Is being a yoga instructor a good fit for you? That depends on your answer to this one question:

What do you value?

[Post summary: What’s to love/know about being a yoga instructor; a snapshot of the life of an instructor; how you can make money & how much money yoga instructors make; designing the yoga instructor lifestyle]

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My Life as a Yoga Instructor

I can’t tell you what being a yoga instructor would be for you. But as a full-time yoga instructor for over a decade now, I can tell you my experience: I love my abundant independence. I love getting to travel pretty much whenever I want, for as long as I want. I love that I’m constantly learning. I love being able to design and steer my career, the creativity of being an entrepreneur, having two-hour long lunches with friends almost anytime, getting to build new courses, classes, workshops and whatever other creative venture I dream up. I love being a part of a community of teachers who want to be better people, and help others do the same. I love that what I do involves laughter, growth, fitness, stress-relief, and making people healthier and freer.

I couldn’t really care less about having a huge house or $800 shoes (though I have been known to indulge in the occasional killer coat). The Joneses’ Chasers and I don’t have much to talk about at any bizarre cocktail party where we might find ourselves thrown together. I haven’t invested in a lot of the things that tend to require a steep financial commitment and long-term consistency (marriages + mortgages + kids + brick-and-mortal businesses + etc.) so I’m able to stay light and mobile, prepare for the rough times and enjoy the good times as they come.

I also have a high tolerance for taking on the risks of running my own business: not having a paycheque show up every two weeks or a Project Manager to set out what I’m working on now and next. I don’t crave or need a regular routine (though I can design my life to have that if I wanted it) and I work well without a boss to make sure I’m on track (when I need an ass-kicking, I hire it or create something that forces me to deliver). I also have a partner who supports and enjoys the benefits of my choices without needing anything different from me.

Your Life as a Yoga Instructor

What about you?

My description of my life might delight or deter you, and that’s based on what you value. Mine is also only one example of how you can design your lifestyle as a yoga instructor. Whatever your goals, you’ve got to get clear on what you value before choosing this – or any – career because it’s going to be how you spend a lot of your time and make your money. Better to go into it with eyes wide open. So let’s get real.

As a Certified Yoga Instructor, you’ll be paid in (at least) three key ways:

  1. In money. Presuming that you follow a more traditional career initially, expect within your first few years to make about $25-60/class x however many classes you teach, and assume you’l take 2-6 weeks off/year (most yogis do). So,
  • If you teach 8 classes/week at $25/class, you’ll make ~ $10,000/year (and work ~ 10-15 hours/week).
  • If you teach 12 classes/week at $60/class, you’ll make ~ $34,500/year (and work ~ 15-25 hours/week).
  • If you add corporate/private clients at $80-$160/class, you’ll make ~ $50,000/year (and work ~ 25-35 hours/week)

It’s not exactly you rolling up to the curb in your new Ferrari but it ain’t too shabby, and in terms of money earned per time unit ($/hr), you can do pretty well. You can also earn back your teacher training investment within your first year (many of us can’t say the same of our university or college training!). Beyond weekly classes, you can earn income through myriad means like selling products, being an expert in fitness sectors, or creating courses/workshops/retreats/events. If you approach this career as a full-time gig, you can break into six figures. It’s not common, but it’s doable if you’ve got the gusto and discipline.

2. In time. Here’s where this career can really pay off. Time is a non-renewable resource. Being a yoga teacher gives you the ability to control so much more of how you spend the hours of your days. Even if you’re teaching 12 classes a week, you’re likely working less than 30 hours/week total between marketing, admin, prepping, teaching, biz growth and client management. It’s fairly easy to integrate teaching yoga with other part-time work, take time off when you need/want it, and enjoy a leisurely weekly schedule that affords you more hours to spend doing things you enjoy with people you love.

3. In experiences. Getting to enjoy your time and money is the difference between imagining the life you want and actually living it. As a yoga instructor, you may not be making the six figures of Bay Street (though you could), but you also won’t be working their hours or harbouring their stress. YOU determine where you work, and with whom. In my decade+ of teaching, I’ve rarely worked with people I didn’t enjoy knowing – and when I did, I simply ended the contract. I’m in a small market and I’ve thrived; you can, too. Imagine being able to spend your working time with people who inspire you, value you, and give you opportunities to share your gifts. You’ll also have a flexible schedule to write that book, take that trip, hang out with your kids, or hell, just get couch-shaped and watch a boatload of Netflix if you like. It’s up to you – and that’s the point.

 

Pranalife Yoga Teacher Training with Asia Nelson

Me in Ronda, Spain when I moved there in 2008 for the winter.

 

Being a yoga instructor is a lifestyle choice that offers you simplicity, time and freedom. If you like the idea of having a lot of flexibility and the ability to control your work schedule, to hustle and chill when you want/need it, to travel/study/get the time you want with people you love, and to turn yoga surfing retreats into your new “conventions”, then you’re gonna love this gig.

You’re also gonna need to be self-driven, be able to handle the ups and downs of solo-/entrepreneurship, and know how to get what you want. With Pranalife Yoga, you have a support structure built in and our community of graduated, certified teachers is second to none; still, that push to get’r done has got to come from you. If the mantra, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me” resonates with you, you’re very likely exactly where you should be right now. Keep reading.

With Pranalife Yoga training in particular, you’re able to design your lifestyle to include creativity, evolution, and independence. You won’t be confined to a static set of postures, or to teaching only one style of yoga in one kind of studio. With Pranalife Yoga training, you’ll get the tools for lifelong growth – on your mat, in your classes, tailored to your style, and supporting your career.

Now that you’ve got an idea what being a yoga instructor looks like, you can decide whether it’s for you (because not everyone wants this kind of life – seems whack, I know, but it’s true). Whether it’s a part-time supplement or a full-time passion fulfillment, Pranalife Yoga will help you turn your vision into reality.

Ready to apply

I was recently inspired by a quote from a recent interview with Pavel Tsatsouline of StrongFirst notoriety (a Special Forces trainer known for bringing kettlebell training technique out of the former USSR):

“Use strength, find space, spread the load … and breathe through the tight spot.” ~ Pavel Tsatsouline

Pavel’s techniques are globally known to be powerful ways to progress with attaining physical strength. He goes into some detail about each piece:

Use Strength

Rather than just dropping into a movement, actively move yourself, constantly. If you’re squatting, don’t just drop into the squat but actively lower yourself there. Don’t just slide into the splits, actively press your feet apart. In other (yogic) words, move consciously and deliberately.

Find Space

Addressing fascia specifically, Pavel uses the metaphor of pulling a post out of the ground. If you just grab hold and pull, you won’t have much luck. But, if you “wiggle” it loose, work it from all angles, ease the grip the ground has on it, it’ll slide right out. In movement, don’t just jam into a joint and push; rather, ease in and out, come at it from different angles, and most importantly, RELAX as much tension from your body as possible.

Spread the Load

Make the movement/shape holistic. Don’t just focus on one joint, but explore how you can make the movement happen throughout your body.

Breathe Through the Tight Spot

Holding your breath tight or restricted will tense your entire body. Be patient, be persistent, be good at practicing.

 

Taking these principles to the yoga mat, here’s how this might change how you move:

Pavel’s Approach, on the Yoga Mat

All of yoga is a practice of balancing strength and ease. Strength and ease in balance feels comfortable. Too much strength = pushing/effort, strain, loss of energy. Too much ease = loss of focus, lack of change, resting into (and putting a lot of un-countered force through) your joints. When you’re first learning a yoga posture, use your inhale to focus on strength, your exhale to focus on ease. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to find this balance consistently, with strength and ease infusing every inhale and exhale.

Finding space in a pose can be done in a few ways. I love to teach this principle in terms of imagery: As you practice, imagine the wave of your breath creates a subtle wave throughout your entire body. Feel the expansion and increasing energy of your inhales and the relaxing let-go of your exhales as though this happens through and between every cell. This wave can become quite kinetic, turning your posture into a dynamic movement. In cobra, for example, this could become lifting and lowering through the spine, or emphasizing the front and back ribs expanding and sinking into your body along with your breath.

You can also just start “wiggling” around the joint/s. In Frog Pose (straddle), go between squeezing your knees towards each other and pressing them apart. Rock your pelvis like you’re drawing a line up and down the back wall with your tailbone. Shift your weight forward into your forearms and back into your hips. Dance in, out, around, and through the posture.

Another way to find space is what Pavel touches on in the final point: Breathing through the tight spot. Keep your body fairly still, but get energetically focused. Each inhale, try to expand your entire body – or a specific area you’re looking to loosen. Each exhale, fully relax while still holding the shape.

Spread the load by practicing yoga as though your entire being is doing it. Be fully engaged. This doesn’t mean applying extreme effort until failure. It means be present, extend your attention from one point in the pose (say, your hips in Triangle) to all joints in that pose. Play with shifting your weight over different points (getting more support out of your back foot in Triangle, or using your hand on your shin – and your shin pressing up into your hand – to bear more of the weight that’s taxing your low back/side waist) or changing your pose to take weight differently (bend and straighten your lead knee, reach your arms in different directions).

What I love about this approach is not only that it’s smart, but it’s so PLAYFUL. We’re always taking shapes in yoga. It’s a movement practice. But what we’re really doing is practicing a quality of approach. Not just what are you doing, but HOW are you doing it? Relax, enjoy, breathe, and do the thing like you love it!

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Yogis in the Dark

Creative mover Diane Bruni recently posted an article called “Tolerating Uncertainty — The Next Medical Revolution?” from the New England Journal of Medicine about the stress and costs of demanding clear-cut knowledge from doctors where learning curves would be more helpful. It suggests that, when helping people, the helper needs to be able to be vulnerable, to not know all the answers, and still hold a safe space for patients.

Medical and fitness worlds have heavily influenced how modern yoga defines itself, especially where yoga has become almost exclusively a physical practice. Yoga teachers have become unlicensed points of reference for people looking to understand “what’s happening” with their bodies, from injuries to stress to how bodies “should” and “shouldn’t” move.

Shining the Light on Yoga

It’s an important step in yoga’s evolution to have teachers who want to learn more about the details of bodies in motion. Teachers of modern physical yoga need a solid understanding of the human body, and to move beyond calcified reverence for Original Teachers whose teachings were based in mystic, intuitive, regimented, unquestioned and often poorly-informed perspectives. That doesn’t mean there isn’t valuable insight in these historical teachings, but they fail us often in our physical practices. Good teachers are acknowledging this and extending their learning beyond Iyengar, the Primary Series for All, or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. We’re brushing up on anatomy, kinesiology, biomechanics. We’re getting interested in the science as well as the art of yoga.

Standing in the Gap of Uncertainty

The challenge I see now, especially as a yoga teacher trainer, is that yogis and yoga teachers are seeking – and trusting – this new knowledge haphazardly. For many, this is part of the delight of the yoga journey: personal exploration, insight, and freedom to discover organically. In one’s personal practice, this can be a healing, joyful process. As teachers, what I often see is a problem between process and delivery. Teachers randomly explore an article here, a video there, a workshop or two, and then present their learning as evidence-based advice to their students. How many times have you been in a yoga class where the teacher offers an instruction or information as fact: “You should” or “It’s wrong to” or “Actually …”

I’ve done it. It was kind of a first step toward translating my learning into my teaching. I was so excited to share new information that was changing my own practice that I didn’t recognize how often I was talking about ‘some stuff I read / tried’ as though it were time-tested, evidence-based truth. I’ve been unlearning that habit, and getting curious about how to “teach” yoga without it.

But then how do we share the new knowledge we’re acquiring? How do we teach others without misrepresenting our expertise (or lack thereof)?

As rebel yoga scholar and think-geek Matthew Remski has pointed out, there is no defined scope of practice in yoga. There is no panel or board, no peer reviews, no central knowledge base, no objective perspective to create a check-and-balance to our exploration with yoga. When it comes to the joy of expanding creativity, personal learning, or just enjoying stretching in a yoga class, that freedom is fabulous. But increasingly, people are coming to yoga on the recommendation of their doctor, and are getting medical-sounding advice from teachers that hasn’t been vetted in any reliable way (and if you think the Yoga Alliance does this, THINK AGAIN). In other words, there are no clear boundaries or guidelines on how to share knowledge. We don’t clearly define what we know/believe and don’t know/believe, and what we do and don’t do as yoga teachers, so we’re always in the “grey-scale space” of uncertainty mentioned in that medical journal article.

So what’s a yoga teacher to do? What happens when teaching the same postures gets old, when people have new questions, when you seem to be evolving out of the practice you love, when the pains emerging from dedication to a practice begin to overgrow the original passion for it? Remski said something in an article in Yoga International recently; I think I can safely extend its application here:

I think you broaden your definition of yoga. Language is like movement. It opens pathways, but soon it loses its shine: It becomes rote, liturgical, staged, performative. The greatest poetry in the world ends up getting rattled off by bored priests paid to be bureaucrats instead of artists. Repetitive movement is the same: What begins as joy becomes bound into ritual and then boiled down into social control. You get a lot of bloody feet in pointe shoes, and busted shoulders from endless sun salutes. All because people think the form is more important than your life.

I think we break free of rote repetition, including the desire to repeat our own new learning to reinforce our own expertise. I think we stop trying to enforce anything. I think we go (back) to uncertainty. We get comfortable with saying, “I don’t know.” We get better at asking questions instead of firing off ill- or uninformed opinions as answers. We stop trying to pretend to be the kind of professional we’re not. If medical doctors with all of their training need to exercise this new muscle, how much more so do we as yoga teachers?

More Questions than Answers, Please

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The moment we free ourselves to say, “I don’t know” we release ourselves from requirements that are beyond our skill set. We can re-frame what we learn as story rather than fact: We can, as Remski suggests, change our language. We “broaden our definition of yoga” TOGETHER, through exploration and curiosity.

We can replace truthiness, medicalese, and anxiety about having to have answers with sharing information about our own learning journey: “I’ve started getting curious about this latest research which says …”

We can soften our hard-line perspectives by realizing that experience is not the same as objective fact: “I can’t say what this will be for you. When I went through it, here’s what I found …” or “I have no proof of what god is. Here’s what I believe …”

We can place our learning in context: “It used to be that yoga teachers would say, ‘Soften your glutes’. We’re not sure where that cue came from but we all taught it. Well, now we’re learning from other movement practices that this isn’t a great cue.”

We can embrace the vulnerability of uncertainty: “I didn’t know this until recently, and it’s been a really helpful change in my own practice. Let’s try this new approach and see if it feels better in your body.”

We can re-discover the freedom of questions and suggestions instead of having to be right:

“What movements create your pain?”

“I’m not a medical professional so I’d defer to what they tell you, but I can suggest trying this: Take Pigeon Pose and deep lunging out of your practice for a few weeks and see if your pain goes away.”

“What do YOU think god is?”

The Next Generation of Uncertain, Confident Teachers

When I train yoga teachers, I don’t teach what postures to do; instead, we explore WHAT POSTURES DO. It’s often frustrating for these eager learners at first because they feel like they’ve paid me to give them answers. But I’m not a Buzzfeed teacher, with a refreshed page of the Top 22 Ways to Teach Yoga Better Than Anyone. I’m a guide. I don’t tell them where to go; we walk and I help them avoid pitfalls or cliffs, or getting hopelessly lost while they explore. We review what yoga has been – the postures, the Sutras, the history of teachers and students. We pare their practices down to the bare minimum and I introduce them to experts like back biomechanics pro Dr. Stuart McGill, so these fresh teachers have new and old tools for (re)building their *personal* practices.

And we get really good at asking better questions: Why are you taking this shape? What’s the purpose of this pose? How can you change this posture to be safer, and still get what you wanted from it? What does it mean to “be more free” and how can you find more freedom in each asana? How do you actually balance strength and ease? How do you empower people to move themselves? What does it mean to “open” your hips, and do you actually want to do that?

And there’s a delightful paradox in the outcome: Teachers emerge from this training full of more questions and more CONFIDENCE. They’re relaxed. They enjoy their practices. There’s no pressure to know it all, to measure up to some external standard of How Yoga Is Done and Taught. They’ve developed a comfort in the grey area of not knowing – where they explore, change direction, learn, stay curious, and create safe spaces for others to do the same.

I hope this is the future of yoga.

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