Last week, as the first International AIDS Conference held in the United Sates in two decades was kicking off at the DC Convention Center, a yoga teacher and his boyfriend were brutally attacked less than two miles away in what appears to be a hate crime.

The teacher, 29 year old Michael Hall, was walking home two blocks from where a car service had dropped them off when they were jumped. Hall’s injuries could have been a lot worse had it not been for a woman from a nearby house who came running to the rescue.

The courage of that nameless woman has been matched with an onslaught of support from DC area yoga studios (and beyond) for Hall, who — like many yoga teachers and other independent contractors — has no health insurance.

These fundraisers remind me of the rent parties that were popular in the 80s and 90s among activists in DC. Sometimes the parties weren’t to raise money for housing, but to help pay bail or legal fees after being arrested in an act of civil disobedience, or to cover the costs for a needed operation, or to fly someone’s body back to their home country to be buried.

For the first six years that I was self-employed, I didn’t have health insurance either.

They all deserve access to quality health care. (Photo by Carolina Franco, 2012.)

In fact, even back when I had a full-time job doing community organizing  in the early 90s, I was denied coverage. My zip code was too gay.  Seriously, sadly, there was a time when where you lived was thought to put you at greater risk for contracting HIV, and made you too risky to cover.

In my 20s, not having health insurance was no big deal.  In my 40s, it’s not a reasonable option.

Health insurance is not cheap.  But it’s not prohibitive, so long as you don’t have pre-existing conditions. (The big if.  I was once denied coverage because a doctor had me get a CAT scan  to rule out physiological causes for my then-frequent migraines.  While they turned out to be instigated by a severe allergy to a detrimental work situation that included a Cruella de Vil boss, just the fact I had gotten a test was reason enough to suspect my continued well-being.)

Let’s talk numbers.

My insurance is through Carefirst Blue Cross Blue Shield. In October, when I turn 44, my monthly premium will increase to $190 from the  current $166. My annual deductible is $1,500; since my insurance doesn’t include dental or optical, I have a health-savings account to which I contribute an additional $80/month. So in 2012, my premiums will be about $2,100 and my HSA contribution less than $1,000, which won’t completely cover the health-related expenses.

It’s far from perfect. But when I, say, have an accident and have to hail a cab to the ER and get six stitches in my eyelid at 2 in the morning, as I did this past January, my out-of-pocket expenses were $700, rather than the full $2,700 that George Washington University Hospital charged for sewing me up and injecting me with a numbing agent and a tetanus shot.

Another option for DC teachers who gross less than the federal poverty level is the publicly funded DC Health Care Alliance.  (Other states have similar plans.)

Despite how costly most people find yoga to be, teachers aren’t getting rich off of helping you relax. At the moment, I teach seven regular classes each week, about half the amount that’s considered full-time.  (I also sub and have private yoga therapy clients, as well as coaching and energy work clients, but let’s leave those out of the equation for now.) Those seven classes bring me in $1,660/month. If I was able to teach 14 classes/week (which I would personally find too exhausting), let’s assume I’d be making $3,320/month or up to $39k/year  — IF I never got sick, took a vacation, or had a work day fall on a federal holiday.  This total amount of course would be pre-tax — and self-employed folks pay a larger percentage of their income in taxes (because we have to pay 100% of FICA and Social Security). It also doesn’t include benefits like sick days, health insurance or a 401k plan.  In a city where one-bedroom apartments run $1,200 and higher, it’s a stretch, but doable.

There are lots of reasons to teach yoga.  It’s a noble profession, one in which you can really see the impact that you make on people.  Teaching is the best way to retain more of what you learn, and to force yourself to keep up your own personal practice.  I love the inherent creativity that I express through my teaching, and the profound connections that I’ve made with my students and with my own self.  Maybe it’s best to not depend on yoga teaching to make money (or to make the bulk of your money), as so many writers and artists and healers have debated for generations.

More and more places offer teacher training (of various quality, as I can personally attest — we’ll leave that to another post), in part because these programs are income-generating in an otherwise financially precarious sector. As the beating of Michael Hall has brought up, liability insurance for teachers isn’t enough.  I don’t know of a single professional association for yoga teachers that offers health insurance — not at the national level, not in the Mid-Atlantic region.

I certainly hope that Michael Hall has a speedy recovery, and enough funds raised to cover his costs.  (Go here to help.)

But the feel-good effects from fundraisers to help a single person won’t go far enough.  Yoga teacher training programs, the places that hire these teachers, and the organizations that represent them, ought to be more transparent about the financial challenges of this path — and strategic in supporting its own, collectively.