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.
Recently I was assisting Ana Forrest during her Advanced Teacher Training Program in New York City at Pure Yoga. This 9-day program is an incredible whirlwind of breakthroughs and development for the students who take it, and an equally incredible challenge to development for the teachers like me who assist it. Our days began early – 3am to be exact – and ran through 11:30am including a long practice for the assistants and then a practice for the students that we helped with. There was a short break and then back to business for the afternoon until 5:30pm. I’ve taken this course many times and reaped incredible benefits from it, but this was the first time I was assisting it. I was nervous about the schedule, nervous about being a good assistant, nervous about working with new people, and more.
Things started off great: I didn’t oversleep for the early AM practice sessions, I learned new hands-on assists, I met very interesting and kind new students, I worked alongside my mentor and lifelong teacher. It was a great experience.
Fast forward to day 5: in the middle of the day I started feeling quite ill. By the next morning during practice I was feeling much worse. My teacher looked at me and she said, “If you need to go and rest, please go to your apartment and rest.” This might sound like a simple phrase to you, but inside my mind this was revolutionary. In my mind, rest was not an option. If I left, my mind told me the story that I was a failure, that I was not completing my obligation to assist the program, that I was weak, that I was letting Ana/the other assistants/the students down, and that there was something wrong with me because this was the 7th time I had been sick in as many weeks. I was floored – stopped in my tracks – that I was having such thoughts about myself.
In the maelstrom of energy that coursed through me along these trains of thought in a single moment, pulling me down into a spiral of despair, Ana in her wisdom and stepping into Spirit turned back to me and said, “What would you have said to your student if they came to you and were sick like this?” This blew the doors open. I started crying and said, “I would tell them not to worry at all and to go home and rest, and to get better, and I would mean every word.” It’s the truth.
In delving deeper into these issues for myself, I realized that I have trouble resting. I joke about it, but I really have been conditioned throughout my whole life to “just keep going no matter what.” There are a lot of threads weaving into the tapestry of that pattern in my life, but in feeling deeper into the pattern I came up with some wisdom for myself that I hope will help you too.
Fast forwards to coming home to Chicago. When I came back to teaching after being sick for weeks, I was struck by several things. First, that so many sick people were coming to class with full-on influenza, stomach virus, colds, strep, and more. Second, that suddenly I could see very clearly students who were pushing beyond their edges into a danger zone when they needed to back off, but they simply would not stop pushing ahead even though they were in pain and even though I encouraged them not to. Third, that no one seemed to think either of these patterns were odd or injurious, but the opposite: that by practicing while VERY ill or pushing hard and fast ahead they were actually helping themselves….This left me unsettled as I realized I had some of this pattern in myself.
In light of these experiences, I think we need to re-evaluate the yoga practice of rest!
Ana Forrest teaches about discerning when you need to rest by feeling into your current state honestly without getting sucked into your “rackets.” Sometimes when we “rest” in a pose like embryo or child’s pose, we are actually doing it out of avoidance or because we have a story about the sensations that are coming up in another pose. Likewise, when we are in a challenging pose and we keep pushing ahead, Forrest says sometimes the story is that we have to push through the pain to get ahead – and how false and potentially damaging this kind of internal story really is. Using feeling as a discerning tool to sift through the stories we tell ourselves about our practice to get to the truth of the matter will allow us to learn when and how to actually rest. Sometimes this means changing alignment, other times changing the pose entirely, other times staying home from a group class altogether. But feeling into the truth of your state of being is the key to making the decision.
Another of my teachers, Scott Sonnon, talks about rest as active recovery. He has been through a wide variety of instances in which he needed to keep moving to heal from his injuries and conditions. When he says “active recovery” he means tailoring the movement modality to what is actually going on in the body at any given time – whether that is a neck fracture or the flu. He recommends the practice of Intu-Flow (functional joint mobility training) solo to address where the body’s energy is stuck as a result of fatigue, illness or injury. He also recommends neither too much sleep, nor too little, but the amount of sleep that actually helps you to feel your best – and how this is different for everyone. He speaks to the need to eat not only high quality, whole foods, but nutrient dense foods that actually provide what your life schedule and activity levels ask of you as a form of “rest” or replenishment.
From my teachers I walk away with some tips for you:
1. If you are sick with a fever, are just getting over the stomach flu or food poisoning and feel weak, are dizzy to the point of feeling like you are going to pass out, have a bacterial infection not yet treated and cleared by the your doctor, stay home and rest up! Know that you are doing a huge service to yourself by resting. And you are keeping those around you from getting sick.
2. When you are fatigued, know that sitting around will probably make you more fatigued. If you usually take Power Yoga or something kick-your-asana because that is the practice you like, consider taking a steadier or more energetic based practice like Forrest Yoga or Slow Flow Vinyasa to learn about replenishing your supply of Self.
3. When you are in a pose, become finely attuned to your edge: the space where you feel something is happening, but you could stay for a while and not fall over into the abyss of overwhelm and abandon.
4. Reframe the negative internal dialogue that comes up for you related to resting, taking breaks, backing off, bailing out, etc. Congratulate yourself for becoming aware that you are even having these patterns of reactions! Once you cultivate awareness you can finally begin to cultivate change.
I leave you with some final tips!!
Eat well for your body and schedule. Sleep enough for your constitution. Move every day. Give yourself time for silent contemplation. Turn off Facebook from time to time (and Twitter!). Go for a walk instead of surfing the net. Read something that inspires you. Call a friend. Stay home when you are sick and recuperate. Learn your own “rackets” and stories, and be the best writer as you recreate yourself one pattern at a time. Delight in your process of being – this is the only go you get.