The Ups and Downs of Full Time Yoga Teaching
In 1997, after leaving a job as media director for a private school, I decided to see if I could make it as a full time Yoga teacher. I’d been teaching since 1986, always opting for the security of supplemental part-time work to ensure my basic living expenses were handled.
Back in 1997, there was only one Yoga studio in Salt Lake City. It was a lovely space, and I enjoyed teaching one class there, but the bulk of my classes—and the bulk of my teaching income—came from independent classes I’d developed over a decade at a rented space in the First Unitarian Church.
My independent classes supported me well enough to pay my mortgage and basic bills. The studio class, despite the fact that it was well attended, paid much less. In those days, studios split 50/50 with teachers—giving teachers a much higher percentage than is standard at most studios today. While it seemed like a big cut at the time, it felt fair considering the investment the studios made into advertising, overhead and props.
When I decided to jump into full time Yoga teaching, I sought other opportunities as well, including teaching classes to cancer patients at Cancer Wellness House and noon classes for county employees. With these supplementary classes, I was able to live a simple, comfortable life with a little extra padding for emergencies.
After a while, I began to feel the weight of teaching 12 classes a week. While I loved focusing only on Yoga teaching, music and writing during that period, I felt that my schedule did not allow enough time for me to replenish myself between classes. As an introvert, I felt worn out by having to be “on” for so much of my life. It was during this time that I recognized my need for regular alone time, a balancing act I will probably always need to play with.
Gradually, I began giving away classes to my teaching colleagues, until I reached what I found to be my personal magic number: six, 1-1/2-hour, independent classes a week. Teaching 12 classes a week burned me out in less than a year. Teaching only six classes allowed me to regenerate myself between classes so that I could give 100 percent to my students. Because I had more energy to give, more students began showing up. Soon six classes were providing me with roughly the same income 12 classes had.
Fast forward to 2010. By now I had cut back to five classes a week, a number that had served me well for several years. In December of 2010, the Unitarian Church—where I’d taught for 25 years—informed me they were planning a major remodeling project that would preclude anyone using the building for as long as six months.
At that time, due to the rise of yoga studios and the proliferation of teacher training programs, my business had shrunk to the point where I’d again taken on part-time work. (This turned out to be a great thing in lots of unexpected ways. You can read more about blending part-time work with yoga teaching in this post.) Faced with the prospect of needing to find an appropriate space and the fact that five classes and a part-time job—along with musical and writing commitments—had worn me thin, I toyed with the idea of taking a sabbatical from teaching.
Still, I asked students and friends for suggestions as to where I might move my classes, though I was willing to let go if the right space didn’t appear. One student suggested a karate dojo just five blocks from my old space. It’s a beautiful, sustainable building with pristine floors and plenty of space for props. I was fortunate that three of my five classes could continue on the same schedule in the new space; I would need to drop the other two and add a new one at a different time. As luck would have it, this has turned out to be positive. Teaching in the new space has revitalized my classes, and teaching just four regular classes, working part time and teaching occasional six-week meditation series is perfect.
At different times in my life, my teaching practice has needed to change along with the rest of my life. As much as I enjoyed full time yoga teaching for 12 years, I also enjoy the fact that my classes no longer have to support me entirely. Resuming part-time work has lifted a huge weight off my classes, and as a result, lightened my attitude toward them. A regular, predictable income serves my peace of mind more than being able to identify myself as a full-time teacher.
Keeping Teaching Vital
Yoga teaching is an honor. As such, it is a great responsibility. If teaching is to stay vital and regenerative, we must continue to look inward, to make sure we remain authentic to our intentions. Teaching mirrors the ebb and flow of our lives in many ways: Sometimes we have lots of energy and support. At other times our classes feel stagnant. Teaching is like a long-term human relationship: It requires that we ride out the difficult times and that we appreciate but not get too attached to the inspiring times. All this requires mindfulness and a commitment to an honest relationship with ourselves.
A big part of this process is taking time to evaluate whether our teaching practice is working for us, because if it’s not working for us, chances are it’s not working for our students. Being attached to the identity of “Yoga teacher” is not productive. Our true responsibility is not in nurturing the label of Yoga teacher, but in being available to the people who find enough value in what we offer that they make our classes a part of their week.
Here are some questions that might help you assess what’s optimum for your teaching right now. Of course, it is normal to feel occasional apprehensions about teaching. These questions can be helpful in assessing your overall relationship to your practice:
Do I look forward to my classes, or do I feel apprehensive about them or tired at the thought of teaching?
Am I a worrier? Can I psychologically handle the insecurity of not having a regular income? In other words, is it better for me to supplement with part-time work?
Does my teaching feel vital or stale? If my classes are feeling stale, how might I bring more vitality to my teaching? (Hint: Your own practice and continuing ed is crucial!)
I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions as to how you’ve navigated your teaching journey. Are you struggling? Have you found a workable balance?
Charlotte, this is such a great post. Thanks for being honest and making it personal and so real.
The best advice I have received about teaching is to teach from your overflow, not from your well. It’s what has led me to stop and start teaching again and again over the years. When I feel depleted, I know I’m not serving my students. When I’m recharged enough, I start teaching again. It’s hard to stay charged enough to teach and work a full-time job! For me, choosing to take a full-time job was a necessity for financial reasons. There was no way I could pay off massive debt from my restaurant on a yoga teacher’s income (without becoming a superstar, and that seemed unlikely). I did what I felt I had to do. Now that I’m finally almost out of debt, and able to consider balancing my life in such a way that I could teach again, I’m wondering about something else you mentioned in the post–“Being attached to the identity of ‘Yoga teacher’ is not productive.” Why do I want to teach? Because I want to be a yoga teacher? Honestly, these days, I am grateful to be a student and soak in teachings and nurturing and not have to be the teacher.
Teaching at all is such an honor, and teaching full time is intense. I have so much respect for anyone who can hold space for students multiple times a day or week. The time when I was a full-time yoga teacher in Puerto Rico is something I’ll always cherish. I loved having the time to study yoga and refill the well daily so that I had something to give. Maybe I’ll be able to do that again.
I just want to thank you for being such an inspiration to me and many others–locally and across the world. Your wisdom and grace and radiance is apparent to anyone who knows you or reads your writing.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. Teaching and working a job is definitely a balancing act. As I said in the article, I really enjoyed teaching full time, and there were many years when I could count on my income.
The yoga boom changed this though, as it did for many longtime teachers I know. I had a lot of resistance to going back to work, even though it had to happen in order for me to keep my head above water. My resistance came from my attachment to being able to define myself as a full-time teacher who was able to make ends meet just with yoga. That attachment kept me from getting a job for quite a while. What I finally realized is that my continuing practice is more important than teaching. If I needed to take a sabbatical and just practice without teaching that was just fine, because it really is all about practice. Once I was able to entertain the idea of a sabbatical, ironically, everything opened up for my teaching again. Funny how that works.
Thank you for your kind words. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. I hope our paths continue to cross for a long time.
Thank you for your post. I am at a point right now where I am going back to a “Corporate” job after a wonderful year of teaching yoga full time.
I love teaching so much but also feel good about going back to work, which makes me feel even more torn and makes me ask myself, “should I feel worse about not teaching yoga full time?” I thought it was odd I didn’t because I know I was meant to teach yoga but also know the area I live is not at the level of taking advantage of yoga as other places are, but it’s getting there. It makes it hard to help my husband support or family, and with two young children, traveling for workshops is not a great option for me. Although I would love it, I also love being there when my babies need me. Also, the added income allows me to grow as a student and attend more training and experience much more to better myself, my family and my students.
Thank you for letting readers into a part of your life and showing how the yoga and teaching journey takes twists and turns and sometimes we are able to do it full time, and sometimes teaching evening classes a few times a week is great too and you can still make an impact on your students’ lives.
Thanks for your thoughts, Amy. Teaching always has its ebbs and flows I think. Iyengar said (and I’m paraphrasing), “When you have students, focus on them; when you don’t have students, focus on your own practice.” There’s value in both.
Thank you, Charlotte, for your clear and honest writing. Through four decades of teaching I’ve always struggled with the issues and questions you raise—the way you articulate everything is enormously helpful.
Thanks for reading, Suza. I think that those of us who teach all struggle with these issues. Teaching yoga is a lifelong learning experience!