Photo by Daniele Buso on Unsplash

Ever since I started the work on the Berlin Yoga Conference (2017), I have had both the privilege and the responsibility to get to know the international yoga community (industry). While learning and trying to understand is an on-going process, the fact is that until now I have been in contact with an enormous amount of people from all around the world: freelance yoga teachers (including top-notch stars), studio owners, event organisers, yoga bloggers/influencers, wellness/athleisure brands, as well as digital startups (platforms or apps) for yoga and/or fitness solutions.

I know everything is a matter of focus – where we choose to allocate our resources – yet to not speak about some of the obvious problems and challenges that impact us all is like to ignore the elephant in the room, and ignoring this big elephant will come at a cost to those who do so.

So I made a decision to speak up, to bring up some of these problems and challenges to the table, and to be fair, reflecting on the variety of perspectives shared, I will divide this discussion into the following sections: freelance yoga teachers, studios, events, brands, and digital start-ups.

Freelance Yoga Teachers

Before being an event organizer, I’m first and foremost a freelance yoga teacher. It is not my decision to be a freelancer, I actually would have loved to be hired and therefore be provided for on the following fronts: my medical insurance, my pension, a safe and constant income that I can rely on and plan around, paid vacation, sick leave, parenthood-leave, paid public holidays, etc.

Unfortunately in this industry, to be a yoga teacher is mostly to be a freelancer, unless you’re lucky enough to be hired by a studio that can afford it, or by yourself in the business that you have built. This mean: most of us do have to pay for our own medical insurance, pension, we do not have a constant and reliable source of income, we do not get paid vacation or public holidays, or sick days, nor parenthood-leave, and on top of all of it, we do not have a system of a minimal wage, nor do we really get paid based on our pro qualifications.

That’s right. Most of us get paid based on the amount of students in the class. Which from the first look kind of seems fair: why should a studio pay a fixed wage when no one shows up? They would go broke and not be able to offer us a platform to teach through, right? Let’s think again.

To teach a 90 minute class, comes with a time investment of 90 minutes of teaching, 30 minutes of promoting the class (on the social media and Newsletter), 30-60 minutes of preparation (class structure, theme, sequencing), 15-60 minutes of travelling, 15-60 minutes of check-in/out (making a tea, meeting and greeting, waiting for the people to change and to leave, cleaning-up, locking up). Even if you’re lucky and do not have to do the check in/out, you still need to chat and connect to your students. It’s 2,5H in the best case-scenario and 5H in the worst case scenario.

And for ALL of this, you get paid for based on the amount of students in that 90 minute class, depending on: your luck, the season, how much promotion you’re doing, how much promotion the studio is doing, the studio’s location and popularity, if there is a middle-man service such as a digital platform/app that receives a cut/commission, or just dumps the prices down for everyone.

On top of it, most studios have no way to distinguish between beginner, intermediate, and advanced teachers, they fail to create distinctions between professionals based on their years of self-study, amount of accumulated qualifications, levels of experience, expertise, and understanding of the subject, nor do we get paid for our actual ability to teach. It’s more of a popularity contest: what is “in” these days, who is more charismatic, or more entertaining?

Would you go to your professional service provider such as a doctor, a priest, a psychotherapist, a school teacher/university professor, a life coach, based only on their popularity with others? And would you pay them based on how many people s/he has to see before they finally get to you?

Here’s another thing: if that teacher is a psychopath or a predator who has the history of physical/emotional/sexual abuse, has been convicted for murder, suffered from a mental illness that could make them harmful to society, or if they have developed the habit of touching people inappropriately or misusing their power position to date their students, or otherwise tap into their students personal resources and emotional lives at a real disadvantage to the latter, there is no way to put this person out of job, revoke their license, and warn the community in any kind of real way, except by means of a gossip (that no one might believe anyways).

Yes, it is a real problem that the Yoga Teacher Profession is:

  • Not regulated
  • Not properly defined
  • Not legal in the eyes of the law
  • Not represented by an official lobby
  • Not possessing a shared code of ethics that is enforceable by law
  • Not possessing a worker’s union or a body that oversee’s the worker’s rights

A Life of a Berlin Yoga Teacher

In Berlin, an average yoga teacher earns 30-50€ for a 90 min class at a studio (2,5-5H of actual work), 30-80€ for a 90 min class done at a rented-out facility (3-5H of actual work), 50-100€ for a 60 min private class (1,5-4H of actual work, depending on the preparation and travel time).

Even if a yoga teacher out there is lucky enough to have a decent following of students to do workshops, retreats or teacher trainings with, most of freelance Yoga Teachers are still Small Entrepreneur who do not even qualify to pay VAT because they earn under 17,000€, and in case they do earn over the bracket, they still have to pay all of these things being freelancers that just do not make it possible to have a modest and comfortable life, nor to raise a family on. A typical school teacher in Berlin earns 40,000€ annually, a yoga teacher has to pay a “teacher pension” despite barely being able to reach that bracket in the best of circumstances.

So in reality, what happens is that to survive, we need to have full or part time jobs in other fields, OR a supportive partner who earns significantly more money, OR have rich parents who have been a little too over-protective and over-nurturing if they still have to pay our bills in adulthood.

A little note about teaching yoga and spirituality. I bet you have heard before someone criticising a teacher for charging a certain price for their services: “oh, what kind of spiritual person is s/he?” Ignorance, not malice, is to blame. If we speak about traditional ways of learning yoga in a spiritual community (and we have to look hard to find one that is not guilty of some kind of a scandal or a history of abuse), there were always hidden variables at play.

In an ashram, people live and practice spirituality in exchange for work, which is an equivalent of money and time. They had the basics covered (the roof and the food) to engage in soul-seeking. The sadhus (spiritual men), despite living in the caves or in the forest, always were supported by their communities with food, clothing, and other basic necessities in exchange for blessings, spiritual consultations, or performing rites and rituals on special occasions and holidays.

So, what motivates us to keep doing our job despite these less-than-favourable circumstances?

First of all, our passion and our sincere desire to help others in a way we were helped. To be a yoga teachers these days you really need to be believing in what you’re doing, because it takes a crazy person to accept the conditions we have to work in. Another thing that keeps us going is:

The American Dream of a Yoga Teacher

It goes like this: “Just look at this Star Teacher XX, you could do that! It’s all about getting yet another teacher certificate, setting up a nice Instagram Account, getting some pro photos done with some advanced asana, starting to teach at studio x or festivals z… (fill in your fantasy)”

I have been in communication with some Top Star A-level teachers and while a few of them do have pretty comfortable lives (minus the fact that they have to travel a lot for that), if you look at the top of the earning bracket in the yoga industry, you could probably get to €150-250,000 a year, and that’s the top of the top we’re talking about. The 1%. What about the rest of the 99%?

I think ultimately, all of us serious, curious, and dedicated practitioners and teachers, we all know we’re amazing and have much to give to others, but unfortunately the inner reality does not always match the outer circumstances.

The truth is, in any industry, all the stars and mega successful people are there because: they got lucky (they were in the right place at the right time), they knew the right people (they have consciously made an effort to get to know and to develop the relationships with all the powerful decision-makers in their industry, or again, they were lucky enough to be connected to them in some way), they know how to do their business (they use all the right techniques and jump on all the good opportunities that would help them advance in their fields), they have an outgoing charismatic personality (combined with an ability to appeal to the masses with simple and sticky messages that are easy to remember and connect to), and, for the most part, have a certain look, physique, flexibility and strength that make the performance aspect of their asana jaw-dropping.

So in reality, many of the top star professionals are not necessary there because they are the most talented, the most creative/original, or have the most to give to others. And this is not written as a social critique or some kind of a jealousy trip, this is simply the reflection of how human nature works and who we collective look up to and for what reasons.

And on top of it, having spoken to some of these Star Teachers, they all start to worry: 1. yes, the climate change issue is important and they hate to travel so much to earn at least 70% of their income from out-of-town workshops, training in exotic locations, and speaking gigs, 2. yes, they feel the competition rising too, because in an unregulated market, anyone can pretend anything and claim to be an expert even when they are not, and build a fame based on popularity and not on expertise and years of practice, teaching, and being an active member in the industry, 3. yes, they too are loosing their students and have to make up for this loss by setting up other types of business like digital platforms, clothing brands, selling essential oils, cosmetics, accessories, or jewellery; and sometimes event by going back to other professions body/mind related, or not!

Here’re some fun predictions for the freelance teachers:

  • The industry is maturing and is not expanding as fast as previously (happening now)
  • Meanwhile the yoga teacher trainings are multiplying disproportionately (prove me wrong!)
  • The competition is very intense, what’s more it is global: you compete against the whole world
  • The digital start-ups take over and dump the prices for the service further, because guess what: they are not selling the service, they are selling people’s data (They can afford it, you can’t!)
  • The predators are still lurking around and can even become leaders of methods and sects
  • Without any kind of legal regulation, concrete definitions, or a union, most of yoga teachers, after being burnt-out and disillusioned, return to their previous jobs and give up their dreams
Photo by Kace Rodriguez on Unsplash

Yoga Studios

I don’t run a studio, so I would not know all the real pains as well as the studio owners themselves, but I’m working closely together with a few of the German yoga studios, and having done my events, I do have an understanding of the budgeting, margins, and invisible to the consumer/service provider costs.

To run a studio these days you almost have to be as crazy as the yoga teachers themselves, and not surprisingly, most yoga studio owners are yoga teachers who start their businesses out of love, passion, and desire to be free to teach where and how they want, not being told what to do.

Berlin is a bit of a late-bloomer in terms of gentrification, but it is happening here now, big time! To run a yoga studio, you need to consider the following costs: the rent (big chunk), the props (yoga mats and accessories), the deco (paintings, sculptures, vases, fresh flowers), the administrative stuff, the receptionist stuff (some have hired personnel, others get by on Karma Yogis), the treat your guest stuff (teas, snacks, tea related kitchenware and washing machines), the utilities, (electricity, water, heat), the cleaning and repairs (ongoing), legal permits, the marketing costs, the website and social media maintenance, the creative work (design, promotional materials, branding), and the service providers of course (the yoga teachers, trainers). I’m sure I’m missing something still!

A studio is very much dependent on: a good location (where there is a flux of people), good neighbourhood (safety and financial outcomes), good setting (pleasant to be in), good, friendly stuff (everyone that the customer comes in touch with), good and constant branding/promotion/communication, good vibes (there is something about the energy), and of course, good trainers!

I can imagine, that the competition is fierce, the costs are high, and the margins are low. I’m sure many studios are struggling (actually I know that, because I know how to listen, how to read the signs, and between the lines), and in the long run, no studio can survive solely on yoga classes, even with the help of middle-men services and digital platforms that get the people in the studio (don’t get me started on Urban Sports Club, just read the other two blog posts on that topic).

So what do the studios do? They dig their own graves. And they call it Teacher Trainings. And when you tell them: “Hey, isn’t it a bad business idea to take your prime, dedicated customers and turn them into yoga teachers, whom you cannot hire all, as much as you have loved to, and just have to let go and see them never come back as a paying customer?”. What do they reply? Everyone else is doing it! And same for using 3rd party services to get the students through the door, in the process loosing their own dedicated members and unleashing all kinds of bad forces.

Do you really want to know the reason why most of the serious Yoga Studio and Big Star Teachers are so busy making their own Yoga Brands/Styles/Methods? Simple. 1. Because Brands do add an extra value on a regular product/service and give the studio/teacher a chance to charge a premium price for their offers. 2. Because you cannot really brand yoga classes in the long run, but you can brand Yoga Teacher Training and make a lot of money in the process, especially if you have a franchise and licensing agreements on your hands. 3. Because own yoga style equals you own little tribe, that might grow just big enough to invite you all over the world to come and share in your student’s recently opened studios, and you are a Big Star to them.

Other ways how Yoga Studios make money

Aside from developing their own Methods and Yoga Teacher Trainings, yoga studios grow their own brand by associating with a bigger and more established brand. If they do not have local yoga teacher celebrities to endorse them, they invite out-of-town yoga stars to teach at the studio and get to earn a commission in the process. There is nothing wrong about that! They do provide a valuable service to the community which shows directly in the numbers of sign-ups and participation. Yoga teachers and yoga students alike do want to learn from the Best!

Another way a studio could try to raise their margins is by selling physical goods on a commission. Each studio can decide whether that’s an option (some do, some don’t), and the goods could be anything from yoga mats and branded clothing to energy bars and drinks. Again, I personally do not think it’s bad, on the contrary: people do get hungry, thirsty, and occasionally need some yoga merchandise that they can purchase at their favourite studio instead of online.

The most commercially successful Yoga Studios are not Yoga Studios

The fact is, just offering people yoga is not good enough. The market is not big enough. A yoga studio would be more profitable is they offer a big variety of working out methods, because they can get more people to come through the door. And once these people are at the studio, yoga can be gradually discovered, either due to chance or curiosity, and that’s a wonderful thing!

Yoga Studios that are awesome invest in their Staff

Yoga Studios that are serious should also treat their trainers seriously. When the service providers are qualified experts, well-paid, and respected by their management, this shows up in: happy customers, great energy, light and joyful atmosphere, positive working culture, engaged community, and higher profit margins as a result.

Yoga Studios need to communicate and engage

In the world where there is a lot of competition and too much going on, yoga studios need to stay in a constant communication with their prospects, their staff, and their customers. This communication is not just throwing promotions and propaganda in people’s faces, what we’re talking about is a very strategic, focused, and well-though-out dialogue that uplifts, inspired, informs, educates, and moves people emotionally. Stories need to be created and passed around, not only online, but also offline. Community meetings and multi-directional channels of communication are a must. Feedback needs to be taken in seriously and followed up on through real action. There should be no room for broken promises, because that lead to broken hearts.

Unless the yoga studios take note of what is written above, here’re my predictions for them:

  • Many of them will soon go out of business
  • Many of them will see upset yoga teachers take action
  • Some of them will be bought and/or replaced by digital startups
  • Some of them will relocate into the virtual reality space on their own accord
  • Most of them will suffer in some way, because the way things are at the moment is not sustainable
Photo by Dylan Collette on Unsplash

Yoga Events

Time for some self-reflection.

When I started Berlin Yoga Conference back in 2017, pregnant with my daughter (second child), I was the most naive and romantic yoga girl in Berlin, with this big and ambitions vision. Many people who met me at that time told me I was either very brave, or just crazy. And progressively, I indeed became aware that many people have tried before to do an event of this type in this city, and failed miserably. Big, important, well-connected, experienced, with a perfect German language and look people. And here comes this little Eastern European girl with Asian eyes, an annoying accent and a weird name, thinking she can do it. Who does she think she is?

The truth is, when I stared I had no fucking idea. I just had a vision: authentic yoga experience, transformational space, community coming together for connecting, healing, networking, and collaborations, amazing teachers who are maybe not the biggest names or Instagram stars, but are real good teachers. On top of it, I lived in 4 countries and speak 6 languages, I just love to hang out with people from different places and exchange ideas, tips, suggestions, dreams, etc.

I had no business skills, no people skills, no network, no connections, no investors, no sponsors (except some mats here, some clothing there, and a lot of cross-promotion), no partners, no team. In the process of doing it, manifesting it, approaching the whole thing very creatively due to a major lack of budget, taking any opportunity or chance that came my way, I powered through the first Pop Up event in May (2018).

Second Pop Up in August, and there was already a little team coming together. By the third Pop Up in November, a lot has been accomplished already: people loved the events, many people wanted to support and shared the vision, there were mentions in major yoga magazines, the news were beginning to spread. People were getting excited about the big event in May 24-26 2019.

Now, looking back, the biggest mistake I made in the first year was simply starting too big. I had this gorgeous, very special industrial location with a mini park and lake that cost me €28,000 just for the walls. I had no idea when I was singing the contract that I had to pay also the tech set-up (another €10,000). I offered my conference teachers really good fees and conditions, and 80% of them came from outside of Berlin, which means flights, accommodation, and other transportation costs. It took an investment of €15,000 for the website, all the design work, printed promo materials, photo/video documentation, social media/print ads, and a bit of PR work.

In the end, the event took place, despite a lot of challenges, with a lot of stress and good 6 months of 8-10H day work and it was amazing – it made many people very happy and touched them deeply, just as I have hoped for. The feedback was great: awesome teachers, great classes, super variety, fantastic location, good vibes and energy, a sense of a community. The people who were there were happy customers, it’s just there were not enough, the space could have held many more! We were 600 people over 3 days, and we could have been easily 600 on each day!

The production of the conference cost a lot of money, and none of my team got paid, me included (except my tax advisor/accountant). I had to re-negotiate the teacher’s fees and ask them to support through gifting me their time (if they were Berliners) or giving me discounts (if I got them to come from somewhere else, somewhere far, where they have left behind their own responsibilities). I have to say, that this year, thanks to the conference, I learned the true taste of human bonding and generosity, I was supported by many people and I am super grateful.

Other event organizers, many of whom have become friends and partners, would confirm: yoga event business is taught. It is A LOT of work, a lot of pressure, and there is not so much profit as many of event organisers consider themselves lucky to barely cover their costs, and if they get a humble pay for their work on putting together this thing for other people to come and enjoy, they are super successful – and, sadly, there are not that many successful event organizers.

The thing is, the competition is fierce – from other yoga event organizers, through studios who run workshops with famous yoga stars, to recently, lifestyle events that are put together by big brands such as Adidas (previously working with Wanderlust) and Lululemon (Sweatlife), or media platforms such as Yoga Journal (Yoga World). How can you compete with Lululemon that makes billions in profit? How can you compete with Wanderlust that is an international franchise? How can you compete against the Yoga Journal that is an established media brand?

What happens is many organizers try to make an event once, twice, or three times, and then they give up. Because usually it takes at leat 3 years to break even (cover your costs). It takes some serious dedication and support (either from the community itself or from brands via sponsorships) to keep an event alive. And many people don’t realise that to put together an event over 3 days requires a year of work, as in Monday-Friday 9-5.

My personal response to all of this is to go a new direction, away from everyone else. For the second year of the Conference, I’m going for an “industry event”, for professionals, for people who are serious. This is why I’m focusing on in-depth workshops, lectures, and themed panels instead of just asana masterclasses. I still love handstands and arm balances, but I think it is important to supplement them with some wisdom via philosophy, practical know-how via anatomy, and some hard talks about important issues we all face via community discussions.

Ironically, as I really believe in this new direction, I also come to realize that although most professions and industries have such events, the yoga community has not had any probably because the yoga profession itself is not “legalized” and is facing many crises and challenges at the moment, more than ever. So it seems that I have a double fight to fight: for the Conference and for the Profession itself.

Well the good news is, I’m up for the Challenge. And the best news? It seems that I’m not alone!

That’s it for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 discussing yoga brands and digital start-ups.

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