I used to think I would never burn out teaching yoga. My mentors and veteran teachers would warn me it would happen. I would see the weariness in their eyes. I would half listen to their suggestions to slow down and rest. But I was the Energizer Bunny in my mid-20s and I loved teaching. I’d often muse: Can you really burn out when you are living your dharma?
Now, a decade later, I’m here to tell you yes, you can burn out—even when you’re living your dharma. Big time.
When I first started teaching yoga, I said yes to everything. After all, that is what we are told to do during the Business of Yoga lecture in teacher training. In fact, it is what I myself advised new teachers when I led those very same workshops years later. Offered a class 1 hour away? Say yes. Is that class not in your preferred style? Still say yes. Asked to sub a 5 a.m.? Say yes, and say thank you.
Saying yes when we first start teaching is how we learn about ourselves as yoga teachers. It is a way to get to know what times of day we feel most energized, what communities we feel most at home in, and what style we best feel suited to teach. After many years of yesses (and just as many dark circles under my eyes), I have learned that you actually do not have to say yes to everything.
Instead of saying yes to everything, I suggest learning to say yes with healthy limitations. For example, we can emphasize quality over quantity by limiting the number of classes we teach in one day to no more than three. We can honor boundaries, such as never accepting a teaching job during our personal practice time. And we can set parameters for exactly how far we are willing to commute and for how long. It is not unusual to travel long distances to teach when you’re first starting out, when the experience still outweighs the distance. However, after a few years, it may be time to find classes closer to home.
Sadly, many of us missed the memo that we can say yes and still have boundaries, and before we knew it, a decade or two went by and we ended up tattered and wrung out on the other side, as if having been lost on a desert aisle of endless sub gigs and driving. Mix in the pressure of today’s busy-ness culture and many ambitious teachers now mistakenly measure their success by the number of classes they teach.
“I taught 6 classes today,” instructors announce with exasperation. “I teach 25 classes a week!” others not-so-humbly brag. I get it. Not that long ago, I would go for months at a time without a day off and to be completely honest, a part of me felt accomplished by not taking time to myself. But this “busy as a badge of honor” value system goes against everything we are teaching in yoga! Not taking a break did not make me a better teacher. It made me hypocrite. Here I was preaching self-care and non-violence and then completely mistreating myself.
It is important to note that one of the reasons people teach as much as they do is that it is really hard to make a living as a yoga teacher. So, we end up saying yes to that extra sub opportunity, even though we really need to sleep, or we teach our class despite the 102-degree fever. The guilt of missing class overrides our body’s pleas for rest. Trust me when I tell you that it costs a lot more to get severely sick or badly injured than it does missing one or two classes. Not only is it OK to rest and say no, it is vital that you do.
Here are five tell-tale signs of yoga teacher burnout—and some inspired ways to help you get your energy back.
Yoga teacher burnout sign No. 1: Resistance to wanting to teach.
Dread is a huge sign of burn out. This can present itself in different ways. It can look like anxiety, nausea, or a headache. The body is often quite good at knowing what our truth is, even if the brain takes a little bit more time to realize it. The opposite of resistance is excitement.
To-do: Write down your weekly schedule, including personal activities and your commute. Sit quietly and notice what comes up in your body around each event. Is there resistance or excitement? Sometimes, it is not the class or client we dread, but the location or the drive. Use this practice to get clear on what parts of teaching may not be worth the energetic cost and trust that by letting those go, the right opportunity will come along.
Yoga teacher burnout sign No. 2: You’re impatient more often than usual.
When we are tired, our filters are down. Our skin is thinner and we are not accurately interpreting reality. When we get frustrated more quickly this can sadly come out on our students. I can always tell where I am on the burnout scale based on how I react to people not honoring the rules of the yoga studio, like wearing their shoes or speaking on their phone. When our tanks are full, we are better able to respond with patience and kindness. We also tend to take things more personally when tired.
To-do: When you notice that things that are bothering you more often than usual, try to take a deep breath and let this be a nice opportunity to save what little energy you have by letting things go today.
Yoga teacher burnout sign No. 3: You’re depleted.
One of the reasons I loved teaching so much when I started is that it felt so good. It was an adrenaline rush like no other. Even when I taught classes late at night, I would return home energized and uplifted. Cut to a few years down the road with very little time off and classes began to deplete me. I would feel tired, empty, and drained after I taught. Usually, the adrenaline rush would still kick in while I was teaching, but after class I would be doubly exhausted. This is another helpful scale to assess our life from: are we energized or depleted?
To-do: Looking at the same schedule you wrote for suggestion No. 1, where do you fall on the scale with each activity? By laying out our calendar, you can see if your energy is being used wisely. Are you driving all over every single day? Do you teach one very early morning class and then not again until 8:30 p.m.? The way we organize our schedule determines our energy expenditure. Are there any immediate changes you can make?
Yoga teacher burnout sign No. 4: You’re not feeling very creative.
Yoga teacher burnout doesn’t just happen from over-teaching, but also when we stop practicing. In order to evolve, we must continue to learn. A lot of new teachers forgo their personal practice or stop training to teach more classes. This can lead to a lack of creativity, like teaching the same sequence day in and day out or saying the same platitudes over and over again. Also, if we stop doing our own continuing education, we risk being left behind as far as developments made in anatomy and alignment. When we are uninspired, it is impossible to be creative.
To-do: Never stopping studying, even if it means taking some time off teaching. Take another training. Go on retreat. Do what helps you feel truly inspired. Not only will this help you when it is time to lead those formats on your own, but it’ll also help you feel replenished and inspired—and your students will benefit.
Yoga teacher burnout sign No. 5: You feel scattered.
If yoga is defined as the stilling of the mind, yoga teacher burnout is the opposite of that. Think of the lake metaphor we often use to describe the mind: When the mind is still, the lake shows clearly what is underneath (our true nature) and reflects its surroundings clearly; when we are running around like chickens with our heads cut off, the surface of the mind becomes murky and unclear. When we’re scattered, we tend to be distracted and forgetful. We may miss seeing major misalignments in our students or stumble over our words. We may forget to teach a pose or an entire side.
To-do: When you are running from one thing to the next, try to schedule at least 5 minutes to sit in your car or stand outside the studio to take deep, long breaths before you teach. Your students have enough stress in their personal lives. We are there to help them de-stress, not add more to their plates.