If you want to be a great yoga teacher, you’ve got to do the work. You have to read the texts: the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra, Light on Yoga. You’ve got to meditate—a lot. You have to practice as if your life depended on it, at least for a while. You have to completely immerse yourself in everything yoga. And, for a long time, I also believed you have to spend many hours sitting cross-legged in a yoga studio listening to someone else tell you how to be a great teacher—even if it drains your energy and your bank account in the process. Spend enough time in yoga studios and you’ll hear about tons of pricey trainings that you must attend if you want to deepen your study and take your teaching to the next level. It’s easy to feel like you’ll be missing out if you’re not there for every one.
In fact, a couple of years ago, I had a freak-out moment when I realized I’d completed my first 200-hour yoga teacher training almost 10 years prior, but I hadn’t started my 500-hour teacher training yet. I’m a terrible student, I thought. How will I ever be a great teacher?
Advanced yoga teacher training was going to have to wait. But for the time being, I could still do the work: I could still study.
I spent some time looking into trainings. I did the math. I factored in how much time I’d be away from my daughter, who was still in diapers and breastfeeding. I could barely make it to a group class once a week. Even so, I went to two weekend-long trainings that could be applied to the certification. It felt like torture. I quickly realized that being away from my family all weekend was just too hard. While the trainings were informational, they seemed to drag on. It took hours to cover a topic that I felt could have been thoroughly examined in half the time. The experience left me stressed out and uninspired. I simply couldn’t do it. I spent a lot of time and energy feeling bad about that. Advanced yoga teacher training was going to have to wait.
But for the time being, I could still do the work: I could still study. I could still learn from the amazing teachers in my area, but on my own time. Wait. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing all along. Maybe I’m not such a bad student after all.
In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes about how getting an advanced degree in writing might not be the smartest move for aspiring writers. It's a good way to go into debt, it likely won't increase earning potential, and you can give yourself a similar education by reading and writing a lot on your own (and by regularly meeting with a group of peers to support you and help you along the way). I think the same is true for yoga teachers—especially today when there are so many high-quality online trainings available, as well as teachers' groups and forums, and even amazing in-person workshops. There are many different ways to get an education, and I don’t believe that obtaining formal advanced certifications is the only way or even always the best way to learn.
Reading Gilbert’s views on higher education was a turning point for me. It was the validation I needed (from someone I admire a great deal) that it was okay to keep learning and honing my teaching skills my way. And there was no reason to feel guilty about it. One teacher training is enough for me, at least for now. Don’t get me wrong, I will never stop studying yoga and the art of teaching yoga. My 200-hour training gave me a good foundation for a lifetime of study. I know where to look if I have a question. I have a large network of senior teachers that I know I can quickly email or call if I need advice or mentoring. That’s enough to keep me learning and growing without emptying my bank account entirely—and it doesn’t require me to spend hundreds of hours away from my family either. In fact, I think I’m getting a better education by picking and choosing what topics I dive deeply into (and doing so with a wide variety of teachers) instead of studying the topics that Yoga Alliance sets out in their 500-hour certification curriculum.
Here are just a few of the reasons I’ve decided to halt my formal training at one 200-hour teacher training.
Teaching Yoga Has Not Made Me Rich
I know this is going to come as a huge shock, but as a yoga teacher/writer/blogger/mama, I’m not exactly rolling in the dough. Here’s the thing, additional teacher trainings can be a huge expense, and the return on the investment will likely not be as significant (at least financially) as many other careers. In some fields, it’s very straightforward. When a school teacher gets an advanced degree, for example, she makes more money automatically because her employer values that education. In yoga, it just doesn’t work that way. Most yoga teachers are classified as independent contractors and are paid according to how many students attend their classes. That means the only way you increase your income is by increasing the number of students who find their way into your classes, teaching private clients, selling out retreats, or selling some kind of product. Do my students give a flying flip about what number I put next to the RYT designation on my business card? I seriously doubt it. I’m not trying to train yoga teachers, the only people I know who really understand (or care) about the Yoga Alliance RYT designation. My students care if I can keep them safe, help them feel better in their bodies, explain things in terms they can understand, and am available to them when they have questions or concerns.
If I am looking to boost my bottom line teaching yoga, I think my money would be best spent earning a marketing or business degree. A yoga teacher’s income can fluctuate by season, and sometimes even local trends (in one town maybe vinyasa classes are all the rage for a year, until, suddenly, everyone prefers restorative), and in those slow times yoga teachers can easily be crushed by big, unforgiving debts like the ones accumulated in advanced teacher trainings.
Trainings Are a Huge Time Commitment
I know that there are many amazing teacher trainings out there that would likely keep me sitting on the edge of my yoga blanket with anticipation the entire time. But can I be real with you for just a second? I’ve also sat through my share of yoga trainings that made me want to either curl up and fall asleep (because it was a repeat of things I’d already learned) or run from the room screaming (because much of it was obviously just a way to fill time). Look, I’m a busy mama trying to make a life for my family, run a small business, and take care of myself in the process. And 200 or 300 hours is a long time to be away. I have to be picky about the workshops I attend and the teachers I choose to study with. And I feel like a catchall training just isn’t going to give me the value I need for my time and money.
Sometimes Learning at Your Own Pace Is the Best Way
There are lots of trainings available online that allow you to learn at your own pace in the comfort of your own home. (And let’s not forget the value of reading and studying those heavy bound things filled with paper that people used to carry around all the time. What were they called again? Oh, yes. Books!) Not only is it more affordable and convenient to learn at home at your own pace, but I feel there are a lot of advanced yoga topics I learn better that way anyway. If I want to really understand yogic texts, I’m better off opening that sucker, highlighting it, and marking notes in the margins so I can take my time and revisit it when I need to. Listening to a lecture about it one time isn’t as effective for me, even if I take notes. Though I acknowledge that not everybody learns the way I do.
The flip side of this is that many of the things I need to improve in my teaching, quite frankly, can only be improved through experience as a teacher in front of my class. I’m talking about things like improved communication skills, remembering students' names and their health conditions, showing confidence, and good old-fashioned problem solving. I’m much better with hands-on experiential learning—that’s one of the reasons I love yoga so much.
The flip side of this is that many of the things I need to improve in my teaching, quite frankly, can only be improved through experience as a teacher in front of my class.
The best teachers I know are well-rounded and savvy in other areas besides yoga. They’re well-versed in music, literature, public speaking, anatomy, and business practices, among other things. If I want to become an expert in, say, anatomy, I realize there might be better places, outside of a yoga studio, to get the education I’d need. Somewhere like, oh, I don’t know, an accredited college, perhaps? With a teacher who has an advanced degree in anatomy? Yes, I know there are lots of yoga teachers who have incredible knowledge of the human body and have studied anatomy extensively. But isn’t part of being a yoga teacher in our modern world being able to help our students use yoga as a tool to make their lives in the real world better? How can you do that if you never set foot outside of the yoga studio?
I made the decision a while back to focus on prenatal and postnatal yoga. I’m currently learning everything I can about pregnancy, birth, and beyond—but I’m not doing that work in formal yoga teacher training settings. Of course, I took some specialized trainings in prenatal and postnatal yoga to give myself a good foundational understanding. I will probably do more when the opportunity presents itself. But, for now, I’m reading tons of books about pregnancy and birth. I’m making a point to get to know doulas, lactation consultants, midwives, obstetricians, and other birth professionals so I can both learn from them and also know where to send my students when they have questions I can’t answer. I’m also drawing on my own experiences as a mother. Most importantly, though, I ask my pregnant and new-mom students tons of questions about what feels good in their bodies and what helps them in their lives. I am learning so much from just being curious and serving my students to the best of my ability.
My point is this: I know that 500-hour trainings can be a wonderful way to deepen your yoga practice and become a better teacher, and I applaud the many teachers who commit themselves to furthering their education in this way. I’ve just decided that, after much soul-searching and reflecting, now isn’t the time for me to enroll in another training. I’m done feeling guilty about not spending every spare moment I have working toward yet another yoga teaching certification.
And, you know what? I think I’m a better teacher because of that decision.