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Episode 127: How To Build A Sustainable & Profitable Yoga Business with Kelly McHugh

Episode 127: How To Build A Sustainable & Profitable Yoga Business with Kelly McHugh

Cait: Hello, and welcome to today’s episode of The Born To Rise Podcast. I am so excited for you guys to meet my amazing guest today. Kelly McHugh, the founder, and CEO of Digital yoga Academy. Kelly, thank you so much for being here.

Kelly: Thank you for having me, Cait. I’m really excited to have this conversation today.

Cait: Oh, my God, me too. Well, there’s just so much that I love about this. You have truly blazed a trail for so many women in the wellness industry, coming to entrepreneurship as yoga teachers and this conversation is such a special place in my heart because you’re in Bali right now, as we’re having this conversation. I dreamed up the idea to start my business while I was in Bali on a yoga teacher training. And there are just so many full circle moments. So I am so glad that you’re here. So Kelly, tell us a little bit about you and how you got started with digital yoga Academy what inspired you to start this movement that is now 10s of 1000s of women deep online.

How Digital Yoga Academy Started

Kelly: Yeah, so my background is actually in marketing. I worked in marketing for 15 years. And 2015, I decided to do my teacher training, to deepen my practice, not at all to actually teach yoga. But I’ve been practicing yoga for a good 10 years or so by that point. And I went through my teacher training and really  discovered that I just love being able to share and did in fact, start teaching. 

I was working full time at the time in a tech startup and started running these yoga supper club events, these monthly events, which really quickly gained some real popularity. All of a sudden, I only just come out my teacher training and I was teaching 40-50 people at these events that were just selling out every month. 

And for some time, I’d really wanted to  do my own thing and be my own boss, but I just didn’t know what that meant for me or, what it looked like, or what my thing was going to be. But I always had this desire to break out of the nine to five and go on my own. Soon I found myself actually doing it. This was my thing. I was creating something and I was creating community. It started building up really quickly. It wasn’t long after that I actually left my job. 

I started up what is now a retreat business, which is called Good Yoga Life. So I’ve been running Good Yoga Life since the end of 2015. Two years into that I decided that I was going to bring to life an idea that I actually had when I was doing my teacher training. So you’ll know this yourself. But when you do a teacher training, there’s very limited opportunity to actually learn any business skills. If you’re lucky, you get an hour. And that’s  what we got. We had an hour marketing lesson, which was basically telling us what to put on a flyer. 

Finding & Filling The Gap In the Yoga Teaching Communtiy

I ended up speaking most of the time and a lot of people came up to me, a lot of the girls came up to me afterward. And they were like, Well, can you help me with this? Or can you help me with that? So I had this lightbulb moment that  just sat on my shoulder for a little while, for a couple of years anyway. I was actually at Burning Man and my friends and I were in the RV and I was like guys, I’ve got this idea that I’ve had for two years now. What do you think of it? And they were like, yes, you definitely need to do this. It’s going through it. 

So that  catapulted things, really. I set to work on it. Over the last few years, it’s just massively gained in popularity, the community is hugely grown. That was in 2017 that I started things. I guess really, it was inevitable my passion for marketing and business and entrepreneurship would really come together with yoga, and my passion to really support yoga teachers to build sustainable and profitable businesses. Because there’s this  perception that you can’t make money teaching yoga or the or that you shouldn’t make money teaching yoga. That’s not what yoga is about. I think for yoga teachers it’s really important if they’re going to continue to do what they really love, that they need to make money from doing it we all need to pay bills.

Cait: Exactly. Oh my god, there are so many nuggets there that I want to dive into. First of all, I love that you had this aha crystallization at Burning Man, so powerful. I love that you have this very marketing business, heavy background, but then also went through the teacher training in this yogic path yourself and realize, hang on, there is a huge gap between this skill set that you emerge with these so many transformational tools to help and empower and heal, and equip other people with the skills and the beautiful, transformative work that yoga offers. 

Yet, the business acumen and the business to get in front of people to impact more lives number one, we leave clients and students underserved because we’re not getting our work to the masses. But number two it makes the yoga teaching an almost dated monk hiding in a cave, sort of a vibe is very this pathway that feels, it’s all about opening up the riches of the inner worlds, but it leaves yoga teachers unable to pay rent, and how you just said, hang on something is deeply not right about that. 

Unpacked The Mental Blocks Of Profiting From Yoga

Your whole mission is about empowering yoga teachers to build sustainable and profitable businesses. I think that is so important. Especially in that demographic, and community that you serve, because it is such important work. Too many teachers, as you’re speaking to aren’t financially compensated for what they deserve. And Kelly, I would love for you to dive deeper into a point that you just raised, which is, the fact that for a lot of teachers, there’s almost this mindset block of, Oh, well, I’m teaching transformation, or I’m offering spiritual tools. So I shouldn’t be able to make as much money or, there’s almost this guilt or aversion to being wealthy as a business owner. Can you unpack that? What do you see in that? In your students in your clients? Where does that block really play up for them?

Kelly: Yeah, 100%. It’s this  perception in the spiritual world, that yoga should be free yoga teachers should be offering those services and supporting people for free. I see it in tons of yoga teacher Facebook groups, and probably in every single one that exists. And I see those conversations coming up for the real  true Yogi’s. Maybe some yoga teachers can offer that for free. And that’s fair enough. 

But my belief is that there are billions of people in this world and so many that can benefit from the healing and transformational impact and effects of yoga. Therefore, we need healers, we need teachers, we need guides that are going to be able to go out there and support people on those transformational journeys. Without getting that exchange of energy back in the form of money, then how can people actually live their lives and pay their bills? If they’re not able to do that? 

There’s definitely big blocks when it comes to  money mindset as well guilt. I think especially if you’ve gone to India, and you’ve done your teacher training in India, or wherever you might have gone. I hear some teachers, they come out teacher trainings, and they’ve actually been told you can’t really make money teaching yoga. They’ve actually been told that by the teacher trainers, so it’s definitely an interesting element. But definitely, something that teachers need to overcome. If they want to carry on doing this they want to continue doing what they really love.

Cait: 100% I love that you said that so much. Because I think that so much of the time, we become our own worst enemies. This story of, Oh, it’s wrong, or it’s bad, especially Hello, if it’s been passed down by teachers that they’ve had in the past of it’s bad or wrong to make money as a teacher. A doctor is doing a service to help our bodies, a surgeon is helping remove these bad things. So they should do that for free. It wouldn’t matter if someone was coming to fix your toilet, that’s a necessary service. So that should be for free. Everyone deserves to be well compensated for their gifts and for their magic, and I love that you are helping flip that script for yoga teachers really embody their worth.

Kelly: Yeah, and it’s such important work people really. If you look at the world today, people really need this. They really need that support and guidance. And I think we have to. My role really is to empower teachers to understand that you deserve to make money, you deserve it. You’ve invested 1000s of dollars or pounds in a yoga teacher training. It’s not cheap. That is a hefty amount that goes into that teacher training initially, and all the follow up trainings that teachers do. 

I ask this question often, how much have you invested in your teacher trainings, and sometimes it’s $10,000 it’s really can start to mount up. If you’re going out there and supporting people, then you deserve to be making that money back.

Cait: Oh, my God. 100%. When you’re making that money back, the impact that you’re making with the work and the skills that you’ve invested in is also a more powerful ripple effect out into the world. So I love love love that you’re sharing this message. Kelly, you literally have hundreds of students and just doing work that impacts so many teachers all over the world. I’m really curious what you have seen in terms of the marketplace for Yogi’s in a pre COVID world, and now in a post-COVID. Well, not post but lingering COVID world. Hopefully soon to be post COVID world. But how the landscape has shifted for yoga teachers and why now more than ever, it’s so important to have an online presence?

Why Yoga Teachers Need An Online Presence

Kelly: Yes, so gosh, I’ve got so much to say on this one. I started Digital Yoga Academy back in 2017. I’ve been talking for some while now about diversifying, about getting yourself online, about being able to reach more people around the world with your message and with the transformation that you offer. 

I actually launched a program, which still runs today, called the Profitable Yoga Teacher. I launched that back in 2018. That particular program is a six-month group coaching program. It takes teachers through the journey of building their community. So growing their community, really understanding who their ideal students are, choosing a niche really  narrowing and getting their messaging dialed in. But also, it takes teachers through the process of creating an online course and then launching that online course profitably. So that’s what the program is about. 

I’ve been harping on about teaching online and creating courses since 2018. There were some teachers that came into that program. I see them as the early adopters, they’re  ahead of the curve, they were seeing the opportunity online. The main challenge that teachers were facing back then, was the fact that you do your teacher training. Then the first step that you take is to get into a studio, and to start teaching in a studio. 9 times out of 10, teachers would take that option. It’s the easy option, get teaching, getting the studios, to get yourself known. 

The problem with that is that studios don’t really pay a lot of money, they pay maybe $20-$30 an hour. To be able to  make this your full-time gig and your full-time career, you have to be teaching 20 classes a week to actually pay your bills. That is exhausting. So I was seeing conversations all the time in Facebook groups, but also in my network in London. I was teaching yoga at the time. 

Interestingly, I was never teaching in a studio. I went straight into creating my own classes, setting up classes in venues, finding venues, building out a little team during all my events, and doing everything under my own brand. A lot of the teachers that were in my network, my friends, they were struggling, they were burnt out. They didn’t have any time for their own practice, they were having to rush around town from studio to studio. So I was really seeing this as a challenge and as the solution, really. 

Overcoming The Objections Of Taking Yoga Online

The topic that I was really talking about in my business industry, Yoga Academy was about getting online and start building your community online. It doesn’t have to be about just your local community. You can start actually reaching people further afield and teaching online. So that was gaining some interest, and I was getting teachers into my program. But then, obviously, last year, when COVID happened I had lots of messages and emails. Kelly, when is this program opening up again, I need to get inside this program. 

So it was really interesting, because the resistance that I had seen, or the objections, let’s say, that I’d seen was oh, it’s too difficult online, or the tech is too difficult to understand, I can’t understand all these platforms, etc, etc. Alll of a sudden, all of those fears  dropped to the side. Teachers in mass, we all saw it, they just got themselves online. There was no time to be stuck in the fear, or worrying about how we were going to do this. It was just a rocket up the bomb. Real energy behind it. 

So I loved seeing that. I loved witnessing that and seeing it in my community. Just the action that came from really pivoting and transitioning online. And I always say to them, I’m so proud of you all in my Facebook group. There was so much conversation happening around it. What do I do for this? What’s the mics I need for this? Lighting, and they embraced it. Which is really, really interesting. I think on the run-up to the COVID, that was definitely what I was seeing in the space. 

Responding To The Shifting Needs Of Your Community

Now I refer to last year as phase one of the pandemic. What happened in phase one, you transitioned online, you got yourself in gear, you got over all of those obstacles to get yourself online. That’s phase one. You’ve got your classes, your dropping classes set up. 

Now what’s phase two? How are you going to move from phase one to phase two, because phase two, actually, if you’re listening to your customers, if you’re listening to your students, what you’ll be hearing is there’s a little bit of zoom fatigue going on here. We want in person connection from a studio, and they’re needing more. We’ve gone through such shifts over the last year. So much has happened for so many people and I think it brings up a lot of trauma, it brings up a lot of pain. We’ve really had to go through it. 

As teachers, we need to be stepping up into our roles as a leader in our community now and saying, I’m listening to my community, and I’m listening to what they need. I know what they need right now is transformation, they need support and help that they’re not going to get in a drop-in class. So what do I do as a business owner, and as a leader, I need to listen and I need to create something that’s more transformational. So really, this phase two now is moving from the dropping class to the online course to the live program to the membership, whatever it is. It’s something that’s going to take people on a journey.

Cait: Oh my god, so many nuggets for people who are listening in the yoga teaching community. This is so so freaking powerful. You just did so many incredible things. I think first of all, teaching 20 classes a week, scramble around model was never sustainable in the first place. So bringing your services online is more relevant and sustainable and necessary more than ever. Especially to be able to have students all over the world, literally, who come in from all different walks of life, all different countries and are able to experience your transformation as a tool for impact. 

We are given this great equalizer by having digital platforms. But then the second piece that you’re mentioning, how we respond once you were online and how we listen online to what are the shifting needs of the community the needs of people in March 2020 or April 2020. When the world shut down and they couldn’t go to their studio up the road like they could two weeks ago, which is very different from the needs in April 2021. Where we’ve been doing this ship for a year now. 

How To Give A Deeper Level Of Service

I love that you shared a very practical specific tactical piece of advice for yoga teachers who are listening and looking at offering some sort of a deeper level of service and transformation for students and clients, but also for themselves as business owners. Looking at building out offerings that take people on a deeper journey that are more committed and more intentional than a single drop-in class, but have more longevity focused outcome.

Kelly: Yes, exactly. The penny is really starting to drop now in my community, for sure. Teachers are getting more on board with the fact that doing surveys and just listening and just even asking simple questions like, Why do you come to my classes? Or what is your biggest challenge right now? Just these simple questions, to start gathering that data and start to really understand who their people are, and what they need and how they can support them.

Cait: I love that I think that is so powerful. And so true. Kelly, I’m curious if you could share a little bit with us. You have built such an incredible community with so many people all over the world, what would you say to a yoga teacher who is in the position of okay, they used to work in a studio, and now they’re teaching online classes because of COVID through their studio, but they’re really looking to build their own platform online. What would you say is some of the most important things they need to be thinking how to start to build up a community and an audience online?

How To Build A Community Online

Kelly: First of all, it’s really just being open and recognizing when you need support, recognizing when you have a gap in your knowledge. Because quite often as newbie entrepreneurs, we think we can do everything ourselves. We think we can Google all the answers and pull everything together that we need. Honestly, that slows us down. I’ve been there, I did it. It slows us down. Recognizing where your knowledge gaps are, and looking at where you can get the support to really fill out those gaps. Understand what it is you need to do so that you’ve got clarity, and you’ve got a plan. 

The first part really is just getting your foundations in place. Have you got a website? Have you learned about your ideal students? Have you decided on the segment of the community that you are going to serve? Have you done the work to really understand what your passions are and what you’re skilled at so that you can show up with real authenticity and speak about what you have to offer with knowledge and with love and with passion? Getting those foundational elements in place, so that you can start to create marketing. That’s going to actually connect with people, create messaging. 

Having an email list building system in place. So have you got a freebie? What are you doing with your content? Again, this all goes back to do you understand who your ideal student is? Do you know who it is that you’re serving? So quite often I see that teachers are like, Oh, yeah, I want to host a retreat, or I’m gonna do a membership, or I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that. But they haven’t done the work to really dive deep into who they’re serving, first of all. None of that stuff’s gonna work if you don’t get your messaging right. Otherwise, you’re just sharing the same yoga message in the same yoga voice as other teachers who haven’t done this work. 

So if we’re going to put on our entrepreneurial hat, we need to come back to the basics. I talk about it as building the root chakra of your business, getting these foundational roots in place so that you can really build a sustainable business. You’re in this for the long haul. This isn’t a get rich quick scheme. We want to build for the long haul. This is why having an asset in your business, an online course and getting into the mindset of what my vision looks like a year from now, five years from now. 

If you want to have a digital asset in your business. Okay, so what do you need to do right now? You need to build your roots. You need to get these strong foundational parts in place. So you can start showing up consistently with your message. With my message, I’m really super clear on that speaks to a specific type of person with a specific need and sharing that message consistently. So this is where we have to have grit. We have to have the grit to show up consistently with our message, not sharing it once on Instagram and being, oh, it didn’t work. 

We have to be blooming consistent. We have to be persistent and consistent. And that means doing the live video when no one’s watching, probably doing that for weeks on end. I definitely did that. I definitely did it during the live video when you feel super awkward, and you feel stupid, but it’s okay. Because this is what we have to do. 

We have to get over our fears. We have to allow our message to be much bigger than those fears because it’s not really about us. It’s about the ideal student that we have decided that we’re going to serve. It always starts there. It always starts with who you are, what you’re passionate about, what you really want to share, and how does that connect with the type of person that you want to help?

Cait: So beautiful Kelly. Wow, just so many nuggets there. I love that you spoke to the importance of getting support in your corner, but also the importance of being persistent and being consistent in putting your message out there and sharing it even when no one’s watching. I am sure you have hundreds of students who look up to you and the platform that you’ve built and what you’ve created and say, well, it’s super easy for Kelly to send the emails or to do the videos or to live stream into the Facebook group of 1000s. And it’s like, hang on I was doing this when nobody was there when no one’s from zero.

It starts with a platform and a huge community that you grow through your actions. I think that we’re all in an online world where it seems everyone gets overnight results, there is so much value and understanding the persistent quality.

Kelly: Yeah, overnight success does isn’t doesn’t exist. I think we have to get that out of our heads. Quite often we’re comparing our journey at the beginning to someone else’s journey when they’re five years in, and we think we’re a failure because we’re not doing what they’re doing. This is why the mindset work is so important. We have to be doing the mindset work, we have to be really committed to that. Because this entrepreneurial journey isn’t easy. No one said it was easy. Everybody would be doing it if it’s easy, right? It comes with its ups and downs, all the way through. I’m having my ups and downs, five, six years in. 

Showing Up Consistently & With The Right Energy

I think as you level up you face new challenges. You face new fears. It never really goes away. I think the beautiful thing about us as yoga teachers is that we have these tools in our toolbox, right? We know about meditation, we have our yoga practices, we have breath work, we know about journaling, affirmations, all of these things. We need to use them from a business perspective, because they really do support us. So this is an ongoing  work as well with the mindset for sure. Really ensuring that you show up with the right energy. 

Cait: I know you talk about this a lot, I talk about this a lot, as well in my community, it’s the energy that you bring. That’s how you’re going to build your community as well. It’s such an important element. People feel the energy that you’re bringing in. So showing up present and powerful 100% and I think that there’s just so much to that. When you show up in that way and show up in that embodiment that can be felt. That’s how you really start to build that momentum. It’s such an important reminder for anyone who’s feeling they need to wait for the results first in order to take the action. What you’re describing is really quite the opposite, isn’t it?

Kelly: For sure. Another point I wanted to share is that from my own experience, what I’ve really found over the last few years –in the beginning, in my head, I thought I had to show up as this  shiny, no I’m not making any mistakes, or how can I put it perfection thing. But what I really learned is that actually when you just show up and you share your story and you share your struggles, people really connect to that. 

So in the last year, I’ve had a lot of personal things going on. I’ve shared some of this stuff with my sister guidance. I’ve really seen that it’s bonded the relationship that I have with my community. When you show up as a real human being with real problems like everyone else, and how you can navigate those problems in your business. So I think that’s been really powerful as well. Show up as yourself. It can take some time to get over the fears of being vulnerable, and the fear of what people might think, and all of that, but there’s something beautiful in it as well.

Cait: I think that is such an important reminder, especially in the Instagram marketing world where it’s all about the perfect grid and the perfect Reels, and this and that. We feel we have to have all of it together, but you’re so right. That’s what builds community, isn’t it? Being able to actually feel you connect with somebody. They’re human as well. So you’re not just learning from this pie in the sky expert who’s immune from the human condition. Yu’re learning how to build a profitable, successful business from someone who also experiences self-doubt, who also has bad days, who also doesn’t feel showing up but does anyway. You’re a human.

Kelly: Yeah, and it’s more relatable. It’s definitely more relatable to people. So I’ve been, I’ve been doing more of that. I’ve been really sharing, because as a business owner your personal stuff is part of it as well. You are your business. So you can’t really just disconnect these things. What happens in your personal life does impact on your business. So it’s how you navigate that. I’ve been sharing a lot of that and I feel more comfortable sharing now, as well. So it helps me to show up better, it helps me to show up better.

Cait: I love that. So, so much Kelly, this has been such an illuminating powerful conversation. Where can our people stay connected with you and find you and just stay up to date with all things Kelly McHugh and Digital Yoga Academy?

Kelly: Thank you. Any yoga teachers in the house, any yoga teachers listening right now, head over to DigitalYogaAcademy.com/ We have an incredible online course called Super Yogi, which you can access today. It’s really about that root chakra, building out those foundational elements in your business. You can also join the waitlist for the Profitable Yoga Teacher as well. There are tons of free resources there. And we have an amazing Facebook group of 16,000, nearly 17,000 teachers in our Facebook group. There’s some really great conversations happening in there every single day. So there’s a lot of support there from myself and from my team and from this incredible-minded, entrepreneurial yoga teacher community. So do come and join us there as well. You’ll find all the information on our website, digitalyogaacademy.com. You can join me on Instagram as well. It’s just digitalyogaacademy.

Cait: Beautiful. Okay, we’re gonna put all of those links in the show notes. The last question that I want to ask you, that we ask everyone who comes on the show if you had one piece of advice that you could give to yoga teachers everywhere who are listening to this episode, what would it be?

Kelly: Belief. Believe that you have something really powerful and transformational to share. Because you have gifts. It is those gifts that have brought you on this journey. So keep believing in the gifts that you have. Just know that if you believe in that, it’s going to come to you. Just stay on this journey. Stay on this path. Keep chipping away small actions, compounds over time, but believe in yourself. Really. It’s about self-belief.

I’m beautiful. Kelly, thank you so much for this incredible value-packed conversation. It’s been so beautiful to have you on the show. Thank you, Cait, thank you so much. And thank you to everyone listening

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Hey, I'm Cait!

Boss mama, wife, and 7-figure CEO empowering women to build profitable, purpose-driven businesses that change the world.

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