Happy (5th) birthday Yoga Shala West! It’s been an incredible five years. What started out as my dream to build an ashtanga yoga community based on principles of inclusivity and accessibility has become a reality. We’ve welcomed people into the practice who otherwise would have been denied access due to lack of financial resources. We’ve reinvigorated the practice for students who had been stuck in ruts for years. We’ve dismantled notions of aesthetic perfection and focused instead on internal transformation. We’ve brought laughter, joy, and creativity into a practice that’s often seen as rigid. We’ve allowed our tears and our insecurities into the room as well, giving them permission to inhabit the space in our bodies that they need to. And we’ve done all this together. Yes, this started as my dream but it has now taken on a life beyond myself.
The intimacy of practicing together is something magical. Facing each other, breathing with each other, sitting in circle- these things require a palpable vulnerability. Bonds are created in ways we may not be fully conscious of. These bonds are forged also with the familiarity that comes from mundane, day to day interactions. My growing understanding is that this is what community is made of- intimacy + familiarity + a beautiful, often uncomfortable messiness.
Of course, we practice asana, pranayama, and meditation together, but we’ve also done the following (this is a non-exhaustive list):
- met a shala newborn hours after her birth
- supported new moms with meals during their postpartum period
- attended a shala member’s father’s funeral
- served meals to our elderly neighbors
- provided hygiene kits to the local homeless population
- hired each other for work outside the shala
- quit working for each other outside the shala
- moved in with each other
- asked each other to move out
- fallen in love
- retreated together, with babies in tow and a monitor unknowingly left on all night
- danced with abandon
- held music recitals and jam sessions
- worked through conflict
- shared countless meals and baked goods
- cleansed (ayurvedically)
- cleansed (from social media)
- started eating pound cake for breakfast again and scrolling FB/Instagram everyday
- committed to 21 day practice and gratitude challenges
- crowdsourced SO MUCH WISDOM
- lived and practiced through a pandemic
Yes, a pandemic. Here we are, five years in, unable to hear each other’s breath or feel the touch of a warm hand on the body. Instead, we’re logging in from our individual corners, reaching out for tendrils of connection that remind us of who we are. Our practice has taught us to stand on our own and it reminds us that we’re part of something beyond our (usually) small sense of self. My practice, and my connection to the shala community, has become an even more integral part of the grounding I need to get through this wildly turbulent time.
The uncertainty we’re all facing now hasn’t spared the shala. We have hopes of returning to our physical space with no clear sense of a timeline for that. In a cosmic mash up of events, our five year lease was set to expire at the end of August. Over the last several weeks, I’ve been consulting with my family and an informal advisory board of trusted shala members to help me decide how to move forward. The conversations have been simultaneously unsettling and clarifying. I’ve decided to sign another two years onto the lease, with the following conditions that have been negotiated with our landlord- a roughly 40% rent abatement for the first year, a return to 100% rent for the second year (what we paid pre-covid without the customary 3% annual increase), and an improvement to the HVAC system to enhance circulation of clean air. I feel a bit afraid to make this commitment, yet I’m hopeful, and bolstered by all of you who have continued to contribute to the community in various ways over the last few months.
One of the takeaways from the talks I’ve had over the last several weeks has been the need for transparency. Our mission at the shala has always been to value trust over transaction. I’m recognizing now that transparency is a key, and sometimes missing, part of that equation. It’s uncomfortable to talk about money. How do we discuss numbers without devolving into a transactional framework? How do we shine a light on the flaws of the financial system we’re operating within, while recognizing that we must operate within that system in order to keep our doors open and for me to be able to support myself and my family? How can I ask people who have become close friends to pay me? These are active inquiries and I’m going to challenge myself now to let you in. This feels radical, which is an indication that it’s completely in line with the shala’s principles.
Here’s a link to a simple group of spreadsheets that will inform you about our financial reality over the last five years. On the first page, you’ll see a year by year comparison of our revenue and expenses, and on the following sheets (which you can navigate to at the bottom), you’ll see each year’s revenue and breakdown of expenses. If you’re having trouble accessing that link, try this one, which includes all the information in a different format. When I first started the shala, my goal was simply to break even as soon as possible, while not compromising my commitment to making yoga practice accessible for any dedicated student, regardless of financial barriers. You’ll see that we succeeded on that front within the first year. Our first year’s losses are due to the start up costs required to renovate and furnish the space. By the end of 2016, we had made up those start up costs and were truly at a break even point. Over our third and fourth years, our revenue continued its upward trajectory and I was able to take home a small salary and cover my child care once I had my daughter in 2018. During this time, our family’s personal financial situation also changed due to a career change on my husband’s side, so having this small salary was helpful.
Then came covid. You’ll see that, though many of our recurring members have continued to contribute and several students have found us online since the pandemic began, we’ve experienced a drop in revenue due to students who have lost jobs, moved away, or chosen not to continue with us virtually for whatever reason. During this time, our rent, insurance, tax, and other expenses have remained constant. Fortunately, the contributions that are coming in are covering those expenses, and the governmental help we’ve received has helped to cover my childcare costs thus far. I am no longer receiving a personal salary.
This has been a time of investigation for me, about what I need to continue in this work. I’ve also spoken with trusted colleagues, other teachers teaching this method in an on-the-ground, inclusive, accessible way. Many of us have been teaching for years without a sense of financial stability. We do it because we believe in it. And we think about quitting most days, in part because we’re poorly compensated and in part because we aren’t bolstered by mainstream notoriety.
I often talk about the ‘we’ of the shala. How we co-create the community. That is 100% true. AND it’s time now for me to be transparent about the work that I do to hold the community together. I practice with total openness alongside all of you, so that you know I’m in this with you, not above you. I teach with my voice, my hands, my heart, and my silence. I run the back end admin, sending contribution reminders, updating our schedule, and managing outgoing payments. I plan events, workshops, and retreats. I mentor apprentices. I spend a lot of time emailing and texting with students, reaching out and following up. I write. I make videos to broaden the shala’s reach. I gather with fellow students and teachers to ensure that I’m practicing and teaching with integrity. This is indeed a labor of love, but it is a labor. A labor that I would like to be compensated for. Acknowledging this has been a struggle for me, as it brings up deep-seated self-doubt. Am I working hard enough? Is my offering valuable enough? Am I worthy? These inquiries are also inextricably linked to the flawed nature of our society’s allocation of resources and value. To transform that allocation, we need systems-level change, but I find it equally revolutionary to live the transformation in our daily lives.
This is what we are doing at the shala, and this is the impact of all the student contributions that come in. Of course, contributions allow us to maintain our physical and virtual infrastructure. Beyond that, they help support me and my family. Beyond that, they ensure that I can keep doing this work in ways that operate outside the dominant paradigm. Each contribution that comes in is an investment in a shala run by a woman of color, an investment in a space that prioritizes no-frills practice over capitalist commercialization, an investment in a fee structure that works to counter the increasingly exclusive nature of most yoga spaces, and an investment in an environment that is welcoming to people of color, to mothers, and to a diverse range of ages and body types. Each contribution is a revolution that I’m profoundly grateful for, and I’m realizing that there may be others out there who want to be in on this revolution. There may be people around the world who would like to support our work even though they are not members of the shala, because they want to invest in all the things mentioned above. To that end, I’m starting a Patreon page where anyone can contribute at any level, toward the sustenance of the shala.
Over the last several months, I’ve witnessed our community’s ability to handle seismic changes. I’ve seen, through the screen, our commitment to practice and to showing up for each other. I’ve been able to lean on many of you for emotional support as we traverse this previously uncharted landscape together. I’ve seen that our focus on depth instead of growth is serving us. I don’t know exactly what the next several months or years will look like, but I do know that our practice gives us the ability to breathe in the here and now. I do know that we humans have a need for connection. As I reflect on the last five years and think about what’s ahead, I feel inspired to continue to share the tools of this practice in ways that are empowering and foster self-sufficiency. I’m increasingly interested in removing my agenda from each student’s practice and allowing for an experience that’s not only collaborative, but student-led. I’d like to shepherd the community in such a way that our collective wisdom is what guides us.
The exercise of writing this five year report, this accounting, has been an excavation, a clarification, a celebration. It’s been a reminder that though the numbers in the cells are informative, the shala lives beyond Google Sheets. The shala lives in our bodies and our hearts, in all the little and big ways we choose to love ourselves and each other. In yoga philosophy, much is said about non-attachment. My experiences at the shala and as a mother are teaching me the value of living, instead, with trust-based attachments. Relationships built on mutual respect, bonds forged through shared experience, connections that can withstand stress, all with the understanding that change is inevitable. In this way, we attach without clinging. We attach while allowing ourselves to evolve. This is how I’m attached to all of you. You’ve made a home in my heart. There will always be a small fire lit inside that home, an open invitation for you to come sit, breathe, share, listen, so that we can co-create our future together. I love you.