Energetic Pyramid Scheme: The Yoga of Exploitation ~ Chris Kiran Aarya
Yoga has been a positive experience in my life for more than 30 years and I’ve been blessed to meet and work with so many gifted and kind-hearted people in the yoga community all over Europe and the USA. But it has been hard to watch the modern yoga community and yoga industry take on some of the business community’s worst attributes. Instead of the yoga community being a more positive influence on society, we’re letting society change us – and not for the better. The flow of influence is going in the wrong direction and we need to change that.
In a fair and functioning economy, people buy and sell goods and services for a fair price so that everyone’s needs are met. Sure, some will do better than others in the near and long term and it functions best when there is a fair exchange of energy between all parties in the process. And don’t get me wrong, there is nothing bad about trying to make a living teaching or writing about yoga, but it needs to be done ethically.
One of the most insidious business practices we see throughout modern yoga today is the pyramid scheme. A pyramid scheme is an unsustainable hierarchical business practice in which people are asked to invest and recruit others to do the same. The money that is invested goes to those at the top of the pyramid, while those at the bottom continue investing with the hope of a big payout that will never come.
I’ve been caught up in the yoga community’s version of the pyramid scheme myself. I have given my time, energy, and money to causes which paid a few at the top while leaving me and others with nothing but a little “exposure.” This is the new norm in the corporate world of yoga: people invest time and effort only to be paid in “exposure” while a few at the top are paid in cold hard cash.
Since time, energy and money as essentially the same in terms of how we can give and exchange energy, I call this dynamic The Energetic Pyramid Scheme.
Oftentimes people use yoga philosophy or the cult of false positivity to con people into giving up their life’s work for free. You’ll hear them quoting Krishna from the Bhagavad Gita to “renounce the fruits of your labor” – implying that you’re unyogic if you expect compensation for your work. You will be accused of being selfish or not believing enough in the process, that you’re not working hard enough to leverage the exposure you’ve been so generously afforded. You will be told that any failure is solely your responsibility because you didn’t want success badly enough.
In other cases, pay is promised for work delivered but after the class is taught or the website is revamped, the promise is forgotten.
Nonprofit – For Whom?
Back in 2012 I had volunteered to teach yoga as part of a nonprofit organization’s “Oasis” at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was excited about be a part of it but just before I was accepted, I was informed that I would need to arrange for my own transportation and lodging in Charlotte – something any struggling full-time yoga teacher could not afford.
Fast forward to a few months later and I found out that Ariana Huffington had donated $40,000 to the organization for providing the Oasis at the Republican and Democratic conventions and that none of the yoga teachers or massage therapists had been paid.
Of course I knew they were not only unpaid but also had to cover their own travel expenses. Where did the money go? Did the nonprofit’s celebri-yogi leadership pay for their airline tickets and hotels out of their own pocket when they made media appearances at the conventions? I sincerely doubt it. Of course, the celebri-yogis collected gratitude and media attention for the Oasis effort, while the yoga teachers and massage therapists remained anonymous – and unpaid.
Yoga Teacher Trainees as Free Labor
Every studio today has a yoga teacher training (YTT) program. But some rely on their trainees to teach regularly scheduled classes. This effectively means that the studio gets paid twice – once by regular students (that are not even being provided a qualified teacher), and again by the trainees (who are paying thousands of dollars for a certificate).
Now its OK if everyone knows that a YTT trainee is teaching the class and it follows a different payment model, such as donations, and YTT students need opportunities to practice teaching to the public. But too often they just are used to fill the schedule, and the studio’s pockets.
Then there is the practice of forcing teacher trainees to work for free and calling it “karma yoga.” This includes cleaning floors, toilets, manning the sign-in desk, conducting inventory, filing, etc. And all these hours of janitorial/reception/administrative assistance/teaching work counts toward their training hours (even though there is no actual training being received). But karma yoga means selfless service. And if people are doing it for training hours, or are forced or coerced, it isn’t karma yoga. And it sure as hell isn’t karma yoga when the ones who benefit from it are just exploiting trainees.
Yoga Conferences and Festivals
Yoga festivals, now ubiquitous, are another great example of how few profit at the expense of the many. Not all yoga festivals are created equal, and some like the Yoga Journal conference, pay a fair wage to teachers and those working at the conference. But with so many others, you find the Energetic Pyramid Scheme.
Most teachers at these events pay their own travel arrangements and are not paid for the workshops they teach – often to packed rooms of paying students. These events also rely on a small army of unpaid volunteers who usually receive a free pass to the festival.
In all fairness, I’ve been paid to teach at least half of the festivals I’ve taught at in the US and Europe and some festival organizers go out of their way to house and feed their teachers. But still, too many festival organizers end up pocketing tens of thousands of dollars without even paying a nominal appearance fee to the teachers. Without the teachers, there would be no yoga festival.
Once when teaching at a yoga festival I brought along a friend from outside of the yoga community who observed how backwards it was that “the poor people” (yoga teachers) were teaching yoga workshops for free to the ticket-buying rich people while someone else pocketed the money.
She was right. But, we all thought we were getting “exposure” and a studio owner at the festival might invite us to teach a weekend of workshops, which might give us the opportunity to earn thousands in a single weekend.
Sadly, that seldom happens for anyone no matter how well you teach. In the end, it is just a clever way to get people to give their time and energy for free so that 1-2 people can profit from it. The exposure feels great in the short term and teaching new groups of he students is always wonderful, but you can’t eat exposure. And its not just the yoga teachers, its the massage therapists, photographers, musicians, graphic and web designers, the list of the exploited is long.
There are even very large and popular for-profit yoga festivals which still solicit for volunteers. Generally, the more a yoga festival tries to convince you that its a great gathering of spiritual consciousness (while sporting lots of sponsor labels), the more likely they are exploiting people for profit.
One of the worst examples of the pyramid scheme in yoga must be the “pay to play” conferences found in Europe. Last year, I was in a dialogue with an organizer in Germany who wanted me to teach at his festival and I was ready to say yes until I heard the conditions. First, the workshop time slots were only 45 minutes long and secondly, it would cost me 250 euros to present at the conference.
Paying 250 euros for the honor of teaching 40-50 people who paid to be there…for only 45 minutes…is one of the most grotesque examples of the Energetic Pyramid Scheme I’ve seen in modern yoga. Once again, someone at the top gets paid twice while everyone else pays in – and the teacher ends up paying the most. Apparently they think exposure is worth more than just free labor.
According to one Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, “It sucks because they get you where you are most passionate and vulnerable. They know you want to do good, and they prey on that.”
Writing About Yoga
My wife Maya Devi Georg and I have been writing for online and print yoga publications for over six years and our writings have been read by literally millions of people. Some readers even send us beautiful notes about how our writing has touched their lives, changed their practice, or helped them through a tough time. We both love sharing our writing with others.
And yet we have not been paid one cent for any of it.
Meanwhile the owners of those sites have collected significant sums in advertising money (yes, we saw the ad rates) and used the websites to launch themselves into celebri-yogi status, garnering invites to speak at big yoga conferences (about what – exploitation?) and expanding their personal “brand” all on the backs’ of others’ free labor. Like so many exploiters in the yoga industry, they talk a good game about ethics, compassion, sustainability but they seldom walk the talk.
And don’t be fooled by the new “tip jars” and schemes designed to make it appear that writers are being paid at anything approaching a fair rate. When a popular online yoga website which pulls in just over $1 million per year brags that they’ve paid their writers over $5,000 in the last year, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that people are being exploited.
Pick up many of the slick new yoga-related online and print magazines in the U.S. and you’ll see dozens of photos and articles for which the writers and photographers were never paid. Plus, there are confirmed stories of these same magazines’ websites being redesigned but the people who put in the hours to do it were never paid, despite being promised a set rate for the work.
Meanwhile the owners of these magazines and websites are feted as “visionaries” and “entrepreneurs” when actually they are con artists who are neither yogis nor business professionals. They are the only ones making money and they are only interested in promoting themselves and their own personal brand.
Last year, I was contacted by the owner of a new yoga-related business and asked to write blogs for new website to help promote the service she was offering. When I inquired about compensation, she responded that they were experimenting with paying some writers $10-13 per article but that most were writing for free “because they believe in our purpose…and they want the exposure.” I respectfully declined. I also had to wonder if the CEO of that business also believed in its purpose so much that she would forgo compensation as well.
One yoga website owner, for whom we had both given many hit articles which drove much traffic to their site was even congratulating himself and his small circle of paid editors on social media one day for reaching one million website visits in a single month. Even when prompted, was there any thought of offering even a few words of gratitude to the unpaid writers who brought him all those hits (and higher advertising rates)? No. We were neither payed, nor thanked.
We have asked the editors of these sites if we could exchange our writing for a free ad to advertise our teacher training or a yoga retreat and the response was that “we can offer you a discount on an ad.” So, we stopped writing for them.
And it doesn’t matter how much time and effort you put into the writing or how many hundreds of thousands of people read it, the owners of these websites will always find someone else willing to give it away for free. Plus they continue to profit from your writing for years after you’ve left.
The exposure from writing will more often come in the form of trolls. Yes, there are trolls in the yoga community and they are just as hateful as they are anywhere else. They will follow, criticize, and attack, and usually without even reading your work.
One of our most vocal trolls has assumed multiple fake identities to slam and smear not only our work, but also our personal lives. One went so far as to create a website dedicated to criticizing us. Later, that troll even personally contacted us, asking us to contribute to his Kickstarter campaign. Yes, even the yoga trolls will seek to exploit you for their latest vanity project.
Thankfully, there are islands of integrity. One print magazine in Greece has offered to exchange advertising for our writing and some American magazines are now offering to pay writers for their content so there is some hope.
It speaks well for the ethical state of the Greek yoga community when a magazine in a country undergoing a great depression with a 25% unemployment rate is offering a fair deal while similar publications in the US or northern Europe are not. We’ve found this same sense of fairness in Greek yoga studios and yoga festivals as well.
For the most part we’ve confined our writing to our own website BrahamalokaOrBust.com where we also host others’ writing and allow them to place free ads for their own books, retreats, and trainings in their articles since it only seems fair. We host and maintain the site, and while writers are not paid, neither are we.
What You Can Do About It
Sure, some will say that “its just business” and “people are the same everywhere”. But in yoga when you talk the talk, people expect you to walk the walk – and they should. Our practice is based upon a set of ethics (yama and niyama) and when we don’t give our best to honor them we are no longer really doing yoga.
So, if we stop accepting and contributing to exploitative business practices and quit supporting the yoga 1%ers, we can change our yoga community for the better and in turn, positively influence the world around us. Here are a few suggestions for how we can stop exploitation in yoga and break the Energetic Pyramid Schemes, ushering in new standards for honest, fair, and equitable business practices:
- First off, be smart and don’t just give your work away for the promise of exposure. You’ve worked hard and paid good money to do your yoga teacher training and subsequent studies and your efforts have real value. If someone can’t afford a yoga class, try to find another way they can pay you so there is a fair exchange of energy. And you’re a lot better off writing for your own blog than you are giving your writing away for free to someone who will exploit you.
- Spot the predators and con artists. The harder they work at the appearance of looking spiritual and the less they want to lock in the details with you (or if it seems to good to be true), chances are they are a charlatan. Don’t be afraid to ask for a written agreement ahead of time and don’t be afraid to walk away from a situation that seems fishy.
- If you’re a teacher and want to be more successful, focus on giving the best class or workshop you can every time. While my writing has been seen my many people in the USA and Europe, it has not led to a single invitation to teach workshops at a studio or festival. What has generated invitations are word-of-mouth recommendations from people who have attended one of my classes or workshops.
- As a student/customer/reader, pay people what something is worth and don’t push a bargain so hard that you leave someone impoverished. Even when they are paid at a decent rate, most yoga teachers are barely surviving, have no health insurance, and are driving a car that may not survive the next winter. If you like a studio, buy a multi-class pass or membership instead of the latest offering from a daily deal site.
- Before you buy your tickets to a yoga conference or festival, ask if the teachers, musicians, assistants, and massage therapists are getting paid. If they are not getting paid, don’t buy a ticket and let the organizers know that this is a deal breaker for you. If a conference or festival does pay its teachers a fair rate, be sure to support them – this is another way we can ensure the ethical norms in yoga.
- Write to the online and print publications you frequent and ask them if they pay all of their writers (or better yet, ask the writers). And don’t be fooled by memberships, ads, and tip jars. Many businesses go out of their way to making themselves appear to be ethical, or a fair trade publication. If they don’t pay their writers stop visiting their site or buying their magazine. Write to their advertisers and let them know why you no longer read the site or magazine. Free and ethical trade is not just for wicker baskets and coffee – it applies here too.
- If your yoga studio is using yoga teacher training students to teach class, ask if they are paying them and also ask for a discount because you are being taught by someone who has not yet even graduated from a teacher training program. If they stick with the energetic pyramid scheme program, find another studio – but not before letting them know why you left. Again, if your studio is already operating ethically, be sure to support them – it’s the only way we can keep these islands of integrity thriving.
- Before signing up for a yoga teacher training program, ask around and find out if they count free labor hours cleaning up, etc (disguised as Karma Yoga) toward the 200 or 500 hours in the program. If so, find another program. You’re paying good money to learn and those hours should be actual hours of instruction or practice teaching, not free labor for the studio.
Together, we can all help our yoga community live up to the ethics and values we’re all doing our best to live every day.
Chris Kiran Aarya, E-RYT 500, YACEP. A dedicated yoga practitioner and teacher (who first learned from his mother at the age of seven), he combines three decades of practice along with over two decades of group fitness and outdoor leadership experience into his teaching and he enjoys helping students break through to new levels of ability and self-belief. His signature style is a vinyasa-based mix infused with humor, kick-your-asana power flow sequences, and longer stretches for a deep opening of the body.
Chris trained with Doug Swenson and his multi-faceted vinyasa style of yoga; Sadhana Yoga Chi and his teachers and influences also include Yogini Shambhavi, David Swenson, and Tias Little.
Chris currently teaches workshops, teacher trainings, and at yoga festivals around the U.S. and Europe. He has written for or appeared in YogaWorld Magazine, Mantra Yoga + Health Magazine, Joga ABC (Poland), YogaNova (France), Origin Magazine, Elephant Journal, Brahmaloka or Bust, Flow Yoga Magazine, LA Yoga, Integral Yoga Magazine, eKathimerini (Greece), Europe’s World, Yoga Journal Online, American Foreign Service Journal, and Politico and his work has been translated into German, Greek, French, Italian, Polish and Spanish.