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8 Tips for Tired Yoga Teachers When Class Must Go On

Even when you're doing what you love, there are days when you're simply too exhausted to bring your best to the mat. Here's what you can do.

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I recently read a meme that said something like, “Adulthood is basically complaining about how tired you are all the time.” I would have laughed were I not so tired. Life is exhausting!

There are myriad reasons why everyone is so exhausted these days, many of them obvious, including the collective pacing in the Western part of the world that emphasizes nonstop productivity and places little emphasis on rest. Whereas some careers allow you to zone out behind your computer or even lie down while taking calls (my husband’s “office” is basically our bed these days), yoga teachers must find a way to stand and lead others through their practice, whether a crowded room of students or a grid of boxes on Zoom, even when all they want to do is sink into a heap.

Yet there’s a common tendency among new yoga teachers to assume that since they’re pursuing their passion, they are somehow immune from fatigue. Perhaps that’s why burnout is so common among yoga teachers. Personally, I have never felt more tired than at this moment: pregnant with my second child, my first a wild toddler, the world barely eking its way out of the COVID-19 pandemic amid nonsensical wars, all while still managing my career as a yoga teacher. I’m yawning just typing that.

Why it’s OK to be tired—even if you do what you love

Teachers who rely on in-person classes for income usually juggle multiple studio classes a day, which means inordinate amounts of time spent in traffic rushing to their next class. This precariously stacked schedule is often unavoidable since it’s so challenging—if not impossible, to be honest—to make a living by teaching public classes.

That doesn’t mean glam teaching gigs are easy. I was lucky to spend a few years traveling and teaching yoga trainings, retreats, and workshops, and these positions aren’t always what they appear. While I’m sure it looked enviable on Instagram, those pictures did not show the stressors of getting on a plane every few weeks and navigating different countries and customs and rules. Or the innumerable travel delays, heavy suitcases, packed aircrafts, and uncomfortable hotel beds. That doesn’t include the physical exhaustion of teaching.

The act of teaching yoga can also be emotionally tiring. It takes a lot of energy to tune into others’ needs. Some teachers are naturally sensitive and simply being in a room with other people’s energy can zap them. Teachers are not immune to the significant emotional experiences that all humans face, including grief and relationship issues, and it’s difficult to leave them outside the studio door.

Even something as simple as not sleeping well one night can lead to it being much harder to teach classes the next day.

Is being tired part of the job description?

I have heard repeatedly from yoga teachers and caretakers that fatigue is a natural outcome of serving others. There is this notion that we should be tired if we are truly giving others our all. While I agree that teaching yoga is an act of service, I have learned over the years that no one is served from a self-sacrificial approach. Instead, we can learn how to manage our precious energy so we actually end up having more to offer others—with plenty left for ourselves.

Restorative yoga aims to balance people’s overly heightened nervous systems, which can potentially re-energize a person. But it’s no magic bullet. Restorative yoga teacher Jessica Miller of Urban Zen Integrative Therapy faces debilitating fatigue at times. In Miller’s case, she became chronically depleted due to fluctuating hormones and needing to recover from ankle surgery following a hiking accident. She turned to her training and background to create sequences that support those who, like her, are undergoing menopause.

Yoga teachers with chronic or long-term illnesses have to navigate their own healing while helping others. Liza Fisher was diagnosed with long COVID, which has led to incredible fatigue and needing to relearn how to walk. Since recovery is a full-time commitment, Fisher has not yet returned to her regular teaching schedule, although she does offer a not-for-profit class once a week for fellow BIPOC long-haulers. She has also continued her studies, focusing on more accessible styles, such as chair yoga. When combatting the significant exhaustion that long COVID causes, Fisher has found it to be particularly helpful being around populations going through similar experiences.

Many yoga teachers insist that no matter how tired they feel when they show up to class, they leave more energized. I have experienced this many times myself. An important consideration here is to remember that sometimes, the “refueling” we feel after class may just be an adrenalized reaction to the excitement we get from teaching. While that adrenaline may carry us through that 60- to 90-minute class, what we need to focus on are the choices we make throughout the week that give you sustainable energy.

8 tips for teaching yoga when you feel tired

So, what can you do on those days when you feel like you must drag yourself to teach, but you’d rather hide and sleep? Try one—or a combination—of the following:

1. Have a go-to sequence

Teaching yoga requires physical energy, as well as mental agility. This is particularly true when it comes to sequencing the order of poses in your class. Fisher suggests having two to three “simple sequences that you know forward and backward for brain-fog days.” These are what I call “go-to sequences” and they’re ones you could literally teach with your eyes (almost) closed.

2. Focus on teaching what is easiest for you

I love identifying the connection between a pose and a psychological or philosophical principle and articulating that for students. Letting the sacred lessons pour through me is one of my favorite parts of teaching. But only when I’m well-rested and energized. Then it feels as though the information is simply downloading through me. But when I’m tired, that pipeline is clogged at best. Nothing comes through. When I’m exhausted, I personally find it much simpler to stick to teaching anatomy. You might feel the opposite. Ask yourself what part of teaching is “easiest” for you? Then stick with that.

3. Don’t demo poses

Whether or not you usually demonstrate poses during class is a personal choice. If you use demonstration as a teaching tool, whether you practice the entire class alongside students or occasionally demo a pose or two, keep in mind that physical movement requires stamina. It’s hard to remain aware and mindful of what your body is doing and what students’ bodies are doing when you are exhausted. For me, the quick show-and-tell demonstrations when I’m tired are always the riskiest because I’m not properly warmed up. Jumping into a pose mid-class isn’t the safest approach under normal circumstances, let alone when I can barely hold my eyes open.

4. Adjust the pacing of the class

Some teachers, including Miller, who teaches Urban Zen Integrative Therapy, find that leading slower-paced classes on lower-energy days helps them feel more balanced and alert. Notice which pacing tends to fuel you and which drain you, while also always remembering to check on the students’ needs. Sometimes we are collectively tired (like during natural disasters or certain lunar cycles), and we all may need to slow down, in which case a faster pace class may not serve anyone.

5. Use music

If you rely on music during class, it can be especially helpful on your less-energetic days as a means to fill the space and save your words. The notes can set the rhythm and students can be swept along for a ride rather than needing you to curate their energy. Joe Kara, who works full time in the Los Angeles music industry in addition to teaching yoga six days a week, sees curating playlists as an essential part of his teaching. Kara relies on music to “complement the class energy and support the practitioner’s journey.” He often teaches alongside live drummers, and has found that even on his most exhausted days, when he is surrounded by the sound of percussive instruments and the collective breath of students, he, too, becomes swept away and re-energized.

6. Or don’t use music

Some teachers I know loathe creating playlists and the time it requires and would much prefer the sacred sound of students’ breath. If you find making playlists tiring or just another thing to manage, skip it when you’re exhausted. Or borrow another teacher’s playlist from a music-sharing site. (Don’t forget to credit the creator of the playlist if you share it on any online platforms.) Not only does it save you the time to find music and arrange it in just the perfect order, it might help reinvigorate you to experience something novel in your own class. Just be certain to listen to the music beforehand so there aren’t any surprises. I’ve found that unexpected inappropriate lyrics can take more out of me than making my own playlist.

7.  Ditch hands-on adjustments

COVID guidelines notwithstanding, if you give physical adjustments, consider avoiding them on days when you’re exhausted. Placing your hands on someone else takes physical energy that you could be conserving. Some teachers believe that we also share energy when touching other bodies. While this is still up for debate in the scientific community, if you are naturally empathic, you may notice that you absorb other’s energy when they are near you, and so it makes sense that some students may actually physically feel more tired after someone who is fatigued touches them. There is also the potential of being less mindful in your adjustments when tired, which could put both your students’ bodies (and yours) at risk.

8. Come back to the breath—yours and theirs

Miller is a huge fan of starting with breathwork on her tired days. By breathing with the students, she gets energized, but also feels more connected to those in the class. Miller describes breathing with the students as a tonic for fatigue, explaining, “All it takes is to place one hand on your belly and one on your heart, and then focus on your breath gently rising and falling,” explains Miller. After all, isn’t this what we are really teaching our students?

Bonus: Know when it’s time to say “no”

If you’re in a period of significant fatigue for any reason, Fisher offers the best energy hack of all: give yourself grace.

If you are feeling exceptionally exhausted, it’s probably in your and your students’ best interest not to teach that day and try to find a substitute teacher. However, sometimes we don’t have the option to sub out. Teachers who are leading trainings don’t really have a backup to call upon. Local teachers at smaller studios may not be able to find a substitute that day. There are also some days where you have don’t realize until you arrive at your last class that, “Wow, I’m exhausted.”

The financial concern of missing class or taking extended leave from teaching is real. Some teachers literally cannot afford it. In that case, consider asking another teacher to switch classes with you that week, so you have a day off and you don’t suffer any loss of income.

And always keep in mind, that a day’s pay can cost you more in the long run if you end up burning yourself out to the point of injury or illness. If it is possible for you, think in bigger-picture terms when it comes to your teaching career.