Why is it that if you are doing good work that helps other people, you aren't supposed to be paid well, if at all?

In a society that equates earning power with prestige, where money is regarded not only as the goal but the grail, it seems ironic--as well as unfair--that men and women who are engaged in work that nurtures the body, mind, and spirit are often looked upon with disdain if they profit from their efforts.

An ironic instance of this puzzling paradox came up recently as part of the internecine conflicts within the yoga community, a fascinating world with its own intrigues, divisions, power struggles, guru rivalries, and gossip--all of which flourish in a spiritual context as abundantly as in any corporate, academic, or political scene. The yoga practiced in this country is primarily hatha yoga, the yoga of the body, yet by its very nature, it is a form of moving meditation. Some teachers, however, give it a more overtly spiritual context, by chanting Om's before and after class, using incense and candles, and concluding with folded hands, a bow of respect between teacher and students, and the Sanskrit word namaste, meaning "I honor the light within you."

Upsetting the balance and serenity that yoga strives to create, one yoga teacher recently charged that another, who teaches the form the first pioneered, is "only money making." Eighty-five-year-old Pattabhi Jois, a star of the current yoga firmament, expressed his displeasure in a recent New Yorker article ("The Yoga Bums," by Rebecca Mead, 8/14/00). Mead reports that Jois dislikes "other people making money from his system," and has a "particular animus" against Beryl Bender Burch.

As more people devote their lives to work that comes under the general heading of "spiritual" or "healing," and more of us seek such teachers/counselors, the question of payment for such services has become increasingly relevant. A meditation teacher in California worries about the ethics of charging a fee for her work, yet as she devotes more time to it she is more dependent on the reimbursement. Rather than setting a fee, she asks for a "love offering," hoping for the kind of pay a therapist might charge for an hour; unfortunately, she is often given only five or 10 dollars--and the givers think that's generous. To the teacher, it's more like a "tip." A minister friend of mine said this teacher needs to be more frank about her needs: "Putting a fruity name on it [her fee] only compounds the problem."

More and more spiritual directors, whose counsel on prayer and meditation inevitably crosses over into the realm of therapy are also beginning to face the issue of fees. Most who are on the payroll of a church, religious order, or institution don't charge but may ask for a contribution to their supporting group. Those who work independently must determine, like the meditation teacher, a fair charge for services rendered.

A minister tells me his rule is never to charge for any services provided to members of his congregation, but for outsiders he asks $200 to perform weddings or funerals (involving preparation time and an afternoon for the event). "I made the mistake of not asking a fee from someone I met at a Twelve-Step program," he told me, "but simply asked for a contribution. He gave me $25, and I felt like telling him he must need it more than I do."

The lesson seems to be "Ask a fee, and it shall be given to you," otherwise expect no more than a pittance. I recently paid a computer counselor $125 an hour, which seems to be the going rate in large cities. Does a yoga teacher, spiritual director, or meditation teacher deserve less?A popular yoga teacher in New York City and author of "Power Yoga" and "Beyond Power Yoga," Beryl has, through her books, made the ashtanga method practiced by Jois accessible to Americans by recounting her personal experience with the form, using text and photos of her and her husband, Tom Burch, doing the poses and explaining the benefits of these poses for our high-pressured lives. The book also gives full credit to Mr. Jois as a modern pioneer of the method.

By Jois' own account of his work, he learned the physically rigorous ashtanga routine from his teacher, the Sanskrit scholar Krishnamacharya, who is said to have discovered them in an ancient manuscript in a Calcutta library. (Jois says the manuscript was later eaten by ants.) Jois teaches the form at his studio in Mysore, in India, where increasing numbers of Europeans and Americans go to study. He also now tours the U.S. The New Yorker reports that "he has found unlikely fame among the American upper middle classes and their entertainment gods."

In India, Jois charges Western students $500 a month to take his classes, which makes him a wealthy man in his native land, where the annual per capita income is less than $400. I applaud his popularity and prosperity, derived from teaching a difficult, disciplined, and rewarding practice to students of different cultures. What disturbs me is his charge that a fellow teacher's work is "only money making."

The accusation raises an old question of why people who do work that helps other people--especially if it has spiritual overtones--are not supposed to profit (or at any rate not make more than enough to get by). "It's interesting that we say it's all right for people to 'prosper,' but not to 'profit,' says Beryl Bender. "We're supposed to have 'abundance,' but not supposed to make money."

I took Beryl Bender's classes when I lived in New York from 1992to '94 and got to know her and her husband and teaching partner, Thom Burch. They aren't rich and aren't likely to be. Like most yoga teachers, they live modestly and moderately, wanting the common comforts most of us do. They are superb teachers--the kind who make you feel comfortable with your own ineptness and inspire you to continue a difficult and strenuous practice. Their work enlivens, strengthens, and inspires people, and they deserve to make money for it. Too bad that of all people, another yoga teacher who's become rich begrudges them making a living through their work.

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