The “2016 Yoga in America Study” by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance found that over 36 million people in America practice yoga and spend over $16 billion dollars a year on classes, workshops, retreats, festivals, clothes and products. The Study found that over 90% of Americans are aware of the existence of yoga. There are more than 70,000 yoga teachers and 26,000 studios.
As yoga has grown, it has entered the mainstream. Yoga is in the movies and on TV. Advertisements that capitalize on the popularity of yoga have become common. I have seen yoga ads for mattresses, clocks, stretchy business cards, jump ropes, tote bags, yoga straws, weight lifting gyms, and bus stops. Yoga is being offered in hotels, resorts, parks, gyms, airports and nightclubs; it seems that new studios are popping up on every street corner. International yoga retreats, spiritual travel, and yoga and music fes- tivals are popular. Yoga classes are being streamed over the Internet and many teach- ers and schools are using webinars and video platforms. I receive daily teachings from Swami Satchidananda on my “Daily Guru” app.
Yoga has embraced fashion. There are Instagram yoga celebrities that are endorsing brands and being well paid. There are now billion dollar corporations that sell yoga clothes and have their own yoga studios as marketing platforms for their products.
Yoga has melded with general wellness culture and it has now become part of a healthy lifestyle. The Study shows that most people practice yoga to reduce stress, in- crease flexibility, and to complement their other sports and activities.
From yoga’s early days as part of the spiritual underground and a pathway to enlightenment, it has now evolved into a big and trendy business. As I write this introduction, I am thinking of one of the early books that introduced me to the spiritual path: Be Here Now. When Ram Dass published the book in 1971, the graphics were made with rubber stamps, and the first edition came in a box. It was tied together with a string. Today you can download an enhanced version from Amazon. It has audio and video content that you can access on your iPhone.
IncreasIng Legal Risks for Yoga Studios, Wellness Businesses and Teachers
The evolution of yoga into a mainstream wellness lifestyle and a big business has brought important benefits to many people. However, this has increased the legal risks and responsibilities for all yoga and wellness business owners and teachers.
I see seven trends that are driving our involvement in the legal world and the importance of understanding how the legal system effects every aspect of our businesses.
First, federal and state taxing authorities are auditing yoga studios over the misclassification of their teachers as independent contractors rather than as employees. The result has been taxes, penalties and fines. Some studios have gone out of business be- cause they cannot afford to pay the tax bills. Others are being forced to reclassify their teachers as employees and others are doing so voluntarily out of fear of being audited. This situation affects yoga teachers because their tax status has been converted from independent contractor to employee. It also means that their relationship with the studio has fundamentally changed. As employees, teachers are subject to the direct control of the studio; they are being hired to fulfill a job.
Second, yoga and wellness businesses have embraced the Internet. Some are selling products over the Internet, streaming videos of classes, launching apps, and pursuing other creative business ideas. Yoga teachers are endorsing products. Businesses are trademarking and copyrighting their brands, products and content. Yoga studios use social media and newsletters to market their offerings. All of these activities have exposed studios to a new world of legal considerations involving intellectual property, product liability, advertising, and social media regulation. I have seen a large increase in conflicts over intellectual property among studios.
Third, there are new and complex privacy regulations at the state and international level that affect all yoga studios, wellness businesses and most teachers. This imposes important burdens and liabilities on all yoga and wellness businesses.
Fourth, as yoga has entered mainstream awareness, we are seeing an increase in student injuries. Because most yoga studios are under financial stress, running teacher training programs has become economically necessary. Consequently, there has been an expansion of yoga teacher training programs which are graduating teachers with modest levels of training. I believe the increase in injuries is a result of the rapid increase of new yoga students who view yoga as another form of physical exercise, and the flood of new yoga teachers who have modest training. Larger class sizes may also play a role in the increase in injuries. Although most of these injuries tend to be minor and are resolvable, plaintiff injury lawyers follow the money. They are much more likely to file a lawsuit alleging physical and emotional injury if they believe that a studio has money to pay a judgment and their legal fees.
Fifth, we have seen high profile sex scandals involving prominent yoga teachers. The #MeToo movement has led to exposure of many instances of sexual abuse within the yoga community. KQED, a public television station located in San Francisco, recently published a comprehensive story entitled: #MeToo Unmasks the Open Secret of Sexual Abuse in Yoga. I was interviewed for this story. I made the point that, if yoga does not clean up its history of abuse, then the regulators will do it for us.
As I discuss in this book, all yoga studios and wellness businesses must adopt codes of conduct, organize ethics committees and set up procedures to allow a student who may have been abused to report the situation to the studio in confidence. This shows that the studio is taking a stand against abuse and puts it in the best position to handle the situation in a competent, professional and fair way.
Sixth, as money has flowed into yoga and wellness businesses, regulators have taken note. Many states want to regulate studios as trade schools but Yoga Alliance has been very successful in defeating these movements. Several states are aggressively auditing yoga studios over the misclassification of teachers as independent contractors rather than as employees. Those studios who use employees are subject to complex employment laws at the federal, state and local level. These laws are constantly changing. Regulation inevitably increases the cost and complexity of doing business.
Seventh, as competition has increased among yoga studios, there has been an increase in disputes among studios, and their teachers and students. I have seen disputes over intellectual property and non-compete agreements for teachers. I have seen students threaten to sue yoga teacher training programs over their treatment by the program. I am concerned about yoga studios running international yoga retreats. Yoga studios are not professional travel agencies and international travel, particularly to third world countries, has many risks.
Essential Legal Education
I have written this book to provide basic legal education for yoga studios, wellness businesses, and teachers. Since we are now running real businesses, we must understand that we are part of a complex legal and business system and that all of our actions have con- sequences. There is no escape from the system, and all of the trends that I mentioned above compel us to meet our legal and business challenges head on.
Legal disputes and regulatory actions are expensive, create negative energy, and are time consuming. Conflicts with other studios, teachers and students can be stressful and heartbreaking. Yoga communities that have grown over a long time may become divided or dissolve. Time, money and energy that should be spent on offering yoga are diverted into lawyers and legal fees.
However, by providing education about the legal rules that apply to your yoga and wellness business, I hope you will adopt best practices and avoid legal problems. I hope that you will hire lawyers and other experts to guide you before you end up in a dispute or regulatory action. It is much easier to avoid the legal problem in the first place, than to resolve the problem after it has already happened. An ounce of prevention is indeed worth a pound of cure!
Now more than ever our society needs access to a thriving yoga and wellness community that heals body, mind and spirit. This happens by building prosperous businesses that create strong spiritual communities and wellness programs. However, we cannot thrive if we are mired in regulatory actions, conflicts and legal disputes.
I hope that this book will help your yoga business become strong and successful so that you may expand the practice of yoga and its priceless benefits to all.
I want to express my gratitude to Yoga Alliance for its support in helping me develop and distribute this book.
Gary Kissiah October 15, 2018