right livelihood

Dzambhala — Buddhist — He embodies the power of wealth to benefit beings. He symbolizes “richness” in all its forms and holds the mongoose which vomits jewels for the benefit of beings.

Ganesha — Hindu — God of Prosperity

Right Livelihood is one part of the Ethical Conducts in the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddha together with Right Speech and Right Action.

Right livelihood means that one should earn one’s living in a righteous way and that wealth should be gained legally and peacefully. The Buddha mentions four specific activities that harm other beings and that one should avoid for this reason: 1. dealing in weapons, 2. dealing in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), 3. working in meat production and butchery, and 4. selling intoxicants and poisons, such as alcohol and drugs. Furthermore any other occupation that would violate the principles of right speech and right action should be avoided.

As long as I’ve been teaching yoga I’ve had more than a few discussions with yoga teachers about whether it’s really OK to be paid for teaching yoga. One yoga teacher tells me that “yoga is really supposed to be taught for free.” Uh…really? Where does it say that in the Yoga Teacher By-Laws? Did I miss the fine print somewhere? Actually I do teach for free and that’s my karma yoga that I do once a month at a domestic violence shelter and I’ve been doing that for going on three years now. Truth be told, it’s my favorite class to teach.

One of my private students is a business entrepeneur and we discussed Right Livelihood when he gave me advice on starting a yoga clothes business. He rolled his eyes when I told him how some yoga teachers believe that yoga should be free and he said, “I see lots of ads in Yoga Journal so somebody is making money.”

Money itself is not good or bad, that’s merely a judgment. Money just IS. It’s all about how it’s used and what it’s used for.

Ethan Nichtern, creator of the ID Project and son of David Nichtern, gives a great interview on Buddhism & Money: Does Priceless Mean It’s Free?. While he speaks specifically about the spiritual economics of teaching the dharma and what Right Livelihood ought to look like in a market economy, everything he says can also be applied to the spiritual economics of teaching yoga.

In this culture, the reality is that yoga is big business. A yoga teacher is performing a service just like a massage therapist, an acupuncturist, or a “Life Coach.” Ethan makes the excellent point that Life Coaches charge upwards of $100 an hour, while a dharma teacher, especially one who has gone through many hours of training in, for example, the Shambhala tradition, is sometimes much better equipped than a Life Coach to help someone. But are you going to pay your dharma teacher $100 an hour? I didn’t think so.

It’s about the perception of value, what value do you place on yoga, meditation, or the dharma? Ethan said that when he managed a Shambhala center they would ask people to “donate” $25 toward something, but they would say that $25 wasn’t in their budget. But two days later he’d go out to dinner with the same people and they would spend more than $25 on dinner and drinks.

I see that all the time at the studio where I teach. Early this year I did a fundraiser for the domestic violence shelter and had a donation box on the desk. The studio also has a small retail section so I would watch women write checks for $100 for yoga clothes, but when the donation box would be pointed out to them they did not have a buck to donate. But 15 minutes later I would see them down the street at Starbucks paying $4.00 for a double shot carmel macadoodle frappawhozit whatever.

One of the best pieces of business advice I ever got was from my first accountant when I started my garden design business. He said, “never give away your services, because if it’s free, people won’t value it.” Ethan says the same thing when he says that teaching the dharma is priceless, but the western capitalist mindset equates “price-less” with “it doesn’t have a price.”

To paraphrase Ethan, our motivation as yoga or dharma teachers should not be toward the bling, but we also need to get out of the naive “poverty mentality” about teaching.

14 thoughts on “right livelihood

  1. Interesting topic. Personally, I agree with the notion that people don’t value what they pay a small price for. This is why, even if I didn’t need the money, I would never (unnecessarily) work for a small salary. I know what I am worth, and I make sure I am paid that much, even though I don’t need that much.I’ve never taught the dharma, except to friends who are just curious about it or want some personal coaching. But this is all informal. If I were to teach formally, I would <>never<> take donations. I would either charge a fair price (according to value) or nothing at all. People get weird when it comes to donations. They are much better off if you just charge them. You may lose some people this way, but you can also offer a (very) limited number of “scholarships”. Generally, though, I’m not a big fan of this type of exception either.Toward my own personal growth, I’ve probably spent much more money than everyone I know (probably over $50K in my lifetime). Best money I ever spent. So I would never hesitate to charge for something that has value. Besides, I know from personal experience that people will do what it takes to come up with the money, if they understand the value.namaste.


  2. Here’s a story from my university teaching days that illustrates how people will do what it takes to get what they want. In my first year teaching, I foolishly allowed students to have make-up exams if they were sick or had other valid excuses. You wouldn’t believe the number of requests I got. After that, I made a policy of absolutely no make-up exams, and I dropped the lowest exam score out of 3 at the end of the semester. Thus if you missed one for any reason, it got dropped. The only exception to this was for planned absences (such as for athletes with away games) with 2 weeks’ notice. In 11 years of teaching, I had fewer than 5 students who ever missed more than one exam. And most semesters, no more than one or two students out of a hundred would miss even one.Human behavior is strange indeed. It’s a wonder right livelihood is possible at all.om shanti


  3. thanks for the comment! I hope to get lots of comments on this topic.I’m with you — unless I am volunteering, I get paid to teach.My dream is to open a place where I can give “yoga for the people” — it’s related to my teaching at the shelter. That is, yoga, meditation and other holistic healing for lower income people. But it won’t be free. I envision people paying what they can on a sliding scale according to their income.I know a martial arts instructor who volunteer teaches self-defense to the women at the shelter. I told him my idea and he said “don’t give it away to them, it won’t be valued.”I just wish I could support myself teaching yoga, and I can’t. Most if not all of the “show biz” yogis that I know make all their money with teacher training programs or traveling the US or the world doing workshops. They don’t make money teaching group classes. One well-known yogini told me that she rarely teaches classes anymore at her studio.


  4. The one interesting thing about yoga or dharma teachings is that they are as desperately needed by the wealthy as they are by the poor. In fact, I would argue that the world as a whole more desperately needs the wealthy to participate. The reason being that these are the decision and policy makers, for the most part. And it’s not like most things you can buy, where money can be used to replace effort. The trouble is that most wealthy people are used to being able to replace effort with money, and so often they are not willing to do the real work. However, in the case where they are willing, they can make a big difference.Thus I would like to see more serious teachers (who aren’t just in it for the money) say they have a dream to teach to the rich. I guess this just isn’t as culturally acceptable as teaching to the poor, where we tend to think we are doing good by “helping them out”.


  5. p.s. as far as teaching to the rich v. the poor….in my area, the “rich” don’t necessarily want to pay for yoga, et. al. There’s lots of disposable income in my area — people buying their kids Hummers for their first car! — but paying $15 for a yoga class? Why, when it’s free at the health club?It’s very hard to keep a yoga studio in business in my area.


  6. “serious teachers (who aren’t just in it for the money)”hmmmmm….frankly I don’t know of any yoga or dharma teacher who’s “in it for the money”.what money? you mean the $12 I make when I have two students in my class at the studio? or the $6 I make when one of those two students has a coupon for a free class?OH….THAT MONEY! Yup, I’m saving that toward my dream yoga shala in south India. where I’m going to set myself up as “goddess in residence.” and rich westerners can come see me to listen to the Yoga Gospel According to Lindia.really.


  7. There are at least a few dharma teachers I can think of who live (or have lived) lavish lifestyles on the backs of their followers. I won’t name names, but you probably know the type. I wouldn’t put them in the same category with (studio) yoga teachers, though.I like the idea of that yoga shala in India. I think what you need is a benefactor, and/or some act(s) of Grace. We’ll have to conjure them up for you somehow.


  8. I find this topic a bit funny. In twenty six (ish) years I’ve never taken a fee free class. Why should yoga classes be free? Whose time is worth nothing and isn’t the experience of yoga invaluable? I’ve actually never heard this before. I laughed out loud when I read it. I think that some people will say almost anything to be holier than the next guy! LOL Also, I am pretty sure that I would #1 be suspect of a free class and #2 feel obligated to give money unless it was pretty darn crappy. Good luck on the Fame Award!


  9. Fascinating and thought provoking, shall I say soul provoking thoughts here…In my eyes, I think as a culture we are so imbalanced about… well everything. As a result, money and wealth become both means and end. My money journey has been challenging. The more I come to see it as a medium- neither good nor evil, just a medium, that helps. The more I come to know that more or less of it does not define who I am, that helps.I kind of like what mike says in the first comment about either charging a fair price or nothing at all. I also liked what you said in the post about people not having money for donations but having money for yoga clothing, as if yoga were about the clothing and for Starbucks.In our culture we are so twisted about money and I think it is a bad to glorify the idolization of wealth as it is to decry getting paid to teach your yoga.Flow-karma-peace-justice-service. Have I made any sense? Probably not. But I make no sense with shanti in my heart and a desire to be free.(someone is introspective this morning isn’t she?)Great post Linda, great.


  10. Fran, Ethan Nichtern says the same thing in his interview — that this culture has a total disconnect about spirituality and money.and I hope y’all have listened to his interview on Buddhist Geeks because it’s excellent.I loved his comment about dharma teachers (and some yoga teachers are dharma teachers, that’s the way I teach) having a “poverty mentality.”


  11. example of “perceived value” and yoga:I am teaching an off the schedule yoga class on Friday night, a 2 hr. class, $20. It’s a special, once a month class.The studio where I teach has a “first-time student $5 coupon”. By the way, when those students with those coupons come to the classes, the teachers don’t get paid for those students. The studio owner emailed me and said that people are asking whether they can use a $5 coupon for my class. FOR A TWO HOUR $20 YOGA CLASS THAT WILL INCLUDE PRANAYAMA AND MEDITATION.“perceived value”….


  12. This is an interesting post, Linda. I don’t think money is evil (like you said, it just “is”), but some people sure are attached to it. Bless you for doing this work that so benefits the world, in spite of lack of real compensation.


  13. Just to let you know that I have continued to think about this… that is a good post, it lingers in the heart.And I went to yoga again last night!


Satya is balanced with Ahimsa - No Trolls Allowed

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s