Yoga Teacher Burnout: The Truth and the Remedies
I remember reading BKS Iyengar’s book “Light on Life” many years ago and marveling at a paragraph where he describes “burnout” as an occupational hazard of being a yoga teacher. It was a huge relief. At the time I had been experiencing a sense of burnout for a few months and felt horribly guilty about it. It was really comforting to know that this was a part of the profession of teaching yoga and that a teacher I admired so much had suffered from the same feelings in his career.
In my mentoring/coaching practice, I see many teachers who are suffering from burnout. Often times, we talk about a sense of secret shame and guilt that they feel around it. We’re supposed to love teaching! We’re supposed to feel fulfilled all the time! We’re doing something that we love!
Yes that’s all true, and it’s also a job. We also need time off. We have bad days. We aren’t always excited to teach when we’re going through personal crises or when we’ve been ill or not sleeping. We’re human beings. Of course it’s fulfilling, of course we love it, of course we want to help our clients and students as much as we can. And we are human. We have energy limits.
I think when we first begin to practice and teach we think that yoga will make us super-human. We see some very unhealthy and obsessive behavior and habits in our community masked with smiles and protestations of “I’m great today because I practiced!” Obsessive yoga asana practice that is constant crisis management is not a healthy expression of the practice. It’s not addressing the real causes of the suffering. The longer we practice the more we see that yoga helps us be more comfortable being human. It doesn’t make us a superhero. It doesn’t give us unlimited physical and emotional stamina. But it does make us more in tune with our bodies and energy systems. It helps us to recognize where are limits are and honor them. It helps us be honest with ourselves.
People often take a break from or even quit teaching because of burnout. I can completely understand that. I went through several times in my early career where I thought I would just go beck to a desk job because I was so tired all the time. I’m really glad I didn’t and that I learned ways to take care of myself. I learned energetic boundaries. I learned emotional boundaries. I learned to check my ego at the door and realized I can only do so much to help people. I realized that I could have both public and private roles in my life. These have all helped me run my healing business and yoga-teaching career with much greater ease so I can be there both for my clients and for myself. I know where my limits are and how to work efficiently and productively within them.
If you are experiencing burnout, first do your best to release the guilt and shame around it. It’s normal. All teachers have experienced it in some way. Don’t let modern yoga marketing propaganda tell you you’re deficient because you’re human. Take a look at your teaching, your boundaries, your schedule, your beliefs, and your attitudes. See if there are places where you are leaking energy. Below I’ve listed some ideas about burnout and some remedies that have helped my apprentices and me over the years. Incorporate what works for you. When you address the idea of burnout with honesty rather than self-condemnation you can radically shift your perspective on teaching and also make yourself a more successful teacher.
Some signs you might have yoga teacher burnout:
1. You’re tired all the time.
2. On a regular basis, you resent going in to teach your classes.
3. Your class numbers start to waver and drop in a consistent and noticeable way.
4. You don’t want to do your own practice.
5. You find yourself impatient, inattentive, spacey, or often crabby in your classes.
6. Your own practice is joyless and uninspired.
7. You start getting sick more often.
Some common kinds of fatigue for yoga teachers and their causes (often a combination of all of these):
1. Physical fatigue- Too much demoing, teaching too many classes per week, not having enough time for your own practice, not planning time-off
2. Mental fatigue- teaching too many classes per day or week, having a lopsided schedule (6am class and 715pm class in the same day), teaching classes with special populations that require highly diligent focus and attention
3. Emotional fatigue- trying too hard to be liked, not having proper boundaries with students, not setting social media boundaries, compassion fatigue
So when this is happening, especially if it’s happening on a regular or ongoing basis, you need some self-care. Self-care for healers is not just a yoga class, a massage and a glass of wine. Self-care is about creating a schedule and life that does not require you to expend extra energy unnecessarily. It’s about making sure your energetic accounting is balanced or close to balanced as often as possible. Sometimes it’s about making hard choices. You may need to forgo the trip to Wanderlust one year to start a savings account and have a financial cushion. You may need to give up a class you love in order to have a night off. You may need to stop seeing toxic friends who put too many demands on your time and energy field. Self-care for healers is about structuring your life as best as you can in a way that seals in energy rather than leaks energy.
So. . .
Some basic pragmatic self-care remedies for burnout:
1. Out of your checks every month, put aside a small amount of income towards paying for a full week off of teaching at least once a year. For example I always take off between Christmas and New Years to recharge and do introspective contemplation for the year ahead. I plan it into my schedule and finances.
2. You need at least one full day off/week. Many times coaching clients who teach 7 days a week will say something like, “But I only teach 1 class on Monday.” No sir, you are still teaching. You need a dedicated day off and you must be diligent in keeping that day as a free day. Even when I work 6 days during my busy seasons, I always take Monday off. No exceptions.
3. Use cues and not demos to teach. The more you demo the more you deplete your body physically. Only demo as a last resort when effective cueing isn’t doing the job.
4. Supplement your income with privates, other healing work, or learning to teach workshops and trainings. You can only teach so many classes per week before burning out. Also save part of your income when you have a busy period so you have a financial cushion to take time off or get you through slower times of year like the summer.
5. Remember every day why you teach. When I end class I say a silent prayer of thanks to my students in my head for being there. I am humbled and honored that out of hundreds of possible classes in the city they come to see me for their physical and spiritual well-being. I do not take that lightly. When you have appreciation for your students and remember why you love to teach it gives you energy.
6. You must, and I mean must, have alone time to recharge. Even the most extroverted teachers I know need an hour or so of alone time every workday to unwind. I usually go into my “bubble” at the end of the day, no social media, no business emails, no Facebook messaging, I just watch TV or read and listen to music. This alone time is essential and non-optional.
7. Finally, have some non-yoga hobbies. When you teach yoga for your living, hang out with a lot of people who do yoga, and have a yoga-based spiritual practice it’s very easy to go overboard with “yoga life.” This makes your teaching one-dimensional, flat, and often contributes to burnout. So read non-yoga and non-self development books, watch a show, tell a joke, listen to music, go for hikes, whatever but have a life beyond yoga. Many of you know I’m a huge opera and classical music fan and I love history and cooking. All of those interests inform my teaching and practice, give my life dimension, and they speak to aspects of my psyche that are not fulfilled by yoga alone. These hobbies are essential for keeping your life and teaching in balance.