I ran a yoga studio from 2009-2014 much like many folks run yoga studios nowadays: I held the lease, paid the rent and overhead, taught most of the classes to keep that overhead down, did most, if not all, of the administration, balanced the books, and basically was a control freak about all of it. Several other teachers taught on the roster, a few classes each, and I did my best to pay them fairly ($5 per student with no maximum, and $25 minimum even if no one showed up.) I ran the studio this way because this "single owner" studio model was the only model of yoga studio I was familiar with. I took most of the risk - and yes, I reaped most of the rewards.
Or, so I thought at the time. Thing is, after about 3 or 4 years of running a yoga studio this way, I found it wasn’t feeling rewarding, either spiritually or financially. In fact, I was burned out. I was spending more of my time marketing the studio, trying to sustain existing students, and gain new students, and less time doing the thing I loved, which was serving human beings through the act of teaching Mysore style Ashtanga Yoga.
The space itself was lovely, but the building was marginal and in a poor location. The last 18 months I taught there felt like walking through waist deep water. And, I was going through a profound change personally as well, which prompted me to finally listen to and follow my intuitive voice that was screaming at me: THIS ISN”T WORKING! NOT FOR YOU, NOT FOR THE STUDENTS.
And, so, I closed that studio and, inspired by Marie Kondo’s, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, divested myself of 99% of the props, mats, and years of accrued paraphernalia of the old studio. I sold it all, because I knew I never wanted to run a studio again - but I still wanted to teach, so I subleased in a holistic center that provided a nice open space and yoga props on Main Street in Northampton, and taught Mysore five mornings a week, with a couple of Led classes at night. I also separated from my husband of 20 years and moved with very few personal items into a small, simple, austere apartment. This was the first time in my entire life that I lived alone, and I loved it. I was happy, and it was this time away to regroup - not unlike returning to samasthithi - that helped save my marriage, in the long run..
A giant, cleansing wave of radical change had swept through my life, both personally and professionally, creating a fresh, clean slate from which I could start again.
Part of my daily practice included studying Sanskrit, chanting Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and studying other ancient texts - like the Gita and the Upanishads - in addition to my asana practice. I accredit the strenuous mental effort of that sadhana - and the resonances of Sanskrit within my body - with my own personal evolution of clarity and purpose. I began to look more and more at teaching as an act of service, as devotion to something greater than running a “yoga business” designed to personally support me and “make money.”
I believe sincerely and have experienced personally that sadhana/practice, when done reverently and consistently for a long time, without attachment to the results of the practice, becomes a catalyst for positive change. I knew that letting go of the results - letting go of the striving to achieve financial success, and simplifying what I offered by teaching as a form of devotion and service - helped create an alchemy within me that lead to greater self awareness, compassion, wisdom and clarity.
But, old habits die hard, and after a successful year and a half in the subleased space, with a growing student community and apprentices who desired to teach, I found that I was falling back into something I didn’t want to do: running a yoga studio.
So, I tried something radically different. Over the course of a weekend, at the suggestion of my friend and fellow teacher, Georgiann Kristek, I developed a model for a collective or cooperatively based yoga studio - one where all the teachers would share. This meant sharing not only the risks, but also the rewards. Sharing the space, sharing the props, sharing the students - no teacher, including myself, would say, “These are “my” students” - but rather, “This is OUR yoga community.”
Here’s how it works in its simplest form:
-Each teacher pays a portion of the rent based on the ratio of classes they teach.
-Each teacher collects 100% of the income from their classes. (Yup, you read that right.)
-Each teacher is responsible for one of the administrative duties required to run the studio.
-Business decisions (i.e. schedule changes, marketing expenditures, etc.) are made collectively and put to a vote democratically; consensus is the goal, but every teacher has veto power if they are strongly against something.
-Teachers are invested in the success of the studio community as a whole vs. in competition with each other.
-Teaching is an act of service to support and help the students develop as conscious human beings.
-Creating a strong, healthy and conscious yoga community is the main purpose of the studio.
These last two are especially important for this model to work. It is not a capitalist model, based on extracting all the resources from the environment - those resources being students. (Remember, students are NOT dollar signs walking through the door, but human beings.) The intent of this model is to serve, give and love one’s fellow human beings, to become more conscious and self-realized - which is the goal of yoga, after all - and to help the students find that freedom, too.
Here’s a simple, practical example:
A group of 4 teachers wish to share a practice space and create a yoga community together. They find a 1000 square foot space that is ideally located and affordable at $1000 a month. After outfitting the studio with props and decor, a cost shared equally between them, the group chooses teaching slots and divvy’s up the schedule in a fair way through consensus. They will have a total of 20 classes a week in the space - three classes a day, two on Saturday.
Each teacher takes on a portion of the administrative duties based on their time and talent - i.e.cleaning, beautification, doing the books and payroll, social media marketing, the email newsletters, managing the schedule, updating the website, creating and distributing print media, etc.
The group also chooses to sublease the space in off-hours to two groups: a dance group and a singing group, who rent 2 hour weekly class slots at $100/month - thus reducing the gross rent to a net $800.
Divide the net rent of $800 by the 20 weekly classes the cooperative teachers share, and the rent per weekly class per month is $40.
Each teacher pays $40/month for each of their weekly classes.
Teacher A - 8 classes a week, $320
Teacher B - 6 classes a week, $240
Teacher C - 4 classes a week, $160
Teacher D - 2 classes a week, $80
Plus two subleases = $200
And, the monthly rent of $1000 is covered.
(Now, this is a very simple example, but, you get the gist, I hope. We all pay some small additional money each month to the rent ratio to cover any marketing costs. For start up costs, we split to costs of outfitting the studio equally (this was the “buy in” to be part of the collective.)
This model is the model that AYN has been following since October of 2015, and it works for us - even through a move to a new location. And, it has not lead to feelings of being “burned out” - because all the teachers are invested in the success of the studio. It works for a variety of reasons:
-The teacher relationship is collegial and supportive, not competitive.
-We communicate with each other.
-We know and trust each other.
-We practice together.
-We share with one another.
-We are generous with each other.
-We have the same goal: that of creating a positive, healthy, supportive space for our students, to serve them and help them grow through yoga sadhana.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
In our modern capitalist, post-industrial world, sharing is seen as somehow weak, foolish, or ineffective. Especially here in the States, the belief is that an individual needs to “fight” for their “piece of the pie” - and that the pie is finite and apt to be gobbled up by more voracious, “stronger” competitors.
Turning around my own personal attitude about what success "means", my own beliefs about sharing and giving, into believing that “the pie” is not finite, but in fact, abundant and infinite, and making community and service the main goal of teaching yoga - serving, giving and loving fellow teachers and most especially, the students - makes all the difference and has helped create a successful, fulfilling and inspiring yoga community of kind, conscious students - and happy, fulfilled teachers, too.
I’m proud of what we’ve created and sustained through this means, and happy to share this with inspired, curious yoga teachers who want to work differently - those that are willing to try running a studio not based on the capitalist “resource extraction" model, but rather, aligned with service and devotion and community - the sharing economy. It feels good to share! Email if you want to learn more.
I walk into my studio most mornings each week, and the first thing I do after taking off my coat and shoes is to greet and honor a statue of the Hindu deity, Ganesha, that resides in the practice room - usually with a short Ganapati chant that I sing while lighting candles and incense. If I have time, I anoint him with fresh water or essential oil while ringing a small brass bell as I chant. He’s a massive, modern bronze representation of Ganesha - beautiful, elaborate and stylized. One of his four hands holds a bowl of prasad, another an axe, and the third a goad. His fourth, one of the right hands, is held forward in a gesture of beatitude, with an OM symbol in red on his palm. His eyes are gently lidded, head surrounded by a halo. He is impressive, calming, and holds the space of our little shala quite as gently and firmly as he holds the sacred symbols in his hands.
In Hinduism, the divine presence is everywhere and everything, and it is accessible through form. Hinduism uses anthropomorphized form, whether it be Shiva, Kali, Devi, or Deva, or Ganapati, to access the divine - and to understand our own true nature. For the divine presence is everywhere and everything, and is ready accessible through all forms. So, what does the story of this particular form - a deity with the body of a corpulent young man and the head of an elephant - mean on a sacred level?
He is arguably Hinduism’s most popular deity, known as “the remover of obstacles.” But, he also represents the obstacles, too. It’s important to honor our obstacles, because it is through engaging with them and resolving them - whether they be ignorance of our true nature, egotism, attachment, aversion or fear of death - that we learn and grow as fully functioning human beings.
On the occasions when students ask me about Ganesha, I begin by telling them that he’s “on loan” from Anna, one of our teachers, and, then if they indulge me, I like to share my favorite version of his origin story. (Now, this is just one of many origin stories about Ganesha, and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Indian authors Devdutt Pattanaik and Ramesh Menon for shaping my version of the myth.)
The story goes that once, Shiva, the primordial, ash-smeared, dreadlocked, ascetic, primordial yogi - and anthropomorphic manifestation of universal consciousness, or purusa - was preparing to leave his home in the Himalayas to immerse himself once more deep into tapasya. His consort, Parvati, the Devi, the feminine divine - who also happens to be prakriti, the prime material energy from which all matter is composed - knew that in order for the universe to find balance, Shiva must not withdraw, self-contained and alone unto himself, as is his wont, but rather, engage more fully with the world of form. So she followed him to the door of their home and said gently to him, “I would like us to have a child.”
Shiva, distracted as he prepared to leave, responded to Parvati dismissively, saying, “Why should we have a child? I have no need, nor desire for a child; I have no ancestors that must be honored, for I was never born. Nor do I need a child to take care of me in my dotage, for I will never grow old nor die: I am immortal.” So saying, he embraced Parvati, and with his ganas, the retinue of ghosts and goblins who attended and followed him constantly, left her to go and meditate deep in the Daruka Vana, an ancient deodar forest set upon the steep Himalayan mountainsides.
The Divine Goddess incarnated as the daughter of the Mountain King Himavan to become the consort of Shiva. He was her husband, her love, and she was utterly devoted to him - but she had incarnated specifically to induce him to engage in the world of form, and Parvati would not be turned from this goal. She silently watched him walk away down the mountain for a few moments, then turned indoors and called to her servants, “Prepare my bath.”
She entered the marbled bath chamber, and some of her attendants rushed to help her, removing her bright yellow silken sari, her gold ornaments, her jewels. Parvati’s smooth dark skin glowed in the soft light of the chamber, and, resplendent in her nakedness, with hair unbound, she stepped down into the steaming, sweet-smelling, flower-strewn hot water. Then, she took precious oils and golden turmeric and anointed her body, creating a thick paste that mixed with her sweat and her skin. Scraping this clay from her body, she molded it into the image of a young boy. Holding this moist clay form in both her palms, she breathed life into it.
The young adolescent boy that was born from her power was strong of limb, tall and beautiful of face - a face faintly reminiscent of Shiva’s own. Parvati named him, Vinayaka - “He who is born without Father.” Embracing one another, mother and son, they beheld each other joyfully in immediate understanding and love. After a time of peace and quietude together, Parvati handed the beautiful boy a study wooden staff, and said to Vinayaka, “Go to the door of our home, and stand guard there to protect me. Let no one - no matter who they are - come in.” Vinayaka bowed to his mother lovingly, touching her feet, and went resolutely and proudly to the door to guard his mother.
Of course, Shiva, who loved Parvati deeply for all his seeming indifference, eventually decided to return home from his meditations. Sending his ganas on ahead to announce him, he said, “Tell my beautiful wife to prepare for my homecoming.” They rushed back to the great palace perched on the crest of a mountaintop, and as they approached its door, saw standing before it a young boy, tall and silent, holding a staff in his hand.
“Move aside, boy, our Master returns,” they said.
Vinayaka smiled slightly at the haughty command of the ganas, but said nothing.
“Did you not hear us, boy? Move aside - or we will kill you!”
The boy replied quietly, “I will not move aside. And you cannot kill me.”
Incensed, the ganas leapt violently upon the boy with spears and swords, attacking as a group. Vinayaka calmly parried their blows with the staff, bloodying noses, smashing kneecaps and cracking their skulls expertly and swiftly, making the hideous, deformed ganas wail in pain and surprise. Defeated, they beat a hasty retreat down the mountain, where they met Shiva on his way, and told him,
“Master, there is a warrior at the door. We have never seen him before, and we told him to move aside, but he would not. We attacked him and he was easily able to stop us - look at the injuries he has given us!” Shiva, annoyed, said nothing, but strode quickly to the door of his home, where he saw the beautiful youth standing calmly at attention. Seeing he was young, he turned to the ganas and said, “Lazy fools, this is just a boy! How could you, my ganas, be frightened of him - or defeated by him?”
The ganas hung their heads, shamed at disappointing Shiva. But, the bravest of the ganas said, “Master, he is much more than he seems.”
“We shall see,” said Shiva, and he walked up boldly to Vinayaka.
“Boy, step aside. Let me through. You cannot stop me.”
Vinayaka said quietly but firmly, “You may not pass. Please do not try.”
Shiva, who was generally quite difficult to provoke, found himself filled with rage at this young boy who defied him so calmly. Without another word, he began to fight the boy, violently and expertly raining blows upon him with his trishula, his trident. But, he was surprised - and a little impressed - to see that even with all his skill as a warrior, he could not hurt the boy. In fact, the boy was his equal in prowess and skill. Vinayaka silently parried and defended himself from the Mahadeva, indefatigable and unbeatable, a gentle smile upon his face. Shiva laughed in delight at one point during their battle, impressed and amazed at the skill of the boy.
Seeing there was no way to defeat him, Shiva stepped back from the fight and returned to his ganas, who had been watching awed from afar during the battle. He said, “Go to Vishnu, and tell him that I need his help.”
Soon after, the great Hindu God Vishnu, the sustainer and preserver, arrived on the scene, and Shiva quickly apprised him of the situation. Vishnu, who is more worldly-wise than Shiva - and also not unwilling to resort to deceit to win battles - told Shiva,
“I will attack the boy, and distract him. When we are deep in our fight, strike his head off.”
And of course, this is exactly what happened, although it dawned on Vishnu, who was hard pressed to defend himself from the boy during the battle, that there was much more to the boy than met the eye - something surprising, uncanny and yet, familiar. But, dismissing this thought, Vishnu doubled his attack, then yelled to Shiva, “Now!”
Shiva strode up and with his trishula, he smashed the boy’s head to smithereens, destroying it. Blood spurted from the neck as the boy fell across the threshold of the palace, and Shiva, spattered with gore, stepped over the corpse and through the door triumphantly to where Parvati stood, looking pale and horrified. She rushed past him, looked down at the dead body of her son sprawled on the ground in front of the door, and screamed,
“My son, my son! You killed my son!”
She dropped to her knees, tore her clothes, beat her chest and pulled her hair from its bindings, wailing in rage and sorrow. Then, growing deadly quiet, she turned again to Shiva. Without a word, she changed before his eyes, from his demure and gentle wife, to the dreadful Kali - naked, huge and fearsome, eyes red and wide, hair unbound, maw open and tongue protruding, a necklace of demon’s heads around her neck, a scimitar in her hand.
He called to his ganas, who stood nearby in silent turmoil and fear at how badly things seemed to be going for their Master. “Quickly, go North, and ask the first living thing that you see for its head.” They rushed Northwards and came upon a beautiful, pure white bull elephant in his prime. Some say that this elephant was none other than Airavata, the mount of the God of the Sky, Indra. Others that he was one of the two elephants that waits upon the Goddess of Wealth and Abundance, Lakshmi (who, in some stories, ends up as Ganesh’s consort.) Regardless, the ganas approached the great elephant with their unusual request, and the elephant, knowing wisely who Shiva was and the importance of the request, complied.
Shiva took the elephant’s head, and placing it upon the corpse of the boy, breathed life into it once more. Kali calmed her rage, and became Parvati again as she saw life return to her son - and, too, as she saw that her consort, Shiva, was engaging with the world of form by becoming a father, as she had wished. The boy rose up whole, but much more than he had been before. His head filled with kindness, intelligence and wisdom, his body with strength, skill and fortitude, he was the child of both Parvati and Shiva now. Shiva embraced his son, sniffing the crown of his head affectionately, and said, “You shall be known as Ganapati, Lord of the Ganas” for, the incident had shown Shiva that the ganas, whose service to him he’d long been negligent of, had no Lord of their own, and their loyalty deserved acknowledgment. By giving them Ganesha to guide them, he acknowledged the ganas, and helped make them less needful. By engaging in the world of form by creating a child with Parvati, he brought balance to their marriage - and thus, metaphorically speaking, balance to the relationship of consciousness with the world of form.
Ganesha had been both an obstacle and the means of transformation of purpose, of engagement for Shiva, whose propensity was to be self-contained and disengaged from the world - from the Devi. Parvati had needed and asked for his help, yet he ignored her, indifferent to her needs. But, how can the needy ever learn to be self-contained if the self-contained do not engage with the needy?* Vinayaka was Parvati’s way of turning the tables on Shiva: as he would not engage with her on the level she desired, she created an obstacle that he could not surmount without admitting his own shortcomings, his own need. She changed the dynamic of their relationship, and Shiva became, ever afterwards, a householder God, with family and children - the only God in the Hindu pantheon who is portrayed in family portraits, along with Parvati, Ganesh, and their other son, Kartikeya.
Or so it is said.
*from Devdutt Pattanaik's Seven Secrets of Shiva