Practice as Profession

by J. Brown


As the benefits of yoga are becoming more widely available and experienced, so the advertising industry has embraced it as a viable marketing demographic. In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly magazine, the back cover featured an ad depicting a yoga mat with an upside-down bottle of Vodka on it, and a caption that read: “Absolut Yoga.” TV commercials for Home Depot and assorted banks feature images of beautiful women executing yoga asana as a means to equate the pleasure of practice to the purchase and use of their products/services.

While it’s disconcerting that we would choose to use something sacred in this way, it is not surprising that with so many people making yoga class part of their weekly schedules, business executives see an opportunity.

Along with this new marketability, yoga practice is also becoming recognized by some of the medical community as a potential form of physical/behavioral therapy. Insurance companies are now beginning to include yoga as an alternative medicine in their coverage. Consequently, there has been some move towards institutionalization and standardization of yoga instruction/practice so that it might better fit into the structures set by the health industry. Many in the “yoga community” feel this will bring legitimacy to the profession of yoga instruction and establish yoga practice as something more than an advertising tool.
Certification, Quality Care, and Economics
The professional yoga instructor (meaning someone who actually manages to support themselves financially) is legally an “independent contractor.” Generally, income is received from either a yoga center or a private student, neither of which pay any taxes or provide any benefits on behalf of the teacher. At a center, payment is usually attendance-based. The more people show up, the more money you make. In a private situation, it’s entirely up to the teacher; often a “sliding-scale” is used. Even instructors affiliated with the recognized institutions of yoga are for the most part on their own once their training is completed. There are a few who are handed the torch by some “senior” teacher, but a very small percentage of people who receive 200/500 hour certification in yoga instruction are actually given work opportunities by the establishments that certify them. In fact the criteria by which one is given status to bestow such certification is not stringent or regulated in any real way. Just about anyone can offer whatever training they want and provide a piece of paper that says: “certified.”

At the same time, “teacher training” programs are becoming increasingly more common, mostly because of their ability to generate revenue for the teacher or center providing the training. It seems that people are more likely to spend a large sum of money all at once in exchange for teacher training than they are to attend classes regularly. The allure of “certification” is that you are somehow getting more than everyone else who is just going to class, and that with this you would be able to teach and potentially make money, which is not entirely untrue considering the majority of yoga classes at the local gym (or center for that matter) do not actually provide any instruction in the principles and forms so much as just lead someone through a yoga “routine,” without any real information about the “what and why” of practice. Consequently there are many people being “certified” who are not the least bit qualified to teach yoga.

Thus many are in favor of institutions by which standards can be determined. Not unlike Licensed Massage Therapy where there is now state-by-state regulation and criteria that distinguishes between established formal training and the average “body worker” (someone who is not licensed.) The model set by Licensed Massage therapy is useful in that it allows for an accreditation process that enables the profession to be accepted by the mainstream health industry – namely, the insurance companies. Unfortunately, the licensing process does not insure quality care. Despite the standards that have been set, there are plenty of licensed therapists whose work is terribly ineffective and many without licenses who are true healers.

So the question for the yoga community then becomes one of intent. Is the purpose of creating standards to facilitate quality teachers or an accreditation process that will provide mainstream acceptance? Surely it is easier to determine standards that legitimize the profession in conventional circles, considering what actually makes one an effective yoga instructor is somewhat enigmatic and not easily defined.

Learning to provide healing through yoga or massage is comparable to the study of music. It is possible to learn all the technique and theory, to know all the notes and scales, and still be a terrible musician. At the same time, someone who has never studied technique or theory can pick up an instrument and play something totally brilliant and inspired.

There is a difference between learning/executing technique and being able to utilize such technique as a means to facilitate well-being in others. If there is to be a formula for learning to teach yoga, it cannot be solely empirical in nature. There simply has to be some allowance for a degree of magic, faith, or at the very least “that which cannot be explained, only experienced.”

Truth be told, ones ability to teach yoga is directly proportional to ones own practice, not ones training, per se. Training and effective practice are not necessarily the same thing. Just because someone has completed a requisite number of study hours and can demonstrate precision in the forms and even knowledge of the principles does not mean that this information and “know-how” has found any practical application. The test of ones practice is not the training behind it so much as the person it produces. The more one is able to utilize practice to bring about their own health and find clear direction in life, the more one comes to understanding and is in a position to teach this to others.

Of course this means nothing if you are solely interested in economics, because there are plenty of people making a lot of money under the title of “yoga” who are not the least bit healthy and have very little understanding about practice.

Traditionally the position of yoga teacher was not of any elevated status or wealth. In a modern context, an authentic yoga teacher would be comparable to a social worker. It is only a relatively recent phenomenon that the profession has become lucrative for anyone outside of the Hindu “masters” who imported teachings to the west back in the 1960s.

Nowadays there are million-dollar book deals, large conventions of yoga industry, and many who have made fortunes out of what was once nothing more than an honest exploration of ones self, health, and life.
1099’s, Deductions, and IRS Tax Audits
The self-employed yoga instructor exists largely in the margins of the U.S. economic system. There are no W2 forms, no 401K plans, no health benefits, and no protective unions that can offer any real security in the job. Technically speaking, the yoga instructor is a small business owner, no different than the guy who runs the deli store on the corner, responsible for reporting his or her annual income and allowed by law to deduct business expenses. Unlike other small businesses, there are no inventory invoices or register tapes to help define what these expenses are. In fact, what exactly constitutes the business of teaching yoga (as defined by the US taxation system) is unclear.

If ones ability to teach is proportional to ones own application of practice, then anything that contributes to the well-being of the teacher could be considered part of his or her business. However, good luck trying to explain that to the IRS.

Actually, the IRS doesn’t care. With the services of a reasonably competent tax attorney, one can easily be coached through the process of fabricating the necessary documents that an audit requires. Ultimately, the truth does not matter. If one was to show up to a scheduled audit without representation or documentation and explain with complete honesty exactly how the numbers on their tax returns were arrived at, the auditors would be forced by law to charge penalties, even if they believed in the veracity of the explanation. However, if a representative shows up on ones behalf and presents documents that demonstrate this truthful explanation, then no penalties are given, even if it is obvious that the documents have been fabricated. Really it is nothing more than a matter of form, having very little to do with any sort of truth. (This assumes that one has been honest with ones numbers and does not take into account ones lawyer fees.)

In the end, it does bode well for the self-employed yoga instructor to keep necessary receipts and some degree of documentation as to his or her activities. The formal categories for deductions are: rent, supplies, travel, utilities, and other. Of these, the rent category is the one that most clearly illustrates an inherent dilemma.

Technically, one is allowed to deduct rent on a space that is used for ones business. So if one is teaching private outcalls or at a center, then there is no rent to deduct; however, if one teaches out of ones home, he or she is allowed to deduct a percentage of the rent on that space. The percentage is determined by the amount of space in the home that is dedicated solely to the business. Theoretically, one is not allowed to deduct rent on space that is not solely used for the business so ones living room does not count as a business space, even if it is being used for private lessons, which would certainly constitute part of ones business as a yoga instructor.

Clearly distinguishing between ones life and ones business is a very different thing for a yoga instructor than that of other small businesses. Not so different would be a case pending in California where a stripper deducted the cost of her breast implants as a business expense. The present tax codes do not entirely allow for professions that fall beyond conventional lifestyle parameters.
Insurance, Gyms, and Standards
Bridging the vocation of teaching yoga to the professional health care industry is difficult and potentially disastrous, but certainly not impossible. At present, the private companies and not-for-profit organizations at the forefront of this movement are doing their best to create structures that are believed to be moving us in this direction. While teacher registry and “minimum standards” have not done much to make better yoga teachers, it has provided an opening for the insurance companies who are anxious to tap into the market that now exists.

Some of these companies and organizations are now beginning to offer personal liability insurance for yoga instructors and an official title: “RYT- Registered Yoga Teacher.” If you pay the fee and meet the standards (which are nominal at best), then you can join and be privy to these benefits – meaning you are allowed to use your title on all promotional materials (advertising) and are supposedly protected against any lawsuit that should arise as a result of your work.

While there is no real precedent for lawsuits filed against yoga instructors, recently a multi-million-dollar class action suit was waged against the Crunch Gym Corporation and a personal trainer in its employ. Now that yoga classes are proving lucrative to the physical fitness industry and can be found at virtually every gym, the potential need for legal protection is certainly increased.

The relatively new popularity of yoga classes at the local gym has provided instructors more opportunities to work, but is also indicative of the problems heretofore discussed regarding certification and quality care. The physical fitness industry is rampant with “teachers” who have nothing but a scant understanding of the exercises that they learned at a weekend “teacher training.” More and more, reports show an increase in “yoga-related injuries.”

Creating standards for yoga instruction that serve no real purpose beyond the ability to receive money from insurance companies and governmental organizations does not truly legitimize the profession. If anything, it further demeans it, making training about money rather than understanding – ultimately, nothing more than advertising.

Organizing yoga teachers and creating formal standards is probably necessary, considering current trends and the realities of our present condition. But let us know this for what it is and not fool ourselves that it is anything more. The responsibility of ensuring quality care and legitimizing the profession must fall on the shoulders of each and every individual in the community. Those in the yoga industry must learn to better recognize and reward those who exemplify the principles more than those who capitalize on the fads of the time.

Ultimately each of us must hold ourselves to account for our own behavior and actions. We must have the courage to forge new models that might shed light on a health industry that at present does not allow for the concept of an all-encompassing whole Truth to exist, much less provide business models that encourage positive human development. Fortunately, an all encompassing whole truth, or yoga, does allow for linear structures that would provide money and “legitimacy” in the mainstream world.

If our profession can stay true to our practice, and the established health industry can find a way to allow for this, there is compatibility to be had. But if we allow the industry of yoga to be conducted in ways that betray the purpose behind practice, we do a terrible disservice to ourselves and the greater humanity.

Let us be diligently honest and duly discerning.