When I left for maternity leave at the end of 2019, I had no idea it might be the last time (for a while anyhow) that I would lead a public yoga class. But then COVID-19 hit in March of 2020, and, when I returned to teach just a few months into quarantine, the teaching world was an entirely different place.
At least in the U.S. (where I live), in-person classes were considered a health risk, so I dove into the sea of teachers offering livestream classes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is online, from people straight out of teacher training to their mentor and their mentor’s mentors. Still, I assumed it would be a smooth transition, that I would get comparable attendance numbers to my in-studio classes. I have been teaching since 2008 and my student base has always been fairly consistent. I even thought my classes might be bigger, since I would now have access to more people.
As I was coming onto the virtual scene in July of 2020, many of my colleagues warned me that attendance and earnings had dropped quite a bit from the beginning of the pandemic. They particularly noticed it in classes they were offering independent of studios. I saw it right away in my Zoom classes. Where I would once have 40 students in class, I was now lucky to have three. I have to be honest, it has been an enormous blow to my ego, never mind to my wallet.
I know many are thriving in this digital space, with hundreds of students in their classes and earning much more than they did in-person. But from what I am seeing and hearing from most teachers, it has been challenging across the board, even for the most seasoned among us. Teaching through well-established online platforms or a studio’s digital space seems to be a little more lucrative for now, but there are only so many opportunities, and people who relied on multiple classes or teacher trainings for their primary income have had to make huge adjustments.
The fitness industry is suffering and the economic ramifications from the pandemic are still unfolding. Every other day it seems, yet another studio closes their brick-and-mortar location, displacing thousands of instructors who were holding on to the hope of returning to the studio one day. Students are, of course, feeling the financial effects of the pandemic, too, losing jobs or taking pay cuts and thus being unable to afford classes. Not to mention that many people are simply “Zoomed out” as they’re spending most of their work hours and/or children’s school days on the platform, or in front of a screen in general.
Personally, this whole experience has forced me to question my career path in a way that I hadn’t had to since I left my previous job to become a yoga teacher. The difference here is that I love teaching and I didn’t love my old job, so the idea that I may not be able to do this anymore or, at the very least, won’t be able to in the same way, feels like a huge loss.
And let me get real here. Were it not for our family’s dual income (i.e., my partner’s salary), I would not be able to continue teaching at all. Because of this, I have been able to pivot to part-time work. For example, I only offer two group classes now. I am also leading a teacher training, which is a good source of income, and because we are meeting digitally, I have been able to reconnect with private clients I haven’t seen in ages. But overall, I’m teaching a third of the amount that I used to prior to the pandemic. I should also note that I have always supplemented this work with my writing, too.
I am not alone in no longer being able to teach full time. Many of my colleagues have reported having similar feelings. Recently, a friend who used to lead sold-out spin classes in Los Angeles decided to get a day job as a paralegal to make up for lost wages since she has been unable to teach as often in person.
It is a heartbreaking time right now in the teaching world. We are all mourning huge losses, even those doing “well.” From not knowing if we will ever see our students or colleagues again, to having to accept the reality that many of our favorite studios—the mainstays we relied upon week after week, day after day—are gone forever.
The grief is real, and it needs to be honored, but as I found myself repeating words like “change,” “uncertainty,” and “transition” to everyone I commiserate with, I had a huge realization.
This is the yoga.
This is everything we have been training for.
Yoga is not the handstands or the warrior poses. It’s not the singing bowls or chanting. It’s not the studios or, dare I say, even us (the teachers). Those are simply tools or aspects of yoga. Yoga, in its totality, is about no longer identifying with or attaching to the changing world around us. It is recognizing that we are not what we do or what we have. We are whole just as we are, and our true nature is one of pure love and deep connection, regardless of external circumstance.
I went to the texts, I got on my mat, and by looking within instead of fixating on what was happening outside, I started to feel hopeful again.
Now is the time for yoga
So, I decided to do what we would recommend our students do. We are students first and foremost, after all. I went to the texts, I got on my mat, and by looking within instead of fixating on what was happening outside, I started to feel hopeful again.
I especially found solace in the concept of the klesas, the obstacles to peace, of which there are five: avidya, asmita, raga, dvesha, abhinivesha. As Patanjali reminds us in the Yoga Sutra, it is when we forget our true nature that we suffer. This is avidya (ignorance) and it is thought to be the root of all anguish.
Life is change. Nature, prakrti, is change. These things we identified with for so long—our careers, our yoga studios—were always only temporary. Yet we wore our sheaths of “I am-ness” (asmita) for so long that they began to feel like that’s all we were.
I recently asked my husband, “If I am not a yoga teacher, who am I?” to which he replied, “You are so much more.”
Because the reality is that when we attach (raga) to our identities, we are actually limiting our potential. We are so much more than these jobs. Yes, it is true that the teaching world is not the same as it used to be and there may be aspects about this new landscape—smaller class sizes, less income—that we strongly dislike, that we feel aversion to (dvesha). And it is also true that some of us will no longer teach yoga when this pandemic is over. This can feel incredibly sad, but we will be okay, because what we do for a living does not define us.
It is scary to face the end of something (abhinivesha) not knowing what is on the other side. But we have all led a lot of lives up to now. We have been “reincarnated,” if you will, transformed by every significant loss we have ever endured, from career changes, to relocations, to significant breakups (romantic or otherwise), and people passing away. And as painful as those situations were to go through in the moment, I don’t know about you, but I have always come out the other side even more myself than before.
The end is sad. The end is scary, but the end of one thing is also always the beginning of something new.
Honoring the grief
Though we know the inner work that has to be done, we are still humans after all. By no means am I sharing these lessons to encourage a spiritual bypassing of the very real feelings accompanying the enormous changes we’re undergoing now. The loss is real, and we all need to honor our own and especially one another’s grief. When we don’t honor the loss, it will come out in other ways, perhaps through irritability, isolation, even affecting us physically.
And yet there is often great pressure for people to get on with their grief faster than they may be ready to. Perhaps because we are so afraid of loss in the first place? I felt that pressure to “get over my grief” when I experienced one of the most significant losses in my life—of my mother. I was in my mid-20s and had just started teaching, so I was deep in the hustle, teaching sometimes five classes a day. Allowing myself to grieve meant having to secure a lot of subs to cover my classes, and I felt pressure from some of the studios and gyms where I taught to return to teaching sooner than I was ready. Or I noticed how some friends were anxious to change the subject when I needed to talk about it more. I see this now happening in our yoga community.
For example, when YogaWorks, where I still have a group class and lead teacher trainings, made the smart and necessary pivot to shift their business entirely online in order to stay afloat, it unfortunately meant having to let go of a significant number of teachers and staff. I decided to write a Facebook post to check in with both teachers and staff who were still working for the company and those who had been cut, to see how everyone was holding up. As was expected, those who had lost their classes or jobs said they were devastated. But what was alarming was how many people, some teachers from different studios, even some students, left insensitive comments, such as, “Just get with the times.”
While I agree that companies and entrepreneurs need to pivot in order to keep up with what is happening in the world, and I do believe that people were trying to be encouraging, this is an unusual time of accelerated changes. “The times” continue to shift almost daily, so it is totally okay to not know what to do next, not to mention that adjusting one’s business plan will never take the place of healing one’s heart.
The end means the beginning
The entire world, not just our beloved and personal field, is going to look very different on the other side of this pandemic, but things were always different on the other side of each moment. Just as the inhale follows the exhale, we will be “reborn” on the other side of this. Let’s be kind to ourselves and one another, let’s give ourselves and others time and space to adjust. Let us anchor into what we know is always present: our heart, and our practice. We may not physically be together right now, but it is in those places that we will always be connected.