I decided to write some blogs about the real life problems of being a yoga teacher as a career. We face a lot of issues and because we are in a wellness profession, things are often glossed over in favor of making everything about our lives and work appear shiny even if it’s fake. I want you to know the inside scoop about being a teacher and I have a whole series of posts about the good and challenging aspects of being a yoga instructor as a career. These are meant to be illuminating and compassion provoking posts for your yoga teachers – so you have some insights into the complexity of their jobs – not so you can attack the places they work at. And fellow yoga teachers, I hope these posts help support you in navigating an even better lifestyle and career for yourself! I also recognize that yoga teachers are not the only people who face these challenges and although I do not know all industries, I can imagine that what I’m writing about also impacts many freelancers and even “regular” employees in the current corporate environment and culture.
This post idea began not long ago when I got violently and suddenly sick in front of my students. I was fine one second and completely sick to my stomach and near passing out from dizziness the next. It was a scary experience. The students were amazing – they brought me water, checked in on me, made sure I had a ride home and even started up my iTunes app so they could keep practicing as I sat in the corner nearly fainting. To make matters more intense, I could only think of one person who worked nearby my class who might be able to come and pick me up (with my car I couldn’t drive in my vertigo state). This person is a student and it was really hard to call her. As a teacher I’m used to doing the helping and it was hard to be the one asking for help. She of course came to help me without even a second thought and I’m so thankful she drove my sick self home! It was a real reminder in our common human vulnerability and the need to care for one another.
I also had to reach out to my manager at another club where I was scheduled to teach in less than an hour and tell her I was sick. Stressful! Classes don’t get canceled and certainly not without penalty. One place I used to teach at would bill you if you missed a class. Other places write you up and you can be terminated from your employment after three write ups. Stressful part two! Luckily in this instance the teacher before me was able to stay for the class I taught and everything worked out. Also the manager on the other end of that line was incredibly compassionate and helpful in every way possible – even checking in on me through the evening hours once I got home to make sure I was ok. Even with that, it weighs on me each time I have an emergency situation that I might lose one or several of my jobs because of an illness.
You might be asking why I’m writing about this. Well, I’m not sure people know how hard it is to be a yoga instructor and deal with something “simple” like getting sick – especially when it comes on suddenly. We have to find coverage for our classes which means reaching out to a large substitute instructor list, getting approval for our subs from managers and doing so in a timely manner. Up until a month ago, I never had ANY sick time. A new Chicago city ordinance has enabled me, for the first time in 15 years of teaching, to accrue a small amount of sick time for every hour I work (1 hour sick time for every 40 hours work). That meant every time I missed a class for any health related issue before this ordinance, I didn’t get paid and had no way to recoup income. When I contracted pneumonia over the winter and missed over a week of work, I lost more than 25% of my monthly earnings. When I had a serious surgery and was told by my medical professional to take at least a week off of any work that involved talking or moving my body (ahem my whole job involves talking and moving my body), I took 3 days because that was all I could afford and came back to teaching with a mouth full of stitches.
Even with an egg of savings, what if I am injured or seriously ill and unable to teach for months? Most disability insurance is extremely expensive and does not cover all situations. In fact many situations that would regularly take me out of work were not covered by the disability insurance plans I looked at. It also can take two weeks or more to even begin paying. I simply can’t afford to buy both disability insurance and health insurance – I had to pick one and chose to keep my health insurance. There is always a lingering worry in the back of my head that I will be physically unable to teach and my savings will run out and perhaps even worse that I will have no job to return to when I get better.
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve had to teach with a cold, the flu virus and a stomach bug because coverage could not be found for my class in time and “a class can’t be canceled.” I’m not the only one. If you knew how many of your fitness and yoga teachers come to teach their classes deathly ill and fake being “ok,” you would be shocked and dismayed. Without paid sick time to cover outages, we are really in a bind when we get sick. Take the time off if you can get a sub, but miss out on necessary income. Or teach while you are sick and potentially get everyone around you sick. Neither one a great option. There is also often the feeling of letting the students down if you don’t come in and teach. The new city ordinance helps somewhat, but consider that some of your yoga teachers may only be employed 4 or 6 hours a week and it could take them 8-10 weeks of work to accrue just one hour of sick time. And they are only accruing sick time at places where they are employees. Most yoga studios hire all their teachers as contractors and therefore this ordinance would not apply to any of those classes. Crazy, I know!
I’ve also been told in the past that I “get sick too much,” as if that is something under my control. I am never away from work unless absolutely necessary. I not only love my job but also care deeply for the student experience and consistency in my teaching. I am exposed to nearly 100 people a day in close proximity and I work in locations considered community health settings where germs and bugs flourish. Just Google some of the swab tests that have been done on yoga mats in studios and gyms. You will 1. forever bring your own mat to props to class and 2. understand the onslaught my immune system is under every day. It’s almost like being a school teacher! To add to this, teaching private clients in their homes when children are potentially sick or have been sick exposes me to even more opportunities to pick up illnesses. Who gets to determine how many times I get sick or need health procedures done? Before this city ordinance, I worried every single time I took a sick day that I would lose my jobs. I only have one day off per week and all of my health related appointments had to be scheduled on that day which is also hard. I still feel on tenuous ground even though I am now legally accruing sick time. If I am already perceived as “sick too much” does that mean another sick day will put me out of a job?
There is also a student perception here. Yoga teachers are often seen as bastions of “health” and “vitality.” When I had this recent sick day emergency, I came back to several students saying things like, “But you’re a yoga teacher, you aren’t supposed to get sick” and “Isn’t yoga supposed to heal all that illness stuff?” Ummmm…no. Yoga teachers are human beings with immune systems susceptible to viruses and bacteria just like regular humans. Yes, practicing yoga has been shown to improve immune system response, but that doesn’t make your teachers infallible. Yoga is not a cure all! We are not superheroes! It feels really awful when we are judged for getting sick – as if that is something that doesn’t happen to “spiritual” or “good” yoga teachers.
I wish there was an easy answer here, but alas I think that many working professionals in many disciplines have similar issues. The freelance economy that many industries are increasingly moving towards suffer from many of the same problems. I believe that many employees in corporate environments feel similar pressures even if they do have a bank of sick time. Don’t even get me started on true mental health days. Some of your yoga teachers have worked 40 and 50 day periods straight without ever having a day off. One local teacher recently bragged about 100 straight days of teaching nearly 12 hour days with commutes and free special events alongside regular classes and clients. The next post put up on their page was about the physical crash that followed and a serious bout of illness. Yoga teachers need to learn to take sick days when they are sick and to better balance their schedules to allow for down time and self-care. One of my next posts addresses why in the heck that is SO HARD to do when you work in this field (Hint: it’s often financial tied in with the strong tendency to want to give to others).
Yoga teachers take care of their students in physical, mental, emotional and spiritual ways. We are (and I know this is going to be a controversial statement) integrative health care professionals. As such we need to be supported in working fair hours (see my upcoming post about how our working hours are not just in-studio teaching time) and in getting well when we get sick. The next time your yoga teacher is out sick, love up their sub and tell the managers how thrilled you are that your yoga teacher got time off. Ask if they are getting paid for getting well. You pay a lot of money for your yoga classes, gym memberships and the studio packages. Why not make sure more of that is shared as a benefit to your teachers? Thanks to all the beautiful students who text me, call me, check in on me, delight in the subs who cover my classes and generally rock being caring and compassionate humans in this regard when I am not well. Thanks to all the managers who do help out and are supportive when I have been sick or needed help in the past. Thanks to all the colleagues who have stepped in when I needed to cover a class to get well – your help does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. I wouldn’t be doing what I love for this many years (going on 15!!) without all of you and your support.
Some time ago I subbed a class for one of my colleagues. Subbing is one of my favorite things to do because it gets me out of my comfort zone – puts me in front of new people, mixes up the formats I’m teaching and totally shifts my schedule so my day feels different. On this occasion, I stepped in to teach at the last minute to help out – someone was sick and needed coverage. I’ve been there and I had the time open so I jumped on it.
I planned a really fun fluid class as this was listed as a Power Vinyasa practice at the time. I knew that the students would want more movement than my regular classes. I was pumped! I couldn’t wait to get in there to share with them. I know that my sequencing is different than many other styles of yoga because it considers sequences from a different angle of preparation and pacing, but I have always been able to use my creative sequencing knowledge to build fun class experiences for many levels.
I walked in the room and a small group of students was there – they all looked absolutely annoyed and downright offended that I was there to teach. One student even rolled their eyes as I went to set up my mat. I’m used to not getting a “warm welcome” as a sub – they are used to their regular teacher, I get it. I also know that I am human and I can completely misconstrue the energy of a room because I am feeling nervous. I’m always nervous when I sub so I thought, “Oh I must be reading too much into this! They are probably just a bit tired today and didn’t know there was going to be a sub. It will be great.”
I typically start each class by checking in with each student and getting to know them a little bit. I had seen everyone in this room at least once, but I could not remember many names. As I went around the room, the energy got more challenging. No one wanted to tell me their name. No one wanted to say how they were feeling that day. When I asked how they were doing, I got answers such as “Please make sure we do headstand” “A good class always has a wheel” and “Upward Facing Dog.” Finally towards the end of saying hi to each of the students, one said to me, “Can you please just teach us real yoga and not what you normally do?” And my heart stopped. I got it – they didn’t have any interest in what I was excited to share with them.
I decided in that moment to run an experiment – one that I am actually a bit scared to write about. I threw my carefully planned sequence out. I took each thing they had asked for and put it into the most generic sequence framework I could recall. There were lots of “vinyasas” and no cues about alignment (if you know me, you know I am really keen on alignment!!). There was no guiding force behind the sequence. It was a messy hodge-podge. One student had asked that I not correct them as it “interrupted a strong flow.” So I didn’t assist any of the students. That is also very strange for me as my natural teaching method is to be helpful to each individual and to use touch in a loving way as I teach. I was sure this class was an epic failure – I had just “dialed it in” with a terrible sequence and lots of new-age lingo.
Then the shoe fell, so to speak: THEY LOVED IT…I’ve never gotten such high praise for a class. At the end things like “I knew you could finally get how to teach for real” and “Thanks for the best class you have ever taught” were said alongside hugs. I have never felt so sick to my stomach. And the reason is that I was being praised for being totally and completely inauthentic.
This experiment showed me a lot about myself and others. It showed me that I value my authentic style of teaching more than I value being liked. It showed me that some students don’t have a lot interest in experiencing something different on the mat outside of what they habitually do. It also revealed to me that when I am myself, I draw to my teachings exactly the students I am meant to reach. I got a glimpse of what it feels like to “dial it in” as a yoga teacher. It felt boring and draining to me to teach from that space of inauthenticity.
I hope that you will risk in your own life showing your real self even if it isn’t popular. The world doesn’t really need more flashy, fake or phony – there is enough of that on reality TV. Much to the contrary, the world really needs YOU – you in all your glory. There will never be another person like you in all of time – please share of yourself. Feel into your own life: where have you been dialing it in? And would you take a chance even for a day or two to let your full self shine? The rewards for this risk are incredible! It runs vibrant energy through you when you are authentically yourself. It brings into your life realm the opportunities and people you were made to work with. It inspires vision and takes you in directions where you can really be of the greatest good to those around you. It is a like a magnet for amazing things when you are authentic to yourself.
I’m still not sure what “real” yoga is but I do know that where I teach from is precious – precious to my own heart and to those I share it with. There may be fewer upward facing dogs and more cues about alignment, breath and Spirit, but I love that I get to share that depth of my real self with you in my classes and out.