Photo: Ed Gregory via Stokpic + edits.

Teaching Community Yoga Classes: Bridging the Gap

How volunteer yoga teachers can make a real difference in their communities and return to authentically practicing yoga for yoga’s sake.

Like many aspiring yoga teachers, I decided to enroll in a teacher training course that would equip me with the know-how to share my love of yoga with those around me. Little did I know that I would learn much more than the foundations of yoga.

The Newly Minted Yoga Teacher

While teacher training deepens your practice and allows you to explore the philosophic backgrounds of this rich practice, at the end of the day, you could achieve all of that by simply attending workshops or retreats and reading up on the subject. Not to mention saving yourself a couple of thousand dollars along the way! The main benefit of doing a formal course is that you can become certified and, someday, actually teach the wonderful art that is yoga.

After completing my own teacher training this past summer, I became a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher at the 200-hour level. This is abbreviated to RYT-200 and is regarded as the foundational credential to have by most establishments that hire instructors.

I was ready to dive right in and start teaching.

Not So Fast: My Dilemma

As the then-manager of a popular yoga studio in downtown Boston, I was approached to audition for a slot on the substitute list relatively quickly. Similar opportunities in other studios began to pop up, and I was just about to pull the trigger and start scheduling auditions when…something stopped me.

Had I really spent all of this time studying and practicing just to teach a group of affluent, primarily white women how to flow through Sun A properly? Was I really willing to conform to whatever style or trend these studios were looking for in their teachers and sacrifice my own unique contributions? Was yoga really just about expensive mats and designer leggings, or did it mean something more to me?

To say that I was having the yoga teacher’s version of an existential crisis is putting it mildly. Here I was, actively employed by a studio that charged upwards of $125 per month for memberships, and I wanted nothing to do with any of it. All of sudden and all at once, the yoga industry seemed like a complete and total fraud, and I had no idea what to do about it.

I had to reflect on what being a yoga teacher really meant.

From that point forward, I started looking at my experiences with yoga studios entirely differently. Where I once saw the magic of yogic teachings, I now saw dollars and cents; where I once saw an effort to share new styles of yoga with the masses, I now saw last-resort efforts to fill unpopular class times or push “the promo of the month” on whatever customer would opt in.

That craziest part? I used to be one of these customers. We all did. After all, where do you think I got certified in the first place? (Hint: it wasn’t in a not-for-profit ashram hidden in the foothills of some Indian mountain range).

The even crazier part? Most yoga teachers are compensated in mere pennies compared to the gigantic cash flows that many studios enjoy (which, of course, go towards funding operating costs, owner salaries, expensive retreats…you get the idea).

Recognizing the Privilege Tied to Modern, Western Yoga

I slowly started to calculate all of the money that I had spent on my yoga practice over the years and let me tell you, it was shocking. Not in a “wow, Christmas gifts were pricey this year!” sort of way, but more like a “Holy Cow, I could put a down payment on a house” sort of way.

For the life of me, I have no idea why this didn’t dawn on me earlier. I really don’t. But this was genuinely the first time since I rolled out my mat almost a decade earlier that I came to a startling realization:

Yoga is an expensive sport.

And, just like its equally expensive cousins of skiing, golfing, horseback riding, and tennis, it is a sport that is dominated by white, affluent women.

I will be the first to admit that my inherent privilege as a relatively well-off, white, cis female clouds my judgment. A lot. And my experiences practicing in and working for yoga studios were no different.

Never before did I realize that:

  • Most of my yoga classes were a glorified sea of white, the only splashes of color being whatever bright-patterned Yogi Toe or sports bra was in season.
  • The bulk of my yoga teachers were, themselves, also white.
  • I had only taken two yoga classes with a male teacher and had never, up until that point, taken a class lead by a non-gender conforming teacher.
  • My studios were hosting relatively few “community classes” or that the pillar of Seva (selfless service) had been completely abandoned by these allegedly yogic groups.
And, most importantly, never before did I realize that I was a part of the problem.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to practice or teach in a studio that hosts weekly community classes, advertises a canned food drive, pays its teachers fairly, and actively employs minority teachers. These sorts of studios certainly exist and, if you can count yourself in this lucky few, I’m delighted. However, for most of us, yoga studios are an affluence trap of sorts, carving out space for the privileged and abandoning everyone else in the process.

Media and advertising images of “yoga” are also seemingly dominated by one demographic.

Teaching Yoga as a Duty to Others

I’m starting to think that teaching yoga should be like being sworn in as an attorney (something I am also acutely acquainted with) and that we should develop an oath of some sort. In fact, it sort of baffles me that I had to promise to give more back to my community as a litigator (if I don’t, buh bye license) than I did as an awakened, spiritual yoga teacher.

Sadly, however, no such oath exists, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a lucrative opportunity teaching yoga that, quite frankly, gives a damn. Somehow, our Western conceptualization of yoga stopped being about the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita and, instead, turned into a way of burning off extra calories by incorporating weight-training into your Warrior sequence.

At its core, yoga is about service: service to yourself, service to your community, and service to the world. As certified yoga teachers, we have a duty to carry out those core values.

As certified teachers, we have a responsibility to share the marvelous benefits of yoga across socio-economic, racial, and gender lines.

So, What Can You Do About It?

For starters, do your research. Look into the missions of the studios and companies you want to teach or practice with.

Ask yourself (and your auditioners) the tough questions:

  • Does the studio give back in some way?
  • Are the owners committed to equal hiring practices?
  • Do the owners actually hire equally, or is it just an HR line they have to say?
  • Does the studio encourage different styles of yoga, or is it really a “their way or the highway” situation?
  • Are there any people of color on the teaching roster?
  • How about any openly-gay or transgender teachers?
  • Is uniqueness valued here, or is conformity the only way to advance your career?

If, like me, the answer to most of these questions was a resounding “No” then don’t worry, your teacher training wasn’t all for nothing. Because, in the end, I found my true calling as a volunteer, community yoga teacher.

Teaching my very first class to a group of at-home caregivers as a Community Yoga Teacher at the Hands to Heart Center.

Becoming a Volunteer Yoga Teacher

Unlike the traditional studio model, volunteer yoga teachers typically work in a non-profit setting without pay. That’s right: Zero. Zip. Notta.

Where do we go? Everywhere. The places where there are intentionally no yoga studios. The “bad neighborhoods.” The dilapidated community centers. The under-funded public schools and libraries. The mental health hospitals. The prisons and jails. Domestic violence and homeless shelters. If there’s a need, we’re there.

What is our mission?

To share the benefits of yoga with everyone, most of the time with populations that need yoga most and would otherwise never have access to the practice.

Now before you start angrily typing a comment or blasting me on social media (both are equally un-yogic, but I digress…), hear me out: I’m not suggesting that everyone can or even should ditch their paying yoga gigs for a penniless career as a volunteer teacher. To the contrary, I am merely suggesting that, as one of the lucky few that could afford the $2,000+ tuition for teacher training in the first place, you can probably carve out one hour of your week to lend a hand.

Prepping for my 2nd — 4th-grade after-school yoga class at Neighborhood House Charter School.

So, Where Do I Sign Up?

Once I decided that I wanted to volunteer instead of working at a studio, I faced the daunting task of finding a place to volunteer with. Luckily for you, I now have some experience with this search and am happy to share my tips & tricks!

If you live in a relatively big city, start by typing “Volunteer Yoga Teaching [your city here]” into your favorite search engine. A similar search revealed the organization that I volunteered with, Hands to Heart Center.

If you live in a smaller town where yoga is relatively new to your community, reach out to your local homeless shelter, food bank, or school and ask if they would be interested in you offering free yoga classes to their populations. You’ll be surprised by how many enthusiastically reply with a“Yes!”

The Benefits of Volunteer Teaching

By far, the biggest reward I experience whenever I teach volunteer classes is the reception I get from my students. Most, if not all, of my students in these classes, are completely new to the practice of yoga, and I get to bear witness as they experience it for the first time. Their very first Down Dog, taking a stab at Plank Pose, tumbling out of Tree Pose, or flying into Warrior III… I’m there for it all.

Photo by Hands to Heart Center.

Without fail, a group of students come up to me after every class and give me a hug for sharing this practice with them. I’ve heard numerous stories from my students about the healing properties of yoga (Hands to Heart Center trains its teachers to be trauma-sensitive), and I have had the pleasure of seeing my students months after classes have ended when they have successfully landed a new job or a healthy housing arrangement.

An added bonus? Volunteering as a community yoga teacher gives you experience. Unlike studios that often require over two years of teaching experience before they’ll offer you a spot on their substitute list, these organizations have a genuine need, and they have it now. For many teachers, this means that you can get out there and start doing the very thing you were so passionate about when you registered for training…teach!

Balancing Commercial and Volunteer Teaching

Remember how I said that you could earn money in a traditional studio setting and give back as a volunteer teacher? Well, I did just that.

After much research, I’m proud to say that I found two “industry” settings to explore my teaching qualifications alongside my volunteer classes. One was a traditional studio that just so happened to be co-owned and operated by one of the most badass, feminist, socially-minded gals I know, and the other was an equally-badass corporate gig that took the shame out of a traditional, studio classes by bringing private sessions to people of all experience levels. I’m proud to say that I was a part of these organizations right up until my recent move to New York City, and I am even prouder that they both supported my volunteer teaching schedule.

There is a need for your special gift, a need for you to share yoga with those that come from backgrounds different than your own.

Right now, I am in the process of researching non-profits to volunteer with and studios to audition for in New York City. I fully intend on continuing my balance between volunteer teaching and studio work in my new hometown, and cannot tell you how much joy this balance has brought into my own life over the last year. No matter how the scale tips for you, maybe it’s 20 percent volunteering, 80 percent paid or the other way around. You have the time. I promise you do.

There is a need for us to return to teaching yoga for yoga’s sake.

If you’ve been teaching community yoga classes and would like to share your story, I’d love to hear from you. Or, anyone has questions, I’d be happy to answer them. Feel free to post a response below. Namaste!