Originally published on May 6, 2007; revised with additions on April 1, 2013
In February 2007, a reporter from the New York Times interviewed me and my now-wife Lela Schneidman for an article about “young yoga teachers”. We were 26 and had been teaching for under two years.
It was exciting – they even sent a photographer to take our pictures – and the article was published on March 8 in the “Fashion and Styles” section. Maybe that should have been a warning that it was not going to be the nuanced article we hoped it would be. The photo looked great, but we were dismayed to see ourselves misquoted and misrepresented, and young teachers generally disrespected. We felt the reporter missed the interesting aspects of the story, so I wrote the following in an attempt to offer my own reflections on the issue.
Yoga: a (spiritual) growth industry
The number of yoga teachers in America is growing rapidly, and many of the new teachers are in their 20’s. What is fueling this growth spurt? Perhaps most fundamentally, yoga has become mainstream and the demand has increased dramatically. Baby boomers are looking for something to ease aching backs. Working adults are looking for more than just physical fitness. Stress relief and mental development are now part of the health paradigm. This is a good thing. The world faces some serious challenges in the 21st century, and we need as many conscious, loving, healthy people as possible.
Because of the growing popularity of yoga, there is money to be made. Studios are opening up everywhere, some with well-honed business plans and franchise schemes. Many of them offer their own teacher training programs, which is both financially rewarding and supplies a steady stream of teachers for the studio. Gyms are opening “mind-body studios”; corporate fitness centers are adding lunchtime yoga programs; and some hospitals are starting to incorporate yoga classes addressed to different health needs, such as cardiovascular disease or cancer wellness.
Young teachers should be commended for choosing such a challenging career with so little job security, not judged as opportunistic.
So: we need more teachers! Especially teachers willing to work for a small amount of money. I want to make this point clearly, as the New York Times article seemed to think that young adults were becoming yoga teachers because it’s “easy money.” Teaching yoga is wonderful, satisfying, sometimes blissful; but it is NOT easy. To quote my teacherTom Gillette, it is a “path of fire.” Class attendance, and therefore income, can vary wildly. Many new teachers will travel a long distance to teach a class, only have two students, and get paid a tiny amount (maybe $25). Over months and years, classes will build, but it takes great faith and determination. Young teachers should be commended for choosing such a challenging career with so little job security, not judged as opportunistic.
Given the difficulty of teaching yoga, what is attracting all the new teachers? I am reluctant to make generalizations, so I will stick to telling our story (which was totally elided in the Times article) and suggest some larger issues that may inspire other teachers.
After college, we traveled in Asia for more than a year, mostly in India and Thailand. One of the great gifts of extended travel is that you have a chance to explore what exactly you want out of life. With no job, no rent to pay, no homework to finish, no reports to write, and all necessities cheaply available, your only duty becomes the satisfaction of your desires. Especially in a poor country like India, even a little bit of U.S. money makes you rich. You can fully indulge your appetite for good food, for beautiful sites, for intense experience, for spiritual knowledge, for companionship. It’s a chance to test the common hypothesis that “if only I didn’t have to do X and Y, then I would be happy.”
But it turns out that total material freedom is not all it’s cracked up to be. By the end of our trip, we were exhausted by the pursuit of pleasure. Faced with the chance to see yet another ancient Javanese temple at the end of a day of touring, we decided to take a nap in the Jeep instead. We grew tired of Indian curry and hunted vainly for a restaurant that served Mexican food. Novelty began to wear thin, and living only for ourselves began to feel selfish. We sought out volunteer situations, where we had daily obligations. We spent 10 days in a silent meditation retreat, sitting for long periods and sleeping on concrete slabs. These were some of our best experiences in Asia.
The clear implication was that our lasting happiness would depend on finding a fulfilling way to spend our days (a.k.a our job), rather than making so much money that we could have everything we wanted.
So what to do? As our trip came to an end, we faced a wide-open future. We had very few possessions, and just enough money to move to any city in the US and start our adult life together. Where would we plant ourselves? What path would we take? I had a degree in computer science, so I could potentially get on a career track that would lead to material success. Lela had tons of experience in education, and could easily get a job in that field. Yet neither of these options were very attractive to us. Sitting in front of a computer for endless hours does terrible things to your body, and Lela felt less than inspired to teach after some difficult experiences in AmeriCorp. It didn’t make sense to spend the majority of our waking hours doing something that wore us down, just to make money.
We both felt deeply committed to spiritual practice, mostly yoga and meditation. We found out that the Kripalu Yoga Center offered a one month residential teacher training program, which was perfect for us since we didn’t yet reside anywhere. But it seemed ridiculous to try to make a living as a yoga teacher. We worried that our parents would think we were wasting our college degrees teaching yoga. We worried that we’d fail to get any students and have to borrow money from our parents. What if we wanted to have children – could we support them just by teaching yoga? Would yoga become just another job, another capitalist undertaking, and lose its spiritual foundation?
We couldn’t imagine a better job: to spend our working hours helping other people (including ourselves) be healthy and happy.
But it seemed worth the risk. We couldn’t imagine a better job: to spend our working hours helping other people (including ourselves) be healthy and happy. From our experience in Asia, we knew this would satisfy us far more than a stable, high-paying job. We both believed in the power of yoga to transform the body and the mind, and we knew we had the skills to teach it well. We had our families’ support, and each other. And we knew someone who was making it work in New York City of all places, so at least it was possible.
One final motivation was our desire to follow the Buddhist principle of Right Livelihood. Part of the Buddhist path is to make a living in a way that helps others, or at least does not cause them to suffer. With 24-hour news and the Internet, it is impossible to miss the fact that many people throughout the world are suffering greatly. I grew up with a lingering sense of guilt that I was so well off, when so many others were starving or sick or dying. I felt obligated to help the world in some way. But I wanted to help directly, immediately, not just through fund raising or letter writing. Therefore, when yoga started to transform my own life in a direct and immediate way, I thought “This works so well. Maybe I can help bring this to others.” Faced with a world in crises, I think many new teachers are motivated by the same desire: to make a positive difference, rather than a steady paycheck.
Worth, Wealth and Authority
The main concern of the New York Times article was “Is it ok that there are so many young teachers?” It suggested that, beyond procedural knowledge, yoga teachers need to have an aura of worldly experience, or “gravitas”, in order to be successful/worthy teachers. This is a complicated question, which can be clarified with an example: if a 20-year old and a 50-year old both do the same teacher training, will the older person be inevitably better than the younger? Surely not. If the 50-year old has just begun practicing yoga in the past year, but the 20-year old has been doing yoga since middle school, the younger teacher may well have more insight into yoga. Clearly it is more useful to talk about years of experience practicing and teaching, not just years of living.
It would be ideal if every yoga teacher in America had 30 years of experience, but there are not enough senior teachers to meet the growing demand. Purely on a practical level, we need experientially-younger teachers. I sometimes get a sense that older teachers resent the influx of younger teachers. This sentiment is sometimes expressed as worry that the teachings are being “diluted” or postures taught irresponsibly – though of course older teachers were beginners once, too. I think the deeper feeling is that new teachers are not teaching for “pure reasons”, and they’re going to “steal” students from the older teachers (who are implicitly more worthy of financial success.)
Money causes trouble. Now that it’s possible to make a good living as a yoga teacher, it’s tempting to assume that you must be a good teacher if you’re making a good living. And conversely, if you’re not really successful, with big classes and a devoted following, you must not be a very good teacher. This creates feelings of jealously, competition, and judgmental thinking – none of which are helpful. So this is the double edged sword of modern yoga – there is enough money available that we can devote ourselves to the craft of teaching full time, but because it is an economic pursuit there is a greater risk of selfish behavior.
Ideally, yoga teachers are more than just groovy exercise instructors – they are guides to self-realization.
Another potent question raised by the article is: what qualifies someone to teach yoga? To me, this is the major issue in modern yoga. Ideally, yoga teachers are more than just groovy exercise instructors – they are guides to self-realization. This does not mean they are Gurus, Sages or otherwise Spiritual Authorities. But it is important that a yoga teacher have some experiential understanding of what he or she is teaching. Because of the surging popularity of yoga, and the low admission standards of training programs, there are definitely some newly-certified teachers (who could just as well be 45 as 18) who are just beginning to explore the spiritual basis of yoga practice. Is this a problem? Should there be some kind of regulation to prevent people from becoming teachers on a whim, to make sure they are “serious practitioners”?
But how can this be regulated? A multiple choice test? A board of yoga masters who approve each teacher? There are so many styles of yoga, some of them in direct contradiction of each other. Who will agree on the standards? The Yoga Alliance offers a general, voluntary standard for teacher training programs, but it has not yet achieved any enforceable authority. At best, a national standard can guarantee competence in leading postures and other techniques. The ineffable qualities of a “great teacher” cannot be taught – only nurtured.
On the bright side, as more and more people do yoga, there is a growing appreciation of good teachers, just as American’s taste for coffee has become considerably more refined with the spread of Starbucks. Over time, it is the students who will decide who should be teaching yoga, and in theory the average quality of teaching should increase as students become more choosy. Competition is especially fierce for students interested in athletic, flowing, sweaty yoga classes. But there are so many potential students with different needs – such as senior citizens, office workers, and children – who are still under-served. Teachers who are not getting students in their vinyasa classes might do well to change their focus, or relocate to an area with fewer teachers to the benefit of students in that area. Surely this is a better outcome than restricting yoga to a few select teachers, which limits student choice and does not encourage teachers to keep improving and innovating.
Is there a risk that yoga will become too popularized, watered down to suit the whims of modern students? It’s true that some teachers (especially in health clubs) have dropped many of the more esoteric or overtly spiritual elements from their classes. Yoga may become little more than another workout option, along with Kickboxing and Step Aerobics. But I see a hunger in my students for a deeper experience. They may be attracted to yoga for the work-out, but they stay because they can tell there is more to it than exercise.
Also, the idea that there is an undiluted, ancient form of postural yoga does not fit with the historical record. Yogis and yoginis have been adapting their teachings to meet the particular needs of their students for centuries. I am trained in the Kripalu yoga tradition, which has its roots in a bunch of wild yogis called the Pashupats who walked around naked, covered in dung. Certainly I am not obligated to do the same. The Pashupats were trying to dampen their egos by causing others to revile them. I am trying to bring health and happiness to as many people as I can – naturally our methods will differ. You can learn more about the surprising history of modern yoga on the Yoga Journal website.
The monetization of yoga is in full swing. An ancient tradition has become another product available to the consumer in the free market. Thousands of new teachers are growing, cultivating their skills both as a service to their students AND because they want to have enough students to make a living. The fact that so many college-educated folks are foregoing a secure career in order to teach yoga is remarkable. The big story is the accelerating trend of adults looking to find work that makes a difference in the world, rather than just make money.
I am optimistic for the future of yoga. I think yoga teachers will play a key role in the global movement towards more holistic awareness. Yoga is uniquely positioned to help individuals realize the essential interdependence of all life. With every conscious breath, we move a step closer towards a conscious, peaceful, abundant future. I am honored to play a role in this movement, and pray that my efforts may be of some small benefit to all sentient beings. Even though I’m only 26…
As I look back over this piece nearly six years later, I find myself in agreement with my past self. My wife and I now own our own small studio, where we serve a committed group of students who are seeking a practice that goes deep without excessive heat or gymnastic gyrations. We own our own home and recently welcomed our first son into the world. Our business supports us comfortably. So our initial questions have been answered: yes, we can make this work.
One recurring dilemma that we face is the debate between offering what is pleasing and what is actually transformative.
One recurring dilemma that we face is the debate between offering what is pleasing and what is actually transformative. Our teacher, Rod Stryker, has said that “if you’re not prepared to make people uncomfortable, you’re not ready to be a yoga teacher,” which I believe. Of course the discomfort is in service to a much greater freedom and ease in the long run. But in the short run “discomfort for your own good” is a tough sales pitch! So we market the benefits, and make it easy for people to try a class. But when does making yoga accessible to “get folks in the door” water down the practice so much that it loses its power? It’s just one of the many paradoxes that comes with teaching yoga as a livelihood.