For this article I talked to around 10 of the absolute best yoga teachers and a couple of studio owners / yoga business people. They are the very best we have. Most have 10+, even 20 years teaching experience. These are the yoga teachers we aspire to be. They all work full-time as yoga teachers and make their living from it. They give, and give, and give, suck up the pressures and are on empty.
Vocation, Love, Giving
We all love being yoga teachers. That was clear – vocation, privilege, honour, joy came through from everyone. ‘It can feel like a struggle at times to stay motivated, but remember why you are doing this – all those lives you are touching – we are so lucky really, aren’t we?’ Or ‘Poor as I am, I am rich in so many other ways.’ Yet even these quotes hint at the issues we face.
Ironically possibly the best place to be as a yoga teacher is not full-time. Running maybe a couple of classes a week alongside other paid income keeps it fresh, enjoyable, physically manageable, and shields from the financial realities of full-time teaching. Couple of classes a week is around 80 – 100 hours per year. I have taught 20 – 25 hours a week - or around 1,000 hours per year - for most of my teaching career: that must be well over 15,000 hours teaching experience. That makes me a very experienced teacher: I know my stuff. It is my full-time occupation and I have been super lucky: I’ve been in the relative stability of premiership football clubs where there is better pay and more security than most full-time teachers get. But this is physically very, very hard (all that lugging around of heavy football players, demo-ing, travelling) and mentally tough (insecurity, planning, constant change). This is the sort of teaching I’m talking about: 20 classes per week with no security. That’s a tough call.
Me and Burn-Out
Yoga was my salvation, but almost 20 years on the relationship is much more problematic. I came to yoga at 30 whilst living in Thailand and Nepal for 10 years and it slowly calmed and healed 15 years of self-harm, food and alcohol addiction, and the mental and physical scars that leaves. In my mid-fifties, with all those teaching hours and the physical changes that menopause brings, I am certifiably burned-out: my adrenals and thyroid have flatlined, my own resources are on empty. Ooops.
And I’m not the only one. So, Is It Possible to be a Full-Time Yoga Teacher without Burning-Out?
Probably not. One teacher ‘I know a lot of Yoga instructors and I haven't met one yet who hasn't burned out at some point! After your first burn out it's easier to spot it creeping in and initiate emergency self-care!’ and that’s pretty representative. Or how about ‘So right now, I consider myself the queen of burn out. It’s not a badge of honour, it’s actually a massive issue because I don’t know when to stop. I can’t stop, a studio needs full attention.’ Everyone I talked to felt the physical and mental strain of teaching so many hours for so long ‘I worry about my physical future – we don’t get to retire like athletes do – arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis is what I have to look forward to…’ Or ‘I just need a break from everyone else’s bodies’ And ‘Our very job relies on expending our physical and mental energy by the bucket load, often leaving us happy but zapped’ putting it politely. To quote Norman Blair (whose fantastic article on yoga and pay levels can be found here) ‘For a lot of yoga teachers, beneath the bubbly and friendly exterior there is exhaustion and anxiety, unhappiness and frustration.’
So why are our best, most experienced teachers running themselves ragged to be able to make a ‘very modest living’.
Too many yoga teachers. Too many Teacher Training Courses. Too Easy to be Qualified as a Yoga Teacher. This comes up again and again and again and again. The number of teacher training courses, the number of teachers, the number of classes: ‘I read there are 3 teachers in training for every one out there’. And this depresses student numbers. One teacher commented that the hair-salon opposite her and the café down the road were now offering yoga classes. She’s been teaching for 16 years and finding getting the student numbers to make it worthwhile now very hard. YAP’s own survey found that over 60% of teachers were finding it hard to get sufficient student numbers. When I started teaching there were maybe 10 yoga teachers in a 30-mile radius. I did a Google trawl recently and found over 100 without looking hard.
Pay too low: Over supply of newly qualified teachers keeps pay from gyms and studios low: ‘I haven’t had a pay rise in 20 years.’ Or ‘I’ve given up classes because after travelling costs I’m earning less than the minimum wage’. Or ‘I regularly see cover classes promoted in London for £25, it costs £6.60 for a return journey on the tube - I don’t see how it's worth it.’ Certainly, in my area gyms and studios are paying approximately what they were 20 years ago – which is a pay-cut given the faster increase in the cost of living.
Experience Isn’t Rewarded: it is very difficult to charge / earn more as an experienced teacher. If I look at the other professionals who touch my life - my physio, dentist, solicitor- it is their experience I value – the hours they have put in which turns knowledge into wisdom. And they are rewarded for that – running a practice, employing others, becoming a partner and so on. Yet experienced yoga teachers ‘compete’ for students on the same basis / financial return as newly qualified teachers. I charge the ‘going rate’ for my public classes – and so does everyone else regardless of experience. As one teacher put it ‘Yoga teaching is becoming less and less sustainable.’
More is Expected of Yoga Teachers: not only do we pay for all our own training and on-going training, book and pay for our own classes, prepare diligently for teaching – there is also the pressure of doing accounts, the administration of running classes / workshops / retreats, GDRP consents plus SOCIAL MEDIA: ‘The pressures of social media are immense – there was none of that when I was a new teacher , I don’t know how I would have coped at all.’ And the feeling that keeping up social media followers is (possibly) seen as more important than your experience as a teacher.
Insecurity: We are Gig economy players – no sick pay, no holiday pay, no childcare, no maternity/paternity leave. We are always anxious: if only 5 students turn up at your class for a few weeks, many studios have a policy of dropping you. A new class / studio opening with lots of attractive offers can seriously dent your earnings. So we chase the numbers ‘The risk with teaching yoga is that it's often passion coupled with necessity (to pay the bills) and I think this leaves yoga teachers in a particularly vulnerable position. The need to rest, recover, take a day off is critical to perform the job, yet you see many London teachers pulling 7-day work weeks to make ends meet.’
What To Do – as Individual Teachers
Most Important for You: Self-care in whatever form grabs you! This has to be physical and mental. Teachers talked about keeping up a yoga practice, getting into nature, running, meditation, magnesium baths, boxing, gin and tonic, match-of the-day, cold showers, nourishing foods – whatever rocks your boat. But do it. Best of all: A DAY OFF EACH WEEK.Specialise: find your tribe and teach them – the old, the young, the injured, the sporty, the business people. Workshops and retreats have good financial reward for a concentrated input. This has been my route – specialism and leading Advanced Teacher Training course. Set up innovative yoga-inspired businesses which give some economies of scale. Health, wellness, mindfulness in the broadest sense are big business now and you are well placed to take advantage. Think beyond the standard yoga teacher model, but be mindful –‘selling yourself as a brand can really feed the ego and lead to choices based on fads and gimmicks because people are always looking for the next new thing…without questioning the deeper purpose of what you are doing.’
Run teacher training courses??? Tricky one!! Everyone I spoke to recognized that there is serious money in running TT courses – that’s why there are so many. But everyone was also concerned about the varied quality in TT and that there are simply too many teachers already.
Most Important for Us All: Support All Initiatives to Give Yoga Teachers a more Professional Status. I absolutely applaud YAP’s career progression based on number of teaching hours. If we all stick at this and explaining it, maybe it will become meaningful over time. Bang on about the hours experience you have and the value that adds to your teaching. Campaign for Gig economy workers’ rights – this is only fair and just and will help us all. Ask for a pay rise. If you can afford it, don’t work for free or super low pay – it harms us all.
One last comment, beautiful in its insight and succinctness, from a teacher with close to 20 years’ full-time teaching experience: ‘So ironic that the gift of yoga which has saved so many of us, and which we feel joy and privilege to pass on, is now the thing that might finish us off!’