Stop Selling Yoga. In Three Acts.

There is a complicated discussion that has been happening in the Western yoga teaching world for quite awhile now…at least 6 years. Or that is how long I have been paying attention to it. At the heart of the question lies the main conversation topic “are white people culturally appropriating yoga in the West?”.

The short answer is you betcha.

But the long answer is, in my mind, a lot more complicated.

Complicated in large part due to the fact that discussions of yoga as a business and industry, and discussions of Yoga as a tradition and practice get muddled together — and sorted out often times in shame-filled dialogues that usually staple a quick post-script saying “I am not saying you shouldn’t teach yoga” (yes, yes you are Suzy), or “yoga is already a business and the tradition is not certain so all bets are off” (you sure about that, Chad?).

So, this article is here to explore what we can do, what is best left alone, and to do something that most other discussions around this topic rarely offer. A solution. And that solution in case you don’t want to make it to the end, is to run your business like a business. Just not like Chad’s business.

Act 1. Should I quit?

You might be asking yourself now or have in the past — if you have followed the discussion of yoga teaching and cultural appropriation over the last several years, if you…you a white, Western, yoga teacher (me too!), should quit teaching yoga.

From what I have seen, copious times, is teachers of all lineages and traditions saying, “I am not saying you shouldn’t train to be a yoga teacher” while simultaneously saying “the entire system of teacher training is culturally insensitive, appropriative, and degrading the skill of teaching yoga”. Often instead of following up with a solution that offers real-world advice, we hear a quick “teach all 8 limbs” (which I frankly think is unhelpful advice, very much in the lines of vague-booking a post that says “you people should learn how to drive better”). Really your instincts are right. They are saying ‘you shouldn’t train to be a yoga teacher’.

I am just not here for that. There must be a better way.

It is worth noting that selling shame is prevalent in the yoga industry in all forms. High gloss inspo posts that feature Teacher X doing some fantastical feats of gymnastic wizardry, located on some beach/mountain/waterfall/tropical forest destination fill folks with longing and shame. Also though, ranting posts about how everyone should be as woke and the author…those are shame filled too. And on top of the shame dressing sprinkled all over your just trying to live my life Cobb salad, those professional critics also seem to miraculously not be offering any real or practical solutions that aren’t “teach all 8 limbs of yoga”.

So let me tell you this.

If you are taking the criticism of a person who has only thought through the problem of the yoga industry to the point of only asking the question, don’t. If someone has a strong enough critique to write about an industry problem, they ought to at least make a stab at an industry solution that isn’t general and unhelpful.

Is that solution perhaps behind a paywall?

Well, I have an extra-special mega-eyeroll saved up just for those folks.

You don’t get to claim to be helping an industry in earnest while also selling your help to fund your teaching career. Yes, your work is valuable. But stop using our own incredibly underpaid population to subsidize the fact you are in an industry that has a crap business model and you haven’t quite thought your way out of it yet. Instead, lets talk it through and share our solutions generously. Because that lifts up everyone, and <spoiler alert> will likely also make us all more money.

But either way, we’ve got to stop selling yoga. It isn’t ours to sell.

Act 2. Why did nobody tell me this?

I’m not sure.

But my guess is two pronged.

The first prong is that the industry of yoga has long operated on an unsustainable business model. That has created a scarcity mindset for its participants and that has caused a logjam in information flow regarding best business and money practices.

(I know, I know, I said “scarcity mindset”. I hate me for saying it too. But there is no better phrase for it.)

So those who knew how to build a somewhat stable business model never taught others how to do the same. Maybe it was a “I figured it out, so they have to too” mentality. Maybe it was “behind a paywall” mentality. Maybe they just didn’t keep up to date with how yoga professionals were marketing themselves, and in their minds it is still 2015 when Instagram was a different platform and they themselves were just starting out.

The second prong is that there is a real denial in the yoga industry that we are, in fact, an industry. Because yoga as a tradition comes from the sacred ritual and sacred spaces of South Asia, we hold on to the idealism that yoga itself must never be marred with the dirt of commodity or capital.

Unfortunately, this is just willfully naïve.

Yoga pants alone, hold several billion dollars of our industry in their tiny ass pockets that can only fit a key or a quarter (why???).

The other billions of dollars? Most of this can be set at the feet of the manufacturers and chains, with a small percentage heading towards the (mostly) women who facilitate the classes and train the teachers. And if those teachers didn’t have other jobs or partners who earned good money, they would likely be living below the poverty line.

I am sorry, but denying that yoga is an industry is like denying the two-party system of politics in the US. Some of it is truly unfortunate, some of it was started in brilliance, and all of it we can’t change.

We are an industry. With significant money in it. Selling yoga, which we really shouldn’t be doing, because it isn’t ours to sell.

Act 3. What should we be selling?

Here is the interesting question, right?

What do we sell if we don’t sell yoga?

Well, I cannot tell you that for yourself. But if you are in the yoga industry, I need you to think long and hard about what you are actually selling.

I do a lot of different things in the yoga space, including run a yoga studio. But I am clear that what I sell my members, clients, and students is an experience. The yoga is our gift. It was gifted to us, and we will proudly pass on that gift to others.

The commodification exchange in my business is held directly on the experience I provide in the space, and I am crystal clear about it. I am a businessperson, and I take care and pride in the experience I provide for my customers.

Maybe you are like me, and you sell experience too.

Maybe you sell your skillset, expertise, ease, comfort, or something else. (No, not time. You aren’t renting your time.)

And the reason why you aren’t hearing this from your revered yoga teacher (and truly, I am sure she is rad), is because this is a business discussion, not a yoga discussion.

Who you are as a business person, what you sell, how you sell it, those are discussions for a business coach. If you are asking me, preferably a feminist business coach, but that’s a whole other blog. But there is no doubt that the solution to finding out what you are selling (not yoga) lies in the realm of business. These are things that business owners of all trades have been working on since forever.

Who is your target student?

What does she like?

How can you be of service to her?

To some degree Chad from earlier is kind of correct. There is a lot to be learned from basic business skills for yoga professionals. Now, if we can partner those business skills with the living principles and philosophy that yoga shares with us, then maybe we can in fact run our business in alignment with the tradition and practice of yoga. (Fine. I referenced the 8 limbs. Are you happy?)

Please don’t sell yoga though. It isn’t yours to sell.

Want to know more about my thoughts on selling yoga? Listen to my podcast on the subject here.

Subscribe if you liked this blog, I will be dropping yoga articles on here as often as I can.

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Rebecca Sebastian

Rebecca writes about all things yoga. Host of the podcast Working In Yoga, yoga studio owner, yoga therapist and yoga NPO co-founder. Rebel in stretchy pants.