The first trade union for yoga teachers in the UK has been formed, with teachers telling VICE World News it was a critical step in an industry where people have faced disruption during the pandemic years of stagnant wages.
While there has been a boom in Zoom classes in the last year, COVID and social-distancing has hit yoga teachers hard, in an industry where there wasn’t enough work to go round even before the pandemic.
Most yoga teachers, like other members of the gig economy, have been ineligible for the UK government’s furlough scheme and are denied basic rights like sick pay and annual leave – ironic in an almost £1 billion industry that projects promotes self-care and positive mental health.
Last week the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain (IWGB) announced it had helped form the first trade union for yoga teachers in the UK, the IWGB Yoga Teachers’ Union, and only the second ever in the world, after Unionize Yoga in New York which launched in 2019.
“I got told by one studio owner I had money trauma and should be teaching from love not fear,” says Laura Hancock, chair of the yoga teachers union. “It was clear to me after that moment that a union was needed, I was asking for such basic terms. Lots of yoga teachers are being paid badly, I was earning about £900 a month in Oxford.”
While they may receive a greater hourly rate (almost £28 on average) than those in other zero-hour jobs, yoga teachers can only run three to four classes per day before they risk burning out. The work involves travel to studios, pre-class preparation, post-class cleaning, and marketing – and that’s before dealing with the emotional, spiritual, and muscular dilemmas of the 460,000 people in the UK who do it at least once a week.
“We have found a sector not so different from the rest of the gig economy, through organising with yoga teachers behind the veil of wellness and tranquility,” says the general secretary of the IWGB, Henry Chango-Lopez.
Norman Blair, a yin specialist – that’s the slow paced form of yoga where you hold poses for many minutes – has been causing a bit of a stir in recent years. On his blog he’s been calling out the big beasts of the industry for “ruling by fear” through treating teachers like “feudal serfs” and threatening to cut their classes “to keep them on their toes”.
Those he’s been admonishing include Virgin Active, which imposed a new pay scale amid the pandemic, meaning teachers could be paid less than they were 19 years ago, yoga chain Triyoga and even his own regular employer, the Life Centre in London.
“Triyoga now has six centres in London with about 750 classes every week and business plans that talk of opening two new centres a year,” he writes. “Their hourly rate when it opened in 2000 was £20. It is still the same in 2019. The pay per student ranges from £1.10 to £2.”
At the Life Centre, Blair’s pay is £24 per hour plus £1.40 per student, though he caps his rate and asks for the surplus to be distributed among teachers whose classes attract less students. His hourly rate has stayed the same since 2008 but an increase in the per student reward meant his overall pay has gone up by about 8 per cent.
But in that time, he believes his employer’s income has increased significantly more. “In 2003 a 75-minute drop-in class cost £10; in 2019, a 75 minute drop-in costs £17 – an increase of 70 percent,” he says.
While Blair is among those who make a comfortable living out of teaching yoga (thanks to training courses which he says further saturate the teacher market), he is mindful that it remains a struggle for many as yogaland becomes increasingly crowded by chains, some backed by big capital, as more and more people wish to heal their body and mind through the practice.
Although studio rents are undeniably high, there is a feeling that some employers have behaved rather unyogically in not raising wages for teachers despite growing revenues in the millions. The apparent contradiction between selling a wellbeing service and underpaying employees is inescapable, teachers say.
The UK yoga and pilates industry saw its revenue grow 6 percent last year to more than £926 million, with more than 10,000 now qualified to teach the 5,000-year-old discipline as it becomes ever trendier to be a teacher, and, well, better at yoga.
“It’s time for the yoga industry to live its values and respect our human rights,” says Simran Uppal, the secretary of the union. “We’re not monks protected by an ashram or a wealthy elite of wellness celebrities. We have to survive just like other precarious workers.”
Lucy Bannister, a member of the union based in Bradford, is also sick of bending over backwards for employers despite having a decade of experience and claims she worked through a miscarriage because she couldn’t afford to stop.
“I've really struggled to make ends meet as a yoga teacher, especially now I'm a single parent,” she says. “I work hard but still I can't get a mortgage, rely on benefits and at points even the food bank. Like many, I've been pushed by financial pressure and the precarious nature of the job to work through extreme health issues, injuries, chronic back pain – even the early stages of labour.
“I had to work through a miscarriage because I couldn't afford to stop. Even now, with a decade of teaching experience I'm still having to push myself through COVID symptoms to teach remote classes from home.”
She suggests that yogaland can sometimes taint itself with an exclusionary aura – with some key players often more concerned with radiating an aspirational image than the practice’s founding tenets of uniting the human spirit with that of the divine.
“Some studios will directly discriminate based on body type,” she claims. “I've been told, for example, ‘We don't hire people that are fat like you.’ ... We deserve fair pay and stable work in spaces that are safe for everyone. That's what yoga should be.”
Life Centre did not respond to a request to comment from VICE World News. Triyoga did not provide a comment. Virgin says it realigned freelancer pay to equalise basic rates while introducing a performance based system (KPI) meaning pay for 45 minutes can range from £23 to £40. Blair says he was paid £30 an hour in 2001.
“Whilst the majority of freelance instructors received increased class delivery rates [after the pay change], some may have dropped, which would have been a direct result of KPIs set not being achieved,” a spokesperson for Virgin says.