By donation

Published on January 25, 2012 by      Print
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By Claude Genest

Walking downtown the other day I stopped before a busker, guitar in hand, open, coin-littered guitar case at his feet, and waited for him to begin singing.

And waited.

“When are you going to sing?” I enquired.
“I’m waiting for your donation first” he replied.
“And by the way, the suggested donation is 5 dollars” he added guilelessly.
“Odd” I thought, and moved on to meet my friend for lunch.

After taking our order, the waitress just stood there.
And stood there.
“Are you going to place our order?” I enquired.
“…Mmm-hmm… Right after I get my tip, minimum 20% of the total thanks”.
In the real world this would of course never happen. Because it would never fly. Because it’s nuts.

The word “donation” means “an act of benevolence, a gift,” or, something you give VOLUNTARILY in proportion to how much the recipient succeeds in touching, moving or inspiring you.

The word “tip” originally meant “to insure promptness” i.e. something extra you gave WILLINGLY to incite or reward superior service.


But of course the rarefied air of the modern American yoga studio is not, by any stretch, the real world.

In these ecologically harvested bamboo-floored halls, common sense, good intentions and spiritual aspirations all take a back seat to the guru’s (or newly graduated teacher trainee — what’s the difference, as long as you’ve googled a sutra or two and can say Adho Mukha Svanasana with a convincing accent) entitled sense of deserving Bikram-level money and reverence money. Now. Now. NOW! Om Shanti.

I suspect that most of us Recovering Yogis share in common an understanding that the crass commercialism and profit-motive of entitled capitalism make very poor bedfellows with the stated (and mindlessly, endlessly, numbingly repeated) intentions of spirituality, altruism and a desire to create, you know, “commuuuunity.”

Among the many places where this is tragi-comically evident is the sham of the “By Donation community” class.

It was a good idea, at first — an opportunity for aspiring teachers to perfect their craft, for the studio to give back to the community, (give as in “free”), and for students to practice karma yoga by showing their appreciation with a voluntary donation. A gift. A token of their appreciation. You know, like they do in India?

When I asked the receptionist the other day here at my Los Angeles temporary studio what the difference was between the “suggested donation,” (payable up front before the class), and being charged the same amount as in my package of ten classes, she was unable to answer and said she’d speak to the owner and get back to me.

I then asked why they wouldn’t just deduct a class from my package of ten, since it worked out to the same amount? She said it was “cash only”. I pointed out that she already had my cash in the form of a package of ten which was well and duly paid for, and what was the difference again ?
She was unable to answer and said she’d speak to the owner and get back to me.

She never did. But something tells me the answer would have something to do with, if I could just open my heart chakra a little wider and drop my pre-conceptions, you know…. commuuuuunity.

Every fiber of my being wanted to demand a refund and take my business elsewhere. But then it occurred to me that the business of Yoga, however filled with un-answerable and un-ethical self-contradictions, would be the same at every other studio.

So I stuffed my resentment inside, and for the sake of our commuuuunity put on my best fake-o enlightened half-smile, bowed and began inwardly chanting Om shanti, ashamed at my lack of deeper understanding for how a mandatory “donation” helps engender community. Cause that’s what it does, right ?


About Claude Genest

Claude William Genest is recovering from a massive Green Burnout after 6 elections as Deputy Leader of the Green Party of Canada, receiving an Emmy nomination for the eco-show he created, produced and hosted, teaching Permaculture at the University of Vermont and chopping vegetables in the makeshift kitchen at Occupy Montreal.

With two gruelling Vipassanas under his belt, and mid-way through a year long Jivamukti Teacher’s Training in Montreal, he has finally decided to give voice to the resounding eco-greenie-yoga-woo-woo 
resentments that have built up over the years and hopes like hell he will be forgiven for daring to be, you know, negative.

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  1. Scott Robinson says:

    I see your point, Claude; if it’s mandatory, it’s not a donation. Absolutely. However, I do have 2 quibbles: 1) I find it difficult to make out what you are ridiculing: the idea of “community,” of its violation at the hands of venal yoga studios. Or are you making fun of both? 2) It’s not really fair to say that all yoga studios are the same. My local studio has a real donation community class–no minimum, nothing up front. The real deal. That may certainly not be the rule, but nevertheless, let’s not tar everybody with the same brush, OK? Thanks!

  2. Kate says:

    Not all donation community classes are shams. We accept any amount, and don’t demand anything, and donate 100% to charity.

  3. Feists says:

    Thank you for writing this. “Community” classes are becoming a thing of the past. There’s no money in offering a “community” class. Where has the real yoga spirit gone? It should not be about making money. A lot of people cannot afford $15.00, $18.00, $25.00, $35.00 and up to enjoy yoga and get that sense of community you can’t get from your home practice. It’s a real shame. We’ve commercialized yoga.

  4. Susanne says:

    Many studios in this area offer free community classes regularly, and some even have “suggested donation” classes, but it is never mandatory.

  5. Jane says:

    Thanks Kate, me too. I also offer a Community Class that is by donation. I feel that a community class is for anyone in the community, having money or not. In my class, people sign in and drop what they like in the jar. I have no idea how much anyone puts in the jar.

    One hundred percent of the money goes to a charity.

    Next time in Southern Alberta, Claude, drop in to my class. We’ll work through that negativity.

  6. Vision_Quest2 says:

    My SELF-SEQUENCED (with a lengthy meditation component) community class went out of business not long ago.

    What does that tell you?

    That she didn’t get enough real-sized donations from other people (I went a few times and she let me know with a certain “look” if I weren’t giving enough …)

    Where I live, self-sequenced yoga does not rate a regularly priced class or a “full fledged” teacher, btw …

    Yes, you read it, the community class went out of business …

  7. Zaftig Diva says:

    Community Yoga has meant 1) open to the community and 2) at no cost, pro bono publica – for the good of the people. Apparently, “community” must mean something else somewhere. On the other hand, “by donation” classes can be both complicated and varied. My daughter and I went to a popular yoga studio, and knowing the suggested donation we carried our cash AND presented it at the beginning of class in the shoe box held by the greeter. At the end of class, shoebox girl was waiting, extending her receptacle, for the donation at the door. I explained that we gave on entry, and left. Perhaps paying at the end is more effective.

    Years ago, I learned that donations were a gift given in response to the benefit received and the energy expended. The practitioner left a basket of blank white envelops at the back entrance and money was enclosed and the envelop replaced. We seemed to have forgotten that the gift is in the giving – teacher and student alike. However, how many yoga teachers are teaching?

  8. Kayla says:

    The studio where I practice does have a “karma class” every so often that is cash only. A charity is chosen to benefit from the donations (and is usually but not always an animal-rights nonprofit). I think in this case and maybe in yours too, in order to use the class you’ve already paid for, the desk person would have to take ten bucks out of the cash drawer to put in the karma basket and that probably screws up the bookkeeping. I actually haven’t seen any donation-only classes where the money goes to the teacher. It’s always for a non-profit or disaster relief.

    • Tori says:

      This has been closer to my experience with donation-based classes, too. I’ve tended to see either “community classes” advertised with an explicit pay what you wish, no one turned away policy — or else “charity donation classes,” where the proceeds are being donated to a charity and where the amount paid is quite negotiable (no hardball “suggested donations”) but where some donation is more or less expected. But — unless I’ve skipped all the classes where the opposite is true — the ones I’ve seen have been pretty explicit in what “donation” meant to them well before the class (like, weeks or a month before on flyers).

      If, though, I came across a donation-based class like the one described in the article, it would leave an icky taste in my mouth for sure.

  9. Retired yogini says:

    Interesting points raised. As a now retired yoga studio owner and teacher who used to regularly run fundraising classes, I never ran into this problem because we always gave people the option of donating OR taking it off their package (not donating). Most people did want to donate, which was nice for the charities we supported. The reason packages can’t be a donation includes the aforementioned bookkeeping issues but also has to do with managing studio expenditure. We donated the space, our time, covered bills (adds up with hot yoga & shower facilities) and the lost revenue for that class, which can be substantial if the class is well attended. Sometimes for big drives we’d match what students donated. So some studios genuinely want to give back to the community and although I see your point, maybe your studio needs more transparency to avoid that “ripped off” feeling.

  10. vanessafiola says:

    Living in Los Angeles, I can think of multiple donation-only studios where donation means you are expected to pay *something*. I can also think of studios who are not donation-only but offer community classes weekly and those classes are truly free.

    I don’t have a problem paying for yoga. I don’t even have a problem paying $18-20 for yoga. I do have a problem when a “donation” studio teacher lectures the class while he’s got us all in pigeon pose for chrissakes about how “an acceptable donation would be $20,” and how we should “consider karma when you put in your donation.” I also care when another teacher gives a similar lecture while we’re in savasana. It’s kinda like, buddy, if you’re going to work at/run/etc a donation studio, then you have to be okay w/ trusting that people are giving what they can.

  11. HAWK says:

    Hey brother! you are totally forgiven…LOVE your attitude! the Truth shall set us all free…someday. in the meantime~I approve. One Love.

  12. Jenifer says:

    When I was training to become a teacher — apprenticeship model — our ‘community’ classes were $5, the teachers were unpaid, and the studio kept the money. This was to cover the costs of the studio time/space. It was marketed that you would be taught by a “new teacher” or “teacher in training.”

    The studio also had the opportunity for seva — which was our work-study program. If you couldn’t pay for class, you could work for classes. It was usually simple: sweep the floors, be a greeter/money collector for class, and various other small tasks that needed to be done. It was essentially “free yoga.”

    On occasion, the studio ran “fundraising” classes. You could use your class card OR make a donation, but the class card was not the donation (for cash-flow/book-keeping reasons). Most people just came and put in $5 (some more, some less).

    The studio also ran a “free” class once a month. This was usually a “free introductory class” to introduce people to the studio — to let them try it and see if they like the yoga. Some people just took the free class once a month, which was entirely allowed.

    I think this is mostly about the communication so that people know what to expect. It’s also about the studio owner or teacher being honest.

    The honesty has many layers. First, I suggest that the teacher honestly give up trying to make income from the class. Give the time pro-bono for real. Just don’t think of it as income-generating. This is helpful, as it then lowers the “requirements” of the class down to costs.

    This means, though, that the teachers has to be honest about the costs. Rental of the space, maintenance of props (if that is part of the equation), and the basic costs of the class (e.g., their gas money or transportation costs), and in my opinion, make it bear-bones ( i know teachers who spend a fortune in time and money making the ‘perfect’ music mix using iTunes, and quite honestly, it’s not actually necessary and in particular is a heavy expense for a pro-bono class).

    Once the costs are understood, then — like any business — the teacher needs to save up enough money to hold the class for several months. This makes it truly ‘pro-bono’ for a bit, but allows the class to attract enough people to cover the costs.

    Once the donations start coming in, those need to be saved in a special account to cover *future costs* of the class. Because — like any business — there will be highs and lows.

    I successfully ran a pro-bono class for a year, before loosing my venue and getting a paid gig at that time, because I had no expectation of making money. At the end of the year, I had about $3k in that account — so I’d obviously earned money beyond my expenses. I’d started with $300 in ‘seed money’ and I’d paid out my rent and expenses (including paying myself a “gas amount” each week from that account) — so it did bring in a profit.

    But, it was sitting in that account ready to support the class when there were fewer donations, so that nothing was living week-to-week. And that is how what people gave didn’t matter.

    So, if I were to guess that I taught that class 50 times during the year, and that each time it was 1 hr, and that my rent was $35 per month (not a guess), and that I was paying myself $25 per week in gas (overestimating), the costs were $135 per month over 12 months or $1620. If we subtract my initial seed money of $300, then we get $1320 in expenses that were covered by donations. And, I got an additional $3k. So, the total amount in donations was around $4320. And, the amount I earned per class — ultimately — was $60.

    It was about my average for being paid by a regular class.

    After that, I only did fund-raising gigs, as those were much easier to manage. Studios donated space and time, I donated my time and teaching, and students made donations to the cause based on what they wanted to give. This meant I didn’t have to work so much on it as a ‘business.’

    I think the impulse is nice, but we need to be clear about what we are doing. With ourselves, and with our audience (students, etc).

  13. Barbarella says:

    By donation only studios have a more advantageous tax structure then for-profit studios. A little known fact that might not make them as charitable as they would have you believe.

  14. Nadine Fawell says:


    That said, I’ve never run into a ‘by donation’ class that wasn’t just that.

    And for years I’ve been running free stuff, in my capacity as teacher and commuuuuunity builder. No donation at all. Just free. Sometimes with potluck dinners at the end…

    And, like Jennifer, I taught for free, and then by donation, when I was a new teacher (in my home so I didn’t have to pay rent…)

  15. Kristan says:

    My first yoga class was on the 2nd floor of a community center in Santa Cruz, CA in the mid nineties. It was taught by a strapping “older” man (I was in my 20′s at the time so I’m going to assume he was way older than me…probably in his 30′s.) who had just been released from prison after serving a short sentence for marijuana growing. He was an amazing yogi and was the best intro for me into the world of “community” classes. I had been practicing up to this point either on my own with books or at the Rainbow Gatherings I had been frequenting. His classes were donation based. Yes, he was obviously paying for this rented classroom (there were desks and chairs pushed to the sides) and he had a life he had to support as well, but every week he returned to teach by donation. I was young(er), living in a group house (translation: a house filled to the brim with hippies), unemployed (looking every day for a job) and on food stamps. I felt so guilty (leftovers from my Catholic upbringing) when all I could give to him was maybe a couple of dollars, or an apple, or sometimes one of my favorite crystals. Yet he would always take it with a smile, welcome me back every week, give me the best adjustments ever and basically be the teacher and inspiration that I was looking for. He crosses my mind every now and then when I reflect upon influential people in my life and I know, wherever he is, that he is surrounded by love because that is what he always put out. It’s now 17 years later and I’m still practicing yoga and have since become a teacher so I can share what I know with others and turn them onto the world of yoga in a gentle way. I can’t wait to move into a new place soon and start a once a week “by donation” class out of my living room. I’m excited to see what new crystals I may acquire or tasty fruits will be left in my basket.

  16. WTH? says:

    Wha?! You come to a yoga class, put down your mat, and join in the practice. What’s this beginner/advanced, back/front business? You sit where you want. Period. I have been practicing for over 25 years and I’ve never heard of “managing” where a student chooses to be in the room. If you’re new and realize you don’t like your choice you’ll choose another spot in the room next time. Big effing deal. Mirrors? I would never, and have never, practiced in a room with mirrors. But whatever.

    When I first read this post I assumed comments would 100% deny this type of “class arrangement” ever takes place. I feel like I’m in alternate world reading most of these responses.

    I’m glad I have my home practice because holy crap. This is b.s.

  17. WTH? says:

    Oops. I meant this for the “Who Moved my Mat” post. But you all probably guessed that already. Sowwy. :)

  18. By donation. ~ Claude Genest | elephant journal says:

    [...] donation. ~ Claude Genest Originally published by our elephriends over at Recovering Yogi on January 25, 2012.  [...]

  19. The case for donation and community | RecoveringYogi says:

    [...] recently read Claude Genest’s post By donation, and it seems to me that the problem with the studio he’s referring to, as he rightly points out, [...]

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