What Does it Mean to be a Teacher of Yoga?
I chose the words in that order purposely. Read teacher of yoga, rather than yoga teacher. The emphasis of that sentence is meant to highlight the teaching and not the yoga. It’s too easy to tune in to all the accoutrements of yoga and equate that with depth. The kind of materialism that pervades Western yoga culture can be an impediment to actual practice. I’m not necessarily talking about the commodification of yoga or the peddling of fancy leggings, designer mats, essential oils or other objects. What I mean when I refer to the materialism prevalent in contemporary yoga in the West, it’s the kind of spiritual materialism that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche referred to in his book, titled Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He writes, “Spiritual materialism is attachment to the spiritual path as a solid accomplishment or possession.”
When we practice from the perspective of gaining anything from yoga, then we risk the kind of spiritual materialism that Trungpa warned against. Yoga teachers in training have a very delicate line to walk on the path. It’s not easy to differentiate between true awakening and the substitution of yoga for average material objects. For example, instead of judging a person by the size of their bank account or what school they went to, yogis might find themselves judging one another by what poses they are able to perform. Would-be yoga teachers may feel embarrassed about the level of asana proficiency and hide their practices from students, when in fact the poses are merely a tool for a deeper realization. In our visually-oriented algorithm-driven social media world, the poses have all too often become false equivalence for spiritual depth. Practice as recorded in edited photos and videos becomes performance, whether we are showing how deeply we can go into a pose or how “correctly” we modify. It is so easy to buy into this materiality and get trapped in a world of form. But to teach yoga means that you have gone on the quest of yoga and answered the invitation to go beyond the physical.
While basic knowledge is certainly important and can prevent undue injury, yoga is not merely a study tradition. Yoga is a path of spiritual awakening. What qualifies you as a yoga teacher is the depth of your own spiritual journey. It is not expected that yoga teachers are enlightened masters, but it is expected that there is a commitment to perpetually awaken to deeper and deeper levels of universal truth. The degree to which a person is free from anger, hatred, anxiety, and other forms of ill-will is the degree to which that person is enlightened. I can only speak for myself, but I am all too aware that I’ve got much more work to do on the path of yoga.
But, yoga these days is growing at a fast rate and most of that growth is rooted in the physical practice of yoga. The poses have been studied as beneficial for physical and mental health. Gyms, community centers, churches, and even airports have yoga rooms. To be a teacher of yoga today is tied into fitness culture. That in and of itself can be problematic for reasons which I would hope are obvious. Body-centered obsession, attachment to a particular size or shape, glorification of physique, thin-privilege and other limiting beliefs can often pervade a fitness dominant mindset. Scrolling through #yoga on social media can be overwhelming. There is a plethora of tips and tricks offered by a battalion of talented yogis. There are new yoga video courses launching every day. Where do you turn to for authenticity, inspiration, and depth as a yoga student, let alone as a teacher of yoga?
When I first traveled to India and began my studies of yoga, I never thought I would be a yoga teacher. Meeting other practitioners who had been devoted to the study of yoga for years totaling my age humbled me. All I wanted was to practice and study. The thought of teaching never crossed my mind. But, people started asking me to teach them when I returned from India. I felt wholly inadequate, so I referred people to other teachers. If I taught a class, it was always for free. Now yoga teaching is presented a viable career path just like becoming a personal trainer. Some newer yoga teachers have reached out to me and asked if I could offer some tips to help them on their path. I honestly don’t know where to start because there is just so much!
Looking back at when I was first a student of yoga, the one thing I am grateful for was the time I spent just being a student. Nothing can replace that. If I could go back and study more, I would. I was so hungry for knowledge and I was a sponge for learning. To this day I still am a voracious reader and include a component of study in every day. But back then every moment of my life I took was about yoga. I lived, breathed, dreamt, drank, ate, slept and talked only yoga. It was my everything. That appetite has now settled into a consistent lifelong relationship. I’m not sure if new students of yoga realize how precious that period is. So my first piece of advice for yoga students who are thinking of becoming teachers is maybe don’t. Or at least, don’t rush into it. Let yourself steep in the practice for a few years before you think about teaching.
I understand that it may not always be practical to wait a few years to start teaching. There is a desire to teach and to dive in to the world of yoga. Life often intervenes and you might be faced with a choice about how to sustain and support yourself while you pursue your yoga studies. Not everyone has the financial means to “just be a student”. Not everyone has a job that allows them the time to study yoga. We need to earn money to pay the rent, buy food, pay for yoga classes, and just generally live. The most passionate yoga students will often want to quit their jobs and immerse themselves in yoga right away. Seen from that perspective teaching yoga can seem like a good option. But something no one tells you is that teaching yoga is hard. I don’t just mean physically hard, I mean it’s hard to actually make it your profession. It’s not like you just graduate with a YA 200 hour certificate and yoga studios, gyms and private students start calling you.
Statistics show that there are two people interested in becoming a yoga teacher and signing up for a yoga teacher training for every yoga teacher that exists in the U.S. alone. Just counting the teachers listed on Yoga Alliance adds up to over 40,000 teachers. There are training programs that graduate new batches of freshly minted 200 hour yoga teachers finishing each month. Imagine that you are a talented, eager graduate ready to dive in to your new career in yoga. What actually happens next? Most likely the yoga studio where you graduated is fully staffed. If you are in a class of 30 students, the studio owners will likely choose their top student to be on their sub list. That may or may not be you. So, what do you do? You hustle. Write up a resume that details all your studies and format it nicely into a PDF. Call, email or somehow contact every local yoga studio, gym, spa, university, corporate headquarters or any facility that has yoga classes to pitch yourself. If you have disposable income you might hire a photographer to take pictures of you and bring on a developer to build out a website. But if you’re strapped for cash (remember you just paid for a yoga teacher training), you’re probably left with your phone timer for photos and a website template. Perhaps you’re a good writer so you start a blog. But what if you’re not? Perhaps you’re social media savvy and can connect with people online to build a following. But, what if you’re not? Maybe you like to make videos and tutorials, but you wonder if a 200 hour training qualifies you to be posting and sharing videos as an expert. Plus, how will you compete with other more established teachers online that have over a million followers? Very quickly your desire to become a yoga teacher may lead you to become a yoga hustler. Your practice may suffer and you end up spending most of your time just trying to find some place that will let you teach.
I’m not telling you not to do it, I’m trying to be honest about what you’ll experience. This truth-telling moment leads me to my second tip for new teachers—don’t quit your day job. When I first started I was working as a journalist. The income that allowed me to return to India came from what you could call my “day job”, not from teaching yoga. Being financially able to support yourself and your studies is a huge part of finding a sustainable way to be a yoga teacher. Of course, you could be America’s next top yoga teacher in the making and all you need to do is post a few rockin’ videos on IG and a vlog on YouTube to jump start your career as a teacher. It’s possible and I encourage you to reach for the stars if that’s your dream. In the meanwhile, I would find it irresponsible of me to counsel you to place all your bets on the basket of hitting it out of the park with success on your first swing.
I took my yoga resume around to more places than I can remember. Most rejected me. I had a standard email that I sent out that had my yoga resume, my bio and some photos attached. If I sent out 50 emails, I’d get a reply from 10. Out of those 10, nine told me no-thanks and one suggested I might come in for a meeting. Most often I would meet the general manager only to have him turn me down. I kept reaching out to different places until one or two put me on the sub list. From the sub list, I eventually made it to having a class that paid me $5 per student with no minimum. If no one showed up I didn’t get paid. It took me awhile to build a small following of local students who enjoyed my class.
When I first started teaching full time I felt like I had to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself. My persistence paid off and after nearly a year of presenting myself to my local community I was teaching 23 classes a week with no days off. Some days I was driving all around South Florida to teach four classes a day. With the $5 per head, no minimum guarantee I wasn’t getting rich. I was barely making enough money to save for my return trip to India to continue my studies. After a few months of this crazed schedule I lost my inspiration to practice. There was a period where I just couldn’t look at the mat. I would teach a private lesson at 7 AM, a public class at 9 AM and be home at 11:30 AM with enough time to squeeze my practice in before leaving at 2:30 PM to drive around town for my evening classes. I remember standing on my mat, alone, wondering what I was doing. With a fair amount of effort I managed to get through 20 minutes of practice before deciding that I wanted to go for a walk instead. I’m glad I went through that. It was like a trial by fire. After almost a year of that hectic schedule, I had enough money to spend six month in India. While that was certainly an accomplishment, if I could go back in time and offer myself a piece of advice it would be this—don’t overdo it. You don’t need to say yes to everything, be humble and slightly choosy. It’s more about finding where you fit in than it is about shotgunning the whole community and being everywhere. This is actually a lesson I’m still working on myself today!
My next tip for aspiring teachers comes from that first group of students that I cultivated in Miami—consistency and compassion. Show up day after day, week after week and be someone that the students can count on. While what you see on social media can look glamorous, the reality of teaching yoga is more about showing up for the students than anything else. Whatever you take on, be consistent about it. People will come to depend on your class for their physical, emotional and perhaps even spiritual health. It’s a responsibility to hold the sacred space of yoga. Consistency matters because with all the changes that inevitability happen in an increasingly unstable world, it is really nice to have something dependable to count on. Compassion is a key element because to teach yoga, you have to meet the student where they are. You have to care more about them than you do about the form of the practice. Be willing to let go of dogma in favor of accessibility while keeping true to the spirit of the practice. Always maintain fidelity to what you’ve learned but be willing to throw rules out the window if it seems harmful for your student.
Last tip for this blog—boundaries! While you want to be both consistent and compassionate you have to be clear about what works for you. Here’s an example—before class I need quiet space to get into my own zone and be a good teacher. The times I’ve arrived too early and spoken with too many people before class I’ve often lead a bad class. I usually try to avoid student questions before class and minimize any distractions. But after class, I make myself available for however long it takes to speak with any of the students who want to connect. This might not work for everyone. Certainly it won’t. At our yoga center in Miami, we had a female teacher who taught a late evening class. There was a male student who would always linger and ask lots of questions, sometimes keeping her for over an hour. At first she thought it would abate after he got through his initial queries. But it didn’t. In fact, if anything he seemed to be lingering even longer. After she told us about the issue we helped her establish safe boundaries. We made sure she wasn’t left alone to lock up and coached both her and the staff member who would be with her in how to set a friendly boundary to the time available after class. After a few instances of enforcing this new boundary the student changed his behavior.
You cannot be all things to all people at all times. At best you can be a good friend to yourself and others most of the time. Setting healthy boundaries admits your own limitations as a yoga teacher. If a student comes to you with a request for life coaching, psychotherapy, medical advice, financial planning, relationship advice or some other question that falls outside the bounds of teaching yoga, the most responsible thing you can do is refer them to an expert in that field.
I haven’t answered the question that is the title of the blog purposefully. I believe that every teacher of yoga needs to answer that question for themselves through deep personal exploration. There is so much that goes into being a yoga teacher. I’ve been thinking of developing a full-fledged 1000 hour teacher training program. Lately I’ve returned to teaching Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga to small groups of 30 in Miami. It has been so meaningful. There is an intimacy that happens when you share space with people who are willing to put all their heart and soul into the practice of yoga. It’s an honor and a privilege that I am thankful every day. I am so happy that you’re on the path of yoga and I hope you find the tools you need to continue your practice. Whether you practice with me online on omstars.com or in person on the mat, it is deeply meaningful to know that I may play a role in your yoga journey.