Worried about taking time off from your teaching schedule? A few easy preparations before a sabbatical can help you make a graceful exit and earn a welcome return.
A full class schedule and lots of regular students might sound like a dream come true for a yoga teacher. And it is. It's nice to succeed in aligning a career with the practice you've devoted yourself to. But at some point—maybe as soon as a year after you found your groove—something happens: a baby on the way, the chance to study with your principal teacher abroad, or the simple yearning to take a few solid weeks off for a personal retreat.
"I had only been teaching for about two years," says Deborah Burkman, a vinyasa teacher in San Francisco. "The plan was to be in India for two months and stay in Mysore, because I felt like I really needed to see what ashtanga yoga was. I thought of it as my graduate school. But I was petrified to go."
The idea of leaving an established teaching schedule can be a trigger point for anxiety and even guilt. It's not uncommon to wonder, "Will my students be angry if I leave for three (or more) weeks? Will I have any students left when I return? Is it too risky to take a sabbatical from this great niche I've carved for myself?"
"It's normal to be anxious about leaving any job," says Burkman. "But it's important for yoga teachers to go away to learn. It's a huge part of our own growth and development. It makes us more valuable as teachers."
Realize it is OK to Take a Break
If you're thinking about taking a sabbatical—say your teacher has asked you to join her on a European tour—you should consider the timing. If you're new to teaching or beginning to build a following at a new studio, you may want to put those plans on hold. "If you're just starting to teach, don't go away," says Burkman. "Instead, build students."
But if your career is well underway and your student base is well established, by all means embrace a good opportunity to learn and grow. And, says Burkman, "trust that you'll rebuild when you're back."
The most important thing about planning your sabbatical is to believe in your reasons for doing it. Your students will sense this—and they may benefit from your example. "Finding your highest potential will let you give more to others," says London vinyasa yoga teacher Claire Missingham, who taught through the seventh month of her pregnancy before taking maternity leave. "Whatever journey you take will ultimately lead you to being more authentic, truthful, and inspirational."
"Those of us who have chosen to be yoga teachers have done so because we seek some deeper sense of being fully alive, to experience and share a deeper sense of wholeness, satisfaction, or harmony," says Chad Herst, an ashtanga yoga teacher in San Francisco. "Not only does the sabbatical bring us closer to who we are essentially, but it inspires our students to take similar action in their lives. In other words, a yoga teacher can be a catalyst for students to choose fulfillment over the cautious voices that fear risk or change."
Give Notice and Prepare Your Students
It goes without saying that the sooner a studio manager knows a favorite teacher is going away for a while, the better. She'll need time to adjust the teaching schedule accordingly and plan for questions from students. (It can be a bit of a bummer when a student suddenly finds out that her regular Wednesday-night restorative yoga class is being replaced for the next two months.) But since your most important relationship is with your students, you'll need to make sure that you communicate with them early and often. Announce your plans at least a few weeks out, and remind students at the beginning and end of class throughout the week or two before your departure. You might also include a notice in the studio's or your personal e-newsletter.
"Be really clear and give your students notice that you're leaving, when you'll be back, and how, if at all, you're reachable," says Burkman. "You want to prepare them. It's an emotional relationship with some students. You're helping these people look at themselves and grow, so when you leave, it should matter."
Give Your Students Teacher Options They Will Love
One of the greatest things you can do for your students is to reserve a full line of substitutes you know and love. Then encourage regulars to keep their practice up and introduce the teachers you've selected to pick up your classes. You can also recommend other instructors and classes they might want to try. "This," says James Murphy, director of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York, "is when students get to practice non-attachment and learn from other teachers or start a home practice. The commitment is to yoga, not to a teacher."
See also: 7 Signs of a Great Yoga Teacher Mentor
Remain In-touch and Up-to-Date
If you feel up to it and have access to a computer while you're gone, consider blogging or sending email updates to your students to let them know where you are, what you're up to, and anything else you'd like to share, including when you'll be returning. Missingham and Burkman used e-newsletters during their time away, while Murphy's studio is using a blog to help teachers studying at the Iyengar center in Pune stay connected with students back in New York.
"It gives them a chance to learn about what goes on in Pune," says Murphy. "Last year, when I went for Guruji's 90th birthday, I took video clips of the ceremonies and sent them back for the whole student body to see."
Return Without Expectations
Students come and go, even if you teach 14 classes every week for five years. Time away often magnifies these fluctuations. Perhaps you'll return to more students than ever, different faces, or a big drop in numbers altogether. The fact is that you can't predict what's going to happen.
You may also notice changes in students' practices. When Murphy returns from his annual trips to India, he finds about the same number of students, but they're at a different stage of practice than where he left off. "I teach to what's in front of me," he says, "and I go from there."
When you return to teaching, you'll likely call upon on things you learned, heard, did, or saw during your time away. "The experience of time off changes you for the better," says Missingham. "I found becoming a parent opened my heart even more, and helped me understand more people. It's grounded me. When I went back to teach, the numbers of students in my classes were much lower, but in many ways that was great: I could get back into it slowly and build my student friends again."