There is an unhelpful idea I’ve heard: once you start teaching yoga, you’re a yoga teacher forever.
I believe this is both true and false.
It’s true in the sense that if you have ever been perceived as a yoga teacher, you will always be a teacher to that student.
Don’t believe me?
Imagine you’re at a burlesque show, and the cast includes someone who used to be your postal worker, someone who used to serve coffee at the corner coffee shop, and the person who was your kid’s kindergarten teacher four years ago.
The teacher feels weirder, right?
If you taught yoga for one class, and someone was moved, you are always a teacher to them.
Once a teacher, always a teacher.
But it doesn’t mean you have to teach, or you will always teach, or that you must make money teaching.
You can take a break.
In fact, I think you’ll need to.
It may be true in other fields as well, but it starts with exuberance - you extoll the benefits of stretching, ujjayi, lycra, and proper blanket folding. It’s adorable, how you become passionate about Nidra or creative block usages, or tell people what Guru really means, and how their guru could be a cat or a cold sore.
Then… at a point… complacency. You catch yourself thinking you “have to go to work” on the way to teach a class, the way you used to feel at your old job when you were surrounded by TPS reports or 31 flavors. You throw shade at the teacher with the same tired playlist, who taught the same jazz last week, and you play hooky from yoga.
Resentment. Resignation. Dark times.
You hear yourself say that yoga isn’t what it used to be, or that a certain lineage is a cult, or another is a veritable vending machine for teachers, or worse. “Oh gosh!” you think, “I’m starting to lose it.”
You become destructive. Practicing more and more until you believe it again, fast, run, or feast because you feel so tremendously out of sorts with the practice. Didn’t you used to like this? Wouldn’t working at McDonald’s make more sense? Then at least you’d have a reliable paycheck and possibility for advancement.
This is normal. Typical. It happens, and rather than trying to avoid it, I’ll encourage you to try to embrace it.
(and take appropriate action)
Teaching has seasons, like life, and it is incumbent upon you to notice when the leaves start to change and you head into the darkness of a yoga winter.
Also, it would be helpful if we could agree to be honest about this experience, rather than trying to hide or stuff our yoga winter and march right on through it.
Have you tried to plant seeds in the snow?
I have gotten so tired, frustrated, disenchanted, resentful, and perturbed that I’ve done and said some unseemly things. Thankfully, in my case, nothing criminal, but I have accidentally vomited unsolicited advice, said nasty things about other teachers and studios, and (possibly) shamed people both for being vegan and for not being vegan, essentially at the same time.
In these moments, I have had other teachers confide in me, as though we’re in an unseemly back alley:
“I’m burnt out.”
Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Spiritually bereft.
For some, it is because they have the notion that they must be of service to everyone, always. For others, it’s because they believe they must DO as many practices as they TEACH, so teaching 16 classes a week is a death-march. And for many more, it is because they think that working in this way should be a joy and there is something fundamentally wrong with them for needing a break.
May I suggest another option?
If and when you notice complacency, pause, and tell someone.
If you’re in resentment, stop, and tell someone.
If you notice a feeling of resignation, vindictiveness, or sabotage, tell someone.
Maybe what you need is a yoga winter?
Winter is a gorgeous time of darkness, silence, and rest. It is not a bad thing, it is a necessary thing, because creating and growing require energy. You are not a machine, and while you do have an infinite capacity to teach, to create, to support, this capacity requires rest.
I’d like to drop the shame, and let this be part of our wellness practice, when we talk with one another about how teaching is going for us. I’d like to invite studio owners and managers to incorporate this line of questioning into annual reviews, mentoring sessions, and check-ins.
How are you doing?
How is your teaching?
When was your last winter?
Let’s talk about it.
Getting out of a yoga winter is a one-step process:
You with me?
I recently had a rough flight. Bumpy landing. Maybe lost a wheel or two. Maybe refused an oxygen mask in lieu of muscling through impossible circumstances. But the flight is over, and we’re walking away, and I find I don’t need to talk about it anymore.
(This is a metaphor).
The last chapter of my life is in the crash-landing position, heaving, with its head between its knees. Wondering which way is up, and if there is a ground, and if we’ll make it.
Simultaneously, I have become terrified of flying. I do it anyway, and pretend to be cool, except when I also jump six inches when someone taps me on the shoulder with pretzel mix and a napkin.
(Who eats pretzels with a napkin, the Queen?)
When I start to panic, I listen to Jaya Lakshmi & Ananda Yogiji, and in my fever, often have a visual of a plane full of white ninjas, the Kundalini tribe, chanting, smiling, and washing their cares away in that sweeping motion - arms over the head.
Mantra. The power of words, intention, repetition.
It gets me through the flights, and it’s getting me through this.
(I think I can.)
We start teaching mantra for a the same variety of reasons we teach anything: we saw someone else do it, we think we’re supposed to, it’s on a list of objectives provided by a studio, we want to be cool, we actually understand and like it.
If I teach mantra, it’s usually dividing the class in three and starting the right side first:
“Row, row, row your boat…”
Which, as it turns out, is a pretty decent mantra.
In my class we bless the rains down in Africa. We howl with Shakira. We groove with the X Ambassadors who believe we are SO gorgeous, and we like our sugar with coffee and cream.
Thoughts become words, and words become actions, and this makes words a really interesting middle man between what you’re doing (actions) and why you’re doing it (thoughts). Yoga says change your words, change your life.
The genre and the language are less important than your connection to the meaning. When you are in the Seat of the Teacher, you are flying the plane, my darling. Your thought-mantra gets blasted over the PA system while the message you’re trying so artfully to convey with your spoken words can get lost.
It’s a lot of responsibility, and it starts with you.
Mantra is your oxygen mask. It won’t teach the class or fly the plane, but it will help you think clearly.
(Don’t forget it).
An instructor gives you what you ask for, what you want. A teacher gives you what you need, whether you want it or not.
A guru shoves your shadow into the spotlight, illuminates what you've tried to conceal beneath layers of makeup and social constructs.
And they may not even know they've done it.
I question anyone who calls themself a guru, truly. We choose our teachers, they do not choose us. We stalk them by soaking up their words, their classes, their very essence and then - if we're lucky and we've done a bit of work, maybe with their help - we graduate. We transcend that relationship and move along.
Sometimes kicking and screaming, and sometimes, without a thought.
When I teach teachers, I'm often asked how people can teach things they can't do - and I like to answer out of both sides of my mouth.
On the right: If you are instructing asana, you can easily instruct someone through the contortions of the body without asking your body to do that very thing. And earnestly, I believe that performing an asana for someone to replicate is often mistaken for "teaching" by both the teacher and the student. We believe that those whose poses look sexy or perfect or accomplished on Instagram to be great teachers, simply because they can lick their elbows or dangle precariously over the edge of a cliff wearing incredibly tight pants.
(It helps to have a tight a$s).
This is not teaching. It may be art - either performance or photography - and it has some merit in that sense. But it is not teaching, and it is not yoga.
On the left: You cannot ask a student to meditate if you do not. You cannot teach lessons you have not learned. You cannot remove darkness when you remain in shadows. Teaching involves having been there - as in, the place where the ego roams, or the sadness stews, or the desperation runs free.
This is not a double standard. Let me tell you why.
You can be skilled at teaching and know only a small number of things. This can make you a great teacher.
You can be terrible at teaching and know ALL of the things. This will never make you a great teacher.
I have learned this lately, as I realize that what I teach has evolved from the basic asana, the rudimentary anatomy into the synthesis of material and integration of everything I've experienced so far.
A guru is a person who shoves you into the spotlight - often by accident - and never, ever, because it will make you bow down to them and call them a guru.
My guru was a boy who only spoke one word, and never took a step. My guru was a ridiculously amicable divorce. My guru was a 6cm polyp named Polly.
What is yours?