When Burnout Knocks: The Struggle of Keeping Teaching Healthy, Honest, and Vibrant

When Burnout Knocks: The Struggle of Keeping Teaching Healthy, Honest, and Vibrant
20 October, 2017

When Burnout Knocks: The Struggle of Keeping Teaching Healthy, Honest, and Vibrant

By Samantha Jacobs 

I have heard most yoga teachers I know, at one point or another, say something along the lines of, “I have been teaching so much, I haven’t had time to practice.” This statement usually precedes weeks or months of the dreaded but all-too- familiar malaise of yoga-teacher- burnout. In professions in which holding space and giving to others is paramount, such as teaching of all kinds, caregiving, public interest work, social justice, medicine, counseling, and so forth, the threat of offering so much there is nothing left in the tank is a constant occupational hazard. When burnout happens among yoga teachers, however, there are additional layers of expectations and stereotypes that must be overcome. Just because yoga fosters calm, relaxation, and balance in students does not mean that teachers reap the same benefits simultaneously. Second, just because a person teaches yoga does not mean it is easier for that person to recognize and confront the signs and symptoms of burnout.

The term “burnout” was coined in the mid 1970s, and refers to a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. While burnout can occur in any profession, yoga teachers, like social workers, have self-selected to engage with especially vulnerable populations. Many yoga teachers specialize in working with those recovering from both physical and emotional trauma, eating disorders, and other conditions, but even during yoga classes open to all, students come in carrying the stresses and pains of their lives looking for relief and respite. The yoga teacher, tasked with holding space, often is presented with students’ intimate stories over the course of any given teaching day, and interacts with and responds to students’ traumas and stresses. These interactions, wholly appropriate, can nonetheless lead to compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, not only because of the nature of that which is shared, but also because many yoga teachers have backgrounds that include emotional and/or physical trauma themselves. (For a parallel analysis regarding social workers, please see SaraKay Smullen’s wonderfully insightful article “What I Wish I Had Known: Burnout and Self-Care in our Social Work Profession,” available at http://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/field- placement/What_I_Wish_I_Had_Known_Burnout_and_Self-Care_in_Our_Social_Work_Profession/ ) As yoga teachers, we are not trained mental health professionals, but nonetheless, are presented with highly charged aspects of our students’ lives that we must integrate and incorporate into our own regimes of self-care. In addition to all that holding space entails, the physical demands of leading practice and adjusting students, commuting, choreography, scheduling, self-promotion, and other business considerations are stressful. So, what can yoga teachers do to recognize symptoms of burnout and practice what we teach?


Most teachers ask their students to take an inventory of how they are feeling and what they notice about their physical and mental state before the start of practice, yet in guiding students through a practice, it is easy to neglect to bring that same self-awareness to ourselves. I know I often sweep my own feelings out of the way in the interest of taking care of others. This idea of ‘giving’ is actually a taking from myself, and it denies students a practice that is led with honesty. It is easy to claim to be too busy to be self-reflective, but if we ask it of our students, we need to constantly turn that same gaze inward to ourselves. This first step – noticing – may help us see the signs of burnout before they overtake us. Some helpful questions to pose to yourself might be: Am I having trouble sleeping or eating? Am I feeling angry without an immediately obvious trigger? I realize I stopped getting excited about making playlists for classes – why? Does it seem like inviting an intention for class is just going through the motions?

Ask these questions and others of yourself. Carefully examine your answers.

Most yoga teachers I know, myself included, have at one point or another, found it difficult to set boundaries with students. While many student-teacher relationships easily cross over to friendships, it is still possible and often necessary to set limits on these relationships. While a teacher cannot control what a student chooses to disclose, most of us are not mental health professionals. Making ourselves available to be the regular ear for a student working through divorce, or having thoughts of self-harm, for example, may do more damage to the student and the teacher than setting clear limits on the interaction. When invoking limits, it can help to objectively explain what your specific training and level of experience is, and your accompanying the limits, and to encourage students to seek additional resources beyond that which you can provide.
Other areas where setting limits can be critical is the number of classes we take on per week, managing travel and commuting, and other logistical considerations. Of course, these limits will also be based on economics, and the reality is that yoga as a profession means making it financially as well as emotionally sustainable. We must be in dialogue with ourselves about the emotional as well as economic costs of our teaching schedules. Making Room for Inspiration In the grind of maintaining a regular teaching schedule, one of the most obvious but also most easily bypassed avenues to avoid burnout is making time for ourselves by taking yoga classes at new locations, or just taking days off from taking yoga classes; building in opportunities to read, attend lectures, listen to podcasts, and seek out other humans who inspire us; getting outside. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our students to diversify the range and options we have for self-care, to know what these options are, and make the active choice to engage in self-care every day without room for excuses.
Professional Networks
Sometimes, we cannot see the forest through the trees, and we will not be able to recognize the symptoms of burnout in ourselves. It is incredibly helpful to engage with a network of other yoga teachers to talk about the challenges faced in the given geographic area where you teach, or perhaps even at the same studio. Engaging with similarly situated professionals fosters understanding and a shared vocabulary; it normalizes the fact that yes, even yoga teachers work in highly stressful situations, and provides an environment for sharing and creative problem solving. By engaging with a community of teachers, and learning from the experiences and strategies of others, we also remind ourselves that we are constantly occupying the roles of student and teacher. Additionally, professional counseling and support are often vital to a complete and holistic regime of self-care. Teaching yoga is a balance between giving and allowing ourselves to receive. We must remind ourselves to make room enough for both.

The true healer lets go of the senses
And moves from the center of intuition;
Blameless, she gives herself permission
To be exactly who she is.
~Haven Treviño
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