July 18, 2012

Yoga Teachers: Starve No More.

I love teaching yoga.

I mean, actually being in a room teaching yoga almost all of the time.

The few exceptions are the classes that I spend a lot of time preparing and am super excited about and then no one comes to class, or the guy who once likened getting an adjustment from me to having a nursemaid. I could also leave behind the sour smelling clothes that increase their sour-hood with every drop of sweat and how an Ashtanga-style paschimottanasana adjustment (full body crunch) requires intimate contact with those clothes.

Overall odd silk clothes that show cleavage or whole breasts, and men in too short short-shorts are not enough to turn me off to the rewarding and always interesting calling of teaching yoga.

What I didn’t realize when I started teaching yoga was that I was going to sooner or later have to accept that I am an entrepreneur. 

This is the number one realization that I find young yoga teachers are unwillingly to accept in order to really thrive as yoga teachers. It is the point that I touch on with all teachers I train and aspiring teachers I meet realize now that you are a freelance business person and develop yourself with this in mind.

Do they need to put in the 10,000 hours towards mastery?

Yes, and then some! Do they need to study with the best yoga teachers possible that feed their hearts and sharpen their bodies? Yes, please! Do they need to do urdhva dhanurasana with straight arms? Maybe.

Will this alone place them in contention to be one of the most popular yoga teachers at a well-known studio or earn them a place on the Yoga Journal cover or even stage? Not likely.

That takes a dose of extroversion, handsome looks, willingness to follow formulas and rules, and timing.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers didn’t address yoga teaching. He did address computer development and hockey teams.  The message of the book is that we like to think that success and expertise is due to hard work and something special and unidentifiable. We like to chalk some of it up to good luck and magic, but the truth of it is that a lot of it comes down to factors out of our control, as well as social networks and supports that are not universally available.

When he looked at professional hockey players, he noticed a very odd coincidence that most are born in the early months of the year (January through March) instead of an even spread throughout the year as one might expect. What he found was that tracing back to junior hockey, if you are born earlier in the year, you are older, and therefore bigger and more developmentally advanced, almost without exception. At five years old, six months is a huge difference in size and motor skills.  So the “older” players are better and get more playing time and experience, get siphoned up to the higher level teams, ending up that by the time there is professional eligibility almost all of the best players are born in the early part of the year.

What does this have to do with yoga? Well as good of a yoga teacher as you may be, as talented, tuned in, and gifted, as camera friendly and charismatic, if you were born after 1980, you are pretty much out of luck in terms of Gaiam video ops, Yoga Journal features and “fame” as an international yoga teacher.

Those spots are taken. Our beloved elders born in the 1950s still have a lot of living to do. The ever-growing yoga market in the U.S. has created some openings because YJ conferences are getting bigger and expanding to new cities. Still, it is the rare exception that was born after 1980 to enter these ranks.

Try, if you want to, to be the exception, but the thing is these appearances will not necessarily “make” your career as your might think. So it is not such bad news (I hope). Nobody who makes their living as a yoga teacher depends on conference appearances and video sales.

The truth is most people who become yoga teachers (myself included) don’t give much thought to how they are actually going to make a living. We went with our hearts, throwing ourselves head first into that which we loved and hoping to figure out the rest later.

But there comes a time when you can’t just teach more classes to earn more money, and a time when you realize what you have to offer is more than just more classes in more places. Working with young yoga teachers I have noticed that very few think of themselves as entrepreneurs and think creatively about how what they have to offer might extend beyond the normal parameters of a gym, yoga class or office setting.

We live in a time where the neocortex rules—complex thought, rationalization are squeezing out our limbic system. Our brain centers governing physiology becoming less effective. All that to say that what yoga offers—a pause from the crazy pace of modern life, tools to connect to basic physiology, and an ability to listen to what is happening inside—to connect to instinct and intuition is revolutionary. So if you have these skills to teach, you have a transformative tool that you can offer.

It’s really hard for most yoga teachers to accept that the material world is important and the external world gives important feedback on what we are offering. That is, unless you are already sick of earning $32,000 a year and working seven days a week, (even if that is only one class,) and you’d like to go to a friend’s wedding with a decent gift and be able to sub out your classes without panicking. The sooner as yoga teachers we approach what we do as entrepreneurs, the more creatively inspired and farther our reach will be.

The hardest yoga I have done is make this transition to seeing myself as a business person. I set out to change the world through service, not through entrepreneurship. But after 10 years of teaching, I realized that if I wanted to continue to serve then I would have to evolve and find ways to reach people outside of the usual contexts. After having a child, I could no longer afford to count on per person head counts to make a living.

So what should you do?

  1. Look beyond the glamor of the yoga teacher gypsy nomad.
  2. Evaluate your own money beliefs (great books out there by Barbara Stanny, Napoleon Hill).
  3. Identify what you are really good at and specialize now. Study with the best teachers in this area and begin teaching and getting known for teaching in this niche.
  4. Study business. There are so many great online tools. You can read books, but there are also great online masterminds, group programs and affordable coaching (Marie Forleo, Laura Roeder, Eben Pagan).
  5. Think bigger and broader. Look honestly at the skills you have, the people you know, your life experience, and how you can combine those beyond the label of “yoga teacher.” Then look back at your money beliefs and see if they are in conflict, and work on them again.
  6. Innovate, try new things, and then don’t stop at one attempt. Try again in a different way until you find something that works, that satisfies you inside and serves a lot of people outside.

Last year I launched my first online “yoga” program. Because of how many people have low back pain and neck pain, I thought it would be great to teach people about the fundamentals of posture and body mechanics so they could understand common problems like sciatica and carpal tunnel syndrome and how to take care of themselves to get out of pain and to continue getting healthy.

By the end of the program each person had a body reading with me (through photos they submitted), a 15 minute yoga practice they could do each day and a whole lot better understanding of what was happening in their bodies and why they were hurting. There were 70 students from 19 countries (including Tunisia and Singapore).

There were a lot of voracious yoga teachers who wanted better anatomical understanding and observation skills as well to understand the basics of body mechanics. And then there were kite surfers, accountants and school teachers. It was a huge cross-section of people with completely different levels of body experience that I would never have met in a single yoga studio.

While it can be frustrating and even daunting to acknowledge that teaching yoga is a career and then to re-envision what that career might be, it can also be empowering and exciting to discover how all that you know and are can be incorporated into what you offer, beyond just teaching and subbing more.


Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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