The first time I taught a yoga workshop in London, I was so sick I barely made it home. I had spent the previous three weeks in bed, feverish and delirious, and then dragged myself across the city to teach it. I had no money for rent, no sick pay, no savings, and no choice. Stories like these are why teachers like me have come together with the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) to form the UK’s first Yoga Teachers’ Union Behind the veil, there’s an industry rife with exploitation, harassment and discrimination.
Every yoga teacher I know has a story like this. One friend hid her pregnancy for months, afraid of being kicked out of a studio. Another felt her infected eardrum burst while working but kept teaching, trying to conceal the blood dripping from her head. We’re not radiant Eat Pray Love extras gliding through the world: most of us are precarious ‘gig economy workers’, underpaid, exhausted and exploited. Most yoga teachers don’t even have a contract, let alone sick-pay, paid leave or pension contributions.
Pay at gyms can be as low as £10 for an hour class for yoga teachers. Factoring in the two hours of unpaid preparation time, the real pay is well below the living wage, often even below minimum wage. Add endless hours of commuting, scurrying from venue to venue, barely piecing together an income, and you find a hidden world of burnt-out, isolated teachers, unable to care for ourselves, painting over our anxieties with a peaceful smile to look well, positive and worthy.
The exploitation we face isn’t just economic. Sexual harassment, racism and bullying are rife in the industry, and a lack of workers’ rights helped pave the way for this endemic culture. Yoga spaces need to be genuinely safe for everyone, including teachers.
This is why teachers from 25 counties have come together, breaking our silence and making change. We’ve made history by establishing the first-ever UK trade union for yoga teachers. In fact, the Yoga Teachers’ Union, a branch of the IWGB, is only the second of its kind in the world, after teachers at YogaWorks New York unionised in September 2019. Covid-19 forced them to dissolve and make new plans, and it created the conditions for unionising.
Studios and gyms closed and teaching platforms slashed pay rates in the switch to online classes. Many of us, ineligible for furlough, have fallen through the gaps of Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and a hostile, underfunded welfare system. The need for unity and action in the industry has never been clearer.
In recent months we’ve worked remotely to hear from founding members and open our doors to start offering support. We’ve also formed working groups on tackling poverty pay, Covid-19 safety, harassment and abuse, and even begun training around abusive dynamics. Our union is 91 per cent women and non-binary members, with the voices of those most exploited – women, people of colour and queer people – front and centre.
There’s a rich tradition of political action in yoga, too. Modern yoga emerged from early 20th century Indian resistance movements that created a proudly South Asian, anti-colonial response to the ‘muscular Christian’ education of civil servants in Oxford college chapels and on rugby pitches. Yogis and renunciates, including predecessors of modern yoga practitioners, led the so-called ‘Fakirs and Sannyasi Rebellion’ of 1770, taking up arms, by some accounts, to literally fight the coloniser for their rights.
Today, Covid-19 is amplifying old inequalities, economic, racial, gendered. Most of the £60 billion in the global yoga industry is concentrated in the hands of a tiny corporate elite and a few wellness celebrities; we as teachers are driven to build communities of care for our students, but are exploited by our industry. But like the University of London cleaners, and the centuries of activists and changemakers before us, we can transform the balance of power.
Yoga teachers are workers, and we’re fighting for our rights. We need workers’ rights to make it through Covid-19, we need workers’ rights to be the best teachers we can be, and we need workers’ rights to survive. We can only win if we come together, but that is a concept we know well: ‘yoga’ does, after all, mean ‘union’.
Simran Uppal is a yoga teacher and secretary of the Yoga Teachers’ Union, IWGB