Quarantine has certainly changed our day to day lives; especially for those of us heavily involved in a yogic or spiritual community.
I know being a part of my neighborhood yoga studio plays a large role in my social and spiritual life, but it seems the future of yoga is uncertain.
Even if yoga can survive the economic blow of empty studios due to COVID-19; a larger, more insidious question looms in the background.
Can yoga address and heal from the abuse allegations against some of the most popular movements and studios across the country?
Much like our current social political landscape, the shifting tides of consciousness has turned the yoga community on its head with the recent allegations against Yoga To The People brought to light by the @yttpshowwork Instagram page. For non-East and West Coasters, Yoga To The People is a trendy chain of yoga studios in NYC, California, Seattle, etc founded on the idea of making yoga accessible to everyone regardless of economic status. YTTP’s classes are donation based and filled to the brim with eager yogis and teachers in training hoping to give back through yoga.
I first heard of YTTP at a dance performance in NYC, shortly after I moved to the City from a small town in Ohio. As a starving artist passionate about yoga, I found myself working behind the front desk of a non-YTTP yoga studio in Williamsburg. It felt like a win-win situation for me, I could make some extra money on the weeknights and weekends all while practicing as much yoga as I wanted for free!
It wasn’t long before my rose colored glasses came crashing down.
Working at a yoga studio in Williamsburg in 2016 wasn’t the experience I was expecting. To put it bluntly – the owner, teaching staff, and clientele treated the desk staff like second class citizens. The culture of the studio often felt secretive and exclusive; front desk staff was expected to be constantly working or cleaning every second of every shift. The owner would often remark how wasteful it was to pay the front desk staff considering we never did any work. The owner glorified paying desk staff minimum wage, while constantly complaining the staff never did enough. Eventually, the owner put in cameras and even had her friends who lived in the neighborhood come in to take class and secretly monitor desk staff.
The idea that we could be replaced by the studios “karma yoga” program (aka free labor) always loomed in the background. This “down to Earth neighborhood studio,” charging $25 dollar a class while taking advantage of low paid and under appreciated young women and LQBTQ people was my introduction to the backwards yoga world we are seeing unfold today.
At the time I just felt lucky to be in the room and was unaware of the toxic studio culture perpetuated throughout the yoga community. I graduated with a degree in dance and was getting certified as a yoga teacher; getting jobs was hard, and paying rent in Brooklyn was even harder. Working administratively at a yoga studio seemed like a great way to get my foot in the door and easily transition into having teaching spots at a studio. I began strategically working front desk jobs at a few studios, hoping I could find a workplace that better aligned with my values.
I ended up working administratively at three studios having similar experiences in all of them. I remember waking up to tons of missed calls and emails after studio owners watched the camera footage of someone forgetting to mop the bathroom or after noticing the cashbox was a dollar short. One studio owner would call me after every shift trying to get information about the activities and work ethic of other employees. I can’t reiterate enough that I just felt lucky to be close to these elusive teaching spots at New York City Yoga studios and I know many of the women I worked with felt the same.
If you wanted to be in the NYC yoga teaching scene, you had to find “an in,” and for many of us working and volunteering at these high ticket studios, was our way to packed classes, private clients, and a rung up on the socially exclusive yoga cool kids club.
Considering my previous studio work experience, Yoga To The People sounded like Heaven on Earth.
Donation-based classes geared toward social justice and community engagement, this sounded like a mission I could get behind.
At the time, YTTP was popular for dancers, artists, bar tenders, students etc., it was a trendy place for young forward thinkers. The St. Mark’s location was always packed, taking class there made you feel like you were part of something bigger than yourself while contributing to the greater good. I started to get suspicious of YTTP while I was working as a manager of a start-up yoga studio shortly after my graduation from teacher training. The owner was a personal trainer looking to capitalize on the yoga boom but had little knowledge of or real interest in yoga.
She hired me to help her hire and manage teachers, classes, and events. I held small auditions for teachers in order to fill again underpaid teaching slots. Certain patterns began to emerge as I noticed a growing number of applicants from YTTP. At the time YTTP had a very specific sequence they taught to teachers making it difficult to hire YTTP teachers for certain positions, even if they were lovely teachers. After hiring and getting to know some of the teachers I started to hear the same complaints; no one could get on the YTTP schedule or find employment outside of YTTP. I eventually started to encourage YTTP teachers to get further experience from other perspectives and traditions with the hope they could get jobs outside of the YTTP universe and make a living teaching yoga. An older male YTTP graduate once shared, “If you want to be on the Yoga To The People schedule you need to be a cute 20 year old girl” and his sentiments unfortunately matched the voices of many others at the time.
As I look back at my experiences and the voices of others now coming out against YTTP, I realize I was both a victim and a supporter of this toxic culture.
I wanted so badly to be in this exclusive yoga club, I was willing to overlook the abuses against me and my fellow employees in order to climb this elusive hierarchy. My want for community and acceptance combined with my need for life direction post collage made me overlook consistent questionable actions made by those around me. Afterall, I was supposedly in a “safe space” surrounded by like minded individuals. Now that I have some space and distance from a formal yoga community, I wonder if yoga studios should come back after Covid. If my story from other yoga studios matches the abuses shared by others, how far spread is the damage?
I feel lucky I was never exposed to any sexual misconduct or abuse, and at the same time, outraged I even have to make that statement. Being a young white woman opened many doors for me within the yoga community as I worked and taught in a white washed, luluLemon culture. I’m not sure how to make amends for my compliance in this culture or how yoga studios should move forward. Growing tired of being extremely underpaid, I cut ties with all studios in order to pursue private clients only; but remained a member of my neighborhood Shala to continue my personal study and practice.
As a community, I hope we can continue this conversation and bring forth healing to those people in our community who need it most. I hope we can continue to elevate the voices of those who have experienced abuse within their yogic community and create safer more appropriate places of work and practice moving forward. I never expected perfection from my teachers, my work place, or my employer, but I did expect respect, safety, living wages, and a level of professionalism which has not been maintained in most of my experiences working in the yoga industry. It’s time to lift up vail and see the gigantic flaws within the yoga community and the modern day workforce in general.
As business owners, founders, and leaders, can we step-up to the plate and make our workplaces safe for all people again?
It’s time to open up a dialogue and ensure start-up and newly founded businesses aren’t profiting on underemployment and free labor. This story isn’t to point fingers and blame – but to bring light to the injustices that occur in small scale, start-up, and even consciously branded businesses. Let’s make a stand and ensure our employees, not just our customers are on the receiving end of our company ethics.
Content courtesy of Alli Bradley, founder of Private Yoga Soho, based in New York City.
CONTRIBUTING AUTHOR, ALLI BRADLEY
Alli began practicing Yoga and Reiki as an extension of her BFA in Dance Performance and quickly found her passion within these ancient practices. Her multidisciplinary background in Yoga, dance, somatics, and energy healing ground her work in curated individualized practices. Currently she is a NYC-based private Yoga instructor and founder of Private Yoga Soho.
Her mission is to bring movement and expression to people throughout all walks of life. To learn more about her work visit www.privateyogasoho.com
Keep up with Alli on Instagram: @privateyogasoho