Still Mind Yoga Westchester NY and the Business of Yoga
How does one reconcile running a business to make money, when that business (yoga) teaches one to eschew materialism?
This article covers issues that arise when "selling yoga services." Issues related to the "purchase of yoga classes" is addressed in the article on obstructions to yoga practice.
I can only say when we launched our White Plains operation in 2015, I was glad we had some experience in this area. We have been running an aikido school since 2003 and yoga beginning in 2009, both with the very same objectives for peace that apply in yoga. At the same time, I have over 20 years of experience working in the field of finance, with solid technical knowledge of the world of business. Blending these skills together led me to develop a slightly different approach than what is common in Westchester yoga schools.
The first area to cover was forms of business organization, or specifically the objective of the business. In this case, we chose a nonprofit format, where the goal is not to make one’s fortune teaching yoga, but instead focus on the mission of helping people develop an experience of peace. The nonprofit format actually eliminates the owner of the business, who needs to earn a return on his/her invested capital. It also lowers costs because other suppliers at times can be charitably minded towards those in the helping professions. Lastly, it provides tax incentives for donors to help fund our programs.
Next we looked at the primary costs of yoga schools – space and instructors. A fair number of yoga studios have opened in Westchester County in recent years, and many of them closed within three years. They acquire space, invest heavily in the appearance and offer a large number of classes by employing many yoga teachers. The result is a beautiful studio with a very “convenient” class schedule. The only item absent is sufficient students to support the heavy cost structure.
At the same time, the practice of yoga seemed to be suffering in Westchester. Obviously new yoga studios are unstable. To survive, yoga studios started charging for teacher trainings (RYT200 and RYT500, for example), which flooded the Westchester market with yoga teachers. A side effect of this process is to drove down the wages for yoga teachers, challenging their ability to earn a living.
As our objective is to help people develop an experience of peace rather than make money, we decided to structure our “business of yoga” to offset some of the imbalances from the direction of the Westchester market. For example, “convenient” yoga is actually a contradiction in terms. One only derives real benefits from practice when they work hard at it. Rather than the most convenient schedule, we developed an adequate schedule. We sought skillful teachers whose classes are worth the extra effort to attend. Out of respect for their dedication to the practice, we target paying the upper end of the salary range, but can only afford to hire them for fewer classes.
Students, while they benefit from our classes, can also develop a home practice. Many of us have stressful lives and go to yoga for relief. In reality, any lifestyle can be either stressful or peaceful – that outcome is really a matter of your own mind as you live your lifestyle, not the lifestyle itself. So working a little bit harder to attend our classes introduces respect for the practice. Developing a home practice brings the peace you might experience in class into your everyday life at home.
As for space, we already had space in White Plains as a result of our martial arts classes. We did not need to invest heavily in it, as the quality of the space really derives from the seriousness of the practice taking place inside. If the yoga classes could contribute to the cost of our space, that would be helpful to our efforts. However, we are not at risk of closing as many other studios in Westchester have done if the rent is out of reach.
So our objectives are designed for each of our stakeholders. For the students, we try to design a practice well suited to helping them pursue their path of peace. They might have to work a bit harder than other studios, but that will only result in greater benefits. For the teachers, we try to offer them employment that respects their dedication. And we focus on teachers who can really help students.
For the industry, our contribution is to pay more per hour, and reduce the number of classes. To the extent more studios in Westchester adopt this model, the more dedicated teachers could earn a reasonable wage with a livable work schedule. Less dedicated teachers would be forced into the schools and the gyms. By reducing classes and sharing space with similar operations, new yoga studios might be more stable. While one day we hope to offer teacher trainings, the purpose will be more to help people deepen their practice. We don’t feel it would be responsible for us to encourage people in the expensive county of Westchester to try earning their full living by teaching yoga alone. At this point in our society, I suspect that the people who are able to sustain themselves in this field rely to some degree on other sources of income.1
I would like to say that we don’t feel our business model is the only one or even the best – we are not criticizing other approaches. In our society, yoga has sought to deeply infiltrate our culture, and to do so it is necessary to blend with our economic system. Focusing on the profitability of a yoga studio is not wrong, as long as self-interest is not the motivation. Blending with our society should be. Churning out dozens of teachers to flood the market, moving into the gyms, the schools, etc. has promoted yoga to become a household word. Ask anyone what is yoga and what are its benefits. Unlike when I was young, most people can now answer that question. But if the entire industry works in this direction, imbalances occur. We feel that there is room for some differences in approach, and some shift in our direction might reduce some of the imbalances.
1. I think it is important for people to understand realistically what the business of yoga entails. Sometimes people walk into a vibrant studio and feel they are making a lot of money. They may also feel the teachers are doing well. First is a summary of a studio profile when you walk in and see 20 – 25 students in some classes. How well are they doing? It compares their profile to ours.
For a real life example, the following is information from the YogaWorks offering circular dated 8/10/17. Specifically the liquidity and capital resources section says, "We have a history of operating losses and an accumulated deficit of $36.3 million as of March 31, 2017. In addition, we had negative working capital of $3.4 million at March 31, 2017...Based upon our current level of operations, we believe that our cash balance on hand, together with the net proceeds of this offering, our cash flow from operations and our ability to draw under our Loan Agreement prior to the closing of this offering will be adequate to meet our short- and long-term liquidity requirements for at least the next twelve months from the date of this prospectus. There can be no assurance that we will sustain positive cash flows from operations or achieve profitability, and incremental funding from Great Hill Partners may be required as needed if this offering is not consummated. If available funds are not adequate, we may need to obtain additional funding or scale back operations." This condition is despite maintaining 16 students/class average in 2017 with an average of $19 each time.
Note that the income in the example above is about the same. Certainly there is more leverage in the larger studio. That means if they are efficient at cutting costs and just boost their membership a bit, they can begin to build in some sort of salary for the person running the studio. But in reality moving that salary in the direction of six figures is probably not feasible unless the studio has been in operation for at least 20 – 30 years. Also, while the large studio can make more, it can also lose more. But imagine the idealistic yogi who rents a space and starts their business from scratch. They may expect to invest $200,000 over the first 2 – 3 years in what we term cash burn. Then the studio, if reasonably successful might provide a very small salary for the person running it. This is perhaps the reason so many studio owners quit after discovering this problem. Some just go out and get a job and teach yoga on the side for enjoyment.
For the full time yoga teacher, the annual income may be better than the studio owner. But it is certainly challenging to live on such a salary in Westchester County:
For these reasons, we recommend people interested in teaching yoga go into the field “eyes wide open.” The goal of teaching yoga is not to make your fortune, but rather to share the benefits of your practice with others. Over a very long period of time, it may be possible to start earning a living. But to start with, the focus should be simply on developing a sense of peace and sharing it with others.