Stretched yoga teachers form their own trade union
Concern that many ‘yogis’ are earning below the London living wage
12 February, 2021 — By Calum Fraser
Mali Bowers: ‘I’m hoping there will be a lot of teacher practitioners from the borough joining’
IT’S difficult to imagine the likes of Len McCluskey, Tim Roache or Mike Cash settling into a calm downward dog.
But don’t dismiss the idea, because it may come to pass after a trade union to represent yoga teachers was formed for the first time.
And Islington once again could be at the centre of the revolution after the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain’s (IWGB) yoga branch launched this week.
Newington Green-based teacher and union member Mali Bowers told the Tribune: “The Islington context is interesting. It has a history of being a melting pot of different philosophies and influences. It has a strong leftist tradition and also there are some of the earliest and most respected yoga studios here, like the Life Centre. I’m hoping there will be a lot of teacher practitioners from the borough joining.”
The yoga industry has changed dramatically since Ms Bowers began teaching about a decade ago, the 30-year-old said.
“Historically people who had the opportunity to start a practice were supported by a ministry or ashram but it’s now become a commercial industry,” Ms Bowers added.
“When I started teaching I was paid a base rate, if nobody came to the class I would walk away with £25. Those were all at small community studios.
“Now you have Tri-yoga or Virgin Active and they have yoga teachers as part of membership models. Franchises and gyms and chains pay a flat rate per class.”
The union says that members are typically paid from £10 to £20 an hour but can only teach up to four lessons a day, meaning that they earn less than the living wage of £9.50 an hour, or £10.85 in London.
There is also time spent travelling, cleaning and in administration that is not factored into their pay.
On top of the issues of pay and working conditions, there are more sinister parts of the industry that teachers hope to tackle by unionising.
Ms Bowers said: “As a union, we want to set up training on sexual harassment and discrimination. The precarious working conditions lay the groundwork for discrimination and exploitation.
“As with any industry, there are abuses of power, whether that’s employer to worker or studio to employee or teacher to student. Bullying, harassment and intimidation happen.
“Part of the union’s goals is to create avenues for addressing those things with legal support.”
There are now around 10,000 yogis in the UK bringing in an estimated £900m a year to the treasury. However, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the industry as studios and gyms have been forced to close.
Many yoga instructors are ineligible for the government’s furlough scheme or have fallen through the cracks of the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme.
Only 4 per cent of yoga teachers report having employee status and basic protections, going down to 3 per cent in the case of female yoga teachers and less than 20 per cent have written contracts of any sort, IWGB estimates.
Ms Bowers said: “The wider project of the union is solidarity with other ‘gig economy’ workers. We’re not just interested in yoga teachers getting a fairer share of the money.
“A lot of the coverage so far has lost sight of that.”
IWGB has gained a reputation as an effective union for mostly precariously employed migrant workers such as Uber drivers, food delivery couriers and cleaners.
Ms Bowers said: “At the end of the day, conditions of work have changed and structures of work have changed. This is really key to why we have formed.”
Before the union officially launched on Thursday there were around 80 members. It’s understood that this has increased since then.