Kalli Ridley had just finished yoga class and was feeling calm when her favorite instructor approached her with a smile and told her she would make a great teacher. “It was like they saw something special in me,” Ms. Ridley said.

But becoming a teacher at the CorePower Yoga studio in Minneapolis, where Ms. Ridley trained, was less straightforward than she anticipated: After paying $1,500 for a 200-hour training program, spread out over eight weeks, she was asked to complete an additional $500 “extensions” training, which was never initially mentioned. For months afterward, Ms. Ridley asked the studio about job opportunities to make money from her training. None ever came. A year later she is still paying off the cost.

At yoga studios around the country, teacher training is a popular way for instructors to supplement income from one-off classes and for students to advance in skill level — to deepen one’s practice, in yogi parlance. It’s not usually promoted as a career path. Rather, teacher training is offered as a kind of advanced workshop.

But CorePower, the country’s largest yoga studio chain, has a distinctly profitable approach: It enlists teachers as salespeople and incentivizes them with bonuses.

Company performance review documents tell teachers and managers how — and when during class — to push CorePower programming. There are tiered monetary incentives for CorePower teachers and managers based on class type and the number of people they enroll. Video tutorials advise best practices for pitching teacher trainings in particular, without any mention that it could end up costing thousands of dollars. (“Praise validates and encourages your students,” read the captions on one such video. “Wrap it Up & Keep it Open-Ended.”)

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After approaching Ms. Ridley after class, Ms. Ridley’s CorePower teacher followed up regularly in person and connected with her online. “It felt like we had a friendship that was really actually not real,” Ms. Ridley said.

A spokesperson for CorePower disputed that the company misled anyone about the purpose, cost or length of CorePower teacher training. “Teachers are not required to sell Teacher Trainings, nor are they enlisted as salespeople; teachers are hired for their quality yoga instruction. Teachers work to connect with each student on his or her individual needs; if Teacher Training can serve a particular student, they will encourage a student to learn more,” the spokesperson said in an email.

The company acknowledged that “teachers who lead trainings or enroll students in Teacher Training receive additional financial incentives,” but said, “We have never heavily weighted enrollment in compensation decisions and today 100% of our merit decisions are based on the quality of yoga instruction.”

Additionally, the spokesperson added: “Thousands of students participate in Teacher Training annually and close to 100% of program participants surveyed in 2018 said that the program met or exceeded their expectations.”

‘The Starbucks of Yoga’

CorePower describes itself as a mission-driven fitness company dedicated to changing lives, all while expanding to new cities every year. Since its competitor Bikram Yoga crumbled amid scandal, CorePower has climbed to the top of the yoga business pyramid.

Its co-founder, a tech entrepreneur named Trevor Tice who discovered yoga after a climbing accident, called CorePower “the Starbucks of Yoga,” telling a journalist in 2015 that the plan was to take the company public. (Mr. Tice retired as C.E.O. in 2015, and died in 2016.)

“You can get inner peace and flat abs in an hour,” said Tess Roering, then CorePower’s chief marketing officer, in a 2016 interview with ColoradoBiz magazine, explaining the company’s appeal. When CorePower was founded in 2002, yoga “was more of a hippie thing — the sort of thing my aunt who doesn’t shave her armpits does,” Ms. Roering said in that interview.

With help from Catterton Partners, a private equity firm that has also backed Equinox, Peloton and Pure Barre, CorePower became a mainstream fitness empire, stretching from suburban malls to Hollywood, where Chris Pratt and Colin Farrell reportedly have taken classes.

Early CorePower studios were some of the first in yoga to advertise showers and locker room facilities. Pictures of gurus are nowhere to be found. When teachers name poses, Sanskrit is optional; English is required.

That approach worked. Today, CorePower has 200 locations in 23 states and Washington, D.C. In March, the company was sold to TSG Consumer Partners, which invests in Stumptown, Vitamin Water and Pabst.

CorePower has also faced four federal labor lawsuits, one of which is still pending. In the latest, about 1,200 teachers have signed on to a collective-action suit that argues that CorePower pays them less than minimum wage because of the amount of off-the-clock work they are required to do. “We believe it’s without merit and are defending the company aggressively and appropriately,” said Eric Kufel, the C.E.O. of CorePower, in a statement.

The lawsuits don’t address how the company sells its teacher trainings. “You’re being taught to be calm and breathe, but at the same time, being taken advantage of,” said Ms. Ridley, who is not taking legal action.

A registered nurse with an affinity for helping people, Ms. Ridley said she was immediately drawn to yoga’s ethos of unity and human connection. But “what they teach you makes me ultimately not fight back,” she said.

‘The Next Step of Your Journey’

For many Americans who have attended yoga class, teachers are part personal trainers and part therapists, sometimes with a dose of psychedelic trip-sitter mixed in.

Yoga teachers touch us gently when we are pouring sweat. They free us from our phones and from the rub of zippers (at least for an hour). They inspire us to lose weight while never mentioning it. It’s transcendence and transference: You’re admiring their butts, for a noble cause.

Many also teach for very little money. Part of that is cultural: Discount or donation-based classes help attract new customers, and they also fit into the spiritual ethos. At Dharma Yoga Center in New York, for example, teachers in training learn that offering donation-based classes can be a blessing on their path to “the total surrender of ego.”

But it is also a result of a glut of teachers: According to a survey from 2016, there are two people in teacher training for every existing yoga teacher. (According to that same survey, 33 percent don’t even teach as a vocation, but rather as “a hobby which makes me feel good.”)

CorePower used to ask its teachers to work for free, not just as teachers-in-training, but also at the front desk in its posh in-studio boutiques, where expensive merchandise ($98 Lululemon leggings, for example) is sold, according to a 2011 lawsuit. It now pays teachers for this labor.

The pinnacle of corporate yoga, CorePower nevertheless dresses itself up as a friendly family, calling its thousands of employees a “tribe.” On paper the job of the instructors is to teach. But whether they get raises and promotions often depends on how well they recruit.

In a video tutorial, the company teaches its staff that in order to sell trainings, they must single out students to talk to after class:

“You’ve been coming to my Monday night class for two years. It just blows me away,” says a soft-voiced instructor in the video, sitting with her legs crossed in half lotus pose. “This will be the next stage in your evolution.”

“Me, really?” the surprised student pantomimes. “I don’t know if I would be a good teacher.”

The teacher disagrees, promising to send more information, but the video makes no mention of the program’s cost. “Keep it open ended,” a caption reads. “Praise validates and encourages your students.”

“Personal invitations” are just the beginning. After identifying their “leads,” current and former CorePower teachers said they followed up with invitations to coffee dates (at Starbucks, naturally) and special workshops.

According to current and former employees, CorePower’s training programs run three to four times a year at each location; former managers said teacher training can account for up to a third of annual sales for each studio. (A CorePower spokesperson disputed this, saying: “Teacher Training programs’ percentage of revenue to CorePower’s business is in the single digits.”)

CorePower churns out thousands more “certified” teachers than the company offers to employ. The Yoga Alliance, a trade group that “embraces all types of yoga,” recognizes the diplomas given in CorePower’s popular 200-hour programs, as well as for many of its competitors.

Some graduates at CorePower do become CorePower teachers, while others go on to teach elsewhere. But in interviews with The New York Times, 10 people said they felt misled about the purpose, cost or length of CorePower teacher training, or felt pressured to mislead others.

Some signed up thinking they were being personally groomed for a job, only to discover later that their studios weren’t hiring. Others were told they had to complete additional expensive trainings, the existence of which was never mentioned initially.

“While our programs are not ‘job placement’ programs, they help thousands of yoga practitioners every year,” said Mr. Kufel in a statement. “CorePower Yoga’s Teacher Training program is an accessible approach to learning that provides a variety of offerings and options for individuals of all levels to further their education and cultivate the skills to improve their lives on and off the mat.”

‘You Are Changing Life on the Planet!’

When they make their deposits, CorePower trainees sign a form with a clause that indicates they are aware that teacher training isn’t a job placement program, according to two former teachers. But whether recruiters make this fact explicit is a matter for their own consciences, said Amador Jaojoco, who helped lead trainings in San Diego.

The teacher training pitches are offered at the end of savasana, the final resting pose. To bring students out of deep relaxation — savasana is a trancelike state — teachers give what the company calls a “personal share” tied to the class’s theme (like “gratitude”) and their own “soul-rocking” experience with CorePower, often in teacher training. (The phrase seems to be a company favorite; one teacher said he was evaluated on a scale of 1 to 5 on whether his themes “rocked souls.”)

Effie Morgenstern, who took CorePower classes in Chicago, was moved by these confessional narratives and signed up for teacher training, where, she said, “shares” got even more personal. She eventually led trainings herself, and recalled that she was encouraged “to say something so raw it makes so-and-so want to cry. And then so-and-so gets to cry and make a share.”

When she signed up for teacher training, Ms. Morgenstern had just gone through a breakup and had graduated from college without a clear career direction, and the catharsis felt great. “They get everyone amped up to be happy and love each other, you know, just a community of oneness,” she said. “I was on some sort of emotional high. The money didn’t matter.”

When she finished her hours — and a $519 “extensions” program whose existence was abruptly revealed late in the program — Ms. Morgenstern scored an audition with the studio and was hired as an intern. But her training thus far didn’t qualify her to teach the classes on CorePower’s schedule, her bosses said.

They recommended additional education trainings. Ms. Morgenstern said she ended up paying more than $5,000 for various CorePower trainings, which took her three years of working at the company as a teacher to pay off. She is a plaintiff in the pending lawsuit.

There was another way to ease this debt: recruiting other students into trainings. According to internal documents, teachers who lead trainings receive up to $1,000 for meeting their enrollment goals. (Several current and former employees say that means typically 10 to 20 students.) Other teachers earn $100 per sign-up. Annual raises for teachers depended on how often they pitched the program, three people said. (A CorePower spokesperson said raises and promotions were based on the quality of teaching alone.)

In a companywide email from 2014 obtained by The Times, Heather Peterson, the company’s chief yoga officer, seemingly framed CorePower’s recruitment model as humanitarian. “The impact that yoga practice makes in each person’s life is profound!” the email reads, lauding a teacher who had recruited six people in a single week. “When you multiply that by the impact of being immersed in yoga for 8 weeks in Teacher Training, you are changing life on the planet!”

Some employees disagreed, and rebelled.

Keith Willschau, a teacher in Colorado Springs, Colo., climbed the ranks to become a studio manager. When he was required by his bosses to interrupt savasana to deliver pitches, he made sure they were dry. “I was invading a sacred space,” he said.

At one point, Mr. Willschau said his team was directed to change the language of their pitches, from “Are you ready for teacher training?” to “When will you do teacher training?”

Soon after, Mr. Willschau quit management. He still teaches part time at CorePower. “Not everyone can spend $3,000 on a training,” he said. “Not everyone needs to be a yoga teacher.”

‘Return the Karma’

The CorePower method has been to take practices common at indie and community studios and turn them into profit engines. It has harnessed the spiritual traditions of yoga similarly.

For example, it is common for yoga studios to offer training programs like those at CorePower, which teaches philosophy and ethics (sometimes from religious texts) alongside physical poses. Offering financial incentives to current teachers to enroll people in those programs, however, is not.

It is also common for yoga studios to offer work-for-trade programs, in which a regular can, say, clean the studio in exchange for free classes. But CorePower instituted such a program as a janitorial service nationwide.

That led to a lawsuit in 2016, which the company settled without admitting liability for $1.65 million. Also in 2016, CorePower was sued again, in two separate federal cases that claimed teachers were required to work off-the-clock to prepare for class. The company paid $1.4 million to settle one of those; the case with about 1,200 teachers from 35 states signed on is still pending.

At the heart of that lawsuit is a question: Are developing a sequence of yoga poses for class, replying to messages from colleagues and building music playlists requirements of teaching at CorePower? Teachers say that they are mandated to do this work off-the-clock for no pay. Lawyers for CorePower say that teachers do these activities only out of love of yoga, and that the policies that plaintiffs cite as evidence — the company’s internal documents — are “impossibly vague.”

“No objective requirement, but only their individual interpretations of aspirational terms,” the lawyers wrote, led CorePower teachers “to spend significant time working outside the studio.”

One of the phrases used in CorePower policies that is being dismissed by CorePower’s own lawyers is “return the karma” — as in, teachers should substitute for one another’s classes in order to “return the karma.” (In the Hindu tradition, karma yoga is a path of selfless action that leads to spiritual liberation.)

But in court documents, CorePower’s lawyers dismissed karma as a meaningless “metaphysical precept,” on par with words like “authentic,” “World Class Yoga Experience” and, yes, “soul-rocking.”

Still, it was a phrase that Ms. Morgenstern took to heart. She spent unpaid time every week reading texts and emails from colleagues looking for substitutes and once, while teaching a class, a decorative buddha fell and severed the tendons in her foot. Even in the emergency room, she was texting colleagues to make sure her class would have a teacher.

After five years, Ms. Morgenstern says she is paid a flat rate of $33.66 for each two-hour chunk of time she spends in the studio, and works what her studio considers full-time hours. Her pay is low enough that she qualifies for food stamps. “It’s the lowest paying yoga job you’ll ever have,” she said.

Ms. Morgenstern is applying to medical school and plans to quit CorePower. She is also working on starting a yoga teacher union.

Ms. Ridley has also continued to practice at CorePower. Avoiding the Minneapolis studio where she was recruited into teacher training, she cleans once a week at a neighboring CorePower in order to offset the cost of her membership, which is $120 a month. (There are no discounts at her studio for people who got certified through the company.)

At the hospital where she works as a nurse, Ms. Ridley imparts breathing exercises she learned at CorePower to anxious patients, watching as their heart rates slow. She still hopes to teach and doesn’t regret the yoga she learned at training — just the lack of career opportunity.

She is learning to live with that too. “When it comes to self-care, I really think that’s a good investment,” she said. “I need to take care of myself to be able to take care of other people.”

Source: The New York Times