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Yoga Instructors Call for Monetary Payments at Whitewater Center

Petition has garnered hundreds of signatures

Whitewater Center yoga, River Jam
The US National Whitewater Center hosts regular free events, like the weekly River Jam in summer (pictured) and the annual Flow Fest. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Each year, the U.S. National Whitewater Center’s Flow Fest draws hundreds of wellness enthusiasts for a day of meditation, yoga and healing against the calming backdrop of nature. The event, packed with free classes and workshops, aims to invigorate both the curious first timer and the seasoned yogi, bringing all types of people together. Instead, for some participating instructors, it has become shrouded in controversy.

Several local yoga instructors have begun to speak out about the fact that the Whitewater Center does not pay them for teaching during Flow Fest. This issue has extended to regular yoga classes that are taught on a daily and weekly basis. Instructors have instead been offered day passes or parking passes for their services.

Those instructors now say that an understanding over “exposure” through promotion over social media and in promotional materials, though not agreed on contractually, was implicit but never followed.

Hundreds of supporters have signed a newly launched petition calling on the Whitewater Center to compensate their yoga instructors with monetary payments rather than day passes and vague understandings of exposure. After this year’s event, a few of the affected teachers talked to Queen City Nerve to explain their side of the story.

All work and no pay

Jaimis Huff is the co-founder of Yoga Coalition for Equality Charlotte, a yoga community that amplifies and uplifts marginalized voices in the Charlotte yoga scene. Through her teaching, she has managed to amass over 10,000 followers on Instagram, making her a huge draw at events and festivals.

Huff was asked to teach at Flow Fest in 2019, but was told by management at the Whitewater Center that instead of payment, she would receive a day pass for future use. All Flow Fest instructors received the same message, Huff said.

Whitewater Center yoga
A yoga class led by Jaimis Huff at US National Whitewater Center’s Flow Fest. (Photo courtesy of SweatNET)

Along with lack of payment, Huff said there were other problems in the lead up to Flow Fest 2019 that raised red flags. For one, individual teachers’ names were not included alongside any of the classes listed on the Whitewater Center’s website. There were no links to the instructors’ social media or their studio pages, she added.

At first, Huff refused to teach that year, but eventually agreed when she learned DJ Taz Rashid, an international yoga festival DJ, would be there. Huff admitted she is “a huge fan” of Rashid and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to teach with him. But during the event, Rashid’s appearance made Huff come to a stark realization.

“It occurred to me while I was there that this full-time, well-known yoga DJ, who flew in from Chicago, who flies all over the world to do festivals … he probably wasn’t getting paid in a Whitewater Center pass,” she said.

Almost 400 people showed up to Flow Fest that year, according to Huff. The event was free, and still is, but the Whitewater Center charges for parking per their normal operating procedure. Huff was disappointed that, while the Whitewater Center profited from the free event, the instructors weren’t offered compensation. She told herself she wouldn’t work at Flow Fest again.

Whitewater Center yoga
Grace Milsap is a yoga instructor who has led classes at the Whitewater Center. (Photo courtesy of Grace Milsap)

Grace Millsap is another local yoga teacher who has taught at Flow Fest multiple times in recent years, and is also a year-round instructor at the Whitewater Center. Millsap said she originally agreed to teach 20 classes at the Whitewater Center in exchange for two day passes and a parking pass. The agreement worked for a while, but then ended abruptly.

Millsap said she remembers a sense of community that included a support system led by the Whitewater Center’s former yoga program leader, Lisa Strickland. Once Strickland left, that went with it. What’s left is a “one-off” teaching agreement, according to Millsap, in exchange for a day pass.

“It feels like they care less and less about us and just want us to show up and teach, and we should be grateful for it even though they offer us zero support other than just giving us this day pass that expires after a year,” Millsap explained.

Expectations of exposure

It’s common practice in the yoga industry for event organizers to expect free labor from instructors, instead enticing them to lead classes for no payment by promising “exposure,” Huff said.

But that’s difficult for the majority of local yoga instructors to agree to unless they have another source of income.

“It is nearly impossible for full-time yoga teachers to make a living wage,” Huff said. “There are only so many classes you can teach per day.”

Despite that, Huff said many teachers still teach for free for a few reasons. Part of it is the nature of yoga teaching. Instructors are servant-minded in action and belief while fully living their yoga practice, as Huff put it. This means they’re always ready to give back, but their eagerness can make them vulnerable to exploitation.

This can be especially true at Flow Fest, the biggest annual yoga event in the Charlotte area, and a hotspot for all yoga instructors — especially up and coming ones.

“For a lot of teachers, it’s the first time they’re able to teach a class that big,” Huff said.“So you feel like, ‘Oh, maybe there’s going to be some return.’ And you say yes. And you do it.”

That means making plenty of sacrifice, Millsap explained.

“The Whitewater Center wants you to show up 30 minutes early, and make a 30-minute drive, 15 minutes to walk there. That’s plus planning,” she said. “If you can show up for free, that means you have a certain privilege … it’s creating an access [issue] and non-equity for folks that should be teachers.”

What draws many yoga instructors in is the promise of exposure — promotion on social media and inclusion in other promotional materials.

For the 2021 edition of Flow Fest, Huff said the Whitewater Center wanted teachers with at least two years of experience.

There were no promises made of exposure or promotion of individual instructors in any of the agreements or email conversations between yoga instructors and the Whitewater Center that Queen City Nerve looked at, though Huff and other instructors explained they felt there was an understanding that there would be “exposure” for teachers at the event.

If that understanding was ever agreed upon, it was one that never came to fruition.

Flow Fest 2021

This year’s Flow Fest was held on Sept. 18, and Millsap was scheduled to teach two classes. Also on the docket was Huff, who initially declined the Whitewater Center’s offer to lead a class in 2021. She relented after SweatNET, an online fitness community she had partnered with in the past, reached an agreement with the Whitewater Center to rent SweatNET’s Dropsound Headphones for Flow Fest. As a thank you to Huff, SweatNET agreed to pay Huff with a portion of the rental fee.

All Flow Fest instructors would receive a day pass, which was the same agreement offered in 2019. But they were also operating under the assumption that there would be adequate promotion of yoga teachers at the event. As Flow Fest neared, Millsap and a few other teachers noticed a glaring problem on the Whitewater Center’s website: The names of class instructors were not mentioned under any scheduled event for Flow Fest.

Whitewater Center yoga
Jaimis Huff leads a yoga class during Flow Fest at the Whitewater Center. (Photo courtesy of SweatNET)

Millsap was scheduled to teach a class titled “Elevate Your Flow” with two live musicians, but a festival attendee wouldn’t have known that, she said.

“My class just had one name, never mentioned my name or their names. And there were never any photos or mention that there was live music happening,” Millsap said. “The only thing that was released was some random dude doing a really unsafe-looking yoga pose.”

None of the promotional materials used to market Flow Fest included the names of the participating teachers, either. Without the names beside each class, Huff said it was difficult for her to promote the event on her end.

“If I were to add the link of the Flow Fest, people wouldn’t even be able to figure out which class I’m teaching,” Huff said. “If you’re not going to pay teachers, the least you can do for all of us is add our names with a hyperlink to our Instagram or our website.”

On Aug. 23, Millsap sent an email to Stephen Shank, an event coordinator at the Whitewater Center, requesting that the names of the yoga teachers be included on the website. She was promised the names would be up by the end of the day, but that didn’t happen.

Around the same time, a few teachers brought up the lack of payment and exposure to fellow yoga instructor Raudah Rahman, co-founder of the Yoga Coalition for Equality Charlotte. Rahman had never taught at the Whitewater Center, but sympathized with the instructors. On Aug. 25, she launched a petition calling for fair pay. It has since garnered more than 500 signatures.

In the first week of September, Shank sent all Flow Fest instructors promotional materials to share. Names were still excluded, so Millsap sent Shank another email requesting again that their names be included.

Shortly afterward, Shank sent every yoga teacher the same email response that seemed to ignore the request. It stated that Flow Fest was “fast approaching and included a PDF attachment with a map of the facility, parking pass information and instructions on how to claim their day pass. The day pass section stated: “Settlement: All instructors are compensated with a Whitewater Center Day Pass for every practice taught.” Names were not included.

Huff, Millsap and Rahman saw this as a slight. To them, they believed the Whitewater Center was “not interested in promoting individual yoga teachers.”

“That was shocking,” Rahman said. “The whole premise was that you weren’t going to pay teachers, but you were going to give them exposure.”

Queen City Nerve looked at the overview provided to instructors for the 2021 Whitewater Yoga Series, which instructors told us was similar to the paperwork for Flow Fest. The overview does not promise exposure or promotion for any individual instructors, only that “Whitewater will promote the 2021 Whitewater Yoga Series on the USNWC website, social media pages, calendar, and other forms of promotion in and around the Charlotte area.”

On Sept. 7, Millsap again received word from Shank that the names of individual teachers would be up on the website by the end of the day. Again, that did not occur.

Millsap posted an Instagram story the next day expressing her frustration, which caught the attention of Jen Velie, director of operations at the Whitewater Center. Velie reached out to Millsap to discuss what was going on.
Velie told Millsap she understood that the yoga teachers should have their names included and according to Millsap, Velie made it seem like there was a “very loud voice” deciding not to include them.

Whitewater Center yoga

Velie also claimed it had not been done due to an issue with the Whitewater Center website. Velie claimed the site is new and would crash whenever links were added. That night, the names of each yoga teacher were finally included on the website, Millsap said.

Flow Fest 2021 went off without any major hitches, but after her event, Huff decided to tell her class the truth about what was going on.

“I said, at the end, how wonderful this event is, that it’s accessible and free to everyone. But just so everyone knows, your teachers don’t get paid for this.” She mentioned Rahman’s petition and asked her class to sign.

Going forward

Responding to Queen City Nerve’s request for comment, Jesse Hyde, brand director at the Whitewater Center, issued the following statement:

“Since 2018, the USNWC has provided more than 1,000 yoga classes, clinics, demos and programs to the general public with no fees or passes required by the class attendees in most instances. This is one method of fulfilling our mission as a not-for-profit to facilitate access and promote engagement to the public through the active, outdoor lifestyle.

“Since the yoga program’s inception, the vast majority of instructors have proactively reached out to the USNWC to learn how to participate or become more involved in our yoga programming. These instructors are compensated for their services in a variety of ways that ultimately depend on the needs of each instructor. Some individuals are paid a flat fee or hourly rate for their services, while others volunteer their time outright or provide instruction in exchange for facility access or the promotion of their own business to Whitewater Center guests. All yoga instructors agree to participate of their own accord and we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback about the program over the years from both instructors and the public alike.”

Hyde added that flat fee and hourly compensation applies to all yoga programming at the Whitewater Center. When asked about the specific rates provided, he said the Whitewater Center does not release specific financial information related to employees, contractors, vendors or service providers.

Rahman and Huff have been in contact with the Whitewater Center since Flow Fest took place. Millsap said she has reached back out to Velie for a continued discussion, but has yet to hear back.

Rahman said she’s hopeful her petition will inspire further talks with the Whitewater Center, and that next year teachers will be offered monetary compensation.

“Hopefully, they’ll create a budget, you know, or something for the teachers, especially for an event that brings a lot of people through the doors,” she said. “Just to pay teachers at $50 a class seems very, very reasonable,” Huff said. ”Offering teachers the ability to pay their bills feels reasonable to me.”

Though Huff has vowed not to return to Flow Fest until instructors are paid, she and Millsap agreed that the Whitewater Center is a great place to teach.

Millsap added that, despite the current debate over compensation, there’s still plenty of potential with Flow Fest.

“I’ve taught three people in that space, and I’ve taught 175 people in that space,” Millsap said “It’s a lot to manage, but amazing. I want them to get it right. I want them to try.”

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One Comment

  1. This is why I don’t read “alternative” newspapers. Do you have nothing more important to report on on Charlotte? Must be nice. What a bunch of crybabies. “They didn’t give us anything but a day pass…” I’ve been to the WWC. I know how much it costs to get in there. That’s more than my fiance (a yoga instructor, for the sake of credibility) makes per class. Did they offer to pay you? No? Then don’t complain when they don’t. I don’t want to work for free, so I don’t. Sounds like this article should be titled “USNWC needs a new social media manager” and then it still wouldn’t be news worthy.

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