It’s funny the way things always come full circle. I can remember taking one of my first yoga classes at Rodney Yee’s Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, CA in 1998. I paid the $12 cost for class in cash (imagine, that was a lot for me then!), and put it in the woven basket on the counter on my way out the door along with everyone else. Rodney likely chose this business model in imitation of his mentor, Donald Moyer. Moyer’s Iyengar studio, The Yoga Room, not far away in Berkeley still collected payment in a small metal box in 2012, the last time I visited. Maybe it was a California thing, this co-op/community/yoga collective way of running a business, because even Sandy Blaine, a senior teacher and studio owner of Yoga on High in Alameda from 1995 to 2013 chose this cooperative model, where each teacher collected the fees from their students, kept the amount for herself, and paid an hourly fee for space rental or a monthly portion of the shared lease. This was how teachers and studios sustained themselves, and how yoga teachers made a decent living for a long time in some parts of the country.
Teacher to the greats: Donald Moyer of Berkeley fame

Teacher to the greats: Donald Moyer of Berkeley fame

Fast forward to 2015: cities as small as Oakland and as large as New York boast a range of yoga studio models from boutique luxury studios, to large, corporate run yoga studio conglomerates that charge hefty-fees for membership in these exclusive spa-like environs.  In New York, going, going, almost gone are the days of “yoga for the people” which grew organically out of the progressive, hippy-dippy California soil starting in the 60s. As yoga has grown more popular and appealing for entrepreneurial-types wanting to cash in on the American yoga

a spa-like yoga room in the corporate owned Pure Yoga

a spa-like yoga room in the corporate owned Pure Yoga

frenzy taking place, in order to distinguish themselves from the variety of studio options found in major West and East coast cities, yoga is  potentially morphing into a past-time solely for those of a certain class. This competitive new trait of emergent yoga business culture has now garnered the attention of the federal government.  Specifically, the federal government has ascertained that they have been missing out on cashing in on a ton o’yoga bucks. Several notable New York studios with even more notable celebrity yoga teachers at the helm (including Elena Brower’s deceased Vira Yoga, and Cyndi Lee’s Om Yoga) have been forced to dissolve under the weight of such pressures or just simply high New York real state prices that make small businesses that serve the community impossible to sustain. Additionally, he government is now assessing or threatening to assess enormous fees on yoga studios for illegally classifying their teaching staff as independent contractors (ICs) and avoiding taxes in the process when in fact many of these studios meet the criteria for requiring classification of

A class at Om Yoga in Union Square before it closed in 2012

A class at Om Yoga in Union Square before it closed in 2012

their staff as employees. The fall out: most small, privately owned studios simply can not sustain the high cost of New York rent AND government fees required to pay their staff as employees. The IC model is a win-win for yoga teachers who want autonomy over their yoga income and to write off the thousands of dollars in start-up expenses and teacher trainings they rack up in effort to make a living as a yoga teacher. It seems only fair.  Similarly, the IC model is a win-win for small studio business owners who have benefitted by saving more than 20% of their overhead by avoiding the cost of payroll, social security tax, workers’ comp, etc., were their staff composed of employees. However, the new model of yoga business, with some studios churning out over 35 yoga classes per week taught by dozens of yoga teachers who are hired as ICs proves a business model not unlike the fitness center/gym which has traditionally had to hire their instructors as employees.

Me, practicing at the first small studio I taught at: Prana Power Yoga in Union Square, NYC

Me, practicing at the first small studio I taught at: Prana Power Yoga in Union Square, NYC

The choice small studios are being forced to make today is to 1) risk an audit from the federal government and continue running their studio using the IC model, 2) close altogether, OR 3) go back to the old collective/co-op/community-based yoga studio model that legally, according to federal regulations, shared studio space and rental fees with teachers collectively. I teach at a studio (I’ll keep the name anonymous until it has officially dissolved its business entity) that has chosen the latter choice.  On the one hand, I am heart-broken that so many studios, that bring such a positive presence to communities throughout New York, have been forced to shut down;  on the other, it’s pretty remarkable to be returning to the community yoga based model that truly brought people together for the sake of wellness, spiritual upliftment, and balance, not just for a trendy, lean yoga body.  This is after all why I teach, to make living sharing yoga with my community, not to become a yoga super star or yoga business millionaire. It’s as if yoga business is getting a critical yoga lesson on virtue of its own: Brahmacharya, or the practice of restraint, lack of excess, or simple living. Indeed, perhaps getting back to the basic essentials of what yoga is really about is just what the yoga “industry” needs. It’s just a bit ironic that many of the yoga businesses that might benefit from learning this lesson the most may not be required to take this yoga class.

Is it the end of an era? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.