I lost track of what I just taught, fairly certain I missed a whole sequence on the left leg. The silence lingered as the students breathed in and out. I interpreted impatience in the room, but the waves of nausea made it impossible to process anything clearly. “Was it always so hot in here?” I looked hopefully up at the clock and immediately deflated. “One more hour?” It felt as if I had been teaching for days.
I’m not sure how I was able to teach that class eight years ago. I would not wish teaching yoga with the stomach flu on my worst enemy, yet there I was, more scared to miss the class than vomit in public. Luckily, I made it through, but how much faster would I have healed if I had taken that extra day? Did I risk getting my students sick? What example was I setting?
I wish I could say this were an isolated incident, but I have taught through a sprained neck, losing my mother, food poisoning, eye-crossing exhaustion, migraines, colds, and flus. I beg my students to listen to their bodies, to rest and take breaks and then stand at the front of the room soldiering through injury or illness as if my body just waged a war I am determined to win.
These days, yoga teachers speak of busyness as an accomplishment. Boasting how hard we work and how little we rest. Success is measured in quantity of achievements. Social media feeds a never-ending list of what people are doing. What about what people are not doing? Let us praise the person who takes a few days off after leading a retreat, just as much as the person with 40 attendees. Can we spend an afternoon in nature, without posting a handstand image or link to the next class we are teaching? I am the guiltiest. When I’m not working, I’m talking about working and when I’m not talking about working, I’m promoting the next time I will be working. I am writing this article on my “day off”! It’s exhausting and it all comes down to one question – why are we so afraid to rest?
There is a saying in show business, “the show must go on”. It is deemed unprofessional for artists to let any illness or personal affair get in the way of the show. Athletes are under similar pressure, taking enough pain pills to mask an injury and kill a horse. Most of us yoga teachers came from entertainment or sports backgrounds. We pursued yoga precisely because it was the first time we were told not to push through and instead to be kind. While some argue that there is a performative or athletic aspect to teaching, at its core yoga is the practice of taking care of oneself, of listening to our body. We need to re-learn old patterns of coping. Yes, we are yoga teachers and yes, it is extremely important work, but at the end of the day it is just a job. We must put practicing yoga ahead of teaching yoga.
There is also the financial fear of missing a class. Unlike when someone on salary takes a day off and is still paid, when teachers are not there we lose money. Some classes require rent and then paying out a substitute becomes doubly costly. Last year, one of my runs of teaching without rest ended with a severe knee infection that put me in hospital and laid me out for two weeks. The medical bills were exorbitant and in retrospect, while it was a fluke illness, I was completely run down. If I had just taken one or two days off before getting sick, maybe I would not have had to miss two full weeks? I am a firm believer (and witness) that when we are rested, we have more energy to give and our classes naturally grow.
The hardest part of taking a day of rest may be that we are afraid to let people down. We are an industry of caretakers and therefore, like the shoemaker’s children have no shoes, the worst at taking care of ourselves. “My students are relying on me”. “They are coming to my class”. Teachers are merely the vehicle. Ultimately, students are there for the yoga and perhaps the lesson we can still teach that day, whether we are there or not, is how to “put your own oxygen mask on first”. As yoga teachers we are also leaders and when we take time off to heal and recharge, we encourage the students to do the same. After all, is practicing yoga not an act of self-care?
Loving what we do does not help matters either. How blessed are we yoga teachers that our passion is also our livelihood? I still sometimes feel guilty taking money for teaching, because I love it so much. I want to do it all the time. This is all the more reason to rest. We want to teach yoga for as long as physically possible and the keys to longevity are taking care of our bodies and managing our energy wisely so as not to burn out. The show must go on, but the yoga class does not.
Originally published on Yoganonymous November 4, 2016