What does it take to succeed as an Ashtanga teacher or studio?

I think we all can agree that it ain’t easy being an Ashtanga teacher.

Talk to any of the senior Western teachers and you can get stories about the slow, slow starts to their teaching careers. Tales of rooms with very few students. Questionable looks from parents (the teachers’ parents). Encouragement from Guruji: “Slow growing is good.” The additions of Hanuman to add “external prana” to the studio (i.e. money).

Via sundt.com

Yoga’s boomed since, of course, and I think a fair number of these teachers have (like Guruji himself) finally gotten the rewards for their long years of labor. But I’m certain it still is tough, making sure there are enough students, managing the business side of things and keeping the yoga teaching as they want it to be.

I know, for instance, just how critical it is to be a good business person in order to run a business. One can be the absolute best at what one does and still fail miserably if the routine, but necessary, business matters aren’t handled.

For a yoga teacher — especially one who is running/owning a shala — those matter can include: rent; insurance; maintenance costs; start-up purchases (yoga blocks, mats, etc.) and continuing purchases; basic business costs (an accountant, computers, the website and online schedule, printing schedules and other material).

From that I want to turn to the number 30.

In comments about the closing of the Greenwich Jois shala, 30 students seemed to pop up a few times as representing a crowded, and potentially even robust, Mysore room. That does seem like a pretty full Mysore room, even spread out over a three-hour morning.

I’m not so sure we should assume that’s a winning number, however.

What follows is going to be very broadstroke, but I think it demonstrates the difficulty of maintaining an Ashtanga shala.

First off, think about a big chain yoga studio. They have a couple handful of classes each day, at least; maybe approaching 20. I’ve been in some, and they can crowd 40 or more people in. Many aren’t nearly that busy, but if you get three to four classes approaching that size, you’ve got a student base of 100 to maybe 125, easy. Add some other classes, and you might have close to 200 regular students.

Contrast that with 30.

But there’s more, really.

Lets just say an Ashtanga studio does have 30 regular students, all paying their fees on schedule. (Did I just venture into fantasyland? A little, perhaps.) To make the math easy, I’m going to say they are paying a high for some areas, low for other areas fee of $200/month.

That’s $6,000 a month, $72,000 a year.

An OK salary? Maybe. But then one needs to start chipping away at expenses: rent (I know the Jois Encinitas rent was said in the Vanity Fair article to be $10,000 a month), those business expenses, insurance ($140 for full time instructors via Yoga Alliance). How about transportation?

How about paying teachers? Even if there is one main (certified? authorized?) teacher, there has to be some assistance, right? I know the pay for assistants can be pretty small, but a few hundred dollars a month cuts into that $6,000.

See where 30 students doesn’t go very far?

Of course, there are other ways for yoga teachers — probably especially ones who are running their own shalas — to make more money: private sessions, weekend workshops, maybe a little retail in the shala, etc. But that doesn’t help much if you aren’t making a solid, base living via the studio.

It certainly doesn’t make it easy to keep the studio open.

And 30 students probably isn’t going to let many teachers do that, unless the overhead is as close to nill as possible: Perhaps the teacher just rents space for the Mysore class, for instance. But, still, does that leave much more than $4,500 to $5,000 per month left? (Again, I’m broad brushing here, spitballing, as they say.)

As Bobbie wrote a few months back, Ashtanga isn’t popular, really. If you run a “yoga” studio, you can draw in students for a bunch of different reasons: 15 regulars for Mysore, 20 for Iyengar, 50 for the flow classes scheduled so conveniently after work. Even if one charges those 85 students just $125/month, you’re pulling in more than $10,000. You might have more overhead, but you also have more students.

Another key difference: Unlike with Ashtanga, students at a “yoga” studio probably aren’t being encouraged to come six days a week. It is entirely possible that those three or four classes I imagined above, with 40 or so students, actually represent double that number because the students might be practicing just three times a week. That would also be why a chain yoga studio would charge far less than an Ashtanga one. We might really be talking 200 or 250 students, all being charged $90 per month. Now we’re in the $20,000 per month range. (This link settles on 273 students as the number needed, and that only ends up giving the owner a $3,000/month salary.)

The bottom-line, I guess I’m arguing, is even a really crowded Mysore room — 40 students, 50? — is still cutting things pretty thin when it comes to keeping that Ashtanga studio open. (Ten grand per month in student fees at the Encinitas Jois shala, for instance, might only cover rent, according to the above number I cited.)

And I’m probably arguing, further, than some of the fundamentals to Ashtanga conspire to create a fairly difficult yoga to make profitable. Unless you can draw hundreds of students and charge even more than $200 per month.

I know we have readers who are yoga teachers or run (or help run) shalas. Do feel free to weigh in on your experiences.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

14 thoughts on “What does it take to succeed as an Ashtanga teacher or studio?”

  1. I can attest, as a Mysore program director and studio owner, to the fact that you shouldn’t quit your day-job if you want to teach yoga this way. It takes years to develop a steady student base, especially if you are doing it from scratch.

    Slow growing, yes. In my 5th year of service in my space (and over a decade of teaching) I have developed about 12 daily practitioners… and about 30 students who come regularly (1-3 times a week), total. I live in a small college town, so the population is not large or urban. It is a niche yoga market, certainly. I do it as a labor of love, not for the money. It fills me and sustains me to help others, that’s why I do it.

    I could not do this if I did not have an alternative source of income.

    My attitude about my shala is that it is my sacred space of learning – for myself and for my students who choose to study with me. Not a place of business or commerce. This works for me, and I know am very fortunate that I can teach and maintain this attitude about it.

    We seem to bemoan the fact that yoga in the West has become “commodified” and “commercialized” and heavily marketed, but the sad truth is that you need to do so in order to generate a living wage from it. Hence the preponderance of “YTT’s” out there. And, frankly, 200 hours is diddly squat in terms of training, but a novice, aspiring teacher doesn’t realize this, and the studio owners have to make a living somehow. So, they offer expensive trainings to stay afloat, and the essentially useless YA makes its own pound of flesh off of them, too. It’s become an industry, because people have to eat and pay rent. Let’s not judge them too harshly.

      1. Maybe…I know I certainly hoped for greater “success” when I opened, and soon learned that it would be slow growing – and that it’s the height of hubris to think I’d have packed classes and be raking in the big bucks teaching Ashtanga yoga. It takes years to cultivate a dedicated, seasoned student base from nothing. Rather than get frustrated, I adjusted my attitude accordingly: to teach for the love of it, and lovingly show my students what I’ve learned. And, this feels…..right and good. Financial success is something that seems to happen for very few, in any industry, really. It took PJ decades of teaching, yes, to become famous and “successful” in that sense.

        But, maybe also the frustration arises because there are teachers who have found (apparent) success, fame and fortune through teaching yoga or creating a “style” who have turned out to be highly flawed human beings (i.e. Friend, Bikram.) and who might seem “undeserving” of that success.

        This helps:

        Sutra 1.33 – have compassion for those who suffer, be happy for the fortunate, revere the wise, and cultivate equanimity with those who do wrong.

        And, there’s a frustration that arises because, let’s face it, Mysore style Ashtanga yoga is not for the faint of heart – not for lazy people! Those of us who love it perhaps think other forms are lacking, or perhaps undeserving of their popularity. Its human nature to be biased in favor of what we love. But, most people just want to be guided through a slightly strenuous workout by a nice teacher, with some motivational music, so they feel more fit afterwards, and better about themselves. Who can blame them? – life is hard enough as it is, without being frustrated daily by your yoga practice. And we all know what that feels like 😉

        The novelty of yoga practice wears off eventually for most yoga students, and especially so in Ashtanga. The “Yoga of No,” as we well know, is a more arduous path – emotionally, physically, mentally. It’s a movement art form – hard to learn and develop, hard to sustain the required dedication, and it takes years, no decades, to master.

        But, it’s so worth it if you persevere, both as a student and as a teacher.

      2. Steve, don’t even joke about giving up! The rumors that might erupt from that would eclipse those of the Jois Shala closings 😉

  2. Two of the three people I practiced with in NYC either depended on a partner for financial support throughout the majority of their career. When my first studio was opened in the LES, the founder lived in a back room of the studio for 2 years. One of my main teachers lived in the back room of his first Mysore program for some time. It ain’t easy.

    Also, 30 would be HUGE for more private Mysore programs I’ve been in, in NYC, the past 5 years. 10-14 most days is good, but often that dips down to 4/5, even for teachers with 20 years experience.

    I’d never go into teaching if responsible for 100% of my rent income. Too stressful!!

  3. All of this is why I suggested in the post I wrote yesterday that perhaps the collective idea’s time has come: a community of people who want to practice find a space to rent for 3 hours six days a week and then hire in a teacher. They figure out the costs and divide them monthly. I’m not at all convinced that a teacher can ever support themselves with a Mysore program alone for all of the reasons you outline above. This allows a community to bring in a teacher (or teachers) that are right for them like Rabbis in a synagogue (does everyone know that synagogues hire the Rabbi?) AND it also doesn’t burden the teachers with having to ‘run a business’ or make rent or sleep in the back room just to make it work. Basically when we attend a shala regularly we are chipping in for the rent and heat and lights almost more than paying the teacher. And since even in a great class you mostly get one or two adjustments while you do your practice, this makes sense in a way. Of course the beginner is another story and I am sure there is much wrong with my idea, but it’s something I would be interested in. Co-ownership with the teacher sounds good to me.

  4. Laura’s idea makes a lot of sense (and i like it) , except that in ny people seem to organize themselves around a teacher they know and like , rather than around a social or geographic grouping that could then hire a teacher. (the community that develops around the teacher is a bonus.) And for those of you who have not had the pleasure of working with a synagogue community to hire a rabbi…..everyone does not always agree. (It can be done well, but it takes a lot of time and effort.)

    1. yes I imagine that must be quite the challenge! I think this idea is sort of more for communities without a regular Mysore program, or a way to partner better with a teacher so its not all on them. I see a lot of strain in the teachers to wear all the hats. It’s a way to say “hey! we’re with you in this!”

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