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The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

So you think you want to be a yoga teacher? Read on.

By Yoko Yoshikawa

TeachYoga

You think, breathe, and dream about yoga. Your yoga confederates are your best friends. You talk yoga every chance you get. It's your reigning passion and metaphor; you prescribe it for every human ill. Why not teach? Since you must make a living—pay the rent and feed the cat and maybe even support a family—you want to do something that you love. Something that fires you up in the morning and gets you up out of bed and doesn't deaden your spirit. Because I can tell you, having done 9 to 5—high heels, commuter-jammed subway, two elevators up to the 96th floor of the World Trade Center—it's not worth doing something that you do not love.

But are you prepared for the trials of teaching yoga? You teach early weekend mornings and late weekday evenings, in gyms for as little as $35 per class, in hospital basements and office spaces where you have to first move boxes stuffed with annual reports against the wall to clear the floor. You do your own bookkeeping, line up and pay substitute teachers every time you leave town, and you're out of luck if you rip up your knee and are out six weeks with a cast entombing your left leg. In January, classes are crammed with first-timers, fresh with New Year's resolve; by July, the same classes are empty, and you are wincing because you can't cover the rent.

It ain't easy but as we all know nothing is easy. Like any other profession, teaching yoga calls for a particular set of skills, talent, and drive.

Do You Have the Right Stuff?
I graduated in 1996 from three years in a teacher-training program, and became a full-time yoga teacher in 1999. I teach eight classes per week in yoga studios, one at a health club, another at an office, and I volunteer-teach every other week at a federal women's prison. Teaching yoga is the best job I have ever had, but it has required good contacts, luck, tenacity, and determination.

Like most people, I did not start practicing yoga with the idea that I would teach. Yoga as a practice was challenge enough. I come from a family that values intellect, a child of Japanese immigrants who use the body to cart the brain from place to place. Yoga was a door to experiencing my body in ways I had only vaguely sensed before, both kinesthetically and intuitively. My first two years of yoga were an emotional roller-coaster, as I foundered among feelings I hardly understood, previously buried deep in my body. I fell into teaching when a classmate of mine from the Piedmont Yoga Studio Advanced Studies program in Oakland, California, asked me to substitute teach her yoga class for six weeks. I had a lot of fun doing it, the students in the class seemed really grateful—in fact they told me I was a good teacher—and this is what made me think maybe I had stumbled into something I wanted to keep doing.

But teaching has not come easy. To teach yoga, you must be true to your understanding of the practice. This requires maturity, honesty, and faith. In the beginning, I parroted instructions from my teacher. As I taught more, I grew more confident, and developed a voice of my own, conducting classes with distinct narratives and themes, ranging widely in tone—from fierce and fiery to fluid and gentle, laced with philosophy and poetry. Even now, however, I succumb to attacks of self-doubt. I go through changes in my own practice and thinking which affect my teaching. Ceaselessly, I ask myself: How do I most effectively communicate what I understand and see?

To teach yoga well, you must be passionately engaged in it as a personal practice. T.K.V. Desikachar writes in Health, Healing and Beyond: Yoga and the Living Tradition of Krishnamacharya, "A teacher of Yoga should live a life of Yoga—to practice what is taught." And that, he says, is to engage in "continuous practice and self-study." Teaching yoga is a form of tapas, a discipline that requires you to live with as much integrity and compassion as you can muster.

A love for yoga, and a commitment to the practice, is the first prerequisite for any yoga teacher. However, the fact that you love yoga does not mean that you should teach. A well-known yoga teacher once said to a small group of yoga students (one of whom was me) that the worst thing you could do to your yoga practice was to become a teacher. That was bad news, as I was already teaching. I believe she meant that teaching can hamper, possibly even undermine your development as a yogi. Richard Freeman, the well-known Boulder, Colorado-based Ashtanga Yoga teacher, speaks to those concerns when he states that receiving money and gaining devoted students and status can lead to the inflation of one's ego. This, in turn "...can get in the way of your own practice, which is the greatest teaching tool you have. To be a good teacher you have to teach from your experience."

Thankfully, you do not have to be enlightened—yet. Desikachar writes, "Like all individuals, teachers of Yoga will exhibit every conceivable kind of personality, temperament, and human problems. They experience failed marriages, personal suffering, and stress." I teach as one person on this side of the veil speaking to another on this side of the veil.

One day, I taught class while still battered by the ill effects of having downed a pint of Haagen-Dazs ice cream for breakfast the day before. We started quietly. As my students lay on the floor, sensing their breathing, I told them about the binge: how driven I was by craving, how dull after indulging it—and how reassuring, even redemptive, it was to practice afterwards, in accordance with my body's needs. "You start where you are," I concluded, "The practice will meet you there." In the subsequent weeks, two students separately mentioned that story; it heartened them to know that I, too, was subject to such runaway hungers.

If you do not think that you should be a yoga teacher because you are too old, fat, clumsy, or stiff, think again. Almost invariably, the best teachers are the ones who had the most difficulty learning. They have struggled with yoga, and have the compassion and empathy that enables them to most effectively help others who struggle, too. Raleigh Wills, a businessman-cum-yoga teacher in Oakland, began yoga at age 54, after being diagnosed with a severe arthritic condition. One of the most extraordinary moments of our training program was when Wills demonstrated a gorgeous Ardha Matsyendrasana, the seated twist, propped up high with blankets and blocks. In his stiff, dense, fire-plug body, you could see the twist unfurling, vertebra by vertebra. Now over 60, Wills teaches and inspires people who otherwise might not do yoga because they would be intimidated in a class filled with the young and flexible.

If you are fearful that you will not be able to teach because your area is chock-full of teachers, develop an area of specialty. The San Francisco Bay Area is teeming with good yoga teachers. When JoAnn Lyons elected to settle in the Bay Area, she began volunteering her time and skills to teach yoga to people with cerebral palsy. Now, four years later, she teaches four classes a week to people with disabilities and is training yoga teachers around the country to work with the disabled. Her decision to work with the disabled springs from a genuine interest and commitment and has led to economically viable work.

Teaching yoga, you learn to be many-eyed and multihanded, holding a class as one might hold a live garter snake, loose but sure, as it slips slithery-quick through your fingers. You work on several different levels simultaneously: following a sequence, plumbing a theme, focusing the students on the asana at hand, watching to prevent injury, instructing individuals specifically, and adjusting those whom touch helps. You learn to see limbs and joints through clothing, and to touch in a way that elicits and supports. Your mind becomes more facile, as it slides from the specific ("turn your left foot in, Peggy!") to the global (a quote from the Yoga Sutra). You get creative, trying different methods to foster learning. On Monday, you start low to the ground, to drop them into a quiet, meditative space; on Tuesday, you launch class with the history and philosophical principles of yoga. You try visual aids: I bring in a model of a pelvis to show the students where the sacroiliac joint is and how the thigh bones rotate in the hip sockets. Demonstrating helps, because many people see far better than they hear.

If you fear that you can't teach yoga because you are timid, know that shyness presents a challenge but is not insurmountable. Being reclusive is not really a problem either, as you can claim chunks of time for solitary practice. What is harder is if you are unreliable or disorganized, misanthropic, sexist, self-centered, emotionally volatile, dismissive, unobservant, inarticulate, or incapable of listening. Most people study yoga to gain insight and tools for self-care. If they feel slighted or unsafe in your class, they do not come back.

But teaching is a tapas—a fire that burns away impurities. It can burn away your impurities, particularly in the realm of relationships with others. You can no longer remain blind to how your attitudes prevent openness and trust. You learn to see, care for, and appreciate your students as individuals with struggles and questions not unlike your own. Teaching can help you become a better person.

Do You Relate to Students?
One of the best aspects of teaching yoga is creating a community of like-minded yoga practitioners. As you teach, students show up and sometimes stay, attending one, two, even three or four classes a week. Gradually, you develop relationships that become friendships, and span years.

But first, you must become firm where before you were soft. On the one hand, you must be open to your students, utterly sensitive and caring; on the other, you must develop and maintain a sense of boundaries. Teaching yoga, you work with another being who is similar to you but ultimately foreign. He or she will embody and carry on the practice of yoga in a way that will be distinctly different from yours. And this should not be cause for offense. You do not teach to be patted on the back.

To be a good yoga teacher, you have to care about two things: the student and the practice. It is easy to love the practice; that does not change. But sometimes, it can be hard to care for the students—they come in such a variety of shapes and attitudes. There is the student who nurses one injury after another, but comes to class anyway, creating a black hole of inertia as he sits and watches everyone else. There is the student who lobs half a dozen questions at you in the first half-hour of class. There is the student who gets up and leaves in the middle of class and never returns. The student who sighs loudly and moves quickly, impatiently, presumably because she's bored. The student who cannot connect what you are saying to his body. Even though you know it is futile, you find yourself saying the same thing over and over again, getting louder as you go.

But these students are new, and as time goes by, they inevitably get better or leave. Tim Thompson, director of Monkey Yoga Shala in Oakland, California, once said (with manifest faith in the market economy) that a good yoga teacher will get students and a bad teacher won't. Although that statement is a little sweeping for my taste, it is true that one can judge a yoga teacher by the quality of her or his students: A good yoga teacher has good students, a bad one does not. What makes a student "good," of course, is highly debatable. I consider a good student to be one who is dedicated and focused, and working with clear and consistent intent. The students who become problematic are the ones who inadvertently "trigger" your reactions. In your mind, these are the students who betray you by studying with your rival, who abandon you by moving on, who "dis" you by doing better and not acknowledging what you consider to be your profound influence on their yoga.

A student-teacher relationship can become an intricate and charged dance. If you develop strong relationships with your students, there will almost assuredly be a student around whom a constellation of emotions—anger, jealousy, envy, attraction, fear—will arise at some point during your career. As the teacher, it is your responsibility to handle the feelings you have and not dump them on your student. If you cannot do that by yourself, you find support elsewhere. This is not to say that you cannot speak to students to let them know how their actions are affecting you. But do not expect your students to take care of you. When you can start expecting and receiving that from a student, she or he is no longer your student, but has become a friend.

Can You Make a Living?
Yoga has made it to the mainstream. In this era of aging Baby Boomers and professional overdrive, yoga has moved out of the studio to fit into American lives. Classes are held in hospitals, health clubs, and at lunch hour in corporate buildings. Teaching yoga certainly seems like a safe long-term bet as far as occupations go—right up there with gerontology and physical therapy.

According to Larry Payne, Ph.D., who has just produced a manual called The Business of Teaching Yoga, there are full-time yoga teachers who are grossing more than $100,000 a year. A select few are making more than $200,000, he claims, although the majority gross $25,000 to $50,000. Remember, however, that this is like the stock market. Because other people are doing well, it does not ipso facto mean that you will. You should not become a yoga teacher for the money.

You have no doubt heard the New Age dictum, "Do what you love, the money will follow." To that snappy line I would add a clunkier second: Love what you do enough to do it well; be strategic and committed. Go into teaching for the long haul and for the love of the practice. Rodney Yee started teaching in the mid-1980s, ready to wait tables if necessary so long as he could teach yoga. A decade and a half later, he and his wife Donna Fone have a thriving business with part-time employees, under the aegis of which falls the Piedmont Yoga Studio and Yee's videos, retreats, and workshops. Their success is almost entirely due to Yee's talent, Fone's organizing acumen, and their close working partnership.

To be a yoga teacher you must first be willing to be self-employed. If you have dependents or debt, self-employment can seem too risky. Do not lose heart, but proceed more cautiously. Keep your day job and start slowly, with one or two classes. It helps to be organized and to have some business experience, but you can learn the rudiments of bookkeeping easily with a book or helpful friend. There are many accounting software programs of course, but I for one am still using the same ledger I started with four years ago. I just ink in my income and expenses every day and total it in April for my accountant.

People who become yoga teachers tend to be a maverick lot. Teaching yoga, by its very nature, places one outside mainstream work schedules and employment structures. A yoga teacher works odd hours—early morning, lunch hour, weekday evenings, and weekends. Venues vary—from yoga studios to health clubs to hospitals (teaching both staff and patients), offices, community centers, and churches. Some institutions may pay you as an employee while others will treat you as an independent contractor. You are almost always responsible for health and liability insurance, bookkeeping, and quarterly self-employment taxes, however. And you do not have a vacation until you believe you can afford it.

There are basically two ways to receive payment for teaching as an independent contractor. You may be paid for the class (the method preferred by health clubs) or collect class fees from students and pay rent. Each has its benefits. If you are paid by the class, you walk away with a set amount of money (ranging from $30 to $75 per class at health clubs), even if only two people show up. If you pay rent on the room, you may earn more than $100 in one class with high attendance. On the other hand, there may be days you cannot cover rent because only one student showed up.

The first months and sometimes years of teaching can be the leanest and most discouraging. You might cast yourself in a romantic light as itinerant bard or tinker, while you travel from office to health club to yoga studio, lugging mats and straps and foam bricks in the trunk, subbing everywhere in the effort to build a solid home base and income. As time goes by, you may secure a few classes at prime time in thriving venues. You might even lead yoga retreats to lovely rustic getaways, satisfying your wanderlust and getting paid for it. With your public classes as beachhead, you can build a hefty roster of students and a better accounting system. Then you may be ready to open your own studio.

But a yoga studio presents its own headaches and joys and is not for everyone. On the plus side, with a studio it is possible to make more money if you plan it right. You can give yourself good teaching spots and rent to your peers. You can sell props and books, invite guest teachers for workshops, and sponsor weekend events. If you are community-oriented, you may have just established a new spot to form long-term friendships. On the negative side, you have just doubled if not tripled your administrative and fiscal responsibilities. Be wary of this. The more you work in the office, the less time you have to practice and have a life.

Is Teaching Your Calling?
If you are attached to the solitude of the practice, do not teach. When practicing yoga, you drop down to deep and wordless realms. It is like scuba diving. You swim silently in green filtered light, watching bubbles, fish, and sand rippling away into darkness. Teaching yoga is like introducing others to the splendor of diving. First you coax them to try on a mask and snorkel, and splash around in the shallows with flippers. Eventually, you take a few trial group dives. It's not easy. The water is stirred up, and fish flee. Some of your group is nervous, others overly adventurous. You impose rules to keep the group together and safe; you are busy and vigilant. As time goes by, you worry less and play more, together—but it feels different. Even when you go out diving by yourself, you catch yourself cataloging things—fish, coral, seaweed, and currents—mapping this world for others.

Teaching yoga is its own practice, distinct from the practice of yoga. Your objective is to transmit yoga as fully and clearly as possible to the people with you, who wish to learn—right now, in their imperfections, as you stand in yours. So you develop teaching muscles, seeking to inspire and listen. You learn to communicate, facilitate, and collaborate.

If you are sincere and open, teaching will cook you: You become a better teacher as you do it more. You will probably teach a number of classes that are less than par, but that is how you learn. Teaching cures you of perfectionism. By now, when I feel badly about a class, I wash my hands and remind myself that no one died.

If all else fails, I remember what an anonymous teacher once said in the pages of this magazine years ago: "I've been teaching 10 years, and only now do I feel like I am really teaching." I am in this for the long haul.

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Reader Comments

Josie

Feeling insecure about teaching, and am bolstered by your lovely article. Love the scuba analogy. Thank you.

Jyoti Bablani

I'm a new teacher as well, and loved every bit of your article, so informative and inspiring ....

susan

Great article. Tells it how it is. I have been teaching for 2 years here in Switzerland and each season is a different scenario, low or high numbers, different rental contracts, different student objectives, etc. You really have to live the yoga you teach and be open to the lessons
it teaches and never give up when things just don,t seem to be going the way you want. Every day I start the day wanting thinking corporate life would be easier with its predictability and then my students remind me why I ga ve it all up to teach. It is for me the hardest job I have had but the one I have loved the most!

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