This week, both locally and nationally, the behavior of yoga schools has been a big topic of conversation. Locally, as happens from time to time a couple of fairly prominent teachers made surprising departures from “name” studios. Separately Back Bay Yoga, one of the bulwarks of the Boston yoga scene, didn’t lose any teachers, but lost a lot of its classes. They had to start operating at less than half strength since the city closed the building they are housed in due to fire code violations. (Lynne, the owner, said in an e-mail Tuesday that they hope to be home this weekend. I hope so, though their temporary home was the Harvard Club, which makes you feel like your doing yoga in a castle, which is pretty cool…)
Globally, between the “Yoga Wreck” article and now book and this week’s mess in the Anusara community, it’s been a tumultuous week. (more on the Anusara drama in a later post. If you want to wade in, see Yogadork or Elephant Journal) Suffice to see that I’m watching a fair number of people suffer at some level due to the difficulties and uncertainties that come with the business of yoga. Rather than get all wrapped up in the gossip of it, I think this is a good moment for teachers to examine their own situations, and how to made sure that as businesspeople (which we all are, like it or not), we are on our most solid footing.
1. Understand your employment status. If you work at a gym, you are most likely an hourly employee, and have all of both the protections and obligations of any other employee of any business. Usually, you are an employee at will, meaning that either you or your employer can end the employment at any time for any reason. (that’s an overstatement, but not a huge one) At most yoga studios, though, it’s different. You are (again, mostly, not always) an independent contractor, much like a plumber or the accountant you hire for your taxes. You may have an written contract, you may not. Again, you have rights, but it’s not the same as being an traditional employee. (For one, they don’t take taxes out for you, as I found out once the hard way via an unexpected $4,000 tax bill) You do have rights, but it’s different.
Be clear about what you are. Whenever possible, get things in writing, including what constitutes grounds for dismissal or grounds for raises and the like. Many studios don’t have policies written down, some do. It’s always safer for all if policies are transparent and in writing; another thing to consider when you’re deciding where to teach.
For me, right now, that has meant broadening my client base, meaning I’m teaching fewer classes at more studios, and pursuing more private clients and teacher mentorships. Since all of my employment situations are at will, and no one is offering me ginourmous money with health and 401K right now, this oddly enough is where I feel a certain level of stability. For other of my peers it makes a lot of sense to teach at only one place.
When I started, I took every gig that came, which is what I still recommend most new teachers do. But I feel like when teachers reach a certain level of credibility and esteem (which for me has meant when I can turn work down) it’s important to start to shape things a little more carefully, so that you’re really doing what you want to be doing.
2. Watch your tail. I don’t mean this in a paranoid way at all; just be aware that no matter how good you have it the reality of being a yoga teacher is that this is a fragile livelihood. No one expects the proverbial Spanish Inquisition, but injuries and family crises and property damage happens, any of which could put a yoga teacher in a lurch. A lot of financial planners talk about a three month emergency fund, something you put aside so that if everything went to pot you still had the means to pay your rent or mortgage, car payments, groceries and/or other obligations for three months if things went belly up. I think this is especially critical for yoga teachers; it’s something I haven’t taken seriously enough in the past. I am trying to rectify that now. And if weird things start happening to any other employee at any place you work, assume it could happen to you.
3. Get friendly with tax law. When I think back on my college experience, one of the things I’m most grateful for, oddly enough, was two Monday afternoons in a Business of Music class where we got a thorough introduction to tax law, and how it impacted a self-employed musician. I don’t get to write off tuxedo dry cleaning anymore (don’t ask), but everything I learned those two days, and what I studied because of those Mondays has translated directly into being a less-broke yoga teacher. Find a good accountant, absolutely, but knowing the rules has saved me literally thousands of dollars in the last five years, and taught me how to handle my business more intelligently.
In both cases #2 and #3, know where to go when things don’t feel right. If you can’t afford a lawyer, the state attorney general’s office has a help line that can answer basic questions about the law. (I’ve used the Mass AG’s office in a couple of pinches about contracts. It’s not a substitute for a lawyer, but it always pointed me in the right direction.) On tax stuff, I’ve had to call the IRS once or twice, and as long as you don’t call them in early April they are generally very nice and very helpful. (I think they’re all to aware of their reputation, and trying to combat it) Also, remember that accountants and lawyers are deductible expenses, and often save you much more money than they cost you. And as a rule don’t use your students for professional services; it can get awkward. (post forthcoming…)
For the record, I don’t believe that any of this advice contradicts how a lot of us yoga teacher talk, “follow your bliss”, “manifest your dreams” and the like. I think of it like the joke popular in some Catholic circles: a man is stranded on his roof during a hurricane. A boat comes by and calls for him, and he says “Keep going, God will protect me.” A larger boat comes, same response. A helicopter comes, and the man still refuses to go. Of course, the water keeps rising, and the man perishes. He gets to the gates of heaven (hey, this is a Catholic joke!), and gets to meet his god. He says “Lord, I put all my faith in you, and still I perished? Why did you forsake me?” God scoffs and says “what the hell do you want? I sent you two boats and a helicopter!” Trust the process, follow your heart, but remember your head is there for a reason.