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Yogis Experience Stress Too

BY James Keough ON July 1, 2013

Worn down by our stressed-out, on-the-go lives, many of us turn to yoga for relief and restoration. We look to our teachers, whose calm, collected poise makes stress seem like a foreign concept, to guide us into balance. But even as they do this—and despite the aura they project in class—our teachers often face similar stressors, and a surprising number succumb to burnout themselves. Some of them reach this point because they teach 10 or more classes a week for low pay, hustling from one part of town to another; others fit in multiple classes while holding down a full-time job; and still others struggle with the business side of owning and operating a studio. And none of them is immune from relationship challenges and family catastrophes. Theoretically, they’re better equipped than the average person to deal with that kind of stress, but ironically, that expectation may only contribute to the problem.

We may not consider teaching yoga “work” in the same sense as having a regular 9-to-5 job, and, because of its ancient roots, yoga—and, by association, yoga teachers—can seem divorced from worldly concerns like money.

“Yoga is all about happy—feel good, be good, look good!” says Janice Gates, a former studio owner and a well-known teacher in San Anselmo, California, whose struggle with burnout lasted about three years. “Your persona is all wise and healthy, so there’s not a lot of room for what you go through when you experience burnout.”

What you go through can turn your world upside down, and it happens because of evolutionary changes that occurred long before we as a species emerged from the African savannah.

The Stress Response

The cumulative stressors that cause burnout can come from anywhere, but respondents in a 2011 American Psychological Association survey singled out the following as the most significant sources: money (75 percent), work (70 percent), the economy (70 percent), relationships (58 percent), and family responsibilities (57 percent).

Personal safety ranked as the least stressful facet of modern life, which is interesting because the response we have to money worries or workplace angst developed ages ago to keep us safe from acute physical danger. When engaged, this fight-or-flight mechanism instantly signals the adrenal glands to pump out adrenalin, cortisol, and other hormones that affect our heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, and immune system. Our heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket so more blood flows to our muscles and brain, and our blood sugar rises to provide more energy. At the same time, our digestion slows down—no need to process food now—and the clotting factor in our blood increases in case we’re injured. Flooded with performance-enhancing chemicals, our mind and body become hypervigilant and physically primed for action.

This response served us well back when physical danger abounded in the savannah, and it still does when we find ourselves in a life-threatening predicament. But it’s ill suited to the everyday stressors of the modern world, where perceived threats—usually emotional or psychological—may be less severe but infinitely more numerous. Why? Because nature designed the fight-or-flight response to catapult us into a temporary state of superhuman preparedness, not a continual one. Once we had fought off or escaped from that saber-toothed tiger, our body and mind were supposed to return to normal. Our heart would stop thumping, our breathing would slow down, our muscles would quit twitching, and our nerves would calm. For many people today, however, the stress they’re under seldom goes away, and their bodies remain in some version of fight-or-flight mode until their adrenal glands can no longer bear the burden and stop responding.

Yoga Teacher Stressors

Not surprisingly, the stress that drives yoga teachers to burnout stems from many of the same issues that can cause any of us deep anxiety: money, work, relationships, and family. We may not consider teaching yoga “work” in the same sense as having a regular 9-to-5 job, and, because of its ancient roots, yoga—and, by association, yoga teachers—can seem divorced from worldly concerns like money. But talking with a number of yoga teachers set the record straight.

Overcoming burnout requires making changes, either by reducing our stress levels or learning how to manage them better.

Money Woes. Most yogis who decide to teach do so after years of going to class and developing their own practice. They experience the gifts that yoga brings and have a desire to share them with others. Money might enter this decision at some point, but it seldom plays a prominent role until reality intrudes. “There are a lot of yoga teachers, and we don’t get paid very much,” says Nancy Adler, who teaches in Storrs, Connecticut. “I’ve taken on a lot of classes because I want to be able to make a decent amount of money.”

Business Demands. Concerns about money coupled with the difficulties of running a business can be a recipe for burnout. “Not having business skills is a real point of stress for a lot of yoga teachers,” says Donna Brooks, who works with yoga teachers on burnout issues in Northampton, Massachusetts. So is not knowing how to “separate yoga as a business from who you are as a person” and what you have to offer. Gates learned that in spades. “I wanted to keep this authentic small community-oriented studio, but it was challenging to pay the bills,” she says. “I never imagined myself running a studio. Initially it was just a place to teach and then it became this incredibly demanding business.” Her burnout got so bad before she sold the studio, she says, that she thought she’d have to quit yoga altogether and do something completely different.

Compassion Fatigue. On a different side of the ledger, so to speak, stands compassion fatigue, a condition that yoga teachers share with nurses, clergy, schoolteachers, social workers—anyone who works with people in need. “You end up holding space for a lot of people and it’s really draining,” says Adler. “You have to figure out a way to let those people go . . . just walk away from the class and not take it with you, but that can be hard, very hard.”

Jane Hansen, a psychologist at Kansas State University who also teaches yoga, found that after being present for everyone else in her day job, she had too little left to give to her weekly class. When she began to teach at the college in addition to her counseling work she felt sucked dry: “I didn’t want to hear about somebody’s hamstring, I just wanted to go home.”

The desire to help people drives many yoga teachers, and when the empathy tank is finally empty, despair and depression can set in. “I remember waking up in the morning and having my husband come in and say, ‘You’ve gotta get up, you’ve gotta go teach,’” says Gates, “and I was like, I have nothing to teach, I’m empty, I have nothing left—I’ve given it ALL!”

Loss of Practice. While money, business, and compassion fatigue have started many a yoga teacher down the path toward burnout, most point to the loss of their personal practice as the biggest factor. They say it happens gradually, almost without them noticing, as they prepare for or rush off to classes throughout the day, run their studios, or juggle responsibilities in their work and personal lives.

“For me it’s less an issue of low pay and more an issue of not having a chance to do my own practice,” says Adler. “If you don’t get a chance to practice and be reminded why you love something, it doesn’t matter if you get paid $150 an hour, it’s still difficult to share it. If you’re not practicing, you have nothing to give.” Hansen, who says she didn’t have time for her own practice when she was working 50 hours a week, teaching yoga classes and workshops, and adjusting to a new community, underscores this sentiment: “I have a friend who says teaching is for you, and your practice is for your students” as well as yourself.

The loss of practice and the inability to cope with stress often become a pernicious feedback loop for yoga teachers, creating even more stress and a sense of inadequacy. “I was out to sea for quite a while,” says Gates. “I couldn’t believe the tools I thought would help me weren’t helping me.” And this created a sense, she says, that she was a fraud: “Here I was teaching all this stuff, but a lot of it wasn’t helping me.”

Sense of Isolation. Yoga teachers often feel the pressure to be the shining example of all that yoga can offer, so when their health starts to fall apart, the last thing they want to do is share that fact. As Gates says, “As a teacher, you’re not only a practitioner, but you’re also supposed to be a prime example of this body-positive, super-yoga-glow thing.” In fact, teachers often get so invested in their identity as a teacher, as a member of the community, says Hansen, that they can’t allow anyone to know how difficult things are. While going through her own burnout, Gates thought her fellow teachers were “all doing fine running around and teaching all their yoga classes...of course, now I’ve spoken to a lot of yoga teachers who struggle and go through all kinds of challenges.”

The Road Back

Overcoming burnout requires making changes, either by reducing our stress levels or learning how to manage them better. Both Hansen and Brooks took a break from teaching. “I was trying to psych myself up and work through the burnout, trying to honor the commitment I had made,” says Hansen, but once she got her college teaching job—in addition to her counseling job—she had to stop teaching yoga. “I was glad to let that go for now,” she says. Not teaching helped Hansen make her own practice a priority—and strengthen it. Brooks stopped because she had a family problem that needed her complete attention. “I took a seven-year break from teaching,” she says, “and I think that probably saved me from really falling off the deep edge.”

Gates made a break of sorts, too: at the urging of her acupuncturist, she sold her studio. “What pushed me to burnout was being the owner of a yoga studio,” she says. “Just the increased demand over time . . . more and more business, less and less yoga.” Once that burden was gone, Gates had to find her way back to what had once been a “very strong, consistent yoga practice. I had to reconfigure what yoga practice means to me,” she says. “What is yoga? I had to reevaluate all of it, and as hard as it was, it was enriching for me.”

Adler didn’t have a studio to close, nor could she afford to take a break from teaching. But then again, her burnout wasn’t as severe as that of Gates or Hansen. It was there, nonetheless, lurking in the isolation created by having a hectic schedule and two young children, and in the frustration she felt at not having time to practice, take classes, or grow as a teacher. So she went online.

First she created an online book club on ning.com that ran for about a year to supplement her yoga training. Then she set up teachasana.com, an online community where yoga teachers could write about their experiences, get advice, or just find a virtual sangha. After handing that off two years ago, she decided to blog about yoga every day for a year, an experience that has changed the way she thinks about her practice. “I realized that my yoga didn’t have to be just on my mat, it could be anywhere,” she says, “and a lot of the not-asana stuff grew in my personal practice through the blogging.”

Overcoming Burnout

Removing the sources of stress will put the brakes on burnout, but that alone won’t necessarily bring your body, mind, and spirit back into balance. At the very least, you’ll have to stop ignoring what your body is telling you—slow down, take a break, go to sleep now.

Replenish. David Scrimgeour, an acupuncturist and master herbalist in Boulder, Colorado, urges his patients to take adaptogenic herbs. More super tonic than medicine, these herbs respond to the body’s needs without creating unwanted side effects. Chinese doctors will create formulas using such adaptogens as ginseng, reishi mushrooms (and other fungi), cordyceps, rhodiola, astragalus, codonopsis, licorice root, and rehmannia to strengthen the adrenals and the immune system. You can start with a ginseng or cordyceps Chinese formula or with an ayurvedic rasayana like chyawanprash, but both traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and ayurveda work best when tailored to an individual’s specific needs. A visit to a TCM doctor or an ayurvedic practitioner can steer you to the formulas that are right for your body and your situation.

Restore. As almost any doctor will tell you, if you can’t sleep, you can’t heal. Scrimgeour, who also stresses the need for restorative sleep, explains that the adrenals rejuvenate through the night beginning around midnight. Strive for seven to eight hours a night, packing it in around 10 p.m., if at all possible. If you have trouble sleeping, Scrimgeour suggests trying the Chinese herbal formulas Zizyphus Combination, Ginseng and Zizyphus Combination, or bupleurem formula. Or you can take a combination of L-theanine, 5-HTP (or L-tryptophan), and GABA (sublingual). Both options are safe and nonaddicting and don’t typically produce a hangover effect. Yoga and ayurveda experts also recommend practicing yoga nidra (a guided yoga visualization) in the late afternoon to prepare the body and mind for sleep later on, and a bedtime glass of warm milk (or almond milk) laced with green cardamom, honey, and ghee.

Reconnect. Return to the books and spiritual teachers who touched your heart, reach out to other teachers and friends you trust, and get back on your mat so you can remember why you fell in love with yoga in the first place. Teaching propels us outward; our own practice moves us inward, connecting us to the breath and giving us the ability to notice moment to moment what is going on inside. If you can begin to pay attention to what really serves you, you will better serve your students and, equally important, yourself.

Daniel Overberger, a vinyasa teacher in Los Angeles and founder of the alt-kirtan group Dharma Gypsys, suggests the following to help you reconnect and renew:

  • Take salt baths (add 1/2 cup of sea salt into a warm bath), or if you don’t have time for that between classes, wash your hands with salt water.
  • Touch a tree, wood, or the earth with your hands, both to ground yourself and to release any of the stress you pick up from students as you make adjustments.
  • Take two consecutive days off from teaching every week.
  • Be the student once in a while, or more often, and take someone else’s class.
  • Alter your class routine occasionally, if your style of yoga allows.

And all of us, students and teachers alike, can benefit from Overberger’s last bit of advice: “Don’t take yourself too seriously.”

The Mechanism of Burnout

Even though stress has been part of the human condition for millennia, it’s only been understood as a systematic threat to our health for about 80 years. That breakthrough came when Hans Selye, a medical doctor with a doctorate in chemistry whose pioneering research defined the field of stress studies in the mid-1930s, famously realized, “It’s not the stress that kills us, it’s our reaction to it.”

To explain that reaction and how the body attempts—and ultimately fails—to cope with chronic stress, Selye developed what he called the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), a three-stage (now four, thanks to further research) description of the process of burnout.

Stage 1

Adrenal Stress. In this initial stage, you may feel tired, or, alternately, mildly stimulated or energetic. You catch colds and other viral or bacterial infections more easily, and may be prone to headaches, general aches and pains, and mild GI problems.

Stage 2

Adaptation. If stress levels remain high and you ignore the initial warning signs, the body enters the second stage, in which it accepts the chronic fight-or-flight mode as the new normal. The stage one symptoms may diminish or even disappear, and the problem seems solved, but actually, the body is using up its reserves, and the adrenals will soon run out of gas.

Stage 3

Adrenal Exhaustion. In the face of unrelenting stress, your body gradually loses its ability to adapt. The symptoms of stage one may make an aggressive return, and stimuli that the body had once taken in stride can now cause problems: allergic reactions to previously benign substances; repeated bouts of illness; and a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms, such as insomnia, PMS or low sex drive, low sperm count, difficulty conceiving, anxiety or irritability, more severe gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, heart palpitations, and weight gain (or loss).

Stage 4

Physical Burnout. During this fourth stage, sleeping through the night becomes almost impossible and all the earlier symptoms more severe. Your body can succumb to depression, hypoglycemia, GERD (acid reflux), colitis, chronic fatigue, and even alcohol or drug abuse. In addition, someone with a genetic predisposition to an autoimmune disease or severe disorder—rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, metabolic syndrome, or diabetes—can lose his or her ability to fend it off.
Not everyone marches through these stages one after another, of course. For some, those first mild symptoms serve as a wake-up call, while others need to be hit over the head with a debilitating illness before they seriously address the stressors in their lives and seek treatment.

No Space to Hold

For Jane Hansen, the proverbial final straw in her burnout experience came from a well-intentioned student. “I had someone actually say to me, ‘You seem better,’” she says, “and I thought, Wow, it’s not just in my head.” In this case, “it” was the feeling that she no longer had the ability or energy to hold space for her students or to provide the experience she wanted them to have.

Hansen, who had recently moved from Berkeley, California, to Manhattan, Kansas, had other symptoms as well. “I definitely had fatigue,” she says. “I had hair loss, I had a lot of tension in my jaw.” When she got a college teaching position on top of her university counseling job, she knew she had to let her yoga class go.
She says it’s not a permanent break, and next time she’ll make sure she has the time and space in her life to eat and sleep and rest. “I expect to go back and teach again, and when I do, I’ll have more balance in my life.”

Studio Burnout

Janice Gates thought she could do it all. “I was president of IAYT, I was running a studio, I was a mom, I was teaching, I was doing privates, I had started training teachers, I was doing retreats. I basically thought I was superwoman.” Gates, who has taught in San Anselmo, California, for more than 20 years, says she didn’t realize how much she was taking on while she was doing it, and she did fine for a while. And then she began a nightmare journey through a classic case of burnout.
At first she had trouble sleeping but still managed to muddle through until she “started to fall apart healthwise.” Her menses became heavier and she suffered from anxiety, which in turn fed her insomnia, which only increased her anxiety, and so on in an endless loop. She also flipped from anxiety to depression, “two sides of a coin,” she says, and lost “a ton of weight.” And then “my thyroid went out of whack,” after having held steady for years with thyroid meds. Her endocrinologist called it a perfect storm.

Nothing yoga-related seemed to work at first until she found Richard Miller’s book and CD Yoga Nidra; it didn’t always put her to sleep, but it invariably made her calmer and more relaxed. Acupuncture, too, provided some relief, although the effect seemed to wear off after two days. It took her a year of serious burnout—and a relapse two years later—to realize she had to let go of her studio, which had become an excruciating burden rather than the sanctuary it had once been. “It wasn’t until I sold the studio and took some time off that my creative energy started to come back.”

Gates has channeled that energy into her current work, which focuses on the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of yoga. And she remains ever watchful for the first sign of burnout. “These days when someone says to me, ‘I’m not sleeping,’ I say, ‘Nip that in the bud right now!’”

The Journey Home

Yoga has been Susan Winter Ward’s focus and passion since 1992. She’s taught all over the world, studied with the best teachers, made videos, written yoga books and articles, and even opened (and closed) two yoga studios. “I had the best life I could imagine,” she said.

“If you don’t get a chance to practice and be reminded why you love something, it doesn’t matter if you get paid $150 an hour, it’s still difficult to share it. If you’re not practicing, you have nothing to give.”

But things began to fall apart for her when her teacher, who had been her inspiration and her rock, left amid accusations of scandalous behavior. Then personal issues further derailed her: her mentor died, and then her mother died; she became a grandmother but didn’t live anywhere near her children. The whole yoga scene, which she felt had lost its way, depressed her, and she didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. She stopped teaching and, more importantly, she stopped practicing. And then an old back injury resurfaced, leaving her stiff and in pain. She knew she had to get back to the mat, but didn’t know how.

She finally made up her mind to go to a yoga studio and practice every day for a month. After years of being super flexible and strong, she was painfully inflexible and embarrassingly awkward. But she didn’t want to live her life in constant pain. She knew yoga was her savior, and not just physically. “I had been missing the connection with myself, my spiritual life, and I had to get back to my foundation.”

Having the supportive energy of a yoga community and the inspiration of a good teacher got her “yoga juices flowing once again.” She now has a deeper appreciation for yoga and for the beginner’s body/mind challenges. “I’m a more sensitive teacher now because I’ve revisited the beginning,” she says, “and I’m deeply grateful to have returned home.”

ABOUT James Keough James Keough writes about alternative and complementary medicine from his home in Providence, Rhode Island. Visit his website at jameskeough.com.

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