The Personal Politics of Making a Living as a Yoga Teacher: Where Social Grace & Respect Still Need Work. ~ Heather Morton

Via on Sep 12, 2012

As a teacher and student of a tradition that I’ve been studying and practicing for the last twelve years, I understand how many people may or may not consider this as sacred ground.

Given the popularity of yoga today just about anyone can hang up a shingle with as little as a two hundred hour training program.

But what happens when you informally train a teacher to cover classes in your absence and they walk away claiming to be formally trained and start teaching your former students?

I will tell you what happens, you recognize it is a free world, filled with hypocrisy, other people’s need over your own and in general no one owes you anything. But you try to remember it is still a beautiful world.

A long-standing student of mine once told me when he first approached yoga schools and teachers, he had the misconception that yoga people (especially the teachers) would be different.

He thought they would be demonstrating the higher values of compassion, kindness, generosity and integrity. I don’t think he was expecting to take free classes, but as he made his way from teacher to teacher and yoga school to yoga school he found out, which is in his own words,

“Guess what? They were no different than anyone else.”

I have personally struggled with these issues both as a student and teacher of yoga and as someone who does not want to pretend something does not bother me when it does. I want to be able to speak out when I feel violated and not simply accept it as “business, my dear.”

I also struggled intensely with making my vocation as a business and not making my business my vocation.

Sure, we want to be nice people, but why pretend we don’t get upset, angry or frustrated. And more than this why not play fair, be honest and remember what the holy book says, “Do unto others as you would have done to yourself?”

Indeed it is business and I know a lot about that after running a successful yoga school for fifteen years. I developed it as a niche in which I did not offer drop-ins or single classes other than private ones. I created my own yoga programs from the ground up with little support from my family who were waiting on the side-lines for me to get a real job. I became well known in my community for offering detailed classes, giving a large amount of attention to learning yoga and in being present for students as they progressed. I was known as being as committed to my own progress as I was to my students (and that is a lot).

For some people the school was too limited in size, scope and the payment was not to scale of a typical yoga center. However, I made no apology as I ran my school and taught the programs and classes in the way I felt was traditional (progressive classes, personalized instruction and guidance), which was very effective in having people learn yoga.

Overall, both new and old students expressed the feeling they had learned more by being in a smaller class with hands-on teaching.

The entire concept of the school took me over ten years to fully crystallize. During those years I worked hard with several of the same students. It became an extended family. They grew and evolved as I also grew and evolved. We struggled together, met with personal differences and resistances, but the greater good was always born in mind.

And that was to teach yoga, remember yoga and to swallow my own pride.

So, you know, when a student turned off the lights in my school I did not hit the roof. I just questioned who wanted the lights low and turned them back on. When a student bitched to me about the hardwood floor, I told her to wear knee pads instead. And when a beginner student said, “Relax, darling, I am doing my best” I simply said, “Me too” and continued to teach.

Because I had run the school as a one-woman show, I taught all the classes and workshops. Over the fifteen years I did not see the way my private life suffered as my role of teacher and student was number one. So as life happens my private ambitions surfaced. I met my partner, got married and moved—all of which took place in the last six months.

This meant I closed my yoga school (not easy) and left a lot of what I had created (very, very hard) as well as my country (not half as bad).

I share this story because when it comes to bringing in an instructor trained in a different tradition of yoga, and to teach in your yoga school while you’re away, there’s an etiquette that should be followed (or at least acknowledged).

It sucks to say that yoga people are not different from “non-yogic” people, but in truth I have often found a more honest demeanor from the guy pumping petrol than from some yoga students and teachers.

As the story goes I had a teacher come to study with me for only a year. She had become interested in the tradition that I taught and even in buying the school. There were discussions on taking a training program from me to become authorized (not certified) in the tradition in which I am certified. (To be certified comes from the source itself and traveling to India.) She declined both the training course and purchasing the school on the grounds that she could not afford it and had to honor her position financially.

Later on when I closed my school (which could not be sold) she began teaching programs in the same yoga tradition taught at my former school. She also contacted my students whom I consider to be gems (i.e., the kind who will be with one teacher for many years to come) to study with her.

Since yoga seems to be well infected with people feeling bad about turning it into a business, but at the same time not remorseful in making money for their work, this situation sheds light how much we all need to learn about professionalism, giving credit where due and giving thanks when required.

I never got a thanks.

In a clinical situation such as as a physiotherapy or chiropractor a monetary sum might have been worked out for accumulating what are life-time clients/students. In the yoga world it should not be considered bad to expect it either. After all, it was fifteen years on my end and at least eight to nine years of teaching students who are now well-conditioned to learn the tradition further (maybe or maybe not).

We all know students do not grow on a tree and “good” students are hard to find.

As teachers continue to hold themselves out as authentic, true and only giving back, I would caution people to clearly review what it means as a living practice and not as a nice sounding theory.

These are the lessons we can all learn from—the teacher, the student, the reader and the writer—but perhaps not including the guy pumping petrol.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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About Heather Morton

Before yoga, Heather Morton began what looked like a promising modelling career. Feeling estranged from the modelling world, Heather altered her path by living and working in South Korea for several years. Today, Heather is a dedicated yoga student having made 15 trips to India in 15 years to study under her teachers. She is first Canadian teacher to be certified both in the 1st & 2nd series of AtmaVikasa Yoga. Heather holds many yoga certificates including university degrees. Her Masters of Education was an ethnographic thesis on Yoga for children in the Indian educational system. For 15 years she ran The Yoga Way (TYW) offering classes with personal training. As its founding director, Heather developed yoga programs making TYW the only school not to be a 'drop-in' centre in Toronto. Heather produced podcasts, manuals, videos, a teacher training text and instructional dvds and cds. Freedom of the Body dvd is an instructional practice video on backbending yoga. Heather has been featured in The Globe & Mail, Toronto Life magazine and other media sources and shares her experiences in writing on several on-line sites. More recently, Heather took a leap of faith over the pond and into family life by residing in Germany near the Swiss border. Find her on facebook.

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16 Responses to “The Personal Politics of Making a Living as a Yoga Teacher: Where Social Grace & Respect Still Need Work. ~ Heather Morton”

  1. cathy says:

    I don
    t quite get what you are saying. It seems that in a round about way you want to call herout .. yet she didnt want to buy the school- which would or could have help more requirements and strings to teaching just as you had and also takign classes from you or India. You dold it. She started teaching somewhere in that sma city. She contacted your old students after you sold and moved.. and taught in a similar fashion.

    People copy. People deicde to profit froma transition.

    I hope you rmarriage and move have let you a new happier fuller dimension life. Yoga is truly only yoga.. stretch, breathe, align, maybe chant, maybe do pilates or situps.. add some balance tricks.. better anatomy combinations of all of this in a different way with knowledge and a personable teacher. I amgetting trained also to be a teacher and have studied many schools, ideologies.. breathe, stand tall, bend, flex, contract, check alignment use chakra and energy systems.. its yoga. No one owns it or is that much greater than another.

  2. Heather Morton Heather says:

    Hi Cathy,

    I am saying in this post that, yes, while people copy, profit and make money off of others as a professional or even lack of being one a thank you, a simple gesture of gratitude should be in order. It becomes annoying when the people who claim to be so authentic and following the principles of the Yogic lifestyle as this teacher is do not demonstrate it in real and practical means.

    But you are right…Yoga is yoga…stretch, bend, etc….For me, however, it was much more given that I developed and created a yoga school, which was not my original ambition or interest (something that evolved on its own). Running your own school is a lot different than teaching at a center or school.

    No one owns Yoga, but when we clearly borrow from others in a very direct way…again, it should be acknowledged instead of grabbing what you can and running away. And I am sure, because I ran a smaller school it was more personal to me….for a number of obvious reasons.

    Thanks for reading….The city was also not so small…Toronto…but that was not a relevant point to mention.

    • coco says:

      But you are making a huge big deal about what this teacher SHOULD do .. on an international website instead of contacting her or the students?

      • Heather Morton Heather says:

        What is there to say? I cannot police people….but I can share a story.

        Thanks!

        • cathy says:

          You can't polic epeople. You can contact them directly. You can make a post in your city's yoga website. You can write to your old customers. You can trash her on Yelp.

          You can deal wiht things mor edirectly. I understand that you somehow feel she stoel something from you.. YOU moved. The students probably wanted to contineu with a style of yoga which served them well. if you want royalties.. then take a legal stance. I guess whiel I hear your frustration which I would likely feel in a ssimilar situation.. I also feel that you didnt reach out and either trademark your brand; make your old students swear to nto study fromcertain fakers or make or tell her to stop.
          How do you truly know how she contacted your old students.. did she pull a list from your computer? Or did she run into one at a food coop? Or did she put out big newspaper ads sayign she woudl be taking over your yogastyle?

          • Heather Morton Heather says:

            "Police' was used in a tongue and cheek way. :-)

            I did not mention this, Cathy, but I HAD contacted her via e-mail regarding the above and there was NO reply.

            I was not about to send out multiple mails….

            Writing is a way to sort out one's view, come to a better understanding and perhaps to some extent (such as this forum) hear from others and exchange ideas…That never hurts.

            The style/type of yoga that I teach and have been certified in cannot be trademarked. It should also be noted that the creator of that system has gone to great lengths to protect his TEACHER TRAINING PROGRAMS so that teachers understand what that means (teaching) and using the name.

            So, I have left it in the hands of greater forces….and advised my teacher….In essence, one should not use a name of a system in which they have NOT been formally trained while others have spent good money, time, effort and multiple trips to India to receive. I worked hard to gain the respect of my teacher and to be where I am at.

            I appreciate your comments, Cathy…and thanks so much for writing! It is more than frustrating but a breech of trust…and when I saw she did not respond to my e-mail after personal counsel sessions for free (her gaining a better idea of running a school and blah blah) ….I understood she did not want to face the situation….which says a lot in itself.

            In the end, I shared this story so others can understand things…and to free myself too….as Robert Frost says, LIFE GOES ON.

        • Vision_Quest2 says:

          It probably goes to show that the students came over to her via word of mouth. The best students find the best teachers that way–word of mouth trumps convenient location and long hours of operation; sometimes, it even doesn't matter how the teacher came to teach.

          I make sure to talk about finding good venues via word of mouth in my reviews on Yelp, and despite low activity (and not, for instance, reviewing the latest, hippest hot-spots); my reviews don't get filtered out.

          If it turns out, over time, that the teacher actually sucks, is a one-trick pony and runs out of steam–I am sure her business would spiral down soon … and that will be karma enough …

          • Heather Morton Heather says:

            Well, not really, they knew of her because she taught in my school..and I eased the way for her to do so…including gently convincing my students to study with her while I away. I had to build their confidence on that….as they were not sure about her…re: being new to them…and her background, etc…..Some of them would NOT have stayed on during that time period had I NOT influenced them to do so.

            They trusted me and because I had her teaching in my school….that says I think she is pretty good. But in truth she was not formally trained enough in the system to then go out and name it as such. She declined being taught a formal program that would have provided her with the ability to do so AND a greater student list (aka all the students who ever crossed the threshold of The Yoga Way).

            I appreciate you writing…..it's the way things go….re: my karma too…..However, I will always feel a simple thanks should have been in order….

            Maybe some parents just don't teach their kids to be grateful! :-0))

  3. thirtydaysofyoga says:

    You are clearly upset. I'm pretty sure your article is a reaction to your unfair treatment by the person who obviously talked to you about buying from you but changed their mind and I can get how you must be feeling; I'm so sorry, it's heartbreaking when you feel you've been let down, especially by someone you trusted.

    However, you've been quite honest, which is great as it offers another truth and a different perspective to us reading your article: you shut up shop and moved across the country….I am a follower of yours on facebook and looked at your website previously…..and you are clearly unhappy that another, less qualified and able yoga teacher didn't buy the studio from you for financial reasons but started teaching anyway. She taught 'your' students…the ones who were left without a teacher?

    You think the guy that pumps petrol has a more honest demeanour than yoga students and teachers. I've read quite a lot of yogi bashing on EJ recently; I get it but in every occasion, the article writer seems to be clinging on to external factors and not being entirely honest to themselves or fair to others. In my humble opinion.

    "He thought they would be demonstrating the higher values of compassion, kindness, generosity and integrity. I don’t think he was expecting to take free classes, but as he made his way from teacher to teacher and yoga school to yoga school he found out, which is in his own words, Guess what? They were no different than anyone else.” This part actually makes me sad; I guess this is your way of expressing this as a possible truth but it is neither true nor untrue. We're all just human. In my experience, luckily, I've found a lot of yogis and yoga teachers to have these higher values but in all fairness, I'd not usually notice, unless it became apparent by a lovely act of kindness…which it has…or the opposite. I've experienced such things from non yogis too of course.

    As for the teaching experience, authorised, certified or otherwise….from little acorns, great oak trees grow.

    I'm thinking this was cathartic for you and for that reason, I'm glad you wrote it and I got to read it. Namaste. –,-'@

  4. Heather Morton Heather says:

    I used the 'guy pumping petrol' as a way to show that in the end people are people, yoga or no yoga….And I shared the living example of my student to reveal what others have 'expected' to find and didn't, which opens up another can of worms. Re: what students expect from teachers…

    I personally found many yoga teachers hard working, honest and interested in human evolution. But I also found the opposite and in the example I shared.

    I would have felt better if the individual had acknowledged where she was getting this new information from. Students were left without a teacher..and a training program was even offered to teach in the tradition.

    But like the old saying goes, "why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free."

    Yes, it was cathartic for me to have written this piece….which for many is a reason to write. Thanks for reading.

    Heather

  5. Heather Morton Heather says:

    By the way, I was also saddened by the comment regarding how yoga people are not different from others and the seemingly inevitable outcome it seemed to imply.

    It was also surprising to hear, because it was said just before a meditation class and in response to another student who was bitching/gossiping about why so and so had opened their own school (with the underlying feeling of WHO do these people think they are??!).

    Indeed and just before coming to meditate these comments are not helpful…..and prove we cannot control where people start off from, but as a teacher one can certainly try to redirect the course. As a teacher is best not to include personal commentaries on such..and stick to the main focus at hand…whatever that is…

    But these are all stories for another time.

    Best,
    Heather

  6. Angela says:

    I think this is a relevant and important article! As a yoga teacher myself I often hear about these things and struggle with "the business of yoga" and it's a huge business! I am sure your treasured students will miss you very much! Thank you for sharing your journey… I wish you all the best in India and look forward to your posts, videos and articles!

  7. Heather Morton Heather says:

    Hi Angela, Thank you so much for this.

    It is an issue and probably more than one entangled into the whole thing….

    I always feel we can learn from personal stories as remedies for better actions, behaviors and understandings in the future.

  8. Mary says:

    As a yoga student, I totally understand what you mean in your post. A similar situation happened in the city where I used to live, where a fantastic teacher created this group of 20-30 students, making us love and commit to the yoga path. When he leaved, also due to personal life choices, another teacher received the full bunch of students. I know your post might sound like a rant to some "practical" people, but it is a very delicate situation which requires a lot of respect and acknowledgment for the years of hard work and dedication.

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