One month prior to the announcement of the permanent closures of the YogaWorks New York studios that were announced in April, I spoke with the changemakers on the front lines of unionization efforts on a Zoom call; a handful of YogaWorks NY teachers who formed the collective, Unionize Yoga—a first-ever yoga teachers’ union to become certified by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Accompanied by an official from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), the trade union that represents them, the teachers discussed the important issues that were plaguing our industry long before the coronavirus pandemic had arrived, including a lack of diversity, job security, and benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave.
It was the early days of COVID-19. Social distancing measures and sanitization protocols were mounting as the word “quarantine” quickly became the new normal. Industry-wide shutdowns of yoga studios and cancelations of retreats and festivals soon rippled throughout the country and around the world, New York City prepared to shelter-in-place.
Here’s what I asked them—and what I learned about what the future of yoga could look like in a post-pandemic world.
Is Industry-Wide Diversity and Equity Even Possible?
One of the biggest problems perpetuated by the yoga and wellness industry is its homogeneity and reinforcement of existing financial and racial privilege. Deidra Demens, a Unionize Yoga member and YogaWorks teacher, says that she’s grown accustomed to walking into a yoga studio and being the only person of color as both a student and teacher—even in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world. It was easy in the beginning of her career, she says, to normalize this issue. But somewhere between her first teacher training in 2011 and her second in 2017 (neither were at YogaWorks; Demens had been a teacher at YogaWorks in Brooklyn and Manhattan since late-2017), it was actually her students who started to bring it up.
Demens, who is African American, said she struggled to find a time slot at a studio that was actually lucrative. “I’ve taught at so many studios in New York and at almost all of those studios I’ve gotten emails from managers and studio owners saying we need more men teachers—but I’ve never gotten an email saying we need more teachers of color,” she said. “They’ve [studio owners] said that people like male teachers, but I’ve said, how do you know that people don’t like black teachers—or any teacher of color?”
It’s already hard enough for white individuals to make a living as yoga teachers—there aren’t enough jobs; we’re all too familiar with the unsettling statistic that for every one yoga teacher there are two more in training. In a market that’s already oversaturated with teachers who can afford the costs of teacher training—ranging anywhere from a fast-track online program for $500 to an in-depth offering with a renowned yogalebrity for $10,000—imagine what it’s like for minority groups vying for teaching positions who are, by the sheer demographics of the industry, outnumbered by the white majority.
Demens says she’s hopeful for what a potential teachers’ union could mean for diversity in the industry at large. She’s looked to history for inspiration, and learned about the black sanitation workers in Memphis, TN, who had formed a union back in the 1960s. She says they too faced issues of unfair pay, and a lack of job security and safety. At the time, she says, black people were not allowed to organize—but following two deaths from a garbage truck malfunction and the city’s refusal to replace the defective equipment, the workers went on strike. “They went through so much, but they never gave up,” Demens said. “They fought hard and they eventually won—and not just for themselves; what they did impacted the civil rights movement and the fight for labor rights.”
Demens points out how the win in Memphis helped many black people shift into the middle class. “I think many people, myself included, often feel overlooked—and that I have no voice or say in what goes on in this industry or how I’m viewed in the community,” she said. While Demens doesn’t know whether a yoga union could be as powerful or effective as what had happened in Memphis, she acknowledges how unions can help people feel supported and of significance, and empower them to stand up for what they believe in.