I feel drained when I teach in-person yoga classes.
This might be a surprise if you’ve ever taken class with me. I am 150 percent “on” while teaching. I even chat with everyone before and after class. But if you could see me five minutes after I leave the studio, I look and feel as though I could fall asleep. It took years for me to understand why, and knowing this has made all the difference.
I come from a family of addicts and alcoholics. Moods were often quite volatile. As a little girl, I was terrified of upsetting people, and as an adult, I tend to be on constant high alert and default to caretaker mode. When I consider my history, it makes sense why, whenever I hear someone sigh in the back row of my class, I assume it’s an emergency…only to realize they are simply exhaling from exertion. Or if someone asks the studio’s front desk a question, why I feel the urge to jump in and save the day.
It wasn’t until my mid-30s that a therapist suggested a reason why I might be sensitive to people’s changing energy is that I was an empath or Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). In her 2017 book, The Empath’s Survival Guide: Life Strategies for Sensitive People, Dr. Judith Orloff explains the difference between feeling empathy and being an empath. She wrote, “Ordinary empathy means our heart goes out to another person when they are going through a difficult period…As an empath, however, we actually sense other people’s emotions, energy, and physical symptoms in our bodies, without the usual filters that most people have.”
Not all empaths or HSPs have trauma-based backgrounds. And not every person with a difficult childhood is an empath, although it can heighten one’s attunement to their ever-changing environment. For me, my upbringing heightened my sensitivities. For example, being in any large group has always exhausted me. This is true whether it’s a stadium-filled rock concert, a yoga class, or even a gathering of close friends. The draining is especially apparent after I teach class.
People with these attributes can make great yoga teachers. A 2014 study measuring HSP’s ability to read others’ emotions stated that, “the highly sensitive brain may mediate greater attunement to others’ and responsiveness to others’ needs.” So, while the person in the back row is often sighing from exertion, there are times when the sigh is linked to needing assistance or overworking, something we can assist. We can also read the room well before class, which can help us adjust our sequence as needed. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to do a strong arm-balance-focused flow, only to walk in and sense what everyone really needed was restorative.
But at what cost? These gifts quickly become my kryptonite, even when I’m doing the thing I love the most.
The importance of self-awareness for teachers
Hala Khouri, who leads trauma-informed yoga teacher trainings around the world, has come to realize just how critical it is to consider your self-awareness and your own history when examining how you show up as a teacher. In particular, the traumas you have been exposed to, how they affect your perception of the world, and in particular how you show up to others as a result.
During Khouri’s early years of teaching, she felt it was her job to “fix everyone.” Whereas now, she feels that the role of a teacher—and also, separately, as a therapist—is to accompany someone along their journey. As she explains, “we can’t do the work for them, but we can witness and support them along their way.”
Khouri recently authored the book Peace from Anxiety: Get Grounded, Build Resilience, and Stay Connected Amidst the Chaos. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and extensive training in somatic experience, which she describes as “a body-based psychotherapy that helps resolve trauma and its symptoms.” She offers a variety of suggestions as to why teaching might be taxing for certain teachers.
The biggest thing Khouri recommends teachers do is an honest check-in with the question, “What is motivating me to teach?” Teaching from a place of need, such as seeking validation or love, will always be draining. Khouri advises teachers to “teach from a place of being grounded and centered in your own experience, not in the experience of the students.” In other words, you can learn how to simply offer the teaching of yoga as you understand it, without having any expectations of certain reactions or outcomes.
For this reason, svadhyaya, or self-study, is pivotal for yoga teachers, whether you do it alone, with a mentor, or mental health professional. Not only are these places where you can have your needs met by others rather than helping meet others’ needs, but you can become intimately familiar with what environments and schedules best serve you.
As Khouri points out, each of us has different capacities. Some of us thrive teaching in large groups, others do better with one-on-one. Some people can teach multiple classes a day, others do best with a few classes a week. Khouri reassures teachers that “by knowing yourself and your temperament, you can set yourself up for sustainability.” Not only do you discover what elements of teaching are exhausting you, but you also discern what fuels you.
Common reasons for emotional exhaustion after class
Each of us brings a unique combination of life experiences and instinctual tendencies to our experience of teaching. Following are some common reasons behind emotional exhaustion after we expose ourselves to students.
Empath or Highly Sensitive Person
If you find yourself keenly aware of everything and everyone when you are teaching, as well as in life in general, you might be an empath or HSP. The term HSP was first coined by psychologist Elaine Aron in the early 1990s. These are empaths who have high sensory-processing sensitivity traits, meaning they react strongly to both internal sensations (like hunger pangs) and external stimuli (including physical sensations and noises as well as others’ emotional cues). It is estimated that 10 to 20 percent of the population experiences this.
Highly sensitive yoga teachers each experience things differently. Some teachers find themselves picking up on other people’s moods to the point that if someone is crying, their eyes might start watering. Due to hyper-sensitivity of external stimuli, highly sensitive yoga teachers can get overwhelmed in large rooms by lots of students speaking at once or be very affected by temperature extremes. Personally, I get disoriented when the air conditioning or fans are blowing on me when I’m teaching (or honestly, anytime).
Tips for HSPs and empath teachers:
- Clear your energy field after class by immediately washing your hands or getting fresh air.
- Orloff suggests “earthing” as a way to stay grounded in your own experience. Earthing is the act of stepping your bare feet into an organic substance, whether it be mud, grass, or sand. Evidence suggests that exposure to the earth’s electrons may help calm the nervous system.
See also: How Grounding Can Benefit Your Health
Does alone time refuel you? If so, take note. You don’t have to be shy to be an introvert. The terms introvert and extrovert have less to do with our social abilities and more to do with how we refill our energy tanks. I may be very chatty with students before and after class, but it is home alone where I power up.
Sean Gray has been called a ‘lone wolf’ more than a few times in his life. At least once a year, the Los Angeles-based yoga teacher needs a week or more by himself in the woods. While he loves spending time with family and friends and leads popular classes and teacher trainings through his online studio, Vistara Flow, when it comes to processing emotions and refueling, he prefers to “go it alone.”
Gray has also found that his comfortability with being alone has helped him encourage others to get comfortable being alone, too, as yoga is ultimately an introspective practice. Introverted yoga teachers may thrive sharing the more inward aspects of the practice, such as yogic philosophy or breathing.
Tips for introverted teachers:
- Try to make one or two days a week a no-teaching day.
- Gray makes certain to not show up at in-person classes or sign onto his Zoom classes too early, as that opens the door for conversations, which can drain the energy he is about to give the class. Instead, he sticks around afterward to connect with students.
- When I’m leading retreats or teacher trainings, in which I basically spend all of my waking hours with students, I like to bookend my days with quiet alone time. I wake up well before everyone and go to bed the earliest, so I can read and reflect.
Instability in your family of origin
Do you often put your needs aside to take care of others? If so, did you learn this as a child? Melanie Richards, the founder and director of HappyTree Yoga in Montreal, grew up feeling like she needed to walk on eggshells. While she is private about the specifics of her upbringing, she is very vocal about the long-term effects it had on her as an adult and yoga teacher. She learned how to “read the room and adapt [herself] to try and avoid conflict” starting at a very young age. This led to her becoming a social chameleon. Her inability to know what to expect every day (or even every moment) led her to develop people-pleasing tendencies in an effort to try to keep things as calm as she could.
Richards’ hyper-awareness of people’s body language, facial expressions, and energy make her attuned to her students’ needs. All of them. It is also her ability to “read the room” that makes her such an empathetic teacher and earned her the nickname “Mama Bear” with students. It can be very draining when she teaches.
Richards has found that the hyper-vigilance and hyper-sensitivity she has toward others as a result of appeasing others during her childhood can sometimes be overwhelming when she’s teaching,
Tips for teachers who had unstable upbringings:
- Richards pictures a strong, protective energy field around her body before class. She also likes to visualize her guides and teachers standing behind her and “having her back.”
- For me, teaching online, as opposed to in-person, is a bit of a relief as I’m not as bombarded by as many facial expressions or other expressions of body language when teaching behind a screen or camera.
- I like to treat everything like an anthropological experiment. I take note of how many people were in class, the time of day, the location, even the architecture of the room, to see which rooms and classes fuel me and which leave me feeling empty. For example, if I teach in a studio where I have a history of packed classes with high energy, I leave feeling incredibly fueled. Perhaps most importantly, take note of yourself. If I overschedule myself or don’t listen to my deeper needs, I don’t have anything left to bring to my teaching.
About our contributor
Sarah Ezrin is an author, world-renowned yoga educator, popular Instagram influencer, and mama based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her willingness to be unabashedly honest and vulnerable along with her innate wisdom make her writing, yoga classes, and social media great sources of healing and inner peace for many people. Sarah is changing the world, teaching self-love one person at a time. You can follow her on Instagram at @sarahezrinyoga and TikTok at @sarahezrin.