This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
Rent, health insurance, and HVAC are all foregone conclusions. But there’s one payment I find myself reconsidering each month: the $175 that grants me unlimited access to my neighborhood yoga studio, fairy lights, hardwood floors, centering vibes, and all. It’s my tiny contribution to what is today an $80 billion global yoga industry. My $175 isn’t the least you can spend on yoga (that would be zero—hello, YouTube), but it’s also not the most. Some studios in New York City, where I live, charge $35 per class, nearly as much as a session at SoulCycle.
It feels slightly illogical to spend three figures a month on this most ascetic of fitness options, an activity that’s all about eliminating fuss and focusing intensely on the body-mind connection. And yet each month I, and legions like me, decide to keep doing it. Seeking some peace over the yoga line on my budget, I decided to take a break from all the chaturangas and report on where, exactly, my money was going.
Yoga has—or had—a reputation as a mid-priced group exercise. That’s rooted in the stripped-down design of the studios themselves, says Lisa Kuecker, founder of Studio Grow, a business-coaching company for fitness entrepreneurs. Students need just 6 inches between mats, which are typically just 2 feet wide and 5 feet 8 inches long. “In the same space in New York that I could fit 30 people for barre,” Kuecker says, “I might fit 50 or 60 for yoga.” Granted, that would be a rather crowded class. More often, I’m one of just six or seven in my weekday noon class, but Kuecker’s point stands: You really could pack us in.
The not-too-cheap, not-too-lux status is also a byproduct of yoga’s spiritual origins: While Kuecker says nearly 70 percent of contemporary American yoga classes are pitched as pure exercise, the rest continue to invoke South Asian traditions and spirituality. In some cases, they even operate as 501(c)(3) nonprofits or offer classes by donation only. “Yoga” can refer to everything from a pricey class with pop music to a nearly free session focused on breathwork. It’s got the diversity of studio spaces to match.
Historically, yoga studios were carpeted spaces—and, as you might expect, a little grimy.
(Nonstick mats were only invented in 1982.) The studios were also few and far between and, given yoga’s countercultural bona fides, a little unapproachable to many Americans.
Despite the popularity of their offerings, many yoga studio owners are setting themselves up to fail.
That began to change by the early 2000s, as companies like CorePower Yoga, today the largest corporate-owned yoga company in the world with more than 220 studios, drew up new rules: English terms before Sanskrit ones, clean mats in hardwood studios, and other hallmarks of a “yoga as exercise” model. By that point, yoga was being written off as a middle-class white woman’s activity. This aesthetic gentrification has only continued—including in studios that maintain a strong spiritual emphasis. At the studio I attend, it’s not unusual to hear the ring of a singing bowl, astrological advice, or an invitation to a Reiki sangha. Prices rose accordingly.
Despite the popularity of their offerings, many yoga studio owners are setting themselves up to fail, Kuecker says. Her annual State of the Studio report suggests that the majority of all boutique fitness studios—yoga and otherwise—were not profitable in 2022. That’s in large part because their classes, at $15–25 a pop on average nationally, are still too cheap. It’s easy to get hamstrung by a herd mentality, especially when your classes have a commitment to community, Kuecker says. Studios “shaped their pricing around their competitors,” she adds, “regardless of if their competitors owned their building, had cheaper rent, or weren’t profitable themselves.” The pandemic only exacerbated the issue, as many people got comfortable working out at home.
This realization has led to recent price hikes at some yoga studios.
For years, Juliana Olmstead charged her students no more than $12 per class at her studio, Rhode Island Hot Yoga. That was profitable because she was consistently bringing in 30 students a class. But when COVID restrictions lowered the capacity, she crunched the numbers and found she needed each of those students to bring in closer to $20. “I had plenty of personal angst about this,” Olmstead says. Would her students think she was greedy? But almost everyone was accepting of the new fee. “If you give people the option of paying for their membership or not having a yoga studio anymore, a lot of people will pay,” she says. Even as the studio is back to maximum capacity, unlimited access to Rhode Island Hot Yoga will set you back about $159 per month—up from as little as $89 before the pandemic.
Jasmine Chehrazi, founder of Yoga District, a nonprofit with six studios, is skeptical that raising prices is the right way forward. When Chehrazi started out, she charged just $10 a class. When D.C. instituted a “yoga tax” in 2014, which added a 5.75 percent sales tax to all fitness services, she bumped the price up a little further, to $12.
Now classes at Yoga District are $14 for those who can pay, and no one is turned away for lack of funds. At this price, Chehrazi says she is able to pay her salary as the only full-time employee, as well as rent on all the studios, plus minimum wage to teachers and staff. She can also run programs that bring yoga to prisons and public schools. She is a little protective of her students, and how much they are paying. For students who pay more than $15 a class at other studios, Chehrazi says, “I think it would be good for people to question, where is their money going?”
CorePower has no problem taking the money. “We do a lot of our own consumer research,” says Niki Leondakis, the company’s CEO. They know what their customers did in the pandemic—more pickleball than Peloton—and what they wanted when they returned to in-person classes. In return, CorePower explains to clients what, exactly, their all-access membership is getting them: approachable instructors, in-studio amenities like heated rooms, showers and changing stations, “sleek, modern design” with eco-credentials, all in convenient areas, not to mention access to merchandise to cement their new identity. It’s all the things that Yoga District, with its bare-bones studios and bargain rent, is not. And that shows up in the price: A one-off class at CorePower costs $38 in Brooklyn.
That’s a lot of money for amenities. I wanted to know if high price tags mean anything for teachers, who are the real backbone of the industry. Yoga is a majority-women field, both in terms of instructors and students. Class fees do indeed help pay yoga teachers, but it’s hardly one to one. Many instructors operate as freelancers, cobbling together a handful of classes a day, and are compensated at an average of $25 to $35 an hour—and only for the hour spent actively teaching. Time spent preparing poses, attending retreats or other continuing education events, and commuting from studio to studio (as full-time employment in a single shop is exceedingly rare) is all out of the instructor’s pocket.
Sometimes, higher-end studios pay their teachers more, says Robbin Rose, a Brooklyn-based instructor. At the very least, “studio owners who run the more luxury studios, they have a better sense of business acumen,” Rose says. These days, CorePower offers its teachers a 401(k). Students might feel good about forking over their money thinking that the person at the front of the room is being offered some stability for it.
But across studios, the relationship between the cost of admission and teacher pay remains murky at best, says Adriana Bateh, another Brooklyn-based instructor. “I think it actually has a lot more to do with the ethics and morality of the owners,” she says. “I’ve gone to studios that have very accessible membership rates that pay their teachers very well, and I’ve heard of studios that have very high membership rates and lots of amenities and don’t pay well.” Sometimes, the situation is explicitly predatory: Yoga to the People, once a beloved budget-friendly brand, recently collapsed under accusations of tax fraud, “cult-like” work environments, and sexual misconduct. More often, a studio’s accounting is all aboveboard, but instructors still struggle to stay afloat. “When I first started teaching,” says Ambyr D’Amato, another New York-based instructor, “people got paid a lot better.” That was back in 2003. Now, there are so many people graduating from yoga teacher training eager to teach for “experience,” no one stands a chance.
So instructors find other ways to make ends meet, with jobs outside the yoga industry, by teaching private lessons (which, in New York, can easily earn them $100 an hour); building a personal brand (like Adriene Mishler and the 11.6 million subscribers to her YouTube channel, Yoga with Adriene, or Nikki Baksh, Anne Hathaway’s private instructor and the “Yoga Advisor” for Hathaway’s show We Crashed); or by having a partner who supports them. But when teachers agree to work for cheap, they make it harder for everyone else who comes after them.
Ultimately, a yoga class is “an exchange of energy,” Olmstead says. “The people that have the means to be able to pay the cost of membership and support the business, great, they can do so.” But that doesn’t make the whole transaction any less awkward.
My monthly unlimited membership clearly helps pay the rent on a beautiful studio in walking distance of my home in America’s largest city—all things I value. When I cough up my monthly membership fee, I tend to measure it in the time I spend in class, which comes out to about five hours each week. But I’d be more than happy to change my metric, to think of my payment in terms of how well my teachers were compensated, or how many scholarships were given to students who couldn’t otherwise afford it—and even pay more for those values.
After all, the teachers who make up a yoga studio don’t just give you an hour of their time. They give you their expertise in how to move your body, harness your breath, and calm your mind—three pieces of equipment that are even more sophisticated than the machinery in a spin class.
Read more installments of Good Fit.