Your Yoga Teacher Might Be Lonely.

I was.

For so many years.

Let me explain.

Yoga is in industry that in the West currently sells what is internal personal work as an external experience. We slide into our rooms to share our wisdom in short snippets with our students. The spaces we create are lacking in deep discussion and connection, and even when we do carve out time for longer talks with our students, being a teacher to another human is not the same as having a friend. Sometimes these two labels can overlap, and I won’t discuss the ethical challenges this overlap faces, but usually these relationships manifest with students having an inflated sense of who and how magical their yoga teachers are…and/or conversely they feel sorry for their yoga teachers. Then students come back week after week out of pity for circumstances as much as for the yoga they are taught in class.

Neither of these relationships is healthy, and both lead to a kind of cult-y environment where the yoga teacher is put on this pedestal of part wisdom and part sorrow.

While that alone could be an entire book’s worth of commentary on this unusual dynamic, it happens so often comedian Marc Maron joked about it in his comedy special End Times Fun.

I’m not gonna make fun of yoga instructors ’cause that’s different. That’s sort of the last stop for them. You know, like… You wanna be nice to them, you don’t know how they got there, it’s probably a harrowing tale, but, you know, you’re kind of grateful they made it to wherever they are, and you know that you being in their class is as important to them as they are to you. Like, if it doesn’t work out for the (personal) trainer, he’s gonna figure out something else to do. The yoga instructor, we really don’t know where that goes.

The truth is…he is right, and on top of that, the yoga teacher he is talking about…she is probably pretty lonely and wished she had someone she could actually talk to about it.

In the Western yoga world we talk a lot about the community aspect of our classes. I realize that ‘community’ is the new buzzword, and in yoga circles it has been used in some form or another for ages…as proof that what we create is special, unique, and transformative. But as Casper ter Kuile writes in his book The Power of Ritual and said as a guest on the And She Spoke podcast, being “of a community” (as a participant) and being “for a community” (as its leader) are different. And we have up until now not provided enough support for our yoga teachers who were never taught that it can be lonely to lead a sacred community.

Now let’s talk about COVID.

I have written and talked on my podcast Working In Yoga, extensively about how the yoga industry has been dramatically effected by COVID. Wellness & fitness businesses were not offered the same sorts of relief by the US government that other industries have benefitted from. The studios and teachers who are still left two years after COVID begun, have been able at the time of this writing (Jan, 2022), to open their in-person doors for a bit of time. But of course, we are at risk to lose our communities of students every single time a new variant knocks on our collective door.

There are significantly fewer teachers teaching now, and many of us have spent the last two years working almost exclusively online. While this is the way many industries are going, yoga teachers lack the virtual team huddles, Slack channel, and surprise gift and game nights that many major corporations have provided their long-distance, at-home workers. Our virtual huddles are with our students, and while that can feel satisfying and rewarding, maintaining boundaries means we are not sharing our business and professional struggles with them (hopefully).

We also exist without a water cooler. As much as yoga folks like to tout that they are only about positive “vibes”, it is a totally normal thing to feel lost within your professional journey. In yoga we are of lacking professional mentorship programs, but also we lack simple water-cooler talk. A place for people to connect and vent about their frustrations, ask casual low-stakes questions, and make weak-tie friendships.

In case you aren’t familiar with the term “weak-tie” relationships, the concept was coined by sociologist Mark Granovetter in the 70s. You are likely familiar with the idea of your “close friends” or “inner circle”, but Granovetter points out that for social health our weak-tie friendships are vital. We need people who we know well enough to know their family stories a little bit, who could help us get jobs, find good repair humans, and generally find an ease of life. The loss of weak-tie friendships has been so stark during the pandemic that The Atlantic wrote an entire article about this loss, and how people are suffering because of it.

Charles DuHigg also writes about weak-tie relationships in his book The Power of Habit. One of his assertions is that Rosa Parks was the catalyst for the Montgomery bus boycott not only because of her strong-tie relationships, but because of her weak-ties with people who would otherwise not have gotten involved had it not been for knowing Ms. Parks.

Yoga teachers have rarely been offered these weak-tie relationships with their peers. The job itself means we perform it alone, and at the end of a class or workshop the people we connect with are in a different kind of relationship with us due to our teacher-student dynamic, so those ties of peer weak-tie bonding elude us.

Our leaders seem to not have noticed

Leadership within our industry is lacking on the best of days, but the discussion on the health and well being of our teachers is limited to physical stress injuries, and sexual abuse. We have yet to really embark on the conversation of how happy we are as yoga teachers, how satisfied we are with our work, and how nourished we feel as humans in relationship to our working lives.

So, let me ask this…if you are a yoga teacher…are you happy? Do you feel that you have a connection among your peers? Do you have a support network that will buoy you if you flounder? Do you feel like you are seen as a person, as a human being within your working life?

I’ve taught yoga for 20 years now, and I cannot say I have felt that way before 2018. I spent years working in an environment that was cult-y and isolating for me as a person. I was taught that this was part of what working as a yoga teacher was and to “trust the process” in all things. Well, I call bullshit on yoga teachers accepting our loneliness as part of this mythical process to become more enlightened human beings. Marc Maron was right, we likely do have a harrowing tale in how we got here, but we don’t need to accept loneliness as part of our working life from here on out.

The health effects of loneliness are enough to stop all of us in our collective tracks to take a closer look at how we are able to support yoga teachers with a true sense of peer-supported, mentor-guided community. Loneliness can bring on “high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death”. While yoga practice often is sold as the antithesis of any and all of these maladies, can we risk our skilled teaching talent sliding into a scenario of “it’s a wash” by experiencing the benefits of a consistent yoga practice and the health risks of consistent loneliness?

Scarcity in all things

Yoga and wellness facilitators love to talk about abundance. But as I have referenced in nearly every single article I have written on the Western yoga industry in the last five years, yoga teachers struggle greatly to make a sustainable living. So often connections among peers in the same market area are…complicated.

I will take my local market as an example. Many yoga teachers feel like they need to choose which studio they are loyal to, and within that studio competition for students in their classes is fierce. So while yoga teachers in a micro-community like a yoga studio are connected, maybe even going to staff meetings or snagging a bite to eat with another teacher, trust amongst peers is low. Undermining and even cutthroat behavior is often rewarded from bosses who themselves are struggling to make sustainable livings in their yoga studios, especially in this late-stage pandemic world we are currently living in.

Add into the mix that studio owners often behave badly towards each other because scarcity and competition are hard drivers in our culture. This means that the teachers who might be looking for a peer group outside of their immediate work situation are looked down upon by threatened-feeling studio owners. This discouragement to reach out and create larger communities of yoga professionals within a geographic area presents a huge challenge for folks who just want to find peer relationships.

Many yoga teachers turn to the social media to find comfort and companionship with other yoga teachers. Social media is fraught with the same challenges in the yoga space that everywhere else is; divisive belief systems, desconstruction-esque critique conversations where the only support for participants is behind a paywall or the copy of a facilitator’s next book or new course, and toxic public in-fighting among leadership.

So what are yoga teachers to do?

If you are a yoga teacher reading this, and you relate to the feelings of isolation and loneliness within your working relationships, what is next for you? I have three suggestions that might make all the difference.

1. Seek mentoring from the teachers you love. Some teachers you admire might be far away, but perhaps she runs a private forum or offers 1:1 coaching for yoga teachers. Creating a mentoring relationship is an important way to find strategies for coping with the challenges of yoga teaching, how to progress your career, and how to find a balance between yoga, life, teaching, and your other hobbies and interests. Make sure you are open to paying for this time and mentoring, but starting with a quick 20 minute Zoom chat or 1st cup of coffee should be a fairly low-expense way of seeing if she is the right fit.

There are great articles on finding a mentor here and here that give the basics of what to look for in mentoring; but I will add in specifically related to yoga if you are looking for your mentor to give you advice and guidance on how to work in yoga, and build a successful and sustainable career they should a) have worked in yoga as a teacher for a significant period of time, not just long enough to know enough to run a training or start a studio — unless that is your end goal, b) still maintain a personal yoga practice and c) have a goddamn hobby outside yoga. If the human you are chatting with doesn’t have a hobby as simple as hiking, photography, underwater basket weaving, or something else that is likely not the person who should be mentoring you on work/life balance.

2. Find community online, but off public social media. I cannot begin to discuss how much I value my business mastermind group. There are yoga professionals in this group, but also other industries are represented. In this container, I don’t have to worry about what someone said about me on Facebook five years ago, if someone didn’t like my Instagram post, or if someone else is going to steal my idea from me.

This is a community of humans whom I can talk to. Whom I can share frustrations, wins, losses, and more. Go find yourself that kind of community. It doesn’t have to be yoga exclusive, but it does help to have folks who work as independent business contractors and understand a bit about the isolation of gig-economy jobs.

3. Find one accountability work friend. You need just one to start. Maybe you work at the same space, maybe you find someone who you chat with online and decide that you can talk all things yoga together. Maybe you meet for a tea or hop on a Zoom call and all of a sudden <poof> there goes 90 minutes. This friend doesn’t need to be in your close circle of people, especially at first, but the ability to just chat with people who “get it” about your work is the most valuable thing I have ever found.

Over the years I have had several of those friends, and I cannot express how amazing I find them. Thank you so much Allison, Jessica, Jo, Amanda, James, Kate, Laree, Jennifer, Michele, Lindsay, and so many more for the best conversations about what I sometimes feel is the weirdest career ever. You’ve taken what was for a decade a lonely-ass job, and made it special.

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Rebecca Sebastian

Rebecca writes about all things yoga. Host of the podcast Working In Yoga, yoga studio owner, yoga therapist and yoga NPO co-founder. Rebel in stretchy pants.