By Lara Land
Since opening my first yoga studio, Land Yoga, in 2011, I have had the wonderful opportunity to offer free and donation-based yoga classes to our community. In fact, I was featured in New York Magazine for offering free classes in neighboring Morningside Park in collaboration with the Community Markets Farmer's Market. We love to support our community, especially those in need, so we have continued our specially curated partnerships and our generous teaching staff donates classes when they can. In addition to the market, we've worked with The Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention and even at Columbia Law School.
However, we do NOT offer cheap classes at the studio. You heard it, no $5 community class, no Class Pass, no Groupon. The reason is simple: we are not free or cheap. We come with homes, bills, and grumbling tummies, and we deserve to have all those needs met.
Most people have these same needs, so the question becomes why do only some yoga teachers demand livable payment for teaching? The issue is very complicated and multi-layered but one of the major components is the ubiquitous "yoga teacher certification." With no prior experience you can hand over a few thousand dollars, train for 200 hours, and walk away a "teacher." This leads to undertrained teachers, agreeing to work for very little, causing a culture of unfair wages for qualified teachers, and a lack of real benefit for the average yoga student. After completing such a short yoga course, the green teacher knows she knows nothing, and therefore can take little issue with being paid nothing, perpetuating this cycle.
In the Ashtanga Yoga tradition in contrast, you don't learn to be a teacher until well after you have come to a level of understanding of the practice and learned to be a student. You commit to making life-long annual trips to India for months at a time to be with your teacher and learn to teach primarily through watching and experiencing the way he IS. You show up every day and maybe one day he gives you the nod to teach a little something to the people back home, if you agree to continue your learning and training and teach as you've been taught.
The teacher who goes through this process has struggled and sacrificed to internalize these ancient teachings and values the knowledge that has been handed down to her. For this reason she will ask for what she is worth. She is aware that her energy and self-care are vital to the transmission of the teachings and serve as an example. She must therefore resist running herself ragged teaching every class she can find and instead spend time deepening her own practice. Her dedication to her own self-improvement is one of the reasons she has become a great teacher.
But let's think about the consumer for a moment. Do cheap classes really benefit the student the way we've come to believe? All you need to do is think about the psychology surrounding purchases to understand that a student who has enrolled in a cheap class will not value it the way they would a larger purchase. Think of a time you saved up for something you truly desired and were finally able to afford it. Remember how excited you felt when you could finally make that payment. Recall how much you treasured your deserved and earned gift and how you took such care to keep it new and unharmed. You put the most into and got the absolute most out of that object of desire.
That's the kind of student an Ashtanga teacher yearns to develop: one who comes from a place of hunger and who can't wait to pull out each bit of nourishment from the practice. It's not about exact pricing because what is expensive is relative, but about paying a real price, the kind of price that makes you have to choose your practice over other things.
What I observe consistently as a yoga studio owner is that the people who really want to practice always find a way to make it work. We have a partial scholarship program at Land Yoga with an application to help us distinguish real need and evaluate desire to learn. We would never turn a truly dedicated student away. More typically what I find, however, are those who can afford classes asking for discounts and those who can barely make it work, making sacrifices to put their practice first.
Another major issue I see with cheap trials is the encouragement to hop around from studio to studio. While a period of exploration is necessary before choosing a teacher, no real growth occurs until that decision is made. Surrendering to the teacher teaches us how to let go of our egos, a major component of the yoga process. One will never get to that place of surrender by bopping around to different studios especially if they leave right when they face challenge in their practice.
So what should the yoga studio owner/teacher do when so many are offering their yoga services for so little? How can they compete with the endless free trials and $5 classes? I believe that educating the consumer is key. Students should understand a quality variation exists in yoga classes that can mean the difference between no real advancement, attachment to the physical aspects of yoga, and even injury, verses a chance to experience knowledge of self and perhaps even taste enlightenment through the guidance of a true teacher. When, we as teachers, own our role, and trust in the value of our service, we will always know what to charge for that exchange and those students seeking our knowledge will be drawn to us like we were to our teachers, making it a win-win at any price.