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Inside The Fight To Unionize CorePower Yoga

Illustration by Jim Cooke

Talk to enough people who have been students, employees, or both at CorePower Yoga, and you’re likely to hear some version of the same story: CorePower Yoga is addicting.

Just ask Brooke Caldwell. She started practicing at CorePower Yoga back in May of 2014 after she graduated from UCLA. The now 31-year-old fell in love with the teachers—“they were intoxicating,” she said—and they motivated her to do the teacher training herself, plus several extensions, that she estimated cost her well over $3,000. 

After working as a teacher, she eventually went on to manage a studio on Fremont Street in San Francisco, then a studio in the financial district until April 2019. She got promoted and became an area lead. It seemed like a great way to practice yoga and also to advance in the company. The San Francisco market was hot, with a lot of new studios opening. She was right in the center of something that was growing and growing fast. It was exciting.

Before Caldwell started practicing at CorePower Yoga she had a hunch that the environment was different from other yoga practices. “I had always had this idea in my head that it was too corporate … just a big chain,” she said. But the environment in the classes as a student was something that stuck with her. “They had so much confidence and high-level energy that was contagious. CorePower Yoga is set to music, so it was hip. It was just a total immersive experience going there.” 

Caldwell was far from alone in her devotion to the chain once dubbed the “Starbucks of yoga.” One of the largest yoga studio chains in the United States, founded in 2002 in Denver by entrepreneur Trevor Tice, there are CorePower Yoga studios in more than 200 locations across more than 20 states. The storefronts are slick and easy to find in major cities, and there’s an all-access membership that lets students pay upwards of $150 to $200 a month to use their studios in multiple locations.

But for the company’s teachers, the glossy marketing, catchy slogans, and quoting of the yoga sutras haven’t meant decent wages or timely responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, CorePower Yoga agreed to pay nearly $1.5 million in response to a class-action lawsuit that said 2,180 yoga instructors were not paid for all the hours they had worked. That same year, the New York Times reported on how CorePower Yoga would push teachers to enroll as many students in its pricey teacher training programs as possible, turning underpaid yoga teachers into salespeople, who also were recruiting their replacements. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

As COVID-19— a virus spread through the air, especially in closed rooms packed with people, which sounds a lot like a yoga practice room—spread across the United States, CorePower Yoga began its layoffs. There were a few rounds, and they were announced during a Zoom call with senior staff and operations leads. “And they just said, ‘The HEROES or the CARES Act passed so we think it's a good time to just lay everybody off. You guys can collect that extra $600 a week and when we reopen our studios we'll need you back,’” Caldwell said.

A representative for the company declined to answer exactly how many people were laid off or rehired but issued a vague statement: “We took a hard look at our business in order to better understand our strengths and opportunities for improvement, and we made real and lasting changes.” 

The underpayment, the layoffs, and then George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police in June of last year prompted staffers to start talking about their treatment at the company. Some former staffers recounted the time then–CorePower Yoga Master Trainer Joel Klausler posted a photo on Instagram with that caption “I can breathe” shortly after Floyd’s death. Outraged staffers called on management to respond to Klausler’s photo, which he removed quickly. He was ultimately terminated by the company, but management didn’t address the racism directly. When Defector Media reached out to him, Klausler declined to comment.

“And all of us are sitting here like, ‘Well, what are we as a yoga company doing?” Samantha Winkelmann, a yoga teacher living in Atlanta who has been teaching at CorePower Yoga part time for almost five years, told me. Because if a tennis shoe company can come out with a stronger statement than a company that's supposed to be revolutionizing people's lives and wellbeing, then what are we doing? You know?"

After that, the union conversations started to pick up. There had been an attempt to unionize back in 2019, and the Floyd murder brought the conversation back to the forefront. In a work stoppage letter from September, Seattle organizers for CorePower Yoga reform listed specific action items with regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at the company and requirements for return to work: “Trauma-informed yoga instruction, roots/history of yoga (note: we require this content be written by a South Asian yoga teacher/consultant), issues surrounding/related to cultural appropriation, and ethical stewardship of yoga in a predominantly White company, cultural appropriation and sensitivity training and sexual harassment training.” 

CorePower Yoga teachers began organizing for what they hope will become a recognized union at the company. According to the union’s mission statement: “We are a collective of solutions-oriented yoga instructors who intend to make change in the yoga community by uniting for equitable compensation/benefits, workplace safety, and to make yoga studios places of belonging for all workers regardless of background or demographics.” (The company ignored emailed questions about the Klausler incident, saying instead, “We have improved teacher compensation and created more learning opportunities for our employees.”)

Even though teachers are still in the process of getting union cards signed, CorePower Yoga is already trying to union bust. CEO Niki Leondakis recently spoke at an all-hands meeting with the studio support center team, a recording of which was obtained by Defector, in which she said that the best way to address teacher pay was to “change the conversation.” 

Improving the working conditions at the company is important to employees in favor of the union, especially for someone like Winkelmann, who painted a picture to me of two distinct CorePower Yoga companies when we talked. On the one hand there’s this wonderful community of students and passionate teachers. But on the other: “It's kind of this fake out, where you think you're part of this family and we all love each other, and it's fantastic. But really what's going on underneath the surface, is people are getting paid crap for skilled work ... And then nobody feels like they can talk about it because if you are to talk about it, it doesn't jive with the positive, uplifting, let's-all-be-kumbaya, kind of attitude of a yoga studio.”

Current and former employees interviewed for this story described being a student at CorePower Yoga as the gateway drug to becoming a teacher there. “It's easy to get sucked into the sauce there, that's for sure,” said Winkelmann, who, since May of last year went from full-time teaching, to being laid off, and then came back as part time after the pandemic hit. She’s based in Atlanta but started as a student in Minnesota. After a debilitating car accident seven years ago, she couldn't walk for six months and, as part of her recovery, Winkelmann stumbled upon yoga again and thought it could help her regain strength and flexibility. 

Winkelmann became an active member of the union organizing effort after what happened back in June. She was part of a first wave of teachers that went back to teaching in person in May and pushed back on management when proper precautions were not being handled for in-person classes during the pandemic. When teachers and staff brought up their concerns over COVID-19 safety to local leadership, they listened, and put policies in place, like requiring students to wear masks. (The company declined to answer questions about former policies around mask mandates in the studios saying only: “We require face masks for all students and teachers, social distancing, and hygiene and disinfection practices at all open studios.”)

“We made a lot of noise about that right when we reopened because they weren't requiring students to wear masks during class," Winkelmann said. "And we were like, "No, we don't feel comfortable with this.”

Despite their love for the job, the teachers themselves aren’t making much money. Right now, Winkelmann said she averages about $18 to $21 an hour, depending on how many classes she teaches. It’s a good-sounding rate, but classes typically run for one hour, with two required 30-minute periods before and after the class. To make more money teaching yoga, a teacher would then have to teach more classes at other studios, which requires the time to get to those other studios, which is unpaid and with no reimbursement for travel.

It means that, while people often look to their yoga teachers for guidance on becoming healthier, the teachers themselves might barely be paying their bills. Caldwell, who started out in San Francisco, noted that when she moved there to work in a studio, money was a concern. “I had already lined up living at my dad's house in Oakland. I'd moved back home so that I could take that job because otherwise there's no way on my own I was going to be able to afford living in San Francisco. I just absolutely wasn't going to even come close to being able to do that.” 

When asked about teacher pay, CorePower Yoga ignored Defector's specific questions and instead said, “We introduced a new compensation model in which all CorePower Yoga teachers received a raise. The average raise was 11 percent and all CPY teachers earn above minimum wage. We have also provided a transparent roadmap to wage progression based on teacher experience (lifetime classes taught), commitment (classes taught per week), and quality of instruction (performance bonus).” When asked to provide more details about the wages and the roadmap, CorePower Yoga did not respond. 

Because CorePower Yoga isn’t public, much isn’t known about the company’s revenue. Back in 2015, founder Tice told Inc. that he estimated CorePower Yoga revenues were on a “$100 million run rate.” The company declined to comment to Defector on revenue lost during the pandemic.

Even before the layoffs, just making ends meet on the meager pay and feeling safe on the job was an issue for one teacher who used to work in the West Coast market. She asked for anonymity because she has been pushing for positive change at CorePower Yoga since the pandemic began but said, “I feel like I've been blacklisted a little bit,” and she's worried about retaliation. 

Her experience with CorePower Yoga started in Chicago in 2012. Like many others interviewed for this story, she started out as a student, working in advertising and taking classes when she could on the side. After attending as a student for a couple weeks, teachers approached her and asked her to try the teacher training program. In 2017, her husband’s job took them to the West Coast where they started attending CorePower Yoga classes in the neighborhood, and she decided to pursue becoming a teacher. 

The low pay put a strain on her marriage, she said. She was working constantly trying to complete the hours of classes required for her teacher training. She didn’t have another source of income for herself outside of CorePower Yoga, and she was getting paid less than her old advertising job. She auditioned for a teacher job in the West Coast market in 2018 and then started doing the required internship hours for the role, which involved teaching a minimum of 30 classes. For those classes, she’d be paid by the hour at minimum wage, which in the city she was living in was about $15. 

“It's about two hours each, because you have to be at the desk 30 minutes before your class and 30 minutes after your class,” she said. “Each time you worked, it was a two-hour shift, one hour of that teaching.” 

But the real issues started when she was hired into an official teaching role. She said the human resources person she was in contact with didn’t seem to know a lot about HR, and there were management issues as well, like how the onus was on the teachers to do scheduling themselves. And she noticed there was a lot of turnover. 

“What you tend to see a lot of is that the more senior instructors, they just get replaced,” she said. “After every teacher training there's new instructors that are really eager to teach for whatever the minimum wage is and they'll be super flexible with their schedule. So those older, more senior, advanced instructors kind of get pushed out.” 

The employee rationalized the turnover this way: “I think, in hindsight, I feel like you push them out. You find yourself not wanting to be the squeaky wheel because you know that it comes with repercussions. So you just do it.” 

She was far from the first to notice these aspects at CorePower Yoga. In 2019, multiple teacher training graduates told the Times they felt misled about what they would get out of teacher training or how much it would cost them. CorePower Yoga’s benefits for newly hired teachers, as described in its own documents, are this: unlimited yoga, 50 percent off programs, 30 percent off retail, and one partner who gets free, unlimited yoga, but that perk “must be reserved for a close partner. It cannot be used in exchange for another service- ie: massage, haircuts etc.” There’s no talk of health insurance, paid time off, and definitely no 401k. 

And yet the same document, from 2018, says teachers must teach at least twice a week, cannot have a substitute teacher fill in for them more than once a month, and, when they do need a sub, it’s up to the teacher to find that person. That responsibility, like so many others, does not belong to CorePower Yoga.

Even feeling safe at the job was sometimes a challenge, the yoga teacher from the West Coast said. She said that her supervisors didn’t seem very concerned about her safety after she reported that clothing had been lit on fire near the studio’s front door. Another time, a student came to a class who appeared to be high and wouldn’t open her eyes. She told the manager on site but never heard anything else about what was done or what she should do. Her worst time teaching, she said, came during an evening class. When she arrived and started setting up the room before the class started, she looked outside the window to the main road, where she saw “a man that was masturbating outside of the window.” As students entered the studio, she said, she told the security guard about the man, and the guard acted. 

“[The security guard] went over there and said something to him, she said, "I think along the lines of, he said like, ‘Hey man, what are you doing? There's a class taking place here.’” 

The man left peacefully, she said. But the moment left her wondering, what if there wasn’t a security guard here? What if she was alone? She later told the studio manager what happened and wrote up an email about what happened to send to submit. She received an email from someone in management that read: “I am so sorry this happened to you. Our HR team is at the ready with resources to help with any type of trauma that any of us experience. Please let me know if I can guide you to any type of assistance.” 

A second email from another member of management concluded with a sentence about how lucky they were to have a security guard at that location “to ensure that love and light can be brought with clarity, consistency, and root-chakra safety.” 

She was laid off back in March; she’s currently not working, in yoga or in advertising. Reflecting now, she said, “With CorePower, we were all on the hamster wheel and the hamster wheel was moving so quickly that we were seeing things, but just seeing it in chunks, like little bite sizes. And you're like, ‘Ooh, that's icky, that's gross, but I'm on the hamster wheel,’ and you just keep chugging along. All of it has just come to a head and people are like, ‘This is not acceptable. How did I accept this for so long?" 

Right now, she says she still wants to return to CorePower Yoga to rejoin the special community she was a part of. She misses her friends and coworkers. 

CorePower Yoga is large—operating in 21 states, as well as Washington D.C, all while being held in the portfolio of the private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners. But that massive growth hasn’t shielded teachers from the grueling realities of the American workforce. One former teacher, in the Seattle area, told Defector that she thought she was being paid fairly until she found out how many other teachers at her studio had gotten a raise that she didn’t know about. When she complained, she was told the mistake was an oversight. (Defector Media contacted one of this teacher’s previous managers, who declined to answer any questions.) 

Or Caldwell, who got a letter in the mail on Sept. 11, after she had been laid off, saying “CorePower is writing to make you aware of a recent data privacy event that may affect the security of your information.” The letter said that, as part of an investigation, it was determined that multiple employee email accounts were subject to unauthorized access between November 2019 and February 2020, and that as a result her social security number, date of birth, credit card numbers, passport number, and driver’s license may have been exposed. Before getting that letter, Caldwell received a statement in the mail back in August 2020 from the U.S. Small Business Administration showing that a loan had been taken out in her name. 

At the moment, there is still a $122,100 fraudulent loan attached to her name. She believes the loan is directly connected to the data privacy breach at CorePower Yoga. When asked about the incident, the company provided a statement but did not answer any questions about how many employees were affected: “We became aware of unauthorized cyber incident in 2020, during which we offered complimentary access to credit monitoring and identity restoration services to all impacted individuals.” 

“I'm going to have to be dealing with this for I have no idea how long. And as every month that goes by that this whole thing is under investigation, I'm still collecting interest on this loan. And my credit score has gone down like 15 points every time I've checked it,” Caldwell said, adding that she has no idea what the outcome will be. She hasn’t received any letter absolving her of the loan at the SBA. (CorePower Yoga, when asked about the data breach, reiterated that they were made aware of the breach, said that they offered some support, but did not comment on how many people were affected). 

Finding anyone who could answer questions officially on behalf of CorePower Yoga was harder than it should have been. The media relations email listed on the company website bounced back with a message saying, “The group media CPY only accepts messages from people in its organization or on its allowed senders list, and your email address isn't on the list.” Both the CEO and COO did not respond to direct emails for this story. To get a response, Defector resorted to calling the company’s general customer support phone line in Colorado to ask who to email for comment for this story. That led to a customer service representative, who provided the email of a department manager, a senior support specialist, who then forwarded our questions to a PR contact that was not listed on the company website. The statement sent back to Defector was provided by another representative, a vice president of brand marketing for CorePower Yoga, not the PR contact. Both statements back from CorePower Yoga did not directly answer a series of questions for this story or address the specific anecdotes provided. 

There is an active Facebook group for CorePower Yoga Union right now. The group hosts Zoom chats with former and current employees, and the staffers are working with a union organizer. David DiMaria, an organizer working with the teachers, said they’ve been talking with teachers across the country since late last year.

I think they share some similarities to other industries that are starting to see that they're being left behind,” DiMaria said. “And I think the other part that's really calling into question right now is just safety concerns. Yoga studios are typically rooms without much ventilation, they’re small spaces. And so as studios start to open back up, these workers are dealing with safety concerns that I think no one imagined pre-pandemic. I think that's making a lot of people are concerned for their health, for their students' health, health of their community in general.” 

DiMaria added that opportunity and representation in the studio is a big concern for employees at the company. I think that got some folks thinking about, you know, yoga and kind of like who has access to yoga, who has access to teaching yoga. And I think a lot of teachers care about trying to change the way they see things right now when it comes to race and diversity and accessibility in the practice.” 

CorePower Yoga has reacted as corporations tend to do, which is by telling its workers that unions will do nothing but take away their hard-earned cash (this is a lie). In an internal company email obtained for this story dated July 15, 2020, Heather Peterson, the company’s then–Chief Yoga Officer (a formal title, one employee elaborated to me with a laugh as “highly problematic” and devoid of any real meaning) wrote an email to the company bashing the union, saying all it wanted from them was money: 

A union would bring many costs and risks that we don’t think are necessary. The union can make a lot of promises that they may or may not be able to deliver. They also require dues, sometimes as much as $35 a month that you would have to pay along with the possibility of strikes, work stoppages or other activities that directly affect you and likely our students. Most importantly, a union’s interest is not aligned with our shared passion. We come to work every day excited about the opportunity to positively impact people’s lives through the transformative power of yoga. This aspiration unites us all into a community of people working toward a common mission. A union has no such aspiration. Their goal is to expand membership and make a profit from our employees’ union dues. In the coming days, we will share more information. You may be approached to sign a union card or petition authorizing the union to represent you. The card or petition may be on paper or electronic. Instead of signing, we ask that you give us a chance to continue to work directly with you, without a third-party and their costs and risks, to make CorePower a great place to work.

According to a recent email from COO Courtney Gruber to staff on April 30, Peterson had decided to resign from the company after 18 years of service. Her last day was May 11, according to the email. When asked to comment on the reason for Peterson’s departure, the company did not respond. Peterson also declined a request to talk to Defector for this story. 

In a video obtained for this story dated Feb. 13, 2020, CEO Niki Leondakis can be seen speaking to a room of employees. In the video, she admits that teacher pay is an issue, but says the solution is, "We should just change the conversation. Let's just talk about what the value of being a CorePower Yoga instructor is that's outside of monetary—because there's real value in that. And let's just confront the fact that they're making minimum wage directly but maybe describe the other intangible values of being a part of this community.” A moment later, she asks, “Why do they do it? You know, when they’re so unfairly paid.” 

Clinton Thomas, a former employee who worked in the facilities department in Denver, Colorado, was physically present for the meeting and confirmed to Defector that it did take place and that Leondakis was speaking in the video Defector obtained. Thomas also recalled that the meeting was recorded by management and made available to other employees to watch if they had missed the meeting. The company declined to comment when asked to elaborate on what was meant by the Leondakis comments.

The former employee who I spoke with on the West Coast said, "If management manages to keep former teachers from getting re-employed after the initial layoff, they are strategically keeping certain teachers at bay who are in favor of organizing because they know they want a union when they rejoin." She reasons that management wants people on staff who wouldn't want to organize; that they’re putting people on staff who have no idea how CorePower Yoga has performed in the past.

The road to unionization appears long, complicated, and uphill. But DiMaria says that it's ripe for success. Yoga teachers, at CorePower Yoga or elsewhere, might finally be able to determine what is and isn’t fair in their workplace. Unlike a public school teacher or university professor, yoga teachers don't have their own professional unions already established for them to join. This could be a moment of real change, for CorePower Yoga, but also for yoga as an industry. 

“If you're looking 10 years down the road, where does yoga as a practice end up?” DiMaria said. “The teachers want to be part of that conversation.” 

According to DiMaria, the union started the card signing process at the end of 2020. If they get an overwhelming majority of teachers to sign cards, typically about 65 percent, the next step will be asking for recognition but, as DiMaria said, “It’s rare that a company would grant that.” 

By organizing the union and openly talking to each other about what it's like to work there, Winkelmann said the teachers are finally asking, “Now, what?” Ironically, those in the union organizing effort can take some inspiration from one of CorePower Yoga’s many tag lines: “Live your power.”

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