Teaching Yoga, Finding Meaning, and Navigating the Rat RacePosted on Feb 5, 2015 in Blog
Yesterday, I stumbled across an interesting sounding post – “How I Went Broke Trying to Teach Yoga” – on Credit.com, a platform I’d never heard of that has nothing to do with yoga. (“Expert Advice. Better Financial Decisions” is its tagline.) A humorous yet harrowing account of the downward financial spiral set into motion when the author went from being a well-paid corporate lawyer to a bankrupt yoga teacher, I initially wondered whether it was satirical. This was particularly true given that I’d read her bio, which noted that she has a JD from Harvard Law School. Surely someone with such credentials would know not to trust her woo-woo yoga teacher’s assurances that “the Universe” would provide if she just “set the proper intention” and was “mindful” enough?
Apparently not. And when I saw her post going viral on Facebook and the flood of sympathetic comments pouring in, I knew that I needed to reconsider my initial reaction. “This wasn’t over the top at all. I feel it accurately reflects what it’s like to be a full-time yoga teacher in the current climate. The studios are churning out 100s of newly ‘certified’ teachers every year and the market can’t support it. Pay has gone way down. I’m a well-established teacher and I really struggle,” wrote one woman. True enough: I knew about these issues. Yet there was still that Harvard Law degree. Because I also know what sorts of doors that opens for you. How to explain the jump from elite lawyering to teaching yoga in such a difficult market, seemingly with eyes tight shut?
Meaninglessness and Depression
Of course, we don’t know the personal details at play in that particular case. But, as it so happened, I got a lot of general insight into my question last night when I decided to brave the brutal Chicago weather and venture out to attend a book talk by William Deresiewicz, author of the recently published Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. I’d read Deresiewicz’s viral article, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” and as a former professor who’s currently in the process of starting to think about colleges for my oldest son, I was intrigued.
Deresiewicz taught at Yale for 10 years, so when he characterizes elite Ivy League students as follows, he’s speaking from his own experience:
Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.
In his talk, he recounted that he’s received countless letters and emails from kids who resonate with what he’s saying. He said that when he goes to speak at elite campuses like Brown and Stanford, students fill up the auditorium and spill out into the hallway. They are grateful that someone’s finally broadcasting their dirty little secret: although society crowns them as the cream of the crop, a stunning percentage feel lost and depressed.
Deresiewicz shared that when he spoke with parents at an elite high school in Palo Alto recently – in the heart of Silicon Valley’s enormous wealth and privilege – he learned that their community was in the process of recovering from a rash of teenage suicides. Five kids from the same school had serially thrown themselves on the tracks in front of oncoming trains during the past year.
Yoga and Life Force
Now I know that some of you more hard-hearted types may be saying, what’s wrong with these privileged little shits? If I had that kind of opportunity, you *know* I’d appreciate it and do better. And that may be true – in your case. But when a society experiences such strange new epidemics of mental health problems, it cannot and should not be reduced to the weakness of particular individuals. There’s something happening in the culture that’s sick, that’s literally sucking the life force out of youth who supposedly have everything to live for.
And that’s where the yoga comes in. I remembered the Credit.com writer with the Harvard Law degree and how much she wanted to find something more meaningful to do with her life than work as a corporate lawyer. Again, I certainly can’t speak for her, and don’t know what her deeper experiences and motivations really were. But the juxtaposition of her story with Deresiewicz’s made me think about just how many people are unhappy with the choices that school and work seem to offer today. Because if it’s that bad at the top, it’s even worse elsewhere – not everywhere, of course, but many are suffering much more, and without the same attention, concern, resources, or opportunities.
At its best, yoga provides a critical space to energize our life force so that we can begin to explore what it is to be human in a meaningful way. A good class, whether at a gym, studio, or jail, creates a safe container in which we can relax into being ourselves without competition or artifice. Where we can tap into something powerful, elemental, and mysterious, without anyone dictating how we should understand that and what we must do about it. Where we can work and play. Build strength and relax deeply. Open up to what we’re really feeling, let that energy move through us, and alchemize it into something newly liberating and empowering.
Navigating the Rat Race
Seen from this perspective, there’s actually really good reasons that a Harvard Law school grad might be driven to suspend disbelief and hope to be able to make a living in what’s become a highly competitive yoga market. But sadly, she ended up jumping out of one rat race and into another. And when teaching yoga becomes another rat race, it undercuts the integrity of the practice. It’s no wonder that more and more yoga teachers have been running themselves ragged and/or coming up with questionable marketing gimmicks. Somehow this downward spiral needs to stop.
The yoga community needs to find better ways of helping people connect the deeper experiences they discover through practice with the rest of their lives. Yoga teacher training is often an incredible experience, and well worth the investment even if you can’t subsequently make a living as a teacher. But everyone who does want to try to do so should understand the real world risks they’re taking on. Telling struggling teachers that “the Universe” will provide if they only “set their intention” mindfully enough is dishonest. It also undercuts studios and teachers who are managing to offer meaningful yoga classes and still make it financially by flooding the market with more and more competition. Plus, it reinforces that horribly insidious sense that if you don’t become a yoga superstar, it’s because there’s something deeply wrong with you as an individual. In the overwhelming majority of cases, this simply isn’t true. The reality of the labor market is what it is, whether we like it or not. And it’s a tough one.
I wish I had easy answers to offer on these issues, but I don’t. I do know that I don’t want to see talented college students dragged down by meaninglessness and depression. I also don’t want to see yoga’s ability to offer a meaningful space of refuge and regeneration to them and everyone else be undercut by market dynamics. But changing the educational system or the “yoga industry” isn’t easy. Perhaps the first step is to see what’s happening more clearly (Vidya) so that we can be more discerning about how to navigate these difficult realities (Viveka) and more compassionate to ourselves and others in the process (Karuna).