September 12, 2012

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

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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