Ira Israel: The Business of Yoga VI

If you are talented, if you are persistent, if you can afford to be patient, and if you are resourceful, then you can positively affect hundreds or thousands of people's lives and earn an honest living doing so.
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I find it fascinating that the yoga industry has come to mirror Wall Street more than provide it with a new compassionate, abundant business model to emulate. Like the scarcity consciousness of Wall Street, there is the 1% of yoga millionaires and then the 99% of yoga teachers, most of whom are struggling to earn a livable wage, even if their lives look ultra glorious in the maya, the smoke and mirrors known as the Internet.


I highly recommend Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the 21st Century" to new yoga teachers - for like many other dead-end jobs, teaching yoga is not a good way to earn a living unless one has supplemental income or is financially supported (has "capital" - i.e. his family owns a factory, bank, company, real estate, or he has a trust, a wealthy partner, or has put $50,000 - $100,000 in the bank from exiting a previous career.)

If you do the math, to go through a yoga teacher training, then apprentice, then get on a studio's sub list, then get a regular spot teaching 5 to 8 classes per week at a studio for $25 per class for the first 8 students and then $4-$7 for every student thereafter - without being financially supported by any other means - I think you will find that the market is oversaturated and it no longer makes economic sense to teach yoga unless you are also a savvy entrepreneur who can organize and lead retreats to exotic locations, conduct teacher trainings, teach private lessons to wealthy people in their homes, or have your own monetized online subscription-based yoga video website (and obviously most of above take start-up "capital" to finance along with great ingenuity).

Of course, it is incredibly emotionally satisfying to transform hearts, minds, and bodies on a daily basis, but unless you are also a stellar entrepreneur it is somewhat delusional for someone to exit a yoga teacher training today and expect to start earning a viable living purely from teaching yoga classes anytime soon.

Nobody I know directly earns money from their Instagram, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter accounts, nor from blogging or TEDx talks, and yet that "exposure" appears to be essential to launching a successful career for a new yoga teacher. Hitting the yoga teacher trifecta seems to mean appearing on the cover of Yoga Journal, teaching at Wanderlust or other festivals during good time slots, and getting video/DVD deals from corporations like Gaiam. And yet, none of those avenues will earn you meaningful (if any) income - in fact, it has been reported that Wanderlust is now charging some teachers to teach and other festivals pay teachers with entry tickets that the teachers must then sell in order to cover their travel and lodging expenses.

Getting on the cover of Yoga Journal (for which you will be paid $15, I was told) will give you excellent exposure, but don't think that you are going to email a photo of you in dancer pose on a cliff at sunset to them and be spontaneously "discovered." Here's how it works: someone fairly well-respected who has probably already graced the cover is going to call their contact at Yoga Journal and say, "I think (insert your name here) would look cute on the cover." Like many other industries, there is no longer a front door into the corporations; all real business is conducted through the back door - i.e. nepotism.

Lately, while being interviewed to bring my workshop to Kripalu, I was asked how many "followers" I have on social media. I don't have photos of me doing a handstand while wearing a thong on the deck of a friend's or student's or lover's (or all three) yacht in Capri with Rumi quotes in some dope font strewn underneath on the latest cool app. From what I have seen, people with the most followers on Instagram are not necessarily the best or most educated or most inspiring yoga teachers - most of them are like Kim Kardashian, they are famous for being famous.

The way I have been able to keep afloat is by producing yoga and meditation DVDs. I spent approximately $15,000 ("capital") making "Yoga for Depression and Anxiety" in 2010 and I recouped my investment in under a year using an Amazon Advantage sellers account. Then I received a call from Bayview Entertainment offering to distribute my DVD along with Yoga Journal's, Pranamaya's and many fitness companies' DVDs and Bayview has been distributing my DVDs ever since.

I took the proceeds from "Yoga for Depression and Anxiety" and made "Mindfulness for Depression" and "Mindfulness Meditations for Anxiety" in 2011 and 2012. Similarly, I rolled the profits from those two DVDs over and made "A Beginner's Guide to Mindfulness Meditation" and "A Beginner's Guide to Happiness" in 2014 and 2015.

In addition, last month I started offering "Mindfulness for Depression" and "A Beginner's Guide to Happiness" for rental on Vimeo Pro which costs $199 per year. Contact me in a year to find out how if that has been profitable.

Here's my personal secret to making DVDs and online videos: I had accumulated some frequent flier miles so I bought a $138 Hi-Def Flip Cam (recently upgraded to a $399 GoPro camera with a $20 32g chip) and a $15 tripod and used the camera and tripod to film myself meditating and practicing yoga in Paris, London, Chicago, Hawaii and about 20 other locales. I knew that this "B-roll" would cover large swaths of future videos and DVDs so that I wasn't just making boring "talking head" videos like the ones you see on Youtube. Also, I guess there is something either iconic or gimmicky (depending on how you view it and how you view me) about meditating during rush hour in Grand Central Station so those images are obviously my version of doing handstand while wearing a thong on the deck of a lover's yacht in Capri. (Although I probably would be even more successful if I had meditated wearing just a thong in Grand Central Station - sex sells! - or possibly I would have just looked like Borat).

My main point is that to earn a viable income as a yoga teacher today you also need to be entrepreneurial and one way of doing that is by having "product" or "merch" (merchandise) - preferably merch that you own all of the rights to and thus earn 100% net profit on. And you need that merch to be available wherever you are teaching and online and attached to the bottom of your blogs (see below, please).

Passive income from DVD and video sales is exceedingly helpful to get you through fallow periods like summer and Christmas when many of your students and private clients go on vacation. And although DVD sales in general are down since Apple discontinued supporting that format, fitness and self-help DVD sales have not waned much so it is still possible to sell educational products rather than baubles and trinkets that may delegitimize your brand: for example, would you allow Deepak Chopra M.D. to perform an appendectomy on your child? No, you wouldn't. And the reason you wouldn't is because he has delegitimized himself as a physician due to all of the trinkets and baubles he has been selling lately. So you need to sell products that are in alignment with the "brand" that you are creating.

Regarding publishing, getting a meaningful book advance as a yoga teacher seems to be relatively impossible unless sex is somehow involved: either you used yoga to overcome some childhood violation or you are now "empowering" people - most likely people of the female persuasion - and most often by misappropriating "tantra" (to have more, better, different orgasms).

Oh yeah, did I mention that sex sells?

I have noticed that many of my colleagues end up self-publishing their books, which often include descriptions of how yoga helped them personally overcome (insert addiction, affliction, disease, or tragedy here). And then after self-publishing books they give them away for free as e-books in exchange for email addresses that they can later use to promote webinars, workshops, retreats, etc. Writing a decent book and self-publishing it takes time and as you already know... time is money ("capital") so... well, you get the idea.

Ok, so if you do not have sufficient "capital" (savings or support) to write your book, organize and sell exotic retreats and teacher trainings, did not yet hit the exposure trifecta, did not have phone calls made on your behalf to Omega, Wanderlust, Gaiam, and you actually have to earn a living as a new yoga teacher, then I suggest that you:

10. Find a mentor and specifically ask that person to be your mentor. And this may sound slightly machiavellian but try to find a mentor who can make introductory phone calls on your behalf. Sending unsolicited emails to yoga studios, magazines, videos companies, resorts, and publishers in my experience is 100% useless. As Nietzsche correctly stated, "Truth begins with two." You could be the best yoga teacher in the history of humanity but unless a known commercial entity opens a few doors for you, you will wither away in your cave.

9. Blog on important issues so that people know that you are more than just a beautiful body. The Huffington Post has 200 million unique visitors per month but 80,000 bloggers so it is tough to get good placement unless you write about something sexy. Oh yeah, did I mention that sex sells? It is beneath me to publicly discuss other websites here but if you call me don't be surprised to receive an earful about how the owners of other websites are money-grubbing liars and hypocrites who would stab their own mothers in the neck for a dollar, so be wary of who you affiliate yourself with.

8. Teaching online yoga classes on someone else's or on some corporation's website will give you some exposure but between Bryan Kest, Ally Hamilton, Udaya, Yogaworks, and Yogaglo's offerings, the monetized online yoga class market appears to be saturated. The heyday of teaching yoga online for money has crested and there are so many free Youtube yoga videos that unless you have the capital to start your own website AND MARKET IT PROPERLY or create your own DVDs with smart titles, then it will be difficult to enter and compete with these already established and well-funded sites.

7. But if you do make DVDs you can sell them wherever you teach and online. With the Amazon Advantage account I was netting $6 per DVD so every morning I would wake up to a report from Amazon of how much I earned in my sleep that night.

6. Cultivate a "following" on social media so that book publishers, yoga studios, DVD/video producers, and retreat and festival directors can look at your Twitter and Instagram accounts and instantly know that you are going to sell books, tickets, DVDs - whatever they are promoting that has your face on it. However... remember that anything you post on the Internet is primarily marketing for your "brand," so try to be the least offensive possible (a lesson I learned the hard way).

5. Be willing to pay your dues as a warm-up act for headliners knowing in advance that you might lose money teaching at certain festivals but that you are building your brand and increasing your exposure.

4. I am not a fan of those $2,497 (c.f. "capital") online classes that teach you how to use psychologically manipulative techniques to cull email addresses then send followers free loss-leaders in order to ultimately get them to sign up for your online teacher training, webinar, etc. I believe that the primary commodities of being a successful yoga teacher are your 1. legitimacy and 2. integrity. Thus, selling online festivals and webinars has not been interesting to me but I have heard it to be fruitful for certain other teachers who have particular niches. Again, investments like streaming websites take time and capital so be careful as to how you enter this market. I believe you will find it impossible to compete with the corporations' advertising power, but there is a "long tail" where individuals like you and me can sell products through Google Adwords and Facebook Ads.

3. Recognize that teacher trainings are the way real money is made in this business and yet it is also the plethora of teacher trainings that has glutted the market with teachers who are now your competition. Here I believe it is in your best interest to do everything by the Yoga Alliance book. Developing a rogue teacher training that is not accredited by Yoga Alliance is foolhardy (even though I fully endorse Govindas' teacher training at Bhakti Yoga Shala which I do not believe is accredited by Yoga Alliance).

2. If you are thinking of taking one of those Business of Yoga classes or webinars, again realize that everything they are proposing (including their own services) - the website you need to build, the time to take decent photos for your Instagram account, creating cool ditties for your Twitter feed, the deposits you will need to put down at resorts in Costa Rica or Bali - all take "capital." So - as I said at the beginning - be aware that trying to earn an honest living as a yoga teacher could actually be a financial abyss, a "capital" sinkhole.

1. Oh yeah... you should be a kick-ass, awesome yoga teacher, inspire others to want to constantly want to learn and grow, be humble, be authentic, be honest, be loving, have done your psychological homework, be 100% committed to doing no harm, have your priorities straight, know that teaching yoga is the path to your own salvation and that you would not teach yoga unless you absolutely had to, know that you would teach it even if you were not paid, and know that the corporations will say "Namaste" to your face but screw you the minute you turn your back (unless you are already one of the ten yoga millionaires that earn ungodly sums of money for the corporations and have made yourself irreplaceable by creating a brand with no competition - e.g. Rodney Yee, Shiva Rea, et al - or have paid expensive lawyers to trademark your brand so that nobody can legally compete with you).

So to answer the question to recent yoga teacher training graduates, "How can I earn an honest living teaching yoga?" I would tell them that like most businesses in America, you will be at the mercy of corporations who have cornered most of the final distribution outlets - studios, websites, festivals, store shelves, and most other media - and they will exploit you if you are lucky and market you into oblivion if you are unlucky. But if you are talented, if you are persistent, if you can afford to be patient, and if you are resourceful, then you can positively affect hundreds or thousands of people's lives and earn an honest living doing so. And if you are able to figure out how to do that, then I think you will find that there is nothing more rewarding.

Good luck!

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