At the start of a yoga class, the teacher often shares a common definition of the word yoga: union. Union of the body and the mind, union of the individual self with a larger consciousness.  But over the past several months, teachers from YogaWorks’ studios in New York have been working to establish a more literal union—with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. 

On September 9, the group of 100 yoga teachers asked management to recognize their union, and shortly after, filed a petition for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. On October 17, YogaWorks teachers will begin voting to form a union, and a winning vote will legally allow the group to begin the process of bargaining.

“Yoga happens on two levels: the individual and collective,” said YogaWorks teacher Nora Heilmann. “Our effort to unionize stemmed from our individual needs as teachers to make the profession more sustainable, and also from our collective belief that yoga needs to stay the complex and beautiful practice that it is.”

It’s no secret that, over the past several decades, yoga has exploded into a multibillion dollar industry. As of 2016, over 36 million people practice yoga in the United States. With students filling up classes, many studios have expanded. But while profits are up for owners and managements, the unionizing teachers say that unclear hiring and business practices are a serious problem within the industry.

“In the yoga community, there is a total lack of transparency, and there are no standards in terms of how yoga teachers are hired, evaluated, or paid,” said Jodie Rufty, a YogaWorks teacher and teacher trainer. “There’s also no way of regulating how a teacher gets a raise. It has long been unclear and frustrating for many teachers. Yoga has grown in popularity, but a lot of integrity has been lost.”

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One side effect of yoga becoming more of a big business is the rising price of classes and teacher-training programs. This change, teachers say, has created exclusive yoga communities for those who can afford it. A May 2019 article in the academic journal Luxury: History, Culture, and Consumption described yoga as a “conscious luxury experience” with studios serving as “the space where the quest for meaning takes place under hyper-individualistic logics of consumer capitalism and luxury market dynamics.” Currently the average cost to attend a yoga class in the United States ranges from $12 to $30, depending on the studio location. A person wishing to become a certified YogaWorks teacher will have to spend at least $3,500 to complete a 200-hour training program.

“My hope is that, as we organize, we will be able to make yoga available to more people,” said Deidra Demens, a YogaWorks teacher. “People who are low income, people who have different physical abilities, people of color. Some students come to my class and see me, a black woman, and say, ‘Oh, people of color can do yoga?’ So many people are still afraid or hesitant to try yoga because they don’t feel comfortable. I want to help change that.”

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According to Rufty, “The business of yoga has segregated and separated teachers and communities. I don’t think that was the intention, but that’s what happens when something grows. It’s harder to control.”

The teachers said they also hope to preserve yoga as a complex, layered system with an ethics platform grounded in interconnectedness. To express this idea, Heilmann referenced a teaching in the book Awake in the World by the late Buddhist teacher Michael Stone: “Looking after oneself, one looks after others,” he wrote. “Looking after others, one looks after oneself.”

“This is the ethical expression of yoga and interconnectedness,” Heilmann said. “In this sense, organizing is a yoga practice. We’re trying to take care of the collective—not just ourselves—because we all depend on each other. 

“As yoga teachers, I think we’ve bought into certain patterns of spiritual bypassing by always trying to make everything nice and peaceful, by never trying to cause any trouble.

“But now,” she said, “maybe stepping up for the collective benefit is actually good trouble.” 

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