ways to make a living from what they love. And there is clearly demand out there for teacher training. So given that not everyone can take a month out of their daily lives to fly off to some exotic place, why not utilise the low yield times of yoga studios (weekend afternoons for example) to offer students a part time study option. One that can be done close to home and over a longer period of time.
The cost of an average course can vary significantly but from what I have established, most 200hr equivalent programmes are typically €3,000-€4,000 per student. Therefore, a course with 10 participants can bring a studio revenue of €30k-€40k. Perhaps even run 2 courses per year and double that number. So, with only 20 students per year providing that level of income, many studios no longer need to worry about making money from regular classes.
Thereby, studios can keep class prices low, and accept the terms of platforms such as Urban Sports Club or Class Pass. (Again this is a blog in itself, however a good discussion on some of these issues was covered in a recent article from Tom Norrington Davies).
While low prices might be good for the consumer, it’s worth considering just how good it is for the producer. Some of you may question whether the price you pay for chocolate is enough to sustain the average Ghanian cocoa bean farmer. While I don’t wish to pretend to put a western yogi, on the same par as an impoverished developing world farmer, the industry model is not dissimilar. (ie: there are a handful of middlemen controlling the market and take the biggest share of the pie).
One other thing that local TTs do, is to provide a continuous supply of eager newly qualified teachers, looking for experience and their first breaks in the teaching world. These newbie teachers ensure the studio never needs to worry about finding cover teachers or filling gaps in schedules. And if a studio has no concerns about finding teachers, then simple economics demonstrates that they won’t need to pay more.
So, let’s take a step back for a moment. From a teacher’s perspective at least, I hope readers can see that there is a vicious cycle at play. Low paid teachers, in order to generate more money for themselves, offer or participate in yoga teacher trainings. This in turn, creates even more teachers, thus ensuring the supply of teachers remains high and therefore wages remain low.
One of the main criticisms of yoga teacher trainings is the low (or often zero) experience threshold required to for people to join a course. It is perfectly normally for students who had barely ever stood on a yoga mat to participate.
While it’s good for courses to be open and inclusive, it has always struck me as a little odd, that someone would want to spend several thousand euros on a training course to learn to teach something, for which they were neither experienced at nor sure they had a passion for.
I do recognise that not everyone is looking to become a teacher, and that many are simply seeking a deeper learning experience. While many start with this intention, it’s common for many, upon completion, to then want to do at least some teaching afterwards.
I struggle to find any sort of comparison for this. Where else do we see this behaviour for any other hobby or occupation? Would someone want or be able to train to be a swimming coach if they had only ever been in a pool 3 times? Would someone conceive of taking a driving instructors course, if they had never been behind the wheel of a car? I imagine that the entry bar may also be set low for fitness instructors, but then, I can’t see that demand would be there from anyone who hadn’t already spent a serious amount of time already in the gym. Why is yoga therefore, a standout phenomenon in this regard?
Again, I suspect there are several reasons. For a start, applying standards is challenging. It is very difficult to put universal standards down that can be easily followed or monitored. Stipulating that a student should have, 1 years’ yoga experience for example, is likely to produce wild variations in how many times in that year the student had practiced. Furthermore, exactly how would such standards be policed?
On top of this, Yoga for many is a lifestyle choice. It’s a heavily marketed industry with a vast array of fashion brands, foods and related wellness products webbed together. Teacher training in yoga is less about what the name says on the tin, but essentially just one more element of the wellness web that can be purchased.
However, for me the answer is simply one of economics, supply and demand once more. In terms of the ideal candidate (an experienced yoga student), there will be relatively fixed demand. for TTs. (This concept is known as 'elasticity' in economic terms but let me not put to sleep those of you who may have ventured this far). So as the supply of TT places grow, the need to fill this capacity will likely just result in one (or both) of 2 things: a) reduction in prices; and b) reduction in standards.
I think it's worth noting, that the price of teacher training courses has also changed little over the last 10 years, potentially even coming down.
Taking this one step further, it doesn’t seem implausible, that a newly qualified teacher, with very limited teaching or practice experience, may now be a running TT themselves. So, in the end we are left with inexperienced trainers, training inexperienced trainees. Perhaps the vicious cycle has in fact become a downward spiral……..
So how do we get out of this? Well like I said at the start, I unfortunately don’t have a good answer to this. Yoga for all intents and purposes is a business and there is no reason to pretend otherwise. Despite the illusions many may have to the contrary, it has been a business since at least the creation of modern postural yoga in the early part of the 20th century. It is also, by and large, an unregulated one.
I actually think, the first question should be, do we need to get out of this? Is there anything actually wrong? Is low teaching pay an issue that needs addressing or do we simply accept this is the market determined price for the service. Was there a time when yoga teachers were suitably trained before giving classes themselves?
Ultimately, most yoga students will only ever attend classes infrequently and are unlikely to have a deep insight into the qualities that make a good yoga teacher. Experienced ‘senior’ teachers will always struggle to differentiate themselves in the market. Similarly, many TT participants are unlikely to be able to differentiate between the quality of trainers since they will have limited frame of reference.
When it comes to pay, one option might be to impose to minimum rates to teacher pay. One group in the UK have even established a Yoga Teachers Union. I applaud such efforts, although remain sceptical on the overall positive effect it will have on teachers’ income.
As for the teaching training model, if I am honest it feels like a train that we can’t now stop. Like most trains, it’s stuck to one set of tracks with very little options available for steering in a different direction. I suspect that it will remain this way until a new trend takes over.
If I can offer some suggestion they would be this:
For any student thinking about undertaking a TT, before you spend that money, just ensure that you know what income to expect and if needed, that you have another way to support yourself. If you can, research your options. Find out about the participating teachers and their level of experience.
For any teacher considering participating in a TT, perhaps just ensure you've considered whether the short term pay bonus is worth it. Be conscious that you may be simply contributing to a system which ultimately may just be hurting you financially.
And for any studio contemplating running a TT course, well, as a business I understand, you are going to do, what you need to do. Hopefully by reading this you may at least try and ensure you are helping to raise the standards bar, whether by the students you accept and/or the teachers you use. At the end of the day, if there are going to be more teachers, then let us at least ensure they are the highest calibre possible.
Like all things yoga related, the main thing from my perspective is that you enjoy yourself. But think, does it really make sense.
Ian Cheney runs Free Breathing Ashtanga Yoga - a dedicated Ashtanga Mysore programme in Berlin.