This June, my seventh book, Downward Dog, the tale of a bad boy yoga instructor in Manhattan trying to redeem his ways, is being released by Diversion Books.
Like myself, Downward's protagonist becomes a yoga teacher almost by accident. (I enrolled in teacher training to deepen my practice.) And just like my hero, I found that being a yoga teacher was by far the best job I’ve ever had.
Still, there are a few things I learned along the way that I wish someone had told me before I got started. Here are some of them:
1. If you want to pay rent, it’s all about the privates.
There’s just no way that you can sustain yourself otherwise. Unless you’re packing group classes and being paid more per head, I’m not sure how you’re going to pay the rent.
With private students, it’s all about selling packages of 5 or 10 classes. This is great for students because it helps ensure they'll show up (unlike a gym membership, which they can just ignore). It’s great for the teacher because it’s a useful chunk of change you can pocket and budget accordingly.
2. You’re going to be running around all day and have a really weird schedule.
When I was starting out, I took each and every teaching gig I could get. This meant I was sometimes working 17 hour days.
I once taught a regular 5:30 am client, followed by 7am and 9am ones. I got up at 5 am, and I was home by 11am (for a mid-morning nap). Then I had several free hours until my evening classes. Sometimes, my last class or private session would end at 10pm.
I also became much more conscious of the weather, because I was going in and out of the elements all day long. There was something tremendously freeing about this ... but also something perpetually exhausting.
3. In fact, it IS a popularity contest.
Although most yoga centers derive a large chunk of their income from teacher trainings, there’s still an obvious pressure to fill classes, even if some studios deny this.
And it’s just common sense: any business wants, in fact NEEDS, to have a healthy number of people buying their services.
The problem is that you can’t really MAKE that happen in any obvious way. And unfortunately, it takes time to create enough of a “fan base” (for want of a better term) to fill a room.
I taught at one center in its fledging phase and for over a year had about five people per class ... and then there were about 20 ... and then “suddenly” (meaning almost a year later) it was selling out at 40+ students per class.
I (completely unscientifically) concluded that in order to consistently fill a room of 40 students, at least 400 students needed to want to be there. And I had to teach over 1,500 people to develop the rapport with the ones who really dug what I was offering and who wanted more of it on a weekly basis.
That, frankly, takes some time to build! And, as with any popularity contest, it can drive you crazy if you start to take it personally. Students would swear that I'd changed their lives and then suddenly vanish.
Were they abducted by aliens? Did they pull a hamstring? Were they transferred to Detroit? Or did they simply find another “life changing” teacher? (Sigh.)
￼Was my class too easy? Too challenging? Too routine? Too quirky? Should I have had a focus group evaluate my playlist each week? Or was it the time slot? If I'd taught on Thursdays versus Tuesdays, would that have made me (oops, I mean “my class”) more popular?
In every conversation I’ve had with fellow teachers about “their numbers,” the more we explored this topic, the more crazy-making it was. It is and will remain a mystery.
4. Examine your paycheck carefully.
For years, I'd have the most wonderful Saturdays almost entirely devoted to prepping my 5 pm class. I’d practice for two, maybe three hours, just trying out sequences and exploring poses. I’d go through favorite poems and other inspirations of the week. I’d spend an hour putting together my playlist, completely excited to share it with my students. I’d leave super-early since I couldn't risk being late for my own class and the subway was unpredictable. I’d teach class and hang out a bit afterwards to chat with students, many of whom became lifelong friends.
Trust me: An unbelievably fantastic way of spending a Saturday.
And yet ... total time spent, between teaching and prep and travel, was about 9 hours each week. Just for my Saturday class.
Obviously, I wasn’t pouring myself into my teaching for the paycheck –– in fact, I would definitely have paid FOR the experience of sharing what I loved –– but it’s important to realize just how many hours you're investing (unless you’re teaching on autopilot and just “phoning it in.”)
5. The market just might be glutted.
Here's a fun fact for you: By 2014, over 53% of the women under 35 in NYC will be certified to teach yoga –– and 15% of the guys as well.
OK, I just made up those statistics, but frankly they’re funny because they're sorta true.
Here’s the thing: there’s no real downside to our society having tons of certified yoga teachers –– in fact, I bet the world’s a much nicer place because of it –– but unlike other careers, I really don’t think there’s a proportionate demand for as many yoga teachers as are being churned out.
6. You're going to get the best and worst of two worlds: business and spirituality.
Most yoga centers I know are operated as a weird hybrid of business endeavor and spiritual community and it’s a truly confusing mix. For example, there’s often lots of talk about being “family.” And while I’ve genuinely experienced an authentic sense of spiritual community and felt accepted and loved .... well, in my own family, I never really ran the risk of being fired.
Sometimes studios are quite business-like, such as when they have a base fee, plus a per-student-bonus, which is a commission on profits generated, much like if you were working at a Honda dealership.
￼Yet despite these business-minded strategies, I’ve rarely heard of centers giving raises based on seniority, or paid vacations, or insurance, or even the possibility of being made a partner –– things that are pretty standard in most small businesses.
And then there are restrictions in your personal life, such as centers that insist teachers follow a strictly vegetarian diet. (Is that even legal? Also: have they developed a urine test for meat consumption?)
7. Never forget: you're in the service industry.
Brace yourself for a real shocker: the teachers running your training programs, and speaking at the big conferences, and getting lots of attention from Everyone –– are quirky, deeply flawed, and maybe even a little crazy. (That’s why so many of us got into yoga in the first place –– life seemed impossible without it!)
I’ve recently had dealings with two superstars in the yoga world, both with massive DVD sales and cult followings and lots of media clout. One was helpful, generous, available, and sweet. The other? Well, let’s just say .... not so much.
And the same thing is going to happen to you as a teacher: many people will assume/insist that you should be held to some higher standard of behavior than everyone else.
Before I started teaching, I was chatting with a friend about classes and she brought up a teacher we both knew, who had done something in class –– I don’t remember what ... I think lost her temper or was maybe just cranky –– and the stranger remarked, “Well, she’s a yoga teacher, right –– Isn’t she supposed to be enlightened?”
Yikes! If that’s the standard –– enlightenment –- then absolutely no one I know measures up. How could they?
Yet, in the end, it doesn’t matter all that much. Almost all professions come with some stereotypical preconceptions: accountants are nerdy, lawyers are liars; actors are self-absorbed and artists are impulsive.
Is it really so bad if the ones associated with being a yoga teacher are that you’ll be calm and wise, albeit eating granola?
That at least I can live with.
AND ... Before our final Namaste and OM ...
Again, I treasure those crazy times I was racing around New York City, teaching dozens of classes and hundreds of people, standing on my head for a living. It was wonderful and exhausting and inspiring and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
Like falling in love, if it’s really right for you ... you’ll simply HAVE to do it. No one should –– because no one could –– talk you out of it.
Certainly, not me.
In fact, I wouldn’t dream of it.