This blogpost is an invitation to a dialogue aiming at challenging social structures, creating an environment inspired by values of social justice and accessibility and dedicated to discussing the issue of self-exploitation.
The article is a result of an ongoing conflict I carry within myself and which could be summarized as:
“How can I survive financially as a freelance yoga and dance teacher in Berlin, in a field marked by neoliberal competition → while offering accessible classes → but not totally exploiting myself?”
Different perspectives on neoliberalism:
By neoliberal competition I mean, to simplify drastically, a form of competition marked by the belief that the market, left as undisturbed by state interference as possible, will ensure that everyone gets what they deserve, and by extreme individualism, a cult of individual responsibility. It’s tied to the neoliberal political-economic project - to which the destruction of the power of organised labour is central.
By self-exploitation I mean a situation where the cult of individual responsibility and the desire for personal development lead freelancers (especially artists and spiritual seekers) to do lots and lots of unpaid labour.
In order to clarify my thoughts, I’ll give some examples from the world of working as a yoga teacher and as a dancer & dance teacher.
To survive as a yoga teacher in Berlin is generally not as easy and glamorous as mainstream representations would have us believe. And I notice that if one denies or criticizes neo-liberal competition, it becomes an even greater challenge to establish oneself in this “Big Berlin-Yoga-World”. Berlin has a few hundred yoga studios, with all kinds of different yoga styles, and each month something new is invented. In the mainstream yoga world, there is (almost) no discourse, awareness or thoughtfulness around political issues such as
power relations / racism;
body-normativity / fat-shaming
hetero-/ cis-normativity (to mention only a few)
With these critiques in mind, people started creating alternative offerings. Independent of the mainstream yoga studio scene, several initiatives emerged. For example Body Positive Yoga, Queer-/POC-Yoga, Community Yoga, Reflect your practice… as well as institutions and associations such as Seitenwechsel e.V. and LowKick e.V., which offer accessible classes and safe spaces for marginalized people. The following question expresses the contradiction I sense within myself:
How can we establish classes or situations that are accessible and an alternative to the mainstream yoga classes that also provide us (the teachers, organizers, facilitators) with a “safe” income?
The question appears contradictory: By a "safe" income, I mean a salary that covers my basic needs and /or basic expenditures. Too often in teaching yoga or dance classes, especially when creating alternative spaces, the income structure is exploitative and “unsafe” for the teachers.
What do I mean by self-exploitation?
I suppose that working as a yoga teacher, as well as artistic work can be experienced as meaningful and as identity-creating, which makes it more difficult to compare it with more conventional kinds of paid work and to demand proper remuneration. Let me give some examples:
Often the work yoga teachers do outside the studio is invisible and unappreciated. Research (such as reading, practicing, going to other classes), e-mail campaigns, curating websites, creating and distributing flyers and other promotional work, office administration, etc. are not seen or paid. Some questions that arise are:
What does a yoga teaching salary cover? Just the time in the studio? What about times one can’t work due to sickness? Does the salary cover health and liability insurance?
Do the students know that a teacher is working / offering their labour completely at their own risk?
Do we as yoga teachers also do care work? Is that considered labour?
So the tension is the following: On the one hand I'd like to offer classes which are as accessible as possible and do not only address the wealthy, white middle class (one strategy could be sliding scale and / or free places, for example), and on the other hand also earn a safe income...
As a dance teacher and a creative artist, the main way to earn an income in the field of dance is through teaching classes and workshops on a regular basis. I do that, as do my colleagues and friends, with a lot of passion, enthusiasm and optimism. I love it and it's definitely nourishing and enriching work. But the employment situation is the same as in the yoga teaching situations I've described above: The payment is determined by the number of participants; contracts, if at all available, are only fee agreements without health and pension insurance. Because artistic creation, as well as teaching within the artistic field, are recognized as meaningful and formative of personal identity, there is this image that this kind of work is done outside the logic of the economy. But in reality this is a field where earnings are small and the competition is fierce. And in my view these activities do not exist outside the neo-liberal economic logic at all:
I have observed that there is a constant pressure to be different, to differentiate oneself, from others*, and to constantly reinvent oneself. Ever new class descriptions and the writing and re-writing of bios are part of that process. I regard this constant self-individualization and performance of independence that freelancers must do as an example of precarious work in the context of neo-liberalism. This kind of work offers no security, nothing to fall back on, but leaves all responsibility to the individual: In order to secure a firm place in this field marked by tough competition, one must not be easily replaceable, but unique and offer original approaches.
Yet the field seems tempting, as the independence of the freelancer promises individual fulfilment and freedom to explore and to follow one's own interests. Dance and performance art is more likely to be critical of political conditions (such as power relations and racism, for example) than the yoga community, as political conditions are often discussed and worked with and pieces/projects/artworks often mirror individuals in complex and plural societies.
I personally find it very difficult to acknowledge the time I invest outside of the studio as working time, because I do my work out of personal interest, with the freedom of a freelancer and because it does give me a sense of individual fulfilment.
But back to employment, both for yoga and dance teachers: Teaching fees vary tremendously, they are not only dependent on the success of the teacher (and the incredible amount of work, patience, experience and resilience to get to that point at all), but also on the ability to present oneself and negotiate for oneself… which leads me to think about gender bias. Negotiating one’s salary might not be many people’s favourite subject, but there is a history of discrimination and defeat for women here.
We must also think about what one needs to get to this point of "success" in the first place:
Gaining experience requires time, patience and resilience (and a community that supports you). It’s for sure a very complex matter and also dependent upon each individual’s context and privileges, but I want to foreground one point specifically:
What about bodies who have carried children, experienced pregnancy and breast-feeding? How does that influence your work? No one knows in advance how much a pregnancy might influence one’s body, aside from the big belly. A doctor might suggest that a person stop work already in the first few weeks of pregnancy. Most probably recovering from giving birth also takes some time. And due to breast-feeding, the parent is not completely "independent". Thinking of time...well...2-3 years?
What about the compatibility of work and family? Due to the fact that workshops, as well as performance/dance festivals, do not generally take place only in one city, but internationally (assuming that one is now an experienced and so called successful teacher and performer): Who is doing the care work? If you are lucky, your reputation is such that the organizers will pay the ticket and accommodation for your partner (or alternative care-taker or co-parents). I would assume that making sure you actually get such perks would, again, require the will and the capacity to negotiate...
So to avoid self-exploitation, from my perspective, the first step is to be aware of the circumstances we are in. To make the work visible that is often hidden behind glamorous and romantic ideas of being an artist, a dancer, a yoga teacher... To reflect on our own behaviour in an industry, such as the yoga industry, which operates with concepts of health and relaxation (linked with discourses of body- and fat-shaming) and often tends to promise self-care, which often turns out to be more a form of self-optimization. To create alternative networks, which offer strategies of support and community building.
Let's take dance festivals as an example: What about child care? To not exclude parents (especially the ones who have carried the baby), a collective child-care solution must be part of the festival programme. Otherwise participation in the program is wholly dependent upon individuals’ personal circumstances - for example the privilege of having a partner/co-parent who can travel with you, who can afford to pay for travel and be away from work; or the privilege of being able to pay for private child-care.
After writing about all these situations, noting all these thoughts, I noticed for myself that I want to no longer avoid talking about money. I am a strong critic of the economic system we are embedded in... but we are not in a bubble that works independently of social structures. Avoiding talking about the issues won't help us pay the rent. And we do work. We offer labour, which should be rewarded. Nevertheless the question remains:
How to establish classes/situations, that are accessible and an alternative, possibly even aiming at challenging social structures, creating an environment inspired by values of social justice and accessibility?
To be more transparent I will offer a self-positioning to concretize and contextualize these concerns.
Born in West-Germany in a white, middle-class family, and enjoying financial stability in my early childhood, I experienced the unemployment of my father (who was the bread-winner and only source of income) and the divorce of my parents as an essential (financial) trauma. As a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered woman with a german citizenship, I hold many privileges and I get access to the social-system of the state, which I do experience from time to time. This is definitely a privilege. Since I am not living in the country illegally, in times of financial need I get my health insurance and also my rent paid. On the other hand, there is no financial stability in my family, and being (on-off) dependent on HARTZ4 has been a part of my life for more than 20 years.
As a yoga teacher and dancer, I have been living in Berlin for more than 5 years. My classes went through some hard times, but after 5 years of offering classes, it has become more stable. It was a conscious decision to not teach in yoga studios, since I wasn’t happy with the mostly white, middle-class, abled and heteronormative atmosphere, as well as I needed some space to research with non-conventional approaches to yoga teaching. ( e.g. Axis Syllabus into Yoga). Nevertheless I it would have been more difficult, maybe impossible, if I would have been a parent for example, bounded in care-work and with essential need to gain a safe income.
Also, my personal situation contributes to an existential uncertainty: In a queer- relationship the wish to found a family is not well supported by the state. Reproduction-techniques and adoption-processes require a lot of money (besides being a marginalized position within the public debate), if founding a family becomes my wish...
My thanks goes to Kristin Horrigan and Daniel Mang, who have supported me, with feedback and editing, during the writing process of this article! <3
*or to create connections and create alternative networks...my preverable choice