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Which Side Are You On? July 9, 2012

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’ve been playing a lot of Pete Seeger’s American Industrial Ballads in my classes—you know, classics like “Come All You Hardy Miners,” “Eight-Hour Day,” and “Hard Times in the Mill.” Released in 1957, Seeger’s compilation spans nearly 150 years of the American Labor Movement, chronicling the workingman’s plight from farm to mill to factory. These are songs about justice, songs about peace, songs about community; they are eminently reasonable, more than a half-century after the collection’s release.

When did New York City yoga teachers become so—well, for lack of a better word—reactionary? From the stink many are raising about paying their taxes, you’d be forgiven for mistaking yoga-advocacy groups for the Chamber of Commerce.

Complains Yoga for New York,

The State is putting pressure on studios to treat Independent Contractors (teachers teaching 2-6 hours of classes a week) as employees, meaning a slew of clerical and financial obligations (taxes and insurance). While every yoga studio should look out for the welfare of its teachers, almost no studio but the very largest could easily survive when burdened with the thousands of dollars in extra cost that this would represent. [Emphasis added]

It is one thing to wax beneficent about “looking out for the welfare of teachers”; it is quite another to actually do it. Thus, if the professed desire to maintain this welfare requires “a slew of clerical and financial obligations,” as Yoga for New York claims, then I would expect someone who means what he says to find the time, money, and wherewithal to negotiate that slew. Operating your business on a flawed economic model—namely, that you can’t afford to both keep your doors open and compensate your labor fairly—doesn’t give you license to make up for budgetary holes by shirking fiduciary obligations to your employees.

Opening, owning, and operating a yoga studio is not a right, nor is it—like driving a car, practicing law, or owning a credit card—a privilege. It’s a business transaction, or, more accurately, a continuously perpetuating series of business transactions. As a teacher and practitioner, I do believe that  the positive energy imbued upon the City by so much yoga is a boon for all 8 million of us, but that doesn’t make yoga any less of an industry than florists or dry cleaners or cupcake bakeries (all of which also bring positive energy to our City).

I’ve no misconceptions that, when I’m teaching, I’m selling my time, expertise, and training—i.e., my labor—to the studio, just as when I’m writing, I’m selling my labor to the publication. And when I’m at my job at the Writer’s Guild, I’m selling hours of my labor to the highest bidder.

More to the point, I’m being paid for my labor. I’m not being paid for the newly-discovered openness of a student’s hips or a savasana-borne epiphany, not being paid for the vote I may influence through a political-opinion essay. I’m paid because people value my personal industry; it’s that simple.

While New York City’s joke on yoga’s ubiquity throughout the city (“Now it’s a yoga studio”) is indeed quite funny, it loses some of the humor when economic reality sets it. That is, with such a glut in supply, prices go down; and when prices go down, the first to suffer are employees. The unsustainable pricing of the Sixth Avenue Pizza Wars is of a piece with unsustainably-priced yoga classes at Union Square and Williamsburg.

Yogis shouldn’t misconstrue the “demand” piece of supply-and-demand to mean one’s own demand to open a yoga studio. I hate to say it, but if New York’s yoga community can only sustain its current level of market saturation by unfairly squeezing teachers, then the system is, by definition, broken.

Now, I recognize that demonizing studio owners and operators is not a solution to the problem of unfairly compensated teachers. For better or worse—and usually for worse—our economic system rewards and subsidizes size, which obviously places an onerous burden on small-business studio owners. The cost of retaining counsel to deal with these and other issues can, as Yoga for New York, says, run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Still, for whatever reason, our government and its constituents (including us) do not value small businesses as much as is necessary to keep them (and their employees) happily afloat.

Until this issue of big-C Capitalism is addressed, it is incumbent upon studio-owners and managers that the “help” be taken care of. The social, political, and economic history of the United States has been largely dictated by the relationship between labor and capital; it would be a shame for yoga, one of the most potent forms of activism available, to divorce itself from this struggle for social justice for the sake of sticking to its reactionary guns.

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