I began teaching yoga in 1986 and have taught continuously since then. For the first 11 years of my teaching career I had either a full-time job or later, a part-time job. When I left my job managing publications for a private school in 1997, I decided to take a leap of faith and not look for another job outside of yoga teaching.
Over the span of more than a decade, my classes had become stable and consistent—certainly not huge by today’s standards. But my classes were as large as I wanted them to be, 15 to 25 students, a size I find manageable that allows me to spend time with each person. And as an independent teacher, I was not giving most of the class income to a studio. After reconciling my budget with my income, I decided the risk of not taking on another job was one I could manage.
Over the next 11 years, my teaching income paid my bills and allowed me to take one or two workshops and retreats each year. It was enough for the simple life I lead.
Yoga Boom Spells Doom
Then came the yoga boom. You might think that an experienced, well-established teacher would only benefit from the exponentially increased interest in yoga. But this has not been the case. With the increased interest in yoga came an influx of new studios. Gyms began offering yoga as part of their membership packages. With the studios came quick trainings that have turned out thousands of new teachers into the community. The yoga these teachers offer—fast-paced, sweaty, flow classes—appeals far more to the mainstream than more traditional, meditative, Hatha-based classes.
I’m immeasurably grateful for the loyalty of my students, most of whom have been coming to class from five to 20 or more years. But when some of these students inevitably moved away or experienced a change in home or work situations that prevented them from coming to class, they were no longer being replaced by new students. New students, curious about the yoga phenomenon now sought low-priced gym classes or the convenience, and they wanted to raise their heart rates and get sweaty. Over three years, my classes dwindled to the point where there was barely anything left after expenses.
I felt humiliated at having to look for part-time work after a decade of being able to support myself teaching yoga. I was humiliated every time I heard about novice teachers filling a studio to capacity and proceeding to injure people. I thought about going back to school, but when I did the numbers I realized I’d be paying off my debt into my 70s. Not an option. Without a financial safety net I had no other choice but to look for work.
My grief at my perceived failure as a yoga teacher—despite my decades-long dedication to practice—was overwhelming at times. I so love teaching and the small community that has formed around my classes that I didn’t want to quit, but I felt boxed in. My practical nature dictated that I look for work. If I found part-time work, I could continue teaching. If full-time work was all that was available, I would entertain the possibility of quitting teaching altogether, and in a strange and unpredictable way, I was okay with that.
The Freedom of Employment
Much to my surprise, reentering the world of employment was a multifaceted blessing. About 10 years ago, my longtime friends at Hugger Mugger invited me to manage their blog part time, and I have enjoyed working for them since then. About four years ago, I began writing and editing for YogaUOnline, which has been fun and edifying. I get to learn on the job as I read informative articles by a variety of experts in the field of yoga and anatomy.
Having a predictable income has been a relief. Now that my financial well-being is no longer dependent on how many people came to class, I can relax and enjoy my classes more. And guess what? More students started showing up. In 2013, I found a lovely space to share with other longtime yoga teachers. We call it Mindful Yoga Collective. We consider it to be a “boutique” studio, where students can enjoy small classes and lots of quality attention from our teachers.
The Renewal of Letting Go
In retrospect, I think the most important thing that renewed my teaching and classes was being willing to let it all go—with positive acceptance. Clinging to being a yoga teacher is no healthier than clinging to any other identity we make up for ourselves. For now, it seems I am still meant to teach, and I’m grateful for this. I’m grateful for all I’ve learned from my small sangha, and glad that it remains modest, casual and welcoming.
Teaching yoga is not an easy way to make a living, especially now with so many new teachers entering the world of teaching every day. Teaching requires commitment, patience and a willingness to keep your day job, maybe throughout your teaching career. But for those of us who stick with it, it is incomparably rewarding, and its only gotten more so as the years pass and my own practice has softened and deepened.
What challenges have you faced as a yoga teacher? How do you envision your teaching life in the next few years?
Absolutely brilliantly written, Charlotte. You expounded on what I wrote about in a way that I can completely resonate with. As a fellow Iyengar-style teacher who has been teaching for almost fourteen years, I have definitely noticed the difference that the yoga boom has made on class size. And having just moved to a new town four months ago, I am feeling all over again what it is to build from scratch.
Your story of letting the identity of yoga teacher go and finding a “day job,” only to discover that your yoga teaching blossoms again rings true, too.
I’ve already sensed a spaciousness around my teaching, and I have to say–I LOVE my day job. It’s so good to be out in the world talking with people–not sitting at home writing or being in the role of teacher all the time. And the cool thing is, I’ve found that all the skills I have as a yoga teacher, all the things I love about connecting with students, it happens no matter what I’m doing.
Thank you for being a role model for sticking through it, for being dedicated as a student, as a teacher and as a writer. Many blessings to you!
Hi, Jay. Thanks for your comment and for the blog that inspired me to write my own story. Your story rings true in so many ways for me. I could really relate to the sense of humiliation you talk about in your blog. It was especially hard for me to feel like I had to go out and “sell” my classes again after so many years. I’m not the best self-promoter to begin with, and I just didn’t have the will or the financial power to compete with the studios and gyms.
I really am grateful to have another job that allows me to get out of my own head and take myself less seriously. As you say, there’s a spaciousness around my teaching that I didn’t feel when I was just teaching yoga, especially later on.
Thank you so much for being willing to put your story out there. It has already sparked some great conversation. You are generous to share your challenges. I’m sure your blog has helped a lot of people to feel less alone in their own challenges with teaching. Blessings to you.
Hello Charlotte, I loved what you wrote. I am a vinyasa studio owner and my studio have been open 11 years. As a teacher I am constantly learning and doing my best to teach good, alignment based movement. Keeping students safe and still allowing them freedom to feel great in their bodies. Alas often it is in vain. I see you wrote this article in 2012, and now in 2016 things have gotten more challenging. Here on the east coast hot vinyasa is everywhere! So inexperienced teachers are putting people in postures they have no business being in and it is 100 degrees, recipe for injury. I felt for you to use the word humiliated was so powerful, because that is often how I feel. I do my best, and so often is seems unless you have 40 people in your class, you are failing. Thank you for making me realize teachers who are more experienced than I am are also feeling this, it made me know my work is good. peace, Delana
Thank you for this article, Charlotte. I’ve been teaching yoga for about four years, and went through an intense, two year training. I realized that being a new yoga teacher in a market flush with teachers is increadibly difficult. I made the decision to not teach full time and now have a degree in social work. Sometimes I feel like a “fake” yoga teacher for not living the yoga life full time, but I know I have to let that go.
Hi, Sarah. Thanks for your comment. While I loved teaching full time, I also knew that there was a limit to how much I could teach and still have energy for my classes and for the students. Before I decided to look for part-time work, I thought about increasing my class load and realized that I didn’t want to spread myself that thin. I don’t think that having another job means you are a “fake” teacher at all! The yamas and niyamas are a much more significant part of yoga than asana is, and they are mostly about living authentically and mindfully off the mat. Social work brings just as much light into the world as teaching yoga does.
I felt so liberated yesterday after reading Jay’s story about her money woes that I immediately wrote back and said, “This is the best thing I ever read!” What is more freeing than telling the truth? Then this morning, reading about your teaching/financial challenges, the lights really went on! Thank you for your clear and compassionate writings.
Hi, Suza. Thanks for writing. Jay’s post is brave and generous. It is not easy to admit when things haven’t gone the way we’d like them to. I’m really grateful to Jay for starting the conversation. I’m grateful to her and glad that I could contribute something to the discussion.
It’s important to look at this phenomena of why some of us, even those who are published authors with decades of experience, struggle to make a living teaching yoga —especially if we prefer not to take “the show on the road.”
There are multiple reasons, but, as you point out, the fact is that the field is flooded with teachers with minimal training.
This means that the initial hurdle of not being recognized as having equal status (and deserving of equal pay) as someone with a recognized degree in the health field (and covered by insurance) is compounded by being in a field where you are not required to go through years of nationally recognized study.
Sorry to be a bit wordy—hope you catch my drift. Namaste
Suza, I absolutely get what you’re trying to say. Most new students don’t know the difference between a teacher with decades of experience and one who went through a weekend training. This makes it a struggle for those of us who have spent our lives dedicated to practice. Many of us who have practiced and taught for years are not interested in teaching trendy styles of yoga because the nature of practice is that it becomes more subtle over the years.
I think the field is flooded with teachers with minimal training because it is the trainings that keep many studios in business. Weekly classes don’t always bring in the income they need, and they can ask for a lot more for trainings. There are very few (if any) fields where you can be paid a living wage for having just taken 200 hours of training, so in a way, studios, gyms and other institutions are somewhat justified in paying such low wages. If you were going to get training in physical therapy, for example, just the first-year requirements for basic anatomy and physiology alone are more than 200 hours.
Thank you again, Charlotte, for sharing your wisdom on these pages and in your wonderful books.
I wrote some more about all this, but decided to save it for another day.
This is a great post–I think it applies to many “Dream jobs” (comedy, writing, acting, etc.) The constant conundrum is: how to find peace and happiness while pursuing paths that are financially less predictable, while keeping a steady course emotionally.
Self-employment is certainly not for everybody. As you say, the financial uncertainty can be stressful. I’ve been willing to live very simply so that I could spend my time in a way that feels good to me, but I certainly understand why some people may not want to do this. I do sometimes question why I didn’t take a path with greater security. Counting your pennies does get old!
I am relatively new to yoga and wondering how to find teachers who have done way more than weekend training. I have taken classes at a studio since I began practicing yoga last summer but am not opposed to going elsewhere for a richer, deeper experience. (Also, I LOVE Iyengar and it seems that these classes are few and far between at studios.) Any advice for newbies for finding dedicated, knowledgable, passionate, experienced teachers like you?
Thanks for inquiring. If you love Iyengar yoga, you can go to the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States (IYNAUS) website. They have a listing of all the certified Iyengar teachers in the U.S. If there are none in your area, I’d suggest just asking lots of questions. When you’re choosing a teacher, find out how long teachers have practiced, where and how they became certified to teach, if they practice at home, whether or not they practice meditation, whether they continue to take workshops and/or retreats to further their education, who their teachers are, etc. One other thing: Many of the teachers who have been around a long time have not gone through a formal training course. This does not mean they are not knowledgeable. A teacher who’s been committed to practice for decades is still likely to have more depth and wisdom than someone who’s just been certified and only practiced a year or two. The integration process really takes time and there is no substitute for time! Good luck!
a good read, thanks. I’ve been teaching a mere ten years, but find myself ‘mentoring’ new teachers in how to get started, and keep the stamina it takes to become established. You’ve got to take the focus off the money, off the idea of how many people are coming, or the idea of making a name for yourself. That’s all lower chakra energy – and desperation is palpable. (and the results are fleeting)
It’s got to come from heart and truth. In this new world flooded with Asana teachers, and very few Yoga teachers,
authenticity and sincerity is what people will resonate with. When you are 100% yourself, you have zero competition. Show up, offer your best. peace… -j
Such wise words! It is so true that focusing on numbers, money, etc., creates an off-putting energy in a teacher–at least for me. I do think it takes some time to find your authentic teaching voice, but that is part of the journey. That part of the journey is often thorny, but always worth it in the end. Thanks for your comments.
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Thanks for sharing 😀
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