Being a yoga teacher is hard work and like any physical job, it can take its toll. Burnout is always a risk.
Those of us who have been teaching for long enough will relate to this completely, and if you haven’t reached your saturation point yet – that point where one day, somewhere between your second class and your fifth, you realise you have actually crammed way too many classes into your working week for far to long and no wonder you can hardly get out of bed because you’re so buggered!, or you’re sick on a regular basis because your immune system is shot to shit – don’t worry, it will come. In one flashing moment you will face the reality that you are not the super yogi that you thought you were, that your body has a use by date like every other and that people will actually cope if you have to cancel a few classes because you’re outta gas.
This learning curve is all a natural part of your journey as an ever evolving teacher; learning your own limitations and respecting your own boundaries so you can teach others the same.
Yoga burnout is actually more common than you think. Most yogis just don’t talk about it. It’s the Ganesha in the room.
This unspoken dialogue however is one we senior teachers are very familiar with especially – but unfortunately the perception is if you share out loud that you are exhausted, fatigued or quite frankly, just plain over teaching and bored with it all at the moment, that you will be seen as a failure or losing your edge in an exceedingly competitive market. Yes, even in the yoga world, there is pressure among peers.
I’ve had major yoga burnout twice in my career and I’ve been teaching for 20 years so I think myself lucky it hasn’t been more. I have also danced on the edge of mental and emotional collapse a few times in between and I know that is because I have purposely over extended myself out of fear of upsetting or disappointing others. Plus, I was dealing with some intense personal situations at the time and everything just compacted. I lived on chocolate for a few months, which of course made things worse, but it was just where I was at. Most of that soldier on attitude changed however when I became a mother because if that whole out-of-one-body-into-another experience teaches you anything, it is to honour yourself and put your family and your needs first. If mummy is well and happy, everyone is well and happy! Including your student family.
I have learned the hard way so I hope these few anti-burnout tips will serve you well:
1 Know your own body
Listen to your body, your joints, your energies, your emotions and your thoughts so you can consciously gauge when you are getting close to exhaustion point. If you aren’t breathing steadily; if you’re flying off the handle at your kids regularly or waking up resenting the fact that you have to teach instead of being enthused about sharing what you know, that’s a sign to stop and back off. If that familiar ache or injury is starting to rear its ugly head again also, that’s another red flag to take notice of. Stay in your pyjamas. The world will keep turning.
2 Let go of any fear of judgment
People will cope if you are sick or chronically fatigued. Most of them – especially the parents – have been there before. If you communicate honestly with your community of yogis and explain you need a break, they will understand, and appreciate you more. They’ll also respect the obvious fact that you are making time to look after yourself and that you are living what you are preaching to them.
3 Don’t worry what everyone else is doing
We live in a juiced-up social media world where yogis often appear to be on steroids, they are doing so much and bouncing around various locations from one asana selfie to the next. Let go of the (understandably human) attachment to “keeping up with the Joneses” and focus on what you need to keep your fires burning. For all you know their smoothies could be laced with cocaine not cacao.
4 Take regular breaks
This means every day, not just during school holidays or on the weekends. Make time in your day to stop, breathe deep, have a cup of tea, throw your legs up a wall – even if you’re outside somewhere, use a tree – and embody what you know works to counterbalance life and all the things on your to-do list. If you don’t, breakdown is around the corner.
5 Breakdown in order to breakthrough
You know yoga is a powerful healing tool and that often the deepest, most cathartic ‘ah-ha’ moments come from left field, disguised as trauma or intense stresses, so embrace everything as it lands in your body and communicate with all sensations on a daily basis as a way of staying aware of every little energetic nuance on offering. Sometimes we need to break down and through in order to come out the other side – “the only way out, is through” and I share this with my peeps all the time – but we also don’t want to be pushing the envelope all the time and teetering over the cliff because of some out dated belief system or coping mechanism.
6 Avoid alcohol and other stimulants when you are low
This is important because there are so many yogis indulging in all sorts of things nowadays from Aspirin to Ayauasca. It all comes back down to knowing yourself and what drains or enhances your energy system. Be mindful that you are still vulnerable like anyone else and that you have one of the oldest systems at your fingertips to support you on all levels at any time. Cocoon in your yoga cave and meditate to receive what you need from the inside. Any sort of stimulant is going to take you out of your body instead of into it – even if it feels in the moment that you are more in touch with yourself and receiving inspiration or renewed energy. Stay clean and stay clear. You immune system will thank you for it.
7 Change (or even pause) your practice
I know that the fact that I teach an extremely nourishing, conscious and seasonally connected style of yoga has kept me balanced on all levels more than some other more intense styles would or could. See your particular practice for what it is, and adapt it as you intuit. You don’t always have to do a full session every day – sometimes just a couple of poses or a short sequence is enough to alleviate and maintain. Even just one posture can do the trick if you tweak it right. Be gentle with yourself as you would be with your students and adjust movement, focus, pace and power so you reduce your risk of boredom as well as burnout. It's also totally fine to stop doing asana altogether and focus on the other just-as-important-if-not-moreso limbs such as pranayama (breathing), meditation and various forms of bhakti yoga (such as being in service, charity work or volunteering).
Whether burnout is on the horizon for you or rests silently in the background landscape of your experience, the best thing above all is to just commit to looking after yourself NOW and trusting your hormones when they say you’re doing too much.
From that space you will cope with any colourful scenario that life brings your way.
On and off the sticky mat.