What’s the Sanksrit word for “competition”?

Explosion of yoga teacher training programs & interest in wellbeing make for good work (if you can get it)

Yoga in the US has grown into a $9 billion industry, booming with 30,000 businesses employing three times as many staff. After four years teaching yoga in different American cities, I started wondering: where do all these teachers come from?

Image by Peter Tannenbaum

A recent personal relocation showed me that securing teaching opportunities has become increasingly — and sometimes bizarrely — difficult [1]. My first yoga teaching roles were offered after little more than a few conversations with studio managers and demonstration of instruction of a few asana (yoga posture) sequences [2]. These are the same types of popular urban studios I’ve seen changing their teacher hiring policies in the past 18 months.

Increasingly, franchise and independent spaces alike now require personal essays, recommendations from past students and employers, studio-customized playlists with defense of musical choices, proof of increasingly expensive teaching certifications, teacher photos, and extensive auditions [3]. A San Francisco studio I was hired at three years ago through a conversation with the manager now hosts a “teacher inquiry form” online that asks for links to prospective instructors’ pages on social media, lists of their mentors, and details of their experience using studio software.

New yoga teachers have long been confronted with the fact that they may spend a long time assisting other instructors and struggling to make money teaching, sometimes at spaces that require significant personal travel. This is not an easy field to work in, nor to get paid fairly or on time. Teachers must constantly consider their students’ limitations and the safety of the practice space, all while managing room temperature, their own personal safety, and potentially music. We pay out-of-pocket to insure ourselves. Yet the growing number of people wanting to teach means that many will be left out.

In researching how this affects would-be teachers, strapped-for-time managers, and, most importantly, students, I developed two hypotheses about why we’re experiencing this trend in the professionalization of yoga teaching.

It reflects wider cultural health & performance trends

We live in a moment of broadly increasing awareness of health and wellness. There’s new research out this month about the stress- and hospital visit-reducing effects of yoga and meditation. Across the country, baby boomers, athletes, and men are practicing more yoga than ever. With all this has come a proliferation of spaces offering yoga to clients who are happy to open their wallets to flow, stretch, breathe, challenge themselves, and attempt to have an ecstatic experience. I’m among them. Yet I wonder how increasing interest in the practice may negatively affect instructors who face stiff competition to meet would-be employers’ ever-elusive “culture fit” expectations.

Nishat Kurwa is a Los Angeles-based media strategist and yoga teacher. She recently moved to Southern California from the Bay Area. She previously taught yoga at her Muay Thai gym, where yoga “wasn’t the main event” but a good way for boxers to counter train. She was part of that gym community already when she pitched the gym owner on adding yoga and knew that boxers might have an allergy to the precious language that surrounds much yoga instruction. “It doesn’t have the same codes as studio environments,” she laughed.

Experienced and highly professional though she is, Kurwa similarly found the switch to a new city to challenge her teaching confidence as she approaches skeptical gyms. It’s also offered a chance to reflect on the profession of teaching and why many people do it.

“There is desirability [to work in this field] for reasons beyond teaching yoga,” said Kurwa. Among the social and performative aspects she identifies is the norms of thin, fit, flexible bodies leading classes and the saturation of that nearly identical look across studios.

Image by Peter Tannenbaum

She’s not the only one who’s noticed the prevalence of svelte instructors. As therapist Dr. Chris Donaghue told The Hollywood Reporter: “Most sexual norms are reflective of cultural norms. With yoga on the rise, it’s expected that a yoga identity and body would become a highly eroticized commodity.” That’s a commodity that isn’t far from view. As the Wall Street Journal published in its story “Why Everyone is a Yoga Teacher”: “Images of exotic yoga poses have proliferated on Instagram, driving some people to teacher training in pursuit of stardom.”

Physical ideals contribute to a cult of personality and studios participating in the celebritization of certain class-packing teachers, Kurwa said. Don’t believe her on that last point? Try asking your local star teacher out for tea after class and be prepared to get in line.

Emily Nachazel, a health coach and Vinyasa teacher, moved to New York two years ago as a new teacher. She said she furiously pursued studios and Craigslist ads for teaching positions and was asked to share a yoga resume with a few studios. She was committed to finding communities of regular practitioners and teachers who truly connect with one another.

Nachazel shared her belief that there can be an elusive teacher/studio match. “It doesn’t have to be cookie cutter,” she said. “Your voice, what you think is important, how you teach all fits into it.”

She said that her teaching experiences have largely been positive. But a potential employer recently came to one of her classes to see if she might be a good instructor fit. She was told her after her class, “‘You’re great, but you don’t play loud crazy music, so you aren’t going to fit with our studio.’”

Image by Peter Tannenbaum

It’s intertwined with training madness

International credentialing organization Yoga Alliance saw 19 percent growth last year in both the number of yoga schools and individual teachers joining their registry. Their prediction that “the yoga industry is in a strong growth stage” may be a bit of an understatement. According to IBISWorld’s Pilates & Yoga Studios 2015 market report, “industry products” — including classes, merchandise sales and the vital line item of accreditation/training — are expected to grow by 7.5 percent. (While Yoga Alliance puts projected annual growth closer to 3.3 percent, no one argues about growth in future class and teacher training client interest.)

The nearly 56,000 teachers who registered with Yoga Alliance last year still represent only a fraction of those who are currently teaching. Consider that each of those instructors has taken 100 and 200-hour certification programs that range in cost to upwards of $5,000 each, and you’re looking at big profit potential.

Yet there is criticism that not all who complete these trainings are ready to teach. Eddie Modestini, a Maui studio owner and student of preeminent instructor B.K.S. Iyengar, was quoted in the Yoga Journal article “Why a 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training Isn’t Enough” saying: “Lot of people are showing up with very little background in yoga — some have only taken one class — so they’ve basically foregone all the beginning work and preparation that’s necessary to accrue before you start studying how to teach.”

The three-100 hour teacher trainings I’ve taken all had different requirements for number of prior years practicing and teaching, which I appreciated. Yet in surveying a range of applications to current teacher training programs I found no to little such expectations of personal experience with yoga. This is concerning: it suggests that if applying to graduate school or jobs doesn’t work out, yoga could be the field for you!

My hope is to be able to practice and teach alongside yogis and yoginis who feel called to this field specifically; who have dedicated years to refining their craft; and who are authentic in their teaching rather than trying to meet a studio mold. Studios that graduate yoga teachers need to be responsible in accepting individuals who are personally experienced enough to add to the world’s body of yoga knowledge, not just admit all applicants in pursuit of money and hope that the thorny process of securing teaching positions sorts it all out.

Despite the many teacher trainings that are being offered, I worry that many don’t educate their students on professional development topics. Not one of my trainings — rigorous though they were — spent significant time on issues of identifying professional teaching opportunities, auditioning to teach, promoting your classes, properly insuring yourself, or financial management, just a few of the substantive topics around the profession of yoga instruction that many new teachers are forced to learn solo.

A few working teachers I know and I have been invited to participate in mentorship programs led by more senior instructors, only to learn that there is a price tag of $3,000+ to participate. At least we have the experience to know that continuing education opportunities are plentiful and that we can be selective. Some first-time teachers may think “paying to play” is part of what it means to teach yoga. Studios including New York’s Strala Yoga require that teaching applicants take part in their trainings specifically: again, a way to make money that unfortunately homogenizes the voices leading classes in this country.

There are some hopeful models, however. Some studios offer a helpful stepping stone for newly-certified instructors: the opportunity to gain teaching experience by leading community (donation-based) classes. This gives students a cost incentive to try practicing with new teachers and allows instructors to put their new teaching tools to use. New York Yoga says its “Stars of the Future” program gives training graduates a chance to sequence their own classes and instruct all types of bodies. Brooklyn Yoga Project, where I’m happily teaching now, offers a one-hour community class on Fridays where new teachers rotate.

Here is one theory on these changing trends from NYC-based entrepreneur and certified yoga instructor Carmel Hagen:

Increasing interest in yoga →
An increase in studios →
Proliferation of teacher training programs (often because it’s just a good way for studios to make money) →
A glut of “yoga teachers” →
Controversy over the lack of regulation over what qualifies studios to offer said trainings.

For teachers, this spells increasing difficulty in instructors accessing teaching opportunities:

More applicants want in →
Studios start being more selective →
Great applicants are pushed out of positions they’re qualified for (similar to the interview processes at popular startups: an abstract and sometimes deeply biased notion of culture fit).

I think she’s right, and still, it’s enough to make my head spin. Today I went to my neighborhood studio to decompress. After Savasana (corpse pose or final relaxation) and a closing salutation, the teacher mentioned a few upcoming workshops. As I rolled up my mat, she told the class, “I almost forgot! We have a teacher training coming up next month. It will be great. Definitely apply if you’re interested.”

Image by Peter Tannenbaum

[1] Please know that I’m talking about: a. public classes (as opposed to private classes set up between clients and teachers), b. taught live (as opposed to via video or streaming services, which have huge international interest), c. in some of the most competitive American cities to teach and live in. I can’t speak to other markets because I haven’t taught beyond the coasts. One of the teachers I interviewed mused “I wonder what it’s like in Wisconsin…”, which I’m also curious about. If you practice or teach beyond California or New York, please share your experiences here.

[2] I’ve worked for varying cast of studio owners and managers. Some have been terrific, with a good business sense and focus on fostering a supportive community. Others made for horror stories: concerned with making a quick buck at the expense of student experience, including one owner who skipped town and payroll without notifying her staff or students. Still, I’ve found teaching Vinyasa and Forrest yoga to be an amazing way to serve others and keep learning.

[3] Sometimes these auditions take place with other prospective teachers present. One I took part in was a two and a half hour “collaborative” audition in which each teacher taught for 10 minutes and was expected to build on the instruction shared before their turn. Pity those who led the class in its final 30 minutes, not to mention that the act of switching music between instructors led to a chaotic experience for everyone.