As COVID-19 Reveals the Cracks in the Yoga Industry, Could a Universal Teachers’ Union Help Reshape Our Community?

This story is part of a series covering the future of yoga during and after the coronavirus pandemic. Here, we take a look at the progress the yoga unionization effort has made. Read more about the the specific challenges facing the industry in our second story: The Future of Yoga: The Change We Need.

For yoga teachers around the world, their worst case career scenario arrived mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of yoga studios and limited in-person contact for an indefinite period of time. As more than 40 million Americans file for unemployment, many of whom lack health insurance or paid sick leave, there has never been a more pressing time than the present to consider the possibilities associated with a yoga teachers’ union.

It’s not a new thought. In fact, it’s an initiative that started with a small group of YogaWorks teachers in New York back in February 2019. These teachers formed Unionize Yoga, the first-ever yoga teachers’ union to become certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

What began a series of internal discussions among YogaWorks NY teachers about what job security, health insurance, and equity could look like for their profession, quickly reverberated throughout the company. The more conversations that took place, the more teachers realized that many of their individual frustrations were aligned around the same issues. 

Then, just prior to Memorial Day, Unionize Yoga negotiations with YogaWorks concluded. An internal email from the Unionize Yoga Bargaining Committee to YogaWorks NY teachers obtained by Yoga Journal disclosed the details of a severance package for members of the YogaWorks Bargaining Unit. That unit, according to the email, includes any YogaWorks NY teacher who had worked two hours or more in the four months prior to the closure of the NY studios—which shuttered in mid-April due to financial challenges.

See also After Years of Financial Struggles, YogaWorks to Permanently Close in New York

The severance package offered paid health care benefits to employees who were enrolled in the company’s health care plan (any employee who worked at least 10 hours per week, which excludes many teachers) for three months following the closure date. Employees would also be guaranteed preference in hiring over non-YogaWorks employees at other YogaWorks’ locations should a New York employee relocate to another market.

It is a small step, but one with implications for how yoga teachers can organize moving forward, especially in a new era of online teaching and potential studio closures.

Equity, Diversity, and Job Security

The issues at Unionize Yoga’s bargaining table were not specific to problems at YogaWorks NY—they were industry-wide, the union says. These problems include a lack of equity (a teacher with over 15 years at the same company making, say, $40 a class, while a brand new teacher with very little experience could make twice that depending on who shows up); a lack of diversity (studios that continue to hire and favor white, young, thin, able-bodied teachers instead of prioritizing different body types, ethnicities, cultures, ages, and identities); a lack of sustainability (the majority of teachers have alternative sources of income that supplement their teaching, or may have financial assistance from a partner or their family, and in some cases, even inherited wealth); and a lack of job security (many teachers may work for very low wages without health insurance and lack financial stability). The union has also recognized the many teachers who don’t have other sources of income at their disposal live under the poverty line and receive public assistance such as subsidized housing, food stamps, and more.

A fair wage for yoga teachers, according to the union, is one that would increase over time with experience, and considers other factors such as the rising costs of living. YogaWorks teachers have pointed out that the pay structure is all over the map with different teachers at different pay rates. Unionize Yoga has argued for a set and transparent pay structure so that all teachers are aware of where they stand and know where they’re headed as they progress in their careers.

One of the biggest elephants in the room, however, is the perpetuation of existing privilege, the union says. If the yoga industry is defined by those who get to participate in it, Unionize Yoga indicates that by continuing to exclude marginalized communities, we’re defining what the industry looks like based on pre-existing biases. “It’s hard to see the big picture until you’ve worked in the industry for several years and see these patterns repeat,” wrote David DiMaria, a spokesperson for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace (IAMAW), in an email.

Of course, this perpetuation of privilege is a byproduct of capitalism and systemic racism in general and is not unique to yoga. But aren’t yogis supposed to be leaders and changemakers? 

More teachers of color are featured in magazines, emerging on social media platforms, teaching in studios, and giving their communities a voice. Rising star Lauren Ash of Black Girl in Om has been carving out a safe space in wellness for people of color since 2014, while yoga teacher, body positivity advocate, and Instagram megastar Jessamyn Stanley has been outspoken about how yoga is marketed toward “thin, white, affluent people.” Still, a 2017 National Health Interview survey found that more non-Hispanic white people practice yoga and meditation than non-Hispancic black people; 17.1% compared with 9.3%. While the industry may be starting to move the needle toward more diversity and inclusivity, we still have a ways to go.

See also What It’s Like to Be a Black Yoga Teacher

Yoga Alliance, the biggest nationwide professional organization for teachers that exists within the yoga industry, provides guidelines for studios and parameters for teacher qualifications and aims to promote integrity and diversity in the industry. In late February, 2020, Yoga Alliance up-leveled its standards and launched a new ethical commitment code of conduct as an effort to address inequities and lack of diversity in the industry.

But, according to Unionize Yoga, only a teachers’ union and the federally protected rights that come with it could actually protect teachers, since unions have the right to negotiate legally binding contracts with employers. Unionize Yoga says that a universal teachers’ union would prioritize the greater good of the group over the self-serving interests of the individual. 

The nature of the studio business model in general is to create a comparison culture among teaching staff, with pay structures often set up to encourage competition. In short, teachers are often rewarded financially based on the number of students in the room.

As a teacher myself, I have observed that the paid-per-head industry standard can force teachers to become salespeople, responsible for recruiting and retaining students in order to raise—or sustain—their salaries. Just as a freelancer or entrepreneur is not paid for the time spent marketing their business, a yoga teacher is not compensated for the “invisible hours” spent promoting their classes, let alone preparing for them. This could help explain why so many teachers find themselves vying for the spotlight. This notion of hustling and jockeying is rarely, if ever, discussed in teacher trainings.

If the yoga industry in the West has indeed perpetuated a culture of homogeneity that spawned separateness and competition among teachers, it’s possible that an industry-wide collective with the standards across the board could serve as a healing salve. 

“From the start, our vision was to reimagine the yoga industry and to come together to ensure the sustainability of our profession through fair and equitable pay, transparent and truthful communication, and a clear path for growth, job security, and benefits,” says Tamar Samir, a yoga teacher and co-organizer for Unionize Yoga. 

While some are saying that the pandemic has forced a long overdue shift in the yoga industry, without brick-and-mortar studios relying on teacher trainings to survive—many have already begun to shutter their doors permanently. And we’re still faced with the same problem of too many teachers and not enough students. A teachers’ union could promote workers’ rights, seniority, equity, and diversity for a more promising industry and a brighter future. 

See also To Pay or Not to Pay for Yoga During the Coronavirus Shutdown

Marketing material for the Unionize Yoga campaign.

The Timeline of Unionization Efforts at YogaWorks

Within a few weeks of the early discussions at YogaWorks NY, what began as off-the-record talks among colleagues led to meetings with management, and eventually, the decision to officially organize and form a union. By the spring of 2019, the group was 80 members strong and dubbed themselves the ‘Teachers’ Initiative.’ They had reached out to the Machinists’ Union, or IAMAW, which specializes in the gig economy, under the recommendation of CorePower Yoga teacher Effie Morgenstern, who, at the time, was attempting to form a union herself (though CorePower employees filed a series of labor lawsuits against the company instead).

By the summer, teachers at all four remaining YogaWorks NY locations at the time began signing union cards in favor of the union, despite that Heather Eary, a regional vice president for YogaWorks, sent an email encouraging employees not to. Once teachers had reached their goal of obtaining 80 percent of employees’ signatures, they filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). On September 9, 2019, with support from the IAMAW, the Teachers’ Initiative took their campaign public as Unionize Yoga and sent a formal request to YogaWorks asking the company to recognize their union. That request was initially denied. Then on October 17, and again on November 14, all YogaWorks NY teachers were given the opportunity to vote either for or against the union, to which an overwhelming majority voted in favor. Following that victory, YogaWorks teachers were certified as a union by the NLRB in New York.

Fast-forward to March 2020: A bargaining committee of YogaWorks NY teachers and reps from IAMAW were in the throes of their second round of negotiations with the company.

Unionize Yoga had moved mountains; its efforts echoed across the industry and beyond—even Senator Bernie Sanders has Tweeted about it—and teachers around the country were inspired by their efforts and began to mobilize in pursuit of higher standards themselves. Many teachers have reached out to the union for advice as to how they might start one of their own. What had once seemed inconceivable for the yoga industry had become a reality.

But then COVID-19 changed everything. In mid-March, shelter-in-place restrictions put a pause on bargaining efforts between Unionize Yoga and YogaWorks. In an internal email that was sent by Heather Eary on March 16 and obtained by Yoga Journal, YogaWorks teachers and staff were notified of a temporary two-week closure that would go into effect the following day. The email stated that teachers could use any accrued pay from their sick leave bank, and that any staff member who wished to donate their accrued leave to a “Leave Bank” had the option to do so for those who had run out of leave pay. It was available on a first come, first serve basis until the bank was empty, with a maximum of five hours per employee (a noble effort, sure, but hardly enough to pay the bills).

See also Teaching Yoga in the Age of COVID-19

YogaWorks teachers, unlike most teachers at independent studios, are regular employees of the company, not independent contractors, which is why they’re eligible for perks like sick pay and which is also why they were able to legally form a union within the company. And though YogaWorks employees who work 10 classes per week (or equivalent) are considered full-time and eligible for benefits like health care, according to Unionize Yoga, no teacher at YogaWorks NY had worked that many hours. The number of hours worked, of course, does not include the countless ‘invisible hours’ (class prep, travel, training, etc.), involved in teaching a class

As studios everywhere closed, including all 66 YogaWorks locations across the country, the entire industry changed in the span of a week and shifted to online platforms. With the exception of its studios in New York, the U.S. epicenter of the novel coronavirus, YogaWorks began live streaming its classes, offering more than 1,000 per week. In a statement provided exclusively to Yoga Journal, YogaWorks said that despite considerable obstacles resulting from the impact of COVID-19, including the nationwide shutdown of studios and in hard impact areas like New York, that it would continue to promote “nationwide teacher-first policies that put teachers in the best position to succeed and grow in the long term.”

But the pandemic continued to wreak havoc on the economy, and, according to the teachers who were interviewed for this article, YogaWorks began furloughing some of its management in April. Sick leave banks dried up. YogaWorks’ out-of-work teachers on staff (at least in New York where no live stream classes were offered), were compensated with a $25 fee for each scheduled class they would have otherwise taught.

See also 7 Ways Yogis Can Practice Loving-Kindness in Response to COVID-19

Under normal circumstances, teachers’ regular pay rates at YogaWorks ranged anywhere from $35 to $125 per class—depending on somewhat ambiguous calculations of seniority, celebrity, and of course, how many students came to class. YogaWorks teachers have said that this broad range in pay is anything but logical or systematic. There’s also a bump system that offers a flat rate per additional head after a certain number of students, but it’s unclear whether that system is the same across the board. Despite that YogaWorks’ payscale is in some respects more generous and consistent than the pay-per-head standard at smaller studios, the lack of structure in the pay system and transparency around it becomes problematic, teachers say, creating competition instead of collaboration.

Eary’s email ended by reassuring employees that YogaWorks would come out “stronger than before.” But by mid-April, YogaWorks CEO Brian Cooper delivered the news that all four remaining New York locations would permanently close as of Sunday, April 19, citing years of financial difficulties in a competitive market. Cooper wrote that the New York region had been suffering losses even before the pandemic, despite efforts to improve studio performance. In the past two years, two YogaWorks’ New York locations had closed (Westside and SoHo). Now that the company had lost its lease on the Eastside, the region’s only profitable studio, according to Cooper, there was no viable path to reduce the company’s losses and “get the New York region to break-even.”

As the news rippled throughout the company and devastated New York teachers, Unionize Yoga was faced with a new challenge: How can they reach a contract with a region that has dissolved? As a NLRB certified union, however, their rights to bargain were not affected by the closure, and the union continued to negotiate compensation and other issues that stemmed from the shuttering of the New York studios.

“While our negotiations with this specific company may soon come to an end, teachers’ efforts to reshape their world is only just beginning,” a rep from Unionize Yoga had said.

The negotiations at the end of May provided a glimmer of hope for changing the industry at large. The severance package for YogaWorks NY teachers varies by employee and is based on their years of service, ranging from two to four weeks’ pay. A YogaWorks teacher who preferred not to be identified said that the company would cap the severance pay at $2,500. (The company requires any employees who accept the severance package to sign a non-disclosure agreement to prevent them from suing the company or speaking out publicly about the company in a negative manner.)

Has the Unionization Effort Been Successful?

Was the deal a win for the union? The short answer: probably. Without it, YogaWorks NY teachers may not have received anything at all, says a former YogaWorks teacher who asked to remain anonymous. Unionize Yoga had spent more than a year spent organizing and tirelessly campaigning for their cause, thwarted by the sudden turn of events that led to the closures of YogaWorks’ remaining New York locations. As negotiations with the company concluded, the severance package marked marked a historic a victory for the union. Unionize Yoga representatives say they may be the first group of yoga teachers to receive a severance package following a layoff. “We are proud of our collaboration and accomplishments together and are thankful for everyone who has supported and encouraged thus far,” the union wrote in an Instagram post.

As Samir has said, the union’s larger efforts to reshape the yoga world are only just beginning. As news of Unionize Yoga’s formation spread across the U.S. and teachers elsewhere considered the power of mobilizing and forming collectives, the industry-wide camaraderie will continue. Beyond the borders of YogaWorks’ New York studios, the union’s collaboration with IAMAW, which has a reputation for non-traditional organizing in the gig economy, will also continue. New ideas for a post-pandemic world have already begun to take shape, from the possibility of a universal yoga teachers’ cooperative similar to an actors’ guild. “The solidarity, mutual support, and trust formed in this initiative cannot be dissolved,” Samir said. “It will simply shape shift into another form.”

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