The Allure of Teaching Yoga
Updated: Jul 15, 2021
I've had the honour and privilege to work with many new teachers via the mentorship program I occasionally offer. When I ask mentees why they want to teach, they often say things like: I want to give others the feeling I had in my first savasana. Or they say: Yoga helped me with my depression/backache/eating disorder/anxiety, so I feel passionate about spreading the word.
I've also heard people say that teaching yoga could be a good side hustle, a fun and fulfilling way to get some extra cash.
Aspirants with that sort of idea tends to give up quickly. In fact, they probably don't even make it to a mentorship program.
Since beginning to teach yoga over fourteen years ago, I've received so many emails asking me for advice on yoga teacher trainings, that it's actually become a nuisance trying to respond to them all. The inquires may have peaked a couple of years ago, but it's still baffling me, that so many people (women mainly) are drawn to this line of work.
It's not even close to being a well-paid job. I know a lot of yoga teachers, but I know very few who can live from teaching. Most make their main income elsewhere. A fair share have partners who support them. Some teach a class here and there, or only to friends, and are happy with that. Sometimes I've wondered if that makes the yoga more pure, not having the pressure of having to make enough to pay bills.
Despite yoga teachers peddling ease and relaxation, many of us are pretty stressed out. It's stressful to commute all over town, from studio to studio, especially if you schlep a harmonium around ... It's stressful to worry about how to pay your bills. It sucks counting the numbers of bodies in your class, and making algebra in your head while cueing down dog. Teaching yoga is competitive, especially if you are trying to make a go of it in a big city like Berlin. Or, on the island of Mallorca where I now live, and where yoga teachers also are a dime a dozen ...
As a yoga teacher you often spend more time promoting yourself than actually teaching or practicing. Oh, and teaching is not the same as practicing ... just because someone love practicing yoga asana, doesn't meant they will love teaching ...
Still, yoga teacher is a dream job for many. How come?
I don't have the answer. But I do have a few thoughts.
First a little bit about my own yoga journey. In 2006, after practicing yoga diligently for six years, but having dabbled in it for about ten, I was that young (ish) woman, asking my teacher for advice about teacher training. The idea of teaching had been percolating in me for awhile. Of course, when telling Michelle (my teacher) that I was considering a teacher training, I added something I've heard many others say over the years: 'I'm not sure I want to teach, but I want to deepen my knowledge of yoga.' This was a lie I told myself mostly, to protect myself against failure. Because I definitely wanted to teach.
I'm still not sure why though ...
I could make up a story about it being my calling, about wanting to help people, but that would only have been a small piece of the so called truth. As you shall see below, I think my main motivations were way more selfish.
My first dream profession was dancer. That dream was abandoned very quickly as I was found to be quite clumsy and having a hard time distinguishing left from right, in all situations except the political :)
A few years later I discovered riot grrl and knew I was going to be a rock star and/or a writer. Because writing was something I had always been told I was good at. It's amazing how being told you're good or bad at something can effect your life. It proved quite hard to be a rock star, and I decided better to have a backup plan, so I started studying psychology. Now, in the rearview mirror, I can see how all these things I worked at and studied helped me be a good yoga teacher. Writing skills, psychology knowledge and stage training all come in handy.
2006 wasn't a great time in my life. I had lived through both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina close up. I had failed to become a rock star. My latest band had dissolved, and I was heart-broken about that. I was also heart-broken about what had happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm; the deaths, the suffering, the blatant injustice and racism. I feared that I had made a mistake giving up my psychology studies in favor of a Creative Writing program. Especially since my writing was shit. On top of that, after twelve years in the United States, my green card application had been denied.
I was madly in love with yoga (asana) and I was kind of 'good' at it . I know there's no such thing, but you know what I mean. But only kind of. I wasn't exceptionally bendy or strong. Or brave for that matter. But in comparison to how much I had sucked at every sport/martial arts I'd ever done before, I guess many asanas came quite easily to me.
And I needed to find something to do with my life, and this seemed to be within my reach.
So I entered a YTT program, a one-month residential intensive in upstate New York, via Sivananda, which offers classic Hatha yoga.
I enjoyed the program a lot. Even though I slept in a tent with my yoga mat as a mattress and my hoodie as pillow (because it was the only accommodation I could afford). It was also tough, and during the afternoon readings of the Bhagavad Gita it was nearly impossible to stay awake. A few times I broke down and cried until snot ran like rivers through my nostrils, because I was so exhausted.
I remembered being told by an older male teacher while there, that I was a natural teacher. That piece of flattery strengthened my resolve to do this thing.
As soon as the training was over I moved back to Sweden. I felt I had no choice, due to my wonky immigration status. Back home, I started teaching almost immediately. And about six months later, I had more teaching gigs than I could handle.
The market wasn't over-saturated yet. And I did seem to have a knack for teaching. I was appreciated and the job offers came to me. Back then I had no website, no business card, no YouTube videos or insta.
But despite teaching more classes a week than I could ever have dreamed of, I was getting by on way less than friends my age and my level of education.
The practice of yoga is a lot about looking at your own shit. It's about cultivating skilful qualities like generosity, gratitude and compassion, while at the same time being real that we all have a lot of nasty, selfish qualities too. They are not going to magically evaporate just because we've gotten a 200 hour YTT certificate. The ego can be real handy in navigating the world, but we constantly need to keep it in check. I, myself, have a real competitive nature, that I'm STILL working on.
Despite that, there are a lot of big egos in the yoga world. I was definitely getting a lot of ego boosting out of the more performative aspects of the job. There's no accident that among the more successful teachers, we find a lot of former or failed actors and rock stars.
While the mentees tend to give noble answers when asked why they want to teach, I suspect that, just like in me, there are some less noble reasons too ... We all have light and dark within us. And
Teaching yoga can be such a power trip. You'll have a room full of people doing exactly what you tell them to do. It can also be a boost for your ego, to show off all the amazing pretzel-y shapes that you can do and your students can't.
I am ashamed to admit that I was guilty of some of that when I first started teaching ...
Because many of the practices of yoga can have transformative effects, students sometimes confuse the teachings with the teacher, who should just be doing their best job transmitting them. This has caused teachers to abuse the power dynamics and to exploit and to take advantage of students.
Becoming licensed to teach is ridiculously easy. It is much easier than becoming a psychologist. Or a doctor. Or a lawyer. Or even a Pilates teacher. Therefore it's easy to assume that making it as a yoga teacher is a lot easier than becoming a successful musician or actor. Which is true. But becoming a super-famous yoga teacher like Kino McGregor, Rachel 'Yoga Girl' Brathen or Dianne Bondy takes a shitload of work, luck, talent and timing.
But to earn a yoga teacher's certificate, the only pre-requisite is that you can come up with the cash to pay for the training (starting from €3000-4000) and then you can then do the 200-hour training in 3 weeks, without ever having taken a yoga class before. I've never heard of anyone 'failing' to receive their certificate upon completion of the course. That just wouldn't be good for business. And teacher training is BIG business, and I'm not blaming anyone, as just teaching at studios or offices or privates isn't likely to cover the bills.
I also think that the 'perfect' marriage of instagram and yoga -- soft porn yoga asanas in beautiful location with cool filters, have also had something to do with the popularisation of the 'profession.' Yoga looks glamorous on instagram. And yoga teachers with big followings can become influencers and strike deals that give them free shit and trips. Consumer goods and excessive traveling which by the way isn't so well aligned with yoga's core values.
But a lot of what you see on instagram is nothing but air castles ... I know many teachers who barely teach, but their social media and photography skills make it look like they are a globetrotting hot shot guru.
So, while I still don't know why so many people want to teach yoga. I am sure most of those who do are well-intentioned. But maybe it would serve this tradition if everyone had a clearer idea what the reality of this profession looks like. And also, if aspiring yoga teachers were a bit more real with their own motivations.
What do you think?