Teaching Yoga, Finding Meaning, and Navigating the Rat Race

women on hamster wheel and doing yoga

 

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).

 


21 Comments

  1. Karl

    Thanks for another interesting and insightful analysis Carol. There is definitely something unhealthy in this society, which quite likely helps to explain the surging popularity of yoga today.
    Anyone who’s spent much time with corporate lawyers won’t be much surprised that a young one would yearn for a more meaningful life.
    The problem with the yoga teacher industry, though, seems to be inseparable from the broader ailment of society. This recent yogadork article about certification of training bodies in Colorado http://yogadork.com/2015/01/28/colorado-yoga-studios-are-stuck-in-regulation-standoff-with-the-state
    raises a disturbing double standard. I was rather surprised that yoga dork did not make more of the … hypocrisy? Irony? … of the yoga alliance, which “registers” yoga teacher trainings, arguing that yoga teacher trainings are not vocational, as most attendees do not aspire to be teachers and will not be employed as teachers! No doubt that’s true.
    It’s perhaps also true that most ytt is a marketing technique which offers students a deeper immersion in yoga while provide financial security for the teaching institutions. But the underlying messages i get from this discussion about state registration is that the yoga “industry” appears to be consciously and deliberately marketing a product called teacher training that it is aware does not train students to become teachers. Hence every month, hundreds if not thousands of new teachers are certified to teach yoga by institutions which argue (when it sous them, to avoid state regulation) that the programs are NOT training students to be employed as teachers.
    If the real purpose and genuine merit of such trading is to allow practitioners an opportunity to deepen their practice and realize the self-transformation effects of immersing themselves in a committed 200 or 300 hour training, then perhaps it’s time for the industry to come clean, and name it immersion or self transformation, or something a bit more honest.
    The ytt industry seems to have sacrificed its satya for marketing efficacy. Which is yet another symptom of something very unhealthy in this society.

    • I agree, Karl. I think it’s kind of crazy to teach students, in a YTT programme, (because they are looking for ways to ‘deepen’ their practice) who don’t want to teach, to TEACH.
      I believe if more ‘Yoga Immersion’ type programs were made available, it would be more satisfying (and honest) for everyone!
      I think we are conditioned as a society to want a piece of paper/certificate/proof that a certain level of achievement has been made. Another notch in the belt, so to speak..
      I like the idea of two streams: Deepen Your Practice and Learn To Teach.
      In my experience, they are indeed, two very different things.
      Thanks for addressing this, Carol, in this compassionate, warm-hearted way.

      • I’ve always been interested in deepening my yoga practice and looked in to some YTT but was put off by the Teaching part, which isn’t what my main purpose. These schools and studios are really making a killing monetarily by telling everyone at every level that they can take the course, pass, and teach or not teach, no biggie. It was not sitting well w/me.

  2. This is a wonderfully written post. i appreciate and agree with Carol and Karl on many points. the corruption in yoga — the rat race — is due to the competitive, busy, bipolar nature of the current US (and global) mainstream culture. Yoga and mindfulness are becoming so secular and so popular, which is great, but they are so badly misunderstood by so many teachers with 200-hours of training who then think they are experts and dive into the market desperate for students and a sustainable income. the only reason I still teach yoga is because I live in Guatemala. i don’t know how you all handle this absurd spiritual materialism that’s going on now and just seeming to get worse and worse.

  3. Thank you Carol, for a meaningful contribution to this ongoing debate. I enjoyed the YD article primarily because it echoed some of my own story (albeit exaggerated and in NYC not Sydney, Aus) and highlighted some of the flaws in our current yoga ‘industry’ or ‘culture’ (not sure which word is more appropriate). High achiever with mental health issues shifts to teaching yoga, only to struggle with the financial burden and eventual realisation that this might not work out….

    I think it’s important to recognise that people are drawn to this for reasons beyond the perceived glamorous lifestyle. Seeking reassurance, comfort, and an excuse to practice self-care. The difficulty is that this too can prove an illusion too – it’s hard to practice self-care when you can’t make rent.

    Eventually, personally, I concluded that while I will always teach, it will never be full time. I admire those who can make this work for them, but part of my journey has been recognising my own limitations…Seeing clearly… Letting go…

    Slightly rambling comment, but basically – yes, I agree with your thoughts on this completely. Clarity and compassion seem like a great place to start.

  4. “…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…” and another one just over a week ago. :/

  5. Such an important perspective…thank you, Carol!

  6. Rachael B. (@fearlessyogi)

    Another thought-provoking post, Carol. I’ve received many emails from younger friends graduating from reasonably good UK universities in the past few months, asking for advice regarding yoga teacher training, because their degrees offer so little hope in the current job market. And they haven’t even graduated yet! So, the youthful swathes heading optimistically towards the “yoga rat race” pervade all strata, apart from, of course, those who do not have the means to expensive TT courses.

    I think the trend towards yoga teaching as an escape to a more “meaningful” life follows a general trend towards self-employment, as individuals are lured by the notion of greater autunomy and labour which is less abstracted. Of course, self-employment does often certain freedoms, but it’s always a trade off for greater insecurity (no paid holidays, pension, sick pay, etc.) The big problem, though, is that self employment is not “The Future” (as a recent email subject line from ‘The Idler’ proclaimed) because it offers no way forward, no way out of the capitalist system. We remain subject to capitalism’s death throes, even as freelancers, and also remain subject to this system’s general appropriation of our entire lives and our ability to make sense of the world.

    If our yoga practice has the potentital to teach us anything, it’s that we are all deeply interconnected, both with each other and the planet. And also, that infinite options and possibilities exist even when we’re stuck with something as overwhelming as the status quo. We have to be braver than side-step into self-employment, I think. We have to figure out how to overcome this separation between work and “jobs”, full-stop. Turning yoga practice (work) into a “job” can only ever reinforce the status quo. It’s not useful, or even always possible, for the individual, as you show so well, and it’s no step forward for anyone else either.

    • Rachael, I whole-heartedly agree with what you say here – and really well put.
      As long as being a yoga teacher is a ‘job’ it’s subject to the same pressures as any other job, as well as the further demands made by and insecurity that comes with self-employment.

      • Actually, I think self employment has the potential to be part of developing a new way beyond capitalism and capitalist work structures. However, the individualistic entrepreneur framework that most of the proponents are offering needs to be directly challenged with ideas like co-operatives, gift economy based approaches, time banking, and other such methods. A small percentage of yoga studios are (or have) experimented with this kind of stuff, but the bulk of what we see is capitalist based self employment, which is mostly a dead end. Unless you hit it big.

  7. Thank you, Carol, for the article and encouraging critical thinking.
    While the art of yoga has been reduced to being taught like aerobics and marketed like Insanity, I hope to one day see the profession of yoga teacher become a serious one, akin to acupuncturist or chiropracter or physical therapist. This means more schooling, more regulation, and higher prices for services. This is not possible under the current paradigm, largely supported by the vested interests of the yoga industry – flow factories, franchise studios and the Yoga Alliance.
    Without hinting at the irony of it, the Yoga Alliance issued an official statement on government regulation: https://www.yogaalliance.org/Learn/Article_Archive/Our_Official_Stance_on_Government_Regulation
    As justification AGAINST regulation, YA admits that “most yoga teachers do not even earn a livable income from teaching” and “statistically, most YTT students enroll for personal development, not to begin or further a career path.” Then why dishonestly call it a Yoga Teacher Training? Why not an “Immersive Study of Yoga?”
    I am experimenting in my work as a teacher by focusing on educating students on the why and how while encouraging autonomy in their practice. However, I see that many students have been mindlessly led through sequences and even enjoy it that way. When asked to lead themselves, they falter and become confused. This is a microcosm of the American mind – so accustomed to being led around by the propaganda of the elites. As William Deresiewicz points out, the elites themselves are deeply unhappy under the system their ancestors created to control and neutralize intelligence and wealth.
    I suggest that we seek freedom – not freedom from authority but rather taking authority in our own hands for the sake of ourselves and our communities and the practices yielding inner freedom. Your writings are inspirational. Your words ask difficult questions and for answers do not point us to a guru or a trademarked yoga system.

  8. paul

    the pishko article originally is from thebillfold.com , and i suspect was shopped out to credit.com (she’s a journalist/writer) though too yogadork republished presumably w/o remuneration. the lack of a timeline is suspicious to me, it feels like 3-6 months that this effort to make a living post-training. i’ve no doubt teacher training is framed as a personal interest to avoid being considered vocational training, but at $3k for 200/300hr that’s $10-15/credit hour, plus free studio classes, which isn’t that expensive presuming you’re getting good information (i’ve seen week long retreats for as much- attainable luxury is for the already luxed; they don’t seem to be cognate but the i see same contrast is with how lakṣmī gets interpreted–giving vs. having–with pishko and commercialists dwelling in the latter interpretation). cheaper than other for-profits like phoenix university. she frames her experience as delusional but doesn’t write of anything transformational leaving her pursuit; there is still reliance on pills and quick fixes, “i deserve good things” and other expectations. the implication is that yoga failed her, which is true enough, but in that same line one fails yoga by making it something it’s not, making it a vocation rather than a life(time).

  9. Thank you – you have articulated my concerns concisely. Too many teacher training programmes are being provided for the worst of reasons. Few share the skills that go on behind the scenes that allow one to actually earn a living as a yoga teacher. It’s tough and far from straight forward regardless of where you initially studied for your degree.

  10. Thanks for a great article, Carol. You have a talent for seeing into the fissures and internal contradictions of modern yoga that few others have. I’m looking forward to hearing what teachers and studio owners in DC have to say about your observations and the questions you raise in this essay. One way that I’m dealing with this issue, and something I see as a growing trend, is by offering advanced yoga training courses that are not billed as nor oriented towards producing teachers. Rather, they’re simply meant for practitioners who want to expand their knowledge and deepen their experience of yoga. These modular courses are often bundled into a complete program that adds up to a yoga teaching certification so if someone wants to do that they can, but offering courses that aren’t tied to a TT program has the additional benefit of making the Yoga Alliance requirements a moot point. Yoga studios, especially in smaller markets, would do well to consider this approach as it will make their offerings more attractive to those who don’t want to commit the big bucks and time to a full-blown TT program and they won’t continue to saturate the market with teachers who can’t find gigs. Cashing in on the short-term benefit of a TT program is the same kind of short-term mentality that infects American business as a whole and it’s not sustainable, which is exactly what yoga as a practice ought to be and what yoga as a business ought to model.

  11. Rhonda Travis

    I found Carol’s blog as well as all the well articulated responses very thoughtful. It seems to me the first issue is to address creating two separate streams of in-depth training for students with distinctly different intentions; one for living a more meaningful life through the ancient wisdom principles of Yoga, and another for teaching how to share, i.e. teach this wisdom. Each of us is born with a unique set of attributes that qualify us to offer our inherently Divine potential to the world. Most of us would agree that there exists a distinctive set of attributes possessed by a distinct few; ideally suited to perform the role of teacher. Still, there is great appeal for more and more of us living in today’s “rat race”, to diving deeper into the yogic world as a way to find meaning in all we do. Anyone having read Viktor Frankel’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” understands this search to be an age-old quest. It just happens to be reaching a “critical moment” presently. Elitism of one sort or another (this article focuses on education) is also an ago-old concept that has historically revealed itself to be a facade of idealism rooted in emptiness. The need for spreading truth through the lens of ‘yoga for meaningful living’ can best be achieved through offering a second stream of learning. Many of us who’s unique attributes are well suited to any number of career choices, are otherwise destined to further contribute to the current artifice of the rat-race. As Frankel has suggested, man’s search for meaning is inseparable from who we are at our essence. So long as the wisdom of Yoga infuses individuals with a way to live a more meaningful life, it will serve mankind in whatever direction one applies them self to.

  12. ฉัน คือ คนไทย ฉันขอเขียนภาษาไทย

    ฉันคือผู้ฝึกสอนโยคะ คนหนึ่ง ฉันศึกษา 200 ชั่วโมง ฉันไม่เคยคิดที่จะเป็นครูโยคะ เมื่อฉันเข้าไปศึกษา ฉันเพียงต้องการรู้ว่า โยคะจริงๆ มันคืออะไร? เมื่อฉันจบหลักสูตร 200 ชั่วโมง ฉันก็ยังไม่รู้ ว่าโยคะมันคืออะไร? ฉันรู้แต่ว่า ฉันได้เรียนรู้สิ่งต่างๆ เกี่ยวกับร่างกาย ทั้งภายนอก และภายใน มันยากมากๆ ค่ะ

    ฉันจบหลักสูตร ฉันยังเข้าฝึกโยคะ เป็นประจำ และบ่อยครั้ง ที่ฉันฝึก และศึกษา จากตัวของฉันเอง จนฉันได้รู้จักตัวเองมากขึ้น ฉันจึงขอแสดงความรู้ และแบ่งให้คนรอบๆ ข้าง เหมือนที่ฉันได้พยายาม เรียนรู้ตัวของฉันเอง ให้พวกเขาได้รู้จักตัวเอง ทั้งร่างกาย และลมหายใจ

    ฉันไม่รู้ว่า การเป็นครูโยคะ นั้นสำคัญอย่างไร? เป็นผู้สอน? เป็นการค้า? สำหรับฉันแล้ว ฉันมีความสุขทุกๆ ครั้ง ที่ได้ถ่ายทอด แบ่งปัน และสุขที่สุด ที่พวกเขามีความสุข รอยยิ้ม และมีสุขภาพจิต สุขภาพกายที่ดี และสมบูรณ์ กว่าเดิม

    การที่เราได้รู้จักตัวเอง อยู่กับตัวเอง ตามลมหายใจของตัวเอง มันคือความสุขที่สุดค่ะ

    ทั้งหมดนี้ คือความรู้สึก ที่ฉันได้ถ่ายทอดโยคะ มาเป็นเวลา เกือบ 7 ปี กับหลายๆ คน ทั่วโลก ที่เข้าไปหาฉัน

    ฉัน กับโยคะ โยคะเหมาะสำหรับ กับทุกๆ คน

    Weena Yogasana,

  13. I read this article with great interest, Carol, especially since I’m a Stanford grad. myself. My own experience happened to have been nothing but positive, and was for most of my friends there, but I don’t doubt any of the problems you describe above. i was there in the late sixties, and the things that concerned us were being drafted for the Viet Nam war, race riots in the cities, and leaders being assasinated, etc.

  14. I was a public defender who went through yoga teacher training. I volunteered to teach yoga once a week at a juvenile detention center for 18 months after completing the training. These were wonderful experiences and helped to get me through a tough period in my personal life. Yet I found that teaching yoga was starting to become a ‘job’ that required a great deal of marketing and self-promotion. If that’s what I had to do for work, it was better for me to do it as a ‘lawyer’ than as a ‘yoga teacher.’

  15. An additional concern in churning out factory-like yoga teacher certification is the harm an inexperienced and badly educated new teachers can do to new students – either in physical term (aggressive and often incorrect adjustments, or failure to recognize or correct misalignments) or spiritual term or both. Far too many new teachers nowadays are essentially advanced yoga practitioners without the gift of teaching. I’ve experienced quite a few and now that I’ve been exposed to better teachers, I see how harmful some teachers could be. Also very disheartening is seeing once-good teachers mentally beaten down and became mediocre, or get very little attendance (thus lower income, presumably) because he/she doesn’t teach the show-offism acrobatic type yoga that is so popular these days. For the record, I’m not saying there’s no place for acrobatic yoga, I enjoy it and strive for some of these poses myself; however, too many times the very foundation of yoga as mind (primary) and body (secondary) practice gets lost or never even made an appearance.

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