Yoga Burnout

How to deal with it and prevent it.

Anna Kelleher

Yoga teacher Burnout is not so different from any other type of work-related burnout, but does have its unique characteristics. A teacher, or any worker, may begin to feel reluctance to go to work; experience anxiety and exhaustion or  strong emotions such as anger, resistance, or sorrow; become disorganized; have injuries; feel impatient with students or other staff;  or even feel a sense of meaningless within the context of yoga or whatever the work happens to be.

Burnout is when you have, in any work capacity, given too much of yourself and not maintained the balance between work and play, self and other, that all humans need. Living in a capitalist society, especially the urban centers where yoga is popular, requires the average yogi to work more frenetically than is in alignment with health and wellbeing.

The reason it is important to mention capitalism is to include within the question of individual burnout the systemic issues to which we must have a collective response. As slaves to money, modern Western yogis have different imperatives than yogis faced in the past. This is true not just for yogis, but for anyone who is dependent on the pursuit of money.

In addition to taking individual steps to prevent burnout, to truly solve the problem, we must look to collective solutions. After all, capitalism is not working. If nothing else, the harm caused by over consumption has led to environmental problems that cause a back drop of incredible stress. If you add in global wars and an unstable economy, the stage for burnout is set.

Having addressed collective causes of burnout, let’s address specifics. The special issues for yoga teachers include generally low rates of pay, fragmented schedules, physical exhaustion, and the alienation that comes from doing work that is primarily solo and not well-understood by the general public, as well as the responsibility yoga teachers have to their students.

First, many of us live in urban centers where the cost of living is high. Yet yoga, in general, is not a high-paying profession (of course there are notable exceptions). In fact, the goal of yoga is not making money. In order to make a lot of money doing yoga, a shift in focus must take place away from living a traditionally yogic lifestyle. To be an exemplary teacher requires practice, study, working with a teacher, following up with students, and following a yogic lifestyle. In other words, a modern yogi must be a householder and a yogi and the bulk of the work involved with yoga is unpaid. If you also have children or other financial pressures, this difficulty is compounded.

Yoga teaching also involves fragmentation much of the time. The yoga teacher who doesn’t run around from place to place teaching, practicing, trying to figure out when to eat, and where to put fliers is rare. This is vata aggravation and takes its toll.

Yoga teaching is also physically demanding work. It is important to prioritize sleeping and eating well, resting, playing, and letting go. It is important to keep up our own practices, whatever they are. After all, that is why we teach yoga. Practice is not a luxury. Practice is walking the talk. But what about the laundry?

Yoga teachers are, to paraphrase Buddhist meditation teacher Noah Levine, going against the stream. The type of life to which we aspire is at odds with the general culture. How do we live yogically but stay in connection with those who are doing the opposite? The question is often posed, how do we live in the world, but not of it? Without sangha, this leads to a sense of loneliness, especially when everyone you know is working so hard just trying to make a living and may not have time to sit and have a coffee (besides, they are off caffeine and dairy).

Finally, yoga teaching is a big responsibility. I teach Ageless Yoga, which means many of my classes are geared towards people in their 50s or older. The up side is that these are conscientious, wise, and dedicated students. On the other hand, many are dealing with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. Even as a baseline, yoga students are, in many cases, coming to yoga as truth seekers. They want to share. They may want to get to know you. They look up to you and often feel a sense of connection or even dependence on you. And yet, you haven’t paid your bills, the laundry is waiting, there are dishes in the sink and you would like to lie in the sun with a friend. Instead, you practice and return the call to the student with aching shoulder.

Addressing burnout is a question of addressing the truth about your situation on two levels: First, what is causing burnout that you cannot control or cure on your own? Is it possible to find community and seek collective answers or at least support? Second, what do you need to do to take care of yourself so that you are being true to the yamas and the niyamas of yoga, which may be translated in modern parlance to “compassion and self-care”. In other words, nonharming is our first principle and the first person not to harm is yourself. You are God’s expression.

www.YouSmellLikeYoga.com (Anna’sblog)  www.materiamedica.be (Anna’s website)   www.yogagardensf.com (where Anna teaches 5 classes a week)

Anna Kelleher is the Principle of Materia Medica, a San Francisco based business providing Ayurvedic consultation, Yoga instruction, and holistic massage. She has been studying, practicing, and teaching since 1993. Ayurveda, Yoga, and Massage work together to teach the art and science of self-healing with a focus on self-responsibility, spiritual upliftment, and reverence for nature. Anna’s intention is to help others create lifestyles that support them in reaching their full and unique potential.

Anna holds an advanced degree from UC Berkeley as well as certifications in Iyengar Yoga, Ayurveda, and Holistic Massage. Her teachers include the staff of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco, The World School of San Francisco, and Kerala Ayurveda Academy. She has had the wonderful fortune to study directly with Iyengars both in the United States and in Pune, India.

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3 Comments»

  Hilary Lindsay wrote @

Anna, this is a beautifully articulated and thoughtful commentary on yoga in America.

I’m right there with you. Peace and love to you.

  mary bruce wrote @

Thank you for so clearly recognizing and articulating the real challenges today’s yoga teacher face.

  juicykali wrote @

Namaste, Thank you so much, such a helpful, insightful article. I especially found helpful the idea of the strong vata influence on the typical lifestyle of a yoga teacher. So true! And i am high vata anyway, lol! I am pretty new at teaching, only 2 years under my belt & already feeling some burn out recently. This article was very helpful, thanks so much, wishing you many blessings


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