This essay was first published in 2016 when I was still a yoga teacher. Teaching yoga wasn’t the first time I worked for myself, but it was my first full-time self-employment. I learned so much about money and how people relate to it there.
(I quit in October 2018 because I finally came to terms with the fact that cultural appropriation is real and does lasting harm. I wrote more about all that over here: bearteachesyoga.org)
These were some of my reflections from back then, lightly edited and updated for clarity and context. I’m resharing them here to give some background about myself, my business, and my approach to anti-capitalism.
THE SCALE IS BROKEN
I have been teaching yoga since 2011, and in that time, I’ve been lucky to be able to offer all of my public classes on a sliding scale. Sliding scale is a means of making yoga more affordable, by making it cheaper for those who need it to be, while those who can afford to pay more do so, with the folks at the top of the scale subsidizing the folks at the bottom. At my classes, no one is ever turned away for lack of funds, and I’m always open to trade or barter (with agreements made in advance). My students pay me anonymously on the honor system (they simply drop their money in a basket before or after class).
I believe in sliding scale pricing models because they can help to remove one barrier of access to yoga practice. Certainly we can all practice on our own (for free!) but there is something special about being in a class together with other people that those with less financial means should not be excluded from. Sliding scale economies offer an autonomous alternative to capitalism (albeit still existing within capitalism).
A functional sliding scale means that the average payment is about the middle of the scale. The scale for my classes has been $5-15 for as long as I’ve been teaching, so a healthy average would be around $10/student. Instead the average per student has never consistently exceeded $6 or $7, which means that the vast majority of students pay on the lower end of the sliding scale.
It makes sense that people who are attracted to a lower-cost yoga class might be lower-income; by contrast, most students at a $20 drop-in class are probably financially stable. I have little statistical information about the average of my students’ salaries or their monthly expenses, though what I observe can give us a place to start from. Many of my students are artists, writers, and musicians. A few are lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Most are white, in their 20s and 30s, and have no children. Most of my students (though certainly not all) are well off enough to buy coffee at a coffee shop, or go out to eat with friends, or take a vacation.
Yet the numbers show that some of these financially comfortable folks must be paying at the bottom of the sliding scale. My students are largely $6 students, regardless of actual income level. A healthy sliding scale system would assure that students can afford classes, teachers make a living wage, and the studio stays afloat. If most folks pay at the minimum, the system isn’t serving its purpose. Our scale is currently broken.
TRAILER PARK CHILDHOOD
I’m a white, college educated, able-bodied person, with a whole lot more earning potential than I’m currently utilizing, but/and I grew up working-class/working-poor. I spent the first half of my childhood in trailer parks and cheap apartments. Though we were far from the worst off, especially on a global scale, I’m familiar with the experience of not-enough. My mom was single with three kids. She never had fewer than 2 jobs. My brothers and I wore hand-me-downs and garage sale clothes. We always had food on the table because we were on food stamps. We picked cans on the weekends sometimes to be able to get Happy Meals at McDonald’s as a treat.
My first memory of class-based shame was in Kindergarten: I was so angry that my older brother got to carry a backpack like all the other kids, but I had to carry my school supplies in the blue nylon duffel bag that came in the $5 two-pack from Wal-Mart. We simply couldn’t afford a second backpack. As I got older, I desperately wanted to take dance classes, but they were too expensive. I went to a public magnet middle school, so my friends lived all over town, many in ritzy neighborhoods. I was startled to learn I had friends who had a maid; my mom had been a cleaning lady.
Our financial situation improved when my mom married my step-dad, but still money was tight. My parents worked nights in addition to their day jobs so we could have braces and eyeglasses. They could afford for me to go on the class trip, or to get birthday and Christmas presents, but not both. I went to college on scholarship and waited tables to pay my bills. When my scholarship ran out, I put my tuition on a credit card. I’m the first person in my extended family to get a college degree.
A NICKEL TO MY NAME
I have identified as “broke” for most of my life. My experience of scarcity in childhood didn’t just go away as I became an adult. I lived on the edge of major financial trouble from age 18-28. I have paid thousands of dollars in overdraft fees on my checking account. I carried ten thousand dollars of credit card debt for about five years. I borrowed money from friends to cover my rent half a dozen times over ten years.
I laughed ruefully once when I got a receipt from an ATM that stated my bank balance as 5 cents. I literally had a nickel to my name. I posted it on my fridge for years as a reminder that it could always be, had already been worse.
There were sleepless nights pinned down by the weight of my debts, countless fits of tears about overdraft fees, hours of stress-ridden shifts at work, smiling just a little broader in the hopes of a good tip, the thrum of low-grade anxiety ever present in the background. The emotional toll of living at the edge of scarcity is hard to ignore.
But despite all my money woes, I mostly lived comfortably. I often had to scrimp and save, but I never worried about going hungry. I still managed to pinch pennies enough to travel a little most years, even internationally a few times. I did not have to pay for the care of children or elderly parents. I did not have ongoing medical expenses. My waitressing jobs always paid me above the minimum wage.
And yet, I applied for a scholarship, subsidized rate, or payment plan for every yoga training I took in my first years of teaching. I ALWAYS paid at the bottom of the sliding scale or just above for every massage I got, every herbal medicine workshop I took, every conference I attended. I just never felt like I could afford to pay more. I identified as broke, even when I wasn’t. I’m the epitome of the $6 student.
Over the years of teaching, I have considered abandoning the sliding scale model, instead teaching $15 classes like every other studio, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it. I feel deeply that this is an important thing to offer. You all, my students, are SO INCREDIBLE. You constantly amaze me. Would you stop coming if class cost more? I believe that the gesture of sliding scale is important, even if none of you ever utilized it. So here we are, seven years in, and we’re all the $6 student.
“WHAT IS THE ORIGIN OF THIS MONSTROUS MACHINE THAT CHEWS UP BEAUTY AND SPITS OUT MONEY?” --Charles Eisenstein
It’s a basic tenet of capitalism that the market must always grow. Constant growth is fundamental to a successful capitalist system. More money, more product, more profit. Bigger is better. More is more. The inverse, then, is that THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH. This is evidenced in our gluttonous consumer culture, and few of us are immune. I live pretty simply for the most part, but I own two dozen (?!?!) pairs of shoes, and I just ordered another pair of sandals on Amazon this week.
It’s not hard to imagine how that might translate into a sense of never having enough as individuals. If more growth is always required, there can be no contentment. In many punk/artist communities that I’ve been part of, being broke is worn as a badge of honor. We laugh at and disparage those who have lots of money as shills, cogs in the capitalist machine. But if we buy into the idea that we’re always, will always be, broke, aren’t we just enacting the other side of the same coin?
Financial blogger Hadassah Damien says, “You don’t have to like, love, or even understand capitalism to get to survive it. I mean survive it like all the single moms and working families and folks at joyless gigs to pay student loans and hustling artists and everyone working a black market job and everyone in the service industry and freelancers and roommates and collective houses and coops and and and. ...You. Deserve. A. Future. And so, you can choose to put energy towards that future....That future needs you, wherever you are today.”
SCARCITY AND FEAR
It bears repeating that there is a difference between living in actual scarcity and living in the fear of it. Here’s an example (via Ride Free). Sacrifice and hardship are not the same. If paying $15 instead of $5 for yoga class would mean that you can’t buy yourself a green juice from the juice bar after class, that’s a sacrifice. It’s trading one non-essential purchase for another. If on the other hand, paying $15 for yoga class would mean that you can’t put gas in your car to get to work the next day, that is a hardship.
Many of us conflate the two and inadvertently treat our sacrifices as hardships. We live paralyzed by the fear of not having enough, because we know that in this system, there can never be enough. What’s more, capitalism encourages us to always try to get the most gain for the smallest output. It’s the essence of the system. Employers pay workers the minimum wage in order to maximize their own profits. “In a pure financial transaction we are all identical: we all want to get the best deal” (Eisenstein).
How does this shake down in a sliding scale economy? We, as purchasers, get to decide the value of the product, and we simply aren’t experienced at assigning value. In most other cases, our choice is simply whether or not to make the purchase at the price determined by the seller: I decide my weekend workshop costs $250, and you decide whether or not the workshop is worth that price to you. With sliding scale the roles are reversed, and the choice is much more complex: we have to decide how much the good or service is worth to us.
We are woefully unprepared to make this decision. It can be difficult to justify paying more than the lowest amount simply because we have the option to pay less, and paying less now guarantees more for later. All of us living under capitalism have the experience of either actual scarcity, perceived scarcity, or fear of future scarcity. I continue to oscillate through all of them. When we approach the sliding scale system with a capitalist mindset, it’s no wonder we’re all the $6 student. We’ve had a lifetime of practice at it.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
My own financial situation has shifted a lot in the past five years, as has my perspective. I am finally out of debt, but I actually make less money now than I did in many years prior, namely because I quit the restaurant industry entirely to focus on teaching yoga and making art. By some standards I live very simply: I don’t own a car, or have a smartphone, and very rarely buy new clothes, instead preferring my bike, my flip phone, and thrift store shopping. But by many other standards I am incredibly wealthy, and I live more abundantly than I ever have.
I have lots of caveats around the concept of abundance, which is often class and racial privilege masquerading as “shifting your mindset,” but my life is different now than it ever has been. Some of that certainly comes from the reality of my financial situation shifting, but much of it comes from a shift in my understanding of my own position in a system in which there can never be enough. I can’t keep pretending that I don’t have what I need right now because I’m afraid I won’t have it in the future.
So I’ve started paying at the higher end of the sliding scale. This is not comfortable for me to do. It pushes alllllll of my buttons, but I’m giving it a try anyway. I went to a donation-based meditation retreat in May, and I asked myself how much I could comfortably pay, and then I paid $50 more than that. I’m unlearning my own habits, and trying to get my mind out from under a system that wants to keep us all scared and small and broke(n), both financially and otherwise. Social researcher Brene Brown says, “For me, the opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It's enough. I'm enough.”
I don’t mean any of this as a finger-wagging admonishment to give me a raise, or as an indictment of anyone's personal spending habits. Some among us are actually struggling financially, and if that’s you, please keep being the $5 student, or the student who pays in fresh herbs from the garden, or the student who says “I’m broke right now. Can I pay you next week?”. I’m thrilled and honored to have you there regardless of your ability to pay. But for the rest of us, I believe it’s worth looking at the intersection of our past experiences, our present privilege, and the way we’ve been inculcated into scarcity simply by being alive in capitalism.
How much money would you need to make for it to be ENOUGH? How would your life be different if you believed you had enough? How would your spending habits change? Would you be able to sleep at night instead of lying awake worrying about money? Could you stop obsessively monitoring your expenses or avoiding looking at your bank account? Would you give to charities more, or support other organizations who do work you believe in? Would you be a $15 student instead of a $6 student? Who would you become?
Want more resources? Hadassah Damien's blog has a wealth (pun entirely intended!) of information: ridefreefearlessmoney.com. Charles Eisenstein's book Sacred Economics is a worthy read on creating new systems for exchange, and you can read it for free at charleseisenstein.net/books. Both of these are quoted in this essay.
If this essay was useful to you, you might like
Freely: An Anti-Capitalist Guide to Setting Your Rates.
This online workshop is Thursday, May 23 at 1pm Central Time. It’s $19.