From practicing yoga to becoming a Yoga teacher: Understanding the change and how it affects people’s physical and mental health

Abstract

This mini ethnography examines the shift from being a yoga practitioner to becoming a yoga teacher, and its impact on physical and mental wellbeing. The research was primarily through (i) semi-structured Zoom interviews, (ii) participant observation online: Facebook, Instagram, emails and messenger texts, and (iii) reflecting on my own experience as yoga teacher. My participants are yoga teachers at different stages of their careers and mainly based in London. My questions focused on: 1. How the practitioner’s perspective of yoga changes when the practice becomes her job; 2. needing to generate income from teaching while facing competition, and other business’ issues, and 3. her physical and mental health as this shift happens. The research aims to help Yoga Teacher Trainings (YTTs) organisers to inform their programmes and initiate a debate on the need of further regulation on YTTs in the UK.

Introduction

I never thought that through ethnographic research I would be able to find out so much about my own self. Like pieces of a puzzle that suddenly were found and put in place helping me to understand the bigger picture. Conversations deepen and reinforce understanding. Through participant observation (PO) and interviews, I realised that what I am trying to find out is deeply important for my life. I have chosen to interview three teachers in different stages of their careers; the broad experiences have helped me explore the transition and its implications on their lives and their wellbeing. PO was conducted (i) on Facebook groups, also (ii) via live Instagram videos by Neda and Jasmin, both yoga studio owners, and (iii) through informal conversations with yoga teacher fellows whom which I work. PO helped particularly at finding common threads of experiences.

The context

Yoga has become popular with over 200 million people practicing globally (Newcombe, 2019:1). While a common understanding of yoga is as a form of exercise and a way to relieve stress and linked to wellbeing, for some practitioners, yoga creates a ‘meaning and understanding of themselves in relation to others’ (Newcombe 2019:270) and plays an important role in their lives. As Carrette and King (2005:125, see also Jain, 2015:99) point out, commodifying yoga is big business; this phenomenon and the lack of regulations around the practice and the teaching of yoga have allowed prolific offering of Yoga Teacher Trainings (YTTs). Programmes as short as two weeks are offered, meaning that everyday hundreds of practitioners venture into the world of yoga teaching. Research is needed to inform YTTs to design better programmes for aspiring teachers, including preparing them to confront a now saturated market.

Teachers’ experiences (interviews and participant observation)

“It doesn’t matter how much you love something; work is work.”

Interview excerpt with Tarik

Tarik has been practicing and teaching yoga since the 1990’s. He believes that the two key difficulties were having to make money and learning to face competition. Something that was a “personal process of spiritual transformation, became stressful, not enjoyable, and not financially rewarding”. For Tarik, those struggles continued for roughly 10 years before he found the confidence he needed in his teaching: At that point, “the insecurity goes away and largely depends on how much you teach…you stop feeling so threatened because you become self-accepting”.

Tarik believes it is difficult for yoga lovers to become businesspeople: “those that embrace [the business element], are the ones that are most successful”. Yoga teachers are generally self-employed; and as such, they need to learn skills unrelated to yoga. These difficulties can become mental struggles.  Becoming a yoga teacher and being self-employed according to Tarik “is to face the world, limiting beliefs about money and becoming visible to others”.

Where you live may also have an impact, places like London have thousands of yoga teachers and studios. Here, general yoga group classes are a product hard to sell, Tarik’s advice is to find what your market needs that is not there already. Sometimes this product will be different to what you love to teach, but “if you don’t enjoy what your market needs, then you need to do something else”.

Tarik estimates that about 10% of those he trains end up as full-time yoga teachers. Many students will do the training to deepen their knowledge in yoga with no intention to teaching afterwards. Initially both Olivia and Jill, my other two interviewees, trained with this intention. This was also a common element in PO too.    

It was when Olivia was struggling with mental health issues that yoga became a “common support thread”. Physically, yoga also helped her bad back and stiffness. But after becoming a teacher she finds it hard “to switch off” in a yoga class. In order to achieve the benefits she used to get from yoga, Olivia needs to practice different styles like “restorative yoga”.

The teaching experience can take a different way for supporting their wellbeing and this can be by finding satisfaction through affecting people positively in their yoga classes. In addition, some teachers report change in different aspects of their lives with years of teaching experience, as Nerine, a teacher with five years into the job tells me: “my personal practice tends to focus more on how the tenets influence my day-to-day life, my teaching, my relationships, how I interact with communities, politics, the environment…”. Another teacher, Matt describes how before his teaching training yoga used to be one part of his exercise routine “whereas [now] it has very much become a way of life”.

As well as many benefits, teachers also experience many challenges. Teachers face a saturated market, in the case of Olivia, she initially believed that working in yoga studios was key to success. One PO participant, Chiara, a teacher in Haringey thought similarly: “It got into my head that I had to teach at a studio. Somehow the classes I organised didn’t count.”  In London, the average pay for a 60-minute class in a studio is between £25 to £30[1].  Considering London’s minimum wage[2], a yoga teacher working only in studios would have to teach at least 4 classes per day, 5 days per week (considering some holiday) to earn just above the minimum. Despite being poorly paid, teachers nonetheless seek to work for studios. However, having a studio does not mean necessarily making considerable money. Particularly for small studios is hard to keep classes full because of competition. In places like London cost of rent is high and studios must constantly invest on marketing.

Meanwhile, 20 classes per week is not physically sustainable for a teacher, as Neda, a yoga studio owner and teacher in North London, declares in a chat live via Instagram with Jasmin, another studio owner from Nottingham. “About a year into it [teaching 20 classes per/week], I was falling apart…the practice that is supposed to be healing is pulling me apart, why?”.

Figures 1 and 2: First and second public conversations between @yogalogy.london (Neda) and @bahiayoga (Jasmin), find them on Instagram.

It was similar for me, when I was teaching about 16 classes per week (not even 20!), I was physically exhausted. When I started organising my own classes, I realised I could make up to four times more money. However, building your own classes requires hours of work on marketing, and it may take months to have full classes – if indeed you ever achieve this. But as Olivia says, these clients are yours, as opposed to the studio’s, you have their emails, and they will be likely to consume other products you sell. But Olivia does not advise becoming a full-time teacher all at once, “it is hard to find enough jobs and it takes time”.

Jill, who teaches yoga also keeps a part-time job in a charity. She is aware that just being a yoga teacher could be a stressful job because “is not financially viable”. On top of being difficult to find jobs, if you rely on studio classes, you do not have employment rights or contracts. Working with no proper contracts puts teachers in vulnerable conditions, there is nowhere to complain and there is a fear of confrontation as bad relationships may impact future job opportunities.

Taking things personally is a common and unavoidable feeling that came up during PO, and reflects my own experience. As Chiara states: “Any rejection or unsuccessful attempt would be a blow to my self-esteem and at times I doubted my own abilities.” In addition, Jill points out how many yoga teachers “will do some things unpaid to support studios. This ultimately means working for free… but there is a fear that by not doing it, you might not have a regular class for long!”.

Yoga teachers also feel the need to be the best they can be for their students, so they also embark on further trainings that can cost lots of money. Jasmin tells in her live Instagram with Neda “…you feel you need to master things in order to share them…” and Neda points out their many trainings. Jill and Chiara are about to start another 300-hour YTT, Jill has just finished a course on breathing. In that line, Rachel, who teaches in North London, tells me: “I found myself feeling like I had to do lots of trainings just to show that I am good enough…”

By scrolling through Facebook I come across the Yoga Teachers Union, a collective of teachers looking to form a Union to fight for teachers’ rights. I find that some of the struggles I have been exploring in my research are widely common, particularly unfairness of payment and employment rights and how this can affect the teacher’s self-steem. See figures below.

Figures 3 and 4: testimonials shared at: https://www.yogateachersunion.uk/ 

Conclusions

Through this research, I was surprised to listen and to read accounts of experiences very simliar to my own. Many other PO subjects described a similar pattern of tough experience and poor pay. Nevertheless subjects describe teaching yoga as having profound positive effects and can transform people’s lives. I summarise in the next pragraphs my main findings:

  • Having experienced the benefits of yoga, as the practice supports their wellbeing:  with injury recovery, conditions, stress management, and mental health support; many practitioners are drawn to take YTT to deepen their understanding of yoga and manifest a process of self-discovery and personal transformation.
  • Only a small part of those who finish a YTT will become full time yoga teachers.
  • In order to start teaching, the person needs to have a side income support, this being another job, full or part-time, or by having supporting partners or family.
  • Teachers will typically pursue several further trainings. By facing employment they realise they were not well prepared for teaching. However, more mature students acknoledge that it is only by teaching, and acquiring experience, that one becomes at ease with it.
  • Depending of the type of yoga, many will go through periods of excessive physical strain. As they become more expereinced, they learn to verbally instruct more instead of demonstrating the practices.
  • Early in their careers, studio jobs are appealing to achieve recognition.
  • A teacher will have to confront their mental struggles of confidence and self acceptance as they face competition.
  • What yoga used to be for them (the particular practices that initially offered support to their wellbeing) is transformed. It becomes hard to be a student without judging with the eyes of a teacher, some however experience deep meditation, relaxation and satisfation while teaching. As such, some teachers prefer to do other types of yoga or other activities in order to ‘switch off’ and support their wellbeing.
  • To support their income, many teachers expand beyond teaching yoga exclusively, to other complementary jobs, such as massage, pilates and healing practices.
  • Embracing what is needed to get to their markets -e.g. marketing-, as well as developing other business-related skills, will help ease their way into teaching more comfortably.
  • Maturity in their careers and self acceptance often takes several years of experience.

Although these are broad and diverse results, there are some clear suggestions for where to put emphasis when planning a YTT – in particular training for self-employment and preparation to possible mental and physical struggles.

Further research is needed to help shape YTT and to start a dialogue with authorities in order to set regulations for both YTT and for working conditions for yoga teachers. While there is inevitably much more to be done, exploring these issues could have a material impact on new generations of yoga teachers. It is also clear that supporting initiatives like the Yoga Teachers Union could help establishing regulations to make yoga teaching fair and decently paid.

I would like to thank all the wonderful people that participated in my research. It has been a pleasure to hear about different experiences. I have learned a lot from you all, thank you!

Find more about Tarik: http://www.yogawell.co.uk/

Find more about Neda: http://www.yogalogy.co.uk/

Find more about Jasmin: https://bahiayoga.com/

Find more about Olivia: https://www.yogawitholivia.co.uk/

Find more about Jill: https://www.jillpatterson.xyz/

Find more about Nerine: https://www.organicallyyou.co.uk/

Find more about Chiara: https://www.instagram.com/hippiechiara/

Find more about Rachel: https://geeky.yoga/

Find more about Matt: https://www.orangefrogyoga.com/

Bibliography

1 Hine, C. 2015. Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded Embodied and Everyday. New York: Routledge.

2 Lobe, B., Morgan, D. and K. Hoffman 2020. Qualitative Data Collection in an Era of Social Distancing. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. 7/7/2020, Vol. 19, p1-8. [available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1609406920937875?%5D.

3 DeWalt, K. M. and B. R. DeWalt. 2011. Participant Observation: A Guide for Fieldworkers, Second Edition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Adams, Tony E.; Holman, Stacey, Ellis, Carolyn. 2015. Autoethnography: Understanding Qualitative Research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carrette, Jeremy and King, Richard. 2005. Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson 1997. Discipline and Practice: ‘The Field’ as Site, Method and Location in Anthropology. In A. Gupta and J. Ferguson (eds) Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science, pp.1-46. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jain, Andrea R. 2015. Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newcombe, Suzanne. 2019. Yoga in Britain: stretching spirituality and educating yogis. Bristol: Equinox Publishing.

Shah, Alpa, 2017. Ethnography? Participant observation, a potentially revolutionary praxis. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 7(1): 45–59.

Skinner, J. (Ed.). (2012). The Interview: An Ethnographic Approach (Association of Social Anthropologists Monographs). London: Bloomsbury Academic.


[1] Of the three studios where I work in North London, two pay me £30 and one £25 per hour/class. From talking to other teachers in the area other studios in London pay the same.

[2] Currently £10.85/hr or roughly £22,000 per year.

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