A yoga class stretching on a wood floor.
A yoga class. Credit: SeattleYogaNews.com / Flickr

When Taylor first read their termination notice, they were shocked and confused. A yoga instructor of five years, they were informed by their studio owner that they weren’t performing up to expectations.

Those feelings gave way to frustration and anger as they realized the claims were totally bogus. They put together a rebuttal, pushing back with facts proving they not only met the standards set out in their contract, but exceeded them. They mentioned the several times they had classes cancelled by the studio at the last minute and one class cancelled permanently only months into their employment.

This response was ignored, as was a follow up email. Despite being given a termination date set weeks in the future, they were banned from teaching effectively immediately.

All of these actions – the sudden termination, the manufactured reason, the lack of the response and all the cancelled classes were entirely legal,and apparently not uncommon.

From interviews, private conversations and anonymous responses to a survey, over two dozen teachers in Toronto as well as a handful of studio owners have made clear that the current yoga teaching system is not sustainable.

Despite its popularity, the yoga industry is largely unregulated, ungoverned and oversaturated. In a post-pandemic environment where costs are rising and more people are comfortable doing yoga at home, studios, whether greedy or simply cash-strapped, are underpaying teachers who have little protection or recourse. As a result, many teachers look out for themselves and seek creative, if not sometimes dubious, means to make money of their own. Everyone is tied to a system that doesn’t seem to work for anyone, but that no one person can truly push back on by themselves.

Taylor (who didn’t want to use their real name for fear of reprisal) said their situation is pervasive. 

“This is a huge problem,” said Taylor, adding that even though colleagues close to them went through similar experiences, “I don’t expect anyone to have to speak on my behalf for this.” 

They also made a comment that would be echoed by many people I spoke with about why they were alone in fighting back. 

“Teachers want to protect their jobs too. No one wants to lose their income,” added Taylor. “I’m just left to deal with it and move on.”

Contract struggles

Part-time positions are uncommon and full-time permanent opportunities are almost nonexistent for teachers (some studios may have full-time positions for managerial or administrative staff). Most teachers are independent contractors, with no rights under the Employment Standards Act (ESA). They are not afforded minimum wage, overtime pay, public holidays, vacation with pay, notice of termination or termination pay.

Being labelled an independent contractor alone is not the issue. In fact, a fair amount of teachers prefer this arrangement. However, persistent low pay and an increase in the number of teachers seeking jobs creates an untenable arrangement.

Currently, it’s common to be paid between $40 and $50 for teaching one class in Toronto, a wage that was higher before the pandemic. 

“It’s harder than it’s ever been, and already it was challenging,” said Jordan, who despite a history of being outspoken about this industry, opted to use a pseudonym. They attested to being paid anywhere from $60 to $100 in the past.

“As life has gotten more expensive, they are paying us less,” they added.

While some studios may offer attendance bonuses, there is more to just teaching an hour flow. An hour class needs to be sequenced in some cases, with music paired to the flow. Travel time and cost of transport needs to be considered. And it’s not $40 or $50 an hour; teachers tend to show up 10 to 20 minutes early and stay after. Some may have back-to-back classes at a studio, spaced 15 to 30 minutes apart, but that convenience can be hard to come by.

The per class rate quickly becomes diluted, making it difficult to piece together a reasonable salary working full time.

Jen Stackhouse, in addition to teaching yoga also works at rabble.ca, tried. Having earned her first teacher training certificate in 2003, she navigated the industry as a teacher and studio manager, but encountered universal problems trying to survive from working in the yoga industry.

“I tried for almost one year [to teach full time],” she said during a Zoom call. “I was teaching up to 25 classes a week, including nights and weekends, driving everywhere, really trying to make a go of it. One day I realized I was giving all of myself, and the reciprocity is not there, financially or energetically.”

“At the top of the list is you have to pay rent. I just wasn’t making enough money.”

This speaks to the apparent two paths to yoga teaching. The first is to hustle, bouncing around from studio to studio while offering workshops and private classes to put together a living. The second is to find a full-time job that lends benefits and better pay in order to support part-time teaching as a hobby or passion.

Stackhouse tried the former before succumbing to the latter, returning to work as a waitress to make money. 

“You’re teaching wellness, you’re teaching self-care, but you’re living in this chaos, trying to make end’s meet,” Stackhouse said.

Patricia McPherson, a teacher of 10 years, spoke of what’s needed to make this a full-time living. 

“I teach at five studios,” she wrote in an email. “When I was building my resume, I was teaching 13 to 15 classes a week to make rent. With time, experience and consistent discipline you will be able to provide value for a higher rate.”

McPherson currently teaches around 10 classes a week, transiting between CymeTree at Bloor & Avenue, Circle Pilates in midtown and others around the city. That movement across neighbourhoods is essential to success for teachers. 

Jaffer Hussain, a Toronto-based teacher of eight years, recommends teachers better understand the contract relationship and leverage that arrangement. 

“Teachers must accept the responsibility of being a business,” he wrote in an email. “They have the right to act like their own business, serve their needs first, ask for raises and choose to walk away if their rate isn’t met. Many teachers sign the agreement and walk in as if they’re an employee and build the entire studio-teacher relationship from this place.”

Like many others, Hussain hustles, teaching at Altea Active, Yoga Space, Good Space and Equinox while curating events and offering private and on-demand classes at his website. 

“There’s nothing wrong with a studio asking you to be there 15 to 30 minutes before and after [class] if you can leverage that time to build meaningful connections with the students coming insaid Hussain. “Too many are afraid to ask for a raise, to announce their social handles at the end of class, to simply market themselves. All of this fear gives owners more power and control.”

Still, there are teachers that prefer the flexibility and freedom of being an independent contractor, though many have alternative sources of income and protection, most often in the form of a full-time job. While teachers are split on their desired employment status, most agree their needs to be an organized entity that advocates for teachers.

Studio control

Studios can take advantage of this hustle. Teachers need to be active on social media to build a brand, and studios easily piggyback off this without offering compensation. Teachers also spoke of having to answer phones, coming in early to sign in clients and staying late to clean up. In some cases they may be the only person working at the studio, meaning they have to wait until class is about to start to lock up and close doors and then be the first to open things up again.

Many mentioned doing other work for free because of the potential for advancement if they did, or the potential for punishment if they didn’t. A common practice by studios is to hold free “community classes,” welcoming individuals who may not be able to pay for a class to enjoy a practice. What isn’t disclosed is most of the time these studios do not pay teachers; the burden of the free class is put on teachers while the studio gets attention for their apparent altruism. Studios employ common phrases, saying “you’ll get exposure” and “build your brand.”

Some studios may offer compensation for cancelled classes, but any guarantees must be written into the contract. If they’re not in there, you just have to trust the owner. 

Stackhouse recalled working for a studio that promised a pay increase within a year. After twice asking for more money and twice being denied, she quit.

“It was in my contract that if you resigned or were taken off the schedule, there was to be a month’s notice,” recalled Stackhouse. “I wasn’t given that. Just before I walked into a class I was told this will be your last.” 

She mentioned teachers coming to her after she resigned, confiding in her that they felt underpaid and disrespected, but didn’t want to speak up for fear of losing out.

The pandemic hurt studios, with some shutting down and others scrambling to create online classes to stay afloat. Hussain lamented those closures, but also argues that teachers are business too, and they in their own way had to “close.”

“They had to lose their entire income during the pandemic,” Hussain wrote. “And yet many were asked to come back at less than pre-pandemic rates to ‘help’ the studios out; meanwhile the cost of everything else in life went up.”

“It’s unfair to have teachers pay the price while studios have raised prices for the customers at the same time. If you can’t afford to pay your teachers, you can’t afford to be in business,” Hussain added.

Stacy Chong, owner of Toronto Yoga Co., which will be celebrating its five-year anniversary this fall, talked about how being a teacher can and does inform studio operations to create a more equitable and comfortable environment for everyone. 

“I knew deep down I didn’t want there to be competition between teachers,” she said. “The stress of being sick, of going on vacation, of taking mat leave, of having to travel across the city…It’s stressful for them, and it’s stressful for the front desk. It’s just not realistic.”

Chong, who still teaches at two other studios as an independent contractor, solicits input on issues like branding and pay structure. She also allows long-term teachers to choose between being part-time employees and independent contractors.

Suspect programs

One anonymous teacher referred to the industry as a “pyramid scheme.”

At the top is the Yoga Alliance, a global body of sorts based out of Virginia that seems to have a monopoly over teaching training certification. In 2010, about 10 years after it was founded, Yoga Alliance set forth a core curriculum for groups to train students. If you register with Yoga Alliance to become a Registered Yoga School (for an initial $640 USD and yearly dues after that), you can train others to become Registered Yoga Teachers. 

Diane Bruni was a vocal advocate of yoga in Toronto from the time she founded the studio Downward Dog right up until her passing in 2021. Credited with popularizing yoga in the city while adding a modern touch to the experience, Bruni was beloved by teachers and honest about the business side of the industry.

“I resist the Yoga Alliance, and consider it a useless organization that charges yoga studios for a certification that means almost nothing,” wrote Bruni in a blog post from June 4, 2015. “Every year we were sent reminders to pay the renewal fees. After a few years, I realized that Yoga Alliance had never followed up to confirm that we were teaching what we had described. No studio owner I knew had ever been called or contacted by the Yoga Alliance, except when the time came to pay dues.”

Still, a Registered Yoga School can train students to obtain their 200-hour Registered Yoga Teacher Training Certification, a tuition in Toronto that typically runs between $3,000 and $4,000.

One way by which many studios save money is through so-called “Energy Exchange,” a program which offers free classes or memberships in return for unpaid labour. While Ontario does not specify outlaw Energy Exchange, the means by which many studios conduct this program raises questions about its legality.

The ESA is clear that just because an employee calls someone an independent contractor, a volunteer or an intern does not mean those designations are accurate. It is the duties performed and the relationship between the parties that determine employment status.

Like teachers, some energy exchanges have full time jobs elsewhere, so they often don’t mind the arrangement. Others are hopeful teachers, eager to please and optimistic their unpaid work will earn opportunities in the future.

Teachers often offer private lessons at a higher cost, which allows them to continue teaching at studios, while also holding pop-ups and workshops.

Where it gets murky is the prevalence of “coaching.” It’s the natural evolution of a gig economy where everyone needs to find ways to monetize their skills. Coaching is an unregulated industry, where individuals sell their experiences, education and insight to others. You can go down a rabbit hole of Instagram pages of yoga teachers finding them also working as somatic movement coaches, self-love coaches, intimacy coaches, or creativity coaches. 

Retreats are also common, wherein a teacher or group of teachers acts as a travel guide and organizes a trip somewhere in the world to practice yoga. It can be a mutually beneficial experience for the mind and body, but it can also act as paid vacation for teachers while students pay a high cost for the convenience of not having to do anything but show up. Studios also get in on retreats. As of this writing, YogaTree is collaborating on an event where a couple can spend over $1,500 on a 48-hour yoga retreat  to Rice Lake, just two hours from Toronto.

What can be done?

While independent contractors are not allowed to unionize, precedent suggests that yoga teachers are, in fact, dependent contractors. In 2020, the Labour Board of Ontario released a historic decision on the gig economy allowing couriers of the food delivery service Foodora to unionize. The parallels between that industry and the yoga industry are many.

Dependent contractors are those who perform work for others with whom they are economically dependent, with duties and responsibilities more closely resembling an employee than an entrepreneur.

Firstly, the Board argues that the Foodora App is essential to worker’s success in the industry, that is. They are dependent on it, but Foodora wholly controls and operates it. It could be argued, similarly, that teachers are dependent on studio spaces for work. They may bring their own mats, playlists or even props, but the studio is necessary for bringing people together.

The Board ruled that couriers “[working for multiple platforms] is not entrepreneurial activity… It is hard work. And hard work must not be mistaken for entrepreneurial activity.” Yoga teachers work for multiple studios. Like teachers, “Foodora couriers do not have the opportunity to increase their compensation through anything other than their labour and skill”

Looking to other industries may help with the answer. Hairstylists, for example, often have the choice between being part time employees and independent contractors, with pros and cons to each. They also enter into a mutually beneficial relationship to the studio with a business model that encourages them to promote each other.

Regulation seems paramount. Hairstyling is one of only 23 compulsory trades in Ontario. In order to be certified, you must complete an apprentice program that includes in-school and on-the-job training. Non-compulsory trades, of which there are 121, do not require apprenticeship. In both cases, though, there are expectations set forth by the province.

Registered Massage Therapists, meanwhile, are governed by the College of Massage Therapists of Ontario (CMTO), which develops standards, practices and rules within the industry; notably, they are given authority through the regulated Health Regulated Health Professions Act, 1991. That teachers are dealing with someone’s physical wellbeing suggests that perhaps this industry should be covered under the same or similar act.

Whatever the exact solution, action needs to be taken. 

“We have amazing studios, amazing teachers,” said Chong. “I think for the most part everybody is here trying to do the right thing, the good thing, but we are all bogged down with the way that it’s been. I think everyone wants to provide a way out.”

Anthony Marcusa

Anthony Marcusa is a freelance writer and pop culture enthusiast driven by curiosity. He earned a Bachelors at the University of Toronto and studied journalism at Centennial College before writing about...