[Update: Shortly after the publication of this article, YogaWorks announced to its teachers the permanent closure of all NY studios beginning April 19. In an email, CEO Brian Cooper cited the loss of a studio lease and the competitiveness of the New York yoga market as reasons for the abrupt closure. “The economic realities are clear that there is no path forward to reduce our losses and get the New York region to break-even,” Cooper wrote.]
On Wednesday, March 11, a group of yoga teachers, lawyers, and representatives from the national yoga studio chain YogaWorks met in midtown Manhattan to negotiate the terms of a proposed union contract. Relatively speaking, negotiations had just begun — this was only the second meeting since the New York City YogaWorks teachers had successfully joined the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) in November 2019, becoming the first fitness industry union to date. The group left relatively pleased with the state and spirit of the negotiations, and planned to reconvene the following day.
Within 24 hours, however, negotiating plans had been completely forestalled: as the panic over coronavirus settled over New York City, mandates of social distancing, followed by the closure of public schools and all non-essential business, led the union organizers to call off the meetings. The yoga instructors knew that their primary job — teaching in-person classes to physical bodies — would be halted immediately. But, they quickly saw that they had a duty to press on with their organizing efforts in order to mitigate the unprecedented economic stress that would follow.
“We had to immediately switch gears,” said Kristen Rae Stevens, a member of the union bargaining committee who has been employed by YogaWorks for over 15 years. “Of course, we were thinking about the health and safety of people. But I think that we almost immediately knew the economics that were going to come.”
Whatever loftier goals the group was working toward had to wait. Teachers needed fast-acting support, now more than ever.
With over 60 locations nationwide, YogaWorks — which is owned by the private equity firm Great Hill Partners — is one of the largest yoga studio chains in the country. While the coronavirus crisis presented new, specific areas of financial concern for teachers — and required different and immediate action from the newly-formed union — many of the issues surfaced by COVID-19 stemmed from the same structural problems that led the teachers to begin organizing in the first place, well over a year ago.
Tamar Samir, who has worked at YogaWorks for over 10 years, got a wakeup call in November 2018, when YogaWorks management abruptly closed their Upper West Side studio, giving teachers and students a mere 24-hour notice.
“It was traumatizing for those teachers and students,” said Samir. “There were people who completely lost their jobs. There were people who lost a large chunk of their classes like I did; there was a woman who lost her health insurance.”
The company did little to re-compensate their teachers. “That was when I first kind of started thinking, ‘What value do they actually place on teachers and students and community?’” Samir recalled. “And I started talking to other teachers who also were very shaken up by this closure.”
Having these tough conversations was a hurdle in and of itself: Several women explained that the siloed nature of the work largely isolated the teachers from one another, and many felt that the business model encouraged competition among teachers, since they are paid according to how many people take their individual class.
“The challenge was, ‘How do we actually get to know all these people [the other teachers] and make friends and dissipate that vibe of competition or distrust that this industry has created for many years?’ said Samir. “Not just YogaWorks, but the yoga industry in general.”
Over time, the conversations gained traction: teachers shared grievances around inconsistencies in pay rates and promotions, as well as a lack of transparency in communication. They observed tangible, day-to-day business problems, too: everything from poor facility maintenance to teachers who were slated as substitutes for years, with no explanation or clear path forward. (One teacher, Martha Evenson, reported subbing at YogaWorks for six years with no route to advancement; another, Patty Schneider, has been subbing for 10.) At the time of this writing, YogaWorks management had not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Additionally, several teachers observed that the expensive teacher training programs often left newly-minted teachers without reliable hiring prospects; conversely, new teachers with lower rates were sometimes given classes over tenured teachers who, given their experience, rightfully charged more.
“It takes years to become a good teacher,” said Markella Los, who has taught yoga full time for the past five years. “It feels like we’re devaluing the profession by churning out teachers at this rate. And also as a result, that sort of devalues the yoga practice — it gets watered down because older or more senior teachers with experience can’t really afford to stay in the field.”
Underlying all of these on-the-ground grievances was a much larger, much less tangible issue: the cheapening of yoga as a spiritual practice under the current business model. Despite, in Stevens’ words, “teachers [being] the heartbeat of the work,” the lack of real support — both financial and interpersonal — ultimately limited the teachers’ ability to offer a connected physical-spiritual practice.
“When you are hustling that much, the intent and the purity around the work that you’re putting out, it just changes the energy,” said Kristen Rae Stevens.
Furthermore, many believed that the lack of financial security afforded by the profession ultimately perpetuated another oft-leveled criticism: that yoga is predominantly made available to white, wealthy, able-bodied students and teachers.
“Who gets to be a yoga teacher? The industry is still largely very white, it’s still promoted as a luxury side gig for people who don’t need to work,” explained Markella Los. “And then that changes who’s transmitting the information, the teaching is filtered through their bias and worldview, and it changes who then comes to the practice, because people want to see themselves represented.”
Deidra Demens, a teacher with over 10 years of experience and one of few women of color on the YogaWorks staff, echoed this view. “For a lot of my life, I’ve felt like I’m the only black person in the room,” she said. Part of the importance of increasing racial, economic, age, and body-type diversity in the teaching community, she explained, is that it opens the door for “more people that actually need yoga, that will benefit from it, and not feel like they’re being singled out or being judged.”
As the organizing base grew, the teachers set their sites on unionizing — the security afforded by a union job, they felt, might not only combat the lack of transparency in their current system, but also open up the profession to people who previously didn’t have the means to pursue it.
As David DiMaria, an organizer with the Machinists, explained, “There’s a barrier to entry for being a yoga teacher. And the way a lot of people get past that barrier is to have some kind of privilege, like a partner who has a job with health insurance. So, their [the teachers’] hope is that by changing the standards of the job, it opens it up to other people and other voices.”
In September 2019, the group went public with their intent to unionize. Just two months later, despite company pushback over voter eligibility, the teachers won their NLRB vote, 58-21.
“I think for a lot of people, it [winning the election] is a big relief, and it’s kind of like a release of a lot of tension,” said Samir. “One of the things David said to us that he had never said before, he said, ‘Now you’re protected, now you’re really protected.’
The protection afforded by the newly formed union was real, of course, but the escalating new context of coronavirus put enormous new pressure on the teachers — particularly the bargaining committee, a group of 11 teachers who had stepped up to negotiate with the company and their outside counsel directly on pay scale and promotion transparency, diversity in hiring, and improved communication, among other things (since the union contract has yet to be finalized, specifics of the negotiations cannot be disclosed).
Luckily, as Stevens explained, the teachers were already in “action mode,” which enabled them to address the rising panic head-on. With the studios in New York City all closing — immediately and indefinitely — the first item of business was getting teachers access to their sick pay. By March 14, the teachers had worked with the company to set up a Sick Pay Bank, where teachers with more financial security could donate hours to a collective “pot,” from which other teachers facing particular financial hardship could request hours. Additionally, the company agreed to pay teachers 50 percent of their base rate for classes scheduled through March 31, but only once they had exhausted their sick pay hours. As of this writing, none of this applies to substitute teachers, although the committee has put together a petition to grant them access to accrued sick pay.
Next, the committee had to address the mass shift to online teaching, whether offered live on Zoom or Instagram Live, or pre-recorded and uploaded to YouTube and Facebook, etc. Initially, YogaWorks did not offer live-streaming from their New York studios — despite streaming from other regional locations — because they claimed the studios lacked the necessary WiFi capabilities. After pushback from the union bargaining committee, however, the company began offering NYC-based livestreams.
In the intervening time, however, without standardization or company oversight, teachers across the nation began competing to offer online content, and deciding case-by-case whether to offer free, donation-based, or set price classes.
“Everyone’s scrambling to livestream their classes,” said Los. “The large volume of things going out for free right now feels like it has the potential to continue to devalue a teacher’s role in an industry where it’s already devalued.”
But Los explained that this new technological issue merely spotlights existing inequities that the team was trying to address.
“People who have other income or another job… can afford to give their classes away for free, and might be doing so really out of the goodness of their heart,” she said. “And then other people [for whom] this is their only source of income are struggling right now because they can’t afford to do that [give away classes for free online].”
In the absence of any sort of industry or company standardization, Demens started working with her existing students to schedule regular Zoom classes, which she offered at a sliding scale in hopes of reaching people who might not be able to afford to continue a pricey yoga practice during this time. She is particularly cognizant of the additional weight felt by people of color and those with increased financial instability, and felt it was important to continue her work — as both a teacher and, in her words, “healer” — to people outside of the prevailing, narrow yoga world demographic.
“With the stress that I’ve been feeling as a person of color, I know that some type of meditation or mindful movement practice [has] helped me deal with the stress that I feel, not just from the virus but from how this is affecting me and my community,” she said. “I’m sure other people of color feel the same.”
There are other, more pernicious — but equally prohibitive — factors at play, too: for example, the Instagrammability of one’s apartment, access to professional camera equipment, or having children at home who now require homeschooling.
“All of us would love to have a private studio in our homes or have a nice camera set up and record things, but you know, we don’t have that,” said Patty Schneider.
For these reasons, Los explained, “Who survives this crisis is not purely based on merit. There are other factors that we have to consider, that are systemic and have nothing to do with an individual and how hard they’re trying.”
As it stands, teachers are working with YogaWorks to establish a fair system for recording and sharing online classes, so that some teachers are still able to teach under a standardized, transparent company system. Until then, the teachers are leveraging the power they do have on the most pressing issues.
“The most devastating thing about the timing of this public and economic fallout is that all of those things [that the union has been fighting for] take time,” said Kristen Rae Stevens. “It takes time to build bonds and build trust. It takes time to really make something strong and indomitable. And so, some of that work is really fragile right now.”
Despite the uncertainty of the time, the teachers are adamant that they will remain at the helm of their organizing ship.
“The most important point now is that we haven’t stopped organizing,” said Patty Schneider. “We’re just focusing that organizing on different issues that are most salient right now.”
Markella Los, who has stepped away from the specific YogaWorks effort to focus on activating the yoga community on a larger scale, sees the current context as a potentially industry-defining moment.
“If we don’t help shape the industry in a more equitable way,” she said, “what does it mean that only certain types of companies will be able to survive? What does it mean for racial diversity, what does it mean for economic diversity? Do we really want to let the powers that be continue to control the field and the narrative, and what yoga looks like?”
Although the coronavirus has temporarily rerouted the teachers’ efforts away from the union contract, the teachers agree that unionizing was never the final goal in the first place — it was merely a means to the end of giving teachers a voice, and to hopefully create a more equitable, sustainable profession.
“There’s been a lot of teachers that are supporting each other,” said Demens. “And that feels great. One of the things that I felt kind of early on when I started teaching yoga is, you feel like you have to compete with the other teachers. But none of that’s true. We can support each other, and it’s not taking anything away from ‘me’ to do that.”
Contract negotiations aside, the teachers will continue to seek out ways to support each other through these extraordinarily unstable conditions, using their yogic philosophy as a guiding light.
“Actively practicing ‘non harming’ means practicing justice, taking care of other people, realizing our interconnectedness,” said Markella Los. “Social justice is just an expression of living your yoga practice.”