This is a completely valid question. I'd never heard the term "donations-based class" before swan diving into a more regular yoga practice.
For me, this meant going to more classes in studios. What I found as I perused classes around town is that some had no set price or drop-in fee. They were on a sliding scale or donations-based.
It's About Serving Those in Needs
These were novel concepts to me. But, given many of the tenets of Yoga philosophy, they aren't surprising. Many yoga classes are offered as free, sliding scale or donations-based so that they can be more accessible to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
Yoga is after all very community-oriented. You may even hear talk of connectedness or oneness. You don't have to interpret this as all new-agey kumbaya hokum. Maybe think of it as the desire to reach out to others to support and help as needed. And this is often a higher priority than collecting a cover charge.
Reasons for Offering a Donations-Based Class
You might wonder what would prompt an instructor to offer a DBC. Bluntly, there are a lot of reasons, some practical and some personal.
A teacher might offer DBCs because he or she wants to serve a broader group of people. This harkens back to that accessibility regardless of ability or desire to pay. It's a form of community service.
Similarly, this is a popular way to operate a fundraiser. Simply collect an optional class fee, all or part of which will be donated to a stated charitable cause.
Other times, it's something one has to do given certain event or venue constraints. For example, it may be illegal to charge a pre-set, obligatory fee for an unpermitted event held on public property. Collecting donations off-site or like a busker with an open-and-hungry hat/coffee cup/guitar case could is one solution.
So, Why Pay?
Also a good question. Why buy the milk if the farmer's giving it away for free, right?
You don't have to. It's not a trick or a trap. It's not a ploy to get you into the class and then bar you from leaving or extort payment from you once you're there. (Yogis are really the conniving type.)
It's the right thing to do. If someone provides goods or services that you value, you should fairly compensate them for it. No one can or wants to (or deserves to) work without pay all the time. (Yoga teachers got billz to pay, too, yo!)
Longer answer, and why you should ALWAYS go with Answer #2.
Don't be a freeloader. No one likes mooches; it's a very unattractive personal quality. And not paying your way is taking undue advantage. Eventually it will come around to bite you in the ass somehow. Maybe in the future you'll need something and the kindness you need will pass you by. Maybe your community will suffer because you're draining resources without ever contributing in return. Maybe "karma" will chase your "dogma" up a tree.
Be a builder-upper. Paying returns the support to your instructor. It keeps a mutually beneficial cycle going. When you get what you need and in return offer back to your teacher, you're helping foster community, wellbeing and positivity. Often, scenarios like this actually yield greater uplifting results or impact than the sum of the individual inputs. It's synergy!
But It Says $ Optional....
This is true. And there really is NO CONFLICT. The idea behind the donations-based approach is that you pay if and what you can afford.
If you're going through a rough patch — like you lots your job — then it's legit to not pay. The prudent thing to do might be to save your shekels for rent, gas, food, etc. And that's OK. We all have times in our lives when the purse strings snap shut so hard they could pop off a finger at the second knuckle.
IMHO, it would be bad yoga juju for an instructor who's offering a donations-based class to expect you to pay for the class if you're facing financial hardships.
On the other hand, if you can reasonably afford to pay, you should. Equal exchange. Especially if you appreciate your instructor and the class you're taking — and want them to continue. If you have disposable income, this is what it's for.
But again, it's really poor form for an instructor offering a donations-based class to expect anything, even from apparently well-to-do students. I say this for two reasons:
You truly never know what another person's going through, and looks can be deceiving.
Your personal economics are none of your instructor's biz.
How Much is "What You Can Pay"?
Dang, you're brimming with the pertinent Qs!
There's no good answer to this, but I can tell you both what I give in donations and what I get in donations personally. But bear in mind I, as a single human, am not a statistically valid sample size. Plus, I'm in a region that may have a more or less expensive cost of living than you....
What I spend for a donations-based class: Honestly it depends. Sometimes I don't give a donation. Maybe I decide that I want to try a class first. Usually, though, I'll give something in the $5-$10 range for a single class. If it's someone I go to on the reg, I'll more likely give $20 for three classes, or something like that. I don't contribute to the Yogi Tea Fund every sesh. (It can be logistically a pain to do so.) Occasionally, you'll see suggested minimum, recommended or peer donation levels. (I take these with a grain of salt bc I think it's uncouth to basically tell someone what they should donate. Donations are "loose" and highly personal.)
What I get as donations for my donations-based classes: Again, it varies. Sometimes I don't get a donation, which is fine. Often, I receive ballpark $5-$10 for a single class or $40 for five classes — you get the idea.
From my perspective, I really never go into it anticipating any payment. I'm teaching because I want to help and connect with diverse peoples and I enjoy teaching and doing yoga. $$$ is gravy baby. It's not big bucks but it's a priceless token.
You ❤️ Your Instructor But Funds Tight...
Don't sweat it! Save that for on the mat.
If you want to let your instructor know how you feel, you have options. Here are some great non-money way to let your teach know the value they hold in your life:
Tell him/her. Just say it or send a little note.
Referrals. Forward the class sched to friends. Bring a buddy to class with you. Help build your instructor's network and reach. Offer to supply a testimonial for his/her website or on social media.
Barter. Everyone has something to offer. See if you might be able to assist your instructor in some way. e.g., If you're a photographer, offer to take some headshots; if you're a genius vegan baker, feed your teacher's sweet tooth.
Give constructive feedback. Believe it or not, telling us what you like and don't like — in a nice way! — about a class or our teaching style can be a display of love. It helps us improve our craft.
Engage on social. Like, share, follow and comment on content on your instructor's various social channels. Help boost the audience.
Keep coming to class. Basically, don't worry about it too much. Your instructor probably isn't even thinking about it. Just continue to show up and "be present" in class. We love your vibe in the mix!