One rainy day at a dog park in Seattle I overheard two yoga instructors discussing their business challenges. “You can’t make a living as a yoga instructor,” one of them said. “You have to have something more stable on the side if you’re going to support your teaching habit.”
Yoga instructors keep so many of us fit, grounded, mindful, focused and from going postal. Which is why I decided to put my professional talents to work on a market research project for yogapreneurs. The notion was solidified over coffee with one of my favorite yogis who agreed that what yogapreneurs need is what they can’t afford: the strategy and market insights to support their passion-fueled careers.
I began to sleuth out what yoga students want, what they don’t want and how they decide where and when to practice. I interviewed studio-owning yogis that failed humbly and succeeded brilliantly. The collective wisdom and hard-learned business lessons of yogapreneurs around the country demystified the practice of yoga as a business model.
It is in fact possible to earn a sustainable living as a professional yogi, no side gig required. After one-on-one interviews with yoga students and yoga instructors from California to Pennsylvania, a few best practices for improving the financial stability of a yoga career surfaced:
Don’t Start A Studio
Starting a studio for the sake of starting a studio threatens the entire yoga community by stealing market share. Diffusing the same number of students across more and more locations and owners proves that a gifted teacher isn’t necessarily a business guru.
“The market is saturated not with teachers but with studios,” explains local yogi Romel Antoine. “There are so many to choose from. They really have to differentiate themselves.”
Instead of starting your own studio, Yoga Seed founder Jessica Rhodes recommends finding a mentor and a studio where you can contribute your talents, hone your practice, carve a niche, develop a following and cultivate a community.
But Also, Start a Studio If….
Only start a studio if you are absolutely certain that there is a legitimate gap in your local market. If the gap is big enough and the need deep enough, it is possible to grow a new market segment to support the potential demand. Being absolutely certain means setting your gut, ego and passion aside to assess the risks and quantify your idea before investing too much time, money or heart. Invite the market that you plan to serve to participate in informal focus groups, talk to studio owners outside your region that are making a go in the niche you want to fill. Figure out the path to profitability by finding out what your target market will pay and what models they will support.
Find and Own Your Niche:
“If you just say you’re a yoga teacher, that doesn’t mean anything, because it can mean anything,” says San Francisco-based yogi Vyana Marie. “You have to have a niche or have a specialization. Are you fitness? Are you heart? What do you do?”
With so many general practitioners getting certified each month and so many studios to choose from, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for students to organically discover the yoga studios and instructors that fit their individual styles and expectations.
One thing is clear: Boldly defining your value proposition is critical to sustaining your career as an instructor or studio startup. You have to define how what you do is different and why that differentiation matters. This includes the who, when and where of what that market wants, and at what frequency and rate they’ll support it. Kim Wagaman is a perfect example: She’s the only yoga instructor in Sacramento who specializes in Yoga for Scoliosis. Owning a bold and specific niche ensures that Wagaman’s students find her, and that both her colleagues and her students know how to recommend her, because they know exactly what she does and who she serves.
Invest in Your Network:
Investing in your network means taking a genuine interest in your students, and a collaborative rather than competitive interest in fellow practitioners. “Everyone wants to embark on their own right off the bat,” Rhodes says, “and when you start off on your own, you miss out on learning from the community.”
Cultivating a financially sustainable network of students requires far more than getting names and contact information after class for the email database. Building relationships and cultivating a network begins with understanding what each participant wants to get out of their experience. Over time, your engaged network of loyal students will offer insights that keep your approach fresh yet consistent. These invaluable connections will tell you everything you need to know to fill your workshops, retreats, teacher trainings and private lessons — the real drivers of financial stability and sustainability.
Work at Studios with Brand Awareness
The reputation of the studio you’re teaching at will play a sizeable role in determining the amount of time you spend marketing and promoting your classes verses actually teaching yoga. The better the studio’s reputation and wider the awareness, the less time you’ll spend marketing.
“Students find me via word of mouth and the studio’s brand recognition” says Antoine. “When I say I’m teaching at Zuda, people tell me they’ve always wanted to check Zuda out.”
If you became an instructor to teach rather than market, aligning yourself with strong yoga brands gives you more freedom to practice what you love.
Brand awareness isn’t synonymous with a savvy digital footprint or marketing campaigns.
“Some of the best studios around aren’t going to show up in a Google search, but they’re also not going anywhere,” says James Kapicka, founder of The Sac-Sierra Yoga Pass. “They have a credible local reputation that gives them staying power.”
Before you commit to a studio, find out how the studio is perceived in the community.
Is it known? How is it perceived? Does it have brand awareness and does that brand offer a credible and compelling strategic advantage?
When asked what would improve Sacramento’s local yoga community, seasoned yoga instructors and studio owners from around the region pointed out the local need for collaboration. The competitive nature of our local yoga community interferes with the ease of developing strategic partnerships, makes it more difficult for instructors to refer students to better-fit teachers, and creates more insular studios. Insular studios prevent the natural exchange of new ideas, new techniques, and thought-leadership between studios.
If you’re looking to cultivate a financially sustainable yoga career, start by working and collaborating within the existing yoga community while you’re finding your niche and cultivating your network.