Yoga Teachers Are Unionizing to Heal the Wellness Industry

Instructors at the chain YogaWorks are attempting to unionize with the help of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. (Photo: SeattleYogaNews/Flickr/cc)

Yoga Teachers Are Unionizing to Heal the Wellness Industry

"You're in the wellness industry, your job is about health, and yet your own health is not supported or guaranteed in any way."

New York Magazine

One of the nation's top yoga studio chains takes its name from a simple slogan. The company calls itself YogaWorks, according to its website, because yoga works for every body. But that inclusive message, employees say, doesn't extend to the company's labor practices -- and in order for it to live up to its lofty ideals, it must change. Now they're ready to force it to try. Citing low pay, irregular scheduling, and inadequate benefits, they've organized the first union of yoga instructors in the country.

"Yoga teachers, by my calculation, are in New York City and other places are earning under what's considered the poverty line," said one woman, who supports the union and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "I'm sure that students, if they knew that, would be shocked."

On Monday morning, around 100 teachers from the chain's four New York City locations asked management to recognize a union with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. They filed a petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board on Thursday. Organizers stress that their issues aren't just YogaWorks-specific, and are also endemic to the industry as a whole: Teachers are typically independent contractors, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and precariousness, and usually paid per class, which means they have to piece together multiple gigs in order to make ends meet.

Though YogaWorks classifies teachers as employees, which entitles them to certain rights and benefits -- a rarity for the industry -- many say it's difficult to qualify for the company's health insurance. To do so, teachers have to lead at least ten classes per week, but for most, the standard is prohibitively onerous. No one interviewed by the Cut currently has insurance through YogaWorks. "You're in the wellness industry, your job is about health, and yet your own health is not supported or guaranteed in any way," said the anonymous woman.

Other instructors spoke of the lack of a clear path for career advancement and frustrations around pay raises. The woman said she'd heard of an employee who had worked for the company for 17 years and never received a raise. To get one at all, she added, teachers typically have to force the conversation, and that's not always easy.

"I fortunately knew the process of advocating for myself, but a lot of other teachers, specifically newer teachers, were really struggling with the process and weren't sure how they how they could get a raise or insurance," Jess Blake, who's worked for the company since 2011, told the Cut. "It seems like it's almost impossible for them to get what they needed in their lives through yoga."

Low pay and professional instability can block anyone who isn't financially comfortable from entering the field, and teachers believe these barriers disproportionately burden women of color. Toya Williford, who teaches part-time for YogaWorks, told New York that she believes that teachers are "vastly underpaid and undervalued, especially within the YogaWorks structure." She added, "I'm an African-American woman and I have found very few women of color in the industry."

YogaWorks employees initially brought their concerns to company management, in conversations that were "professional and great," according to Markella Los, who's been teaching for YogaWorks for two-and-a-half years. But unionization, she added, looked like the best way to permanently improve conditions. YogaWorks, meanwhile, isn't thrilled by its place in labor history. In an email to staff, reported by the New York Times, a regional vice-president for the company urged employees not to sign union cards. "YogaWorks does not believe that employees joining -- and paying dues to -- a union is in the best interest of YogaWorks, our employees or our students," Heather Eary wrote.

To the YogaWorks teachers, unionizing sends a message to the entire industry. "What we want to see is a higher bar, a higher standard, for how teachers are treated across the board," Blake explained.

That ambition pits the YogaWorks union directly against industry trends. It's a conflict with broader significance: For many members of this mostly female workforce, yoga is foremost a spiritual practice, grounded in principles of non-violence and communal well-being. But as it gained popularity in the U.S., corporations took interest and sought to turn it into a product. The two philosophies already have little in common with each other, and as private investors seek to make more and more profit off the ancient spiritual discipline, their differences could become irreconcilable.

YogaWorks exemplifies much of the change that affects the industry overall. Since its 1987 founding by two Los Angeles-area yoga teachers, it has become a national chain with around 60 locations, and has changed corporate hands twice. It's currently owned by Great Hill Partners, the same private-equity firm that bought Gizmodo Media Group earlier this year. And it's not the only yoga chain with a link to private equity -- as the New York Timesreported earlier this year, TSG Consumer Partners bought another, larger yoga chain, CorePower, in March.

It's not hard to guess why private equity's is so interested in yoga: Wellness is incredibly lucrative. A 2016 study produced jointly by Yoga Journal and the Yoga Alliance found that Americans spent around $16.8 billion a year on classes and products. But those profits aren't being equally shared, teachers say; in the same Yoga Alliance study, only 29 percent of teachers described yoga as their primary source of income. And in 2019, over a thousand CorePower teachers sued the chain, citing the amount of off-hours work that goes into preparing a yoga class, and saying that they're paid less than minimum wage. (CorePower vigorously denied that claim to the Times.)

Williford and others hope the union will help them carve out new stability in a precarious industry -- a goal that recently attained new significance, as the future of YogaWorks looks somewhat uncertain. In June, it removed itself from the New York Stock Exchange. Its revenue had "decreased by 6.7 percent" during the last quarter, Club Industry reported in August, plus "a quarterly loss of 19 cents per share." To curb expenses, it closed several yoga studios.

Teachers began their organizing drive months before YogaWorks stopped publicly trading, but the company's turmoil only seems to have reinforced their commitment to a union. It's a question of wellness, after all -- their own, and that of teachers to come. "I feel like our effort at YogaWorks to unionize teachers makes it seem that we do matter. Like our voices matter, and that the profession needs to have more support," Blake said.